Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 8:1-17

Previously, we have seen how St Paul has described in Romans 7 what it is like to want to do good, as it is revealed in God’s law, but not being able to because we are all ‘slaves of sin’.  It isn’t God’s Law’s fault, St Paul writes, it is rather that sin has been able to use God’s Law against us.  It is truly a wretched position we find ourselves in, and it is especially wretched for those who do not know Christ, but who, in their best moments, want to do good.  Tragically, outside of Christ, we never can and never will.

St Paul, having ended on this note of human helplessness and powerlessness, begins Romans 8 with a simple statement: 

‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 8:1)

We are so relieved to be able to move on that we sometimes miss noticing that this statement doesn’t really follow from what St Paul has just written.  How does there being ‘no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ follow as a consequence of us not being able to do good despite wanting to?  The answer is: it doesn’t. 

Those who have been following these sermons will remember that we saw that at the end of chapter 5, that St Paul goes on to ask four questions in chapters 6-7.  In Romans 5, St Paul has sought to explain how we got in such a mess that all of us are unrighteous sinners, incapable of the righteousness that God requires, and in need of God to send his Son to die for us.  St Paul turns to Adam as part of his explanation and shows that not only are we sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners.  We are part of a race that is inherently and intrinsically sinful.  As such, we are, as a consequence, subject to death, and have only death to look forward to. 

In chapter 8, St Paul will pick up on this and describe it as the ‘law of sin and death’.  Just as there are physical laws governing the way things are in the universe, so too there are spiritual laws.  The law of sin and death is one of the most fundamental.  It means that you and I, without Christ, are slaves of sin, incapable of doing good, even if we want to, and are, therefore, destined for eternal death.

All this raises some very important questions, and in Romans 6-7, St Paul seeks to answer them.  It is like someone giving a long talk.  After having reached a significant point, the speaker will often pause and ask whether there are any questions so far.  A speaker will do this to make sure that the listeners understand what has been said so far and to answer any possible problems or objections the listeners may have with what has been said.  The questions are not a distraction, in fact often some of the most important things there are to be said get said in answer to the questions.  In Romans chapters 6-7, it is St Paul himself who asks the questions, but they are the questions he knows from experience that people will have and will need answering. 

In chapter 5, St Paul has described how the greater has been our sin, the greater has been God’s grace.  Does this mean that as believers we should go on sinning so we can experience even more of God’s grace?  It seems that some were suggesting that this was exactly what St Paul taught.  He rejects this suggestion out of hand.  As followers of Christ, we have died with Christ to sin.  It is inconceivable that we could go on living in it.  We were ‘slaves of sin’; now, however, that we have been ‘righteoused’ (justified) by faith, we are ‘slaves of righteousness’ and ought to live like we are (Romans 6:19).

Where, however, does God’s Law now fit in?  This is a question that has been hanging over all that St Paul has written so far, and he has made reference to it as he has been going along.  Now he confronts the question directly and the answer he gives is truly shocking.  Not only have believers died to sin with Christ, they have died to God’s Law.  Our relationship with God’s Law is now ended as well.  We are no longer ‘under Law’ and no longer serve God by keeping it.

Believers today find this hard to accept, even though they cheerfully ignore much that is in God’s Law.  We can perhaps, then, begin to imagine how those who were Jews and brought up to believe in and keep God’s Law must have felt.  Is St Paul suggesting that God’s Law itself is sin?

St Paul answers that no, God’s Law is not sin.  God’s law is ‘holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good’ (Romans 7:12).  Nevertheless, it is through God’s Law that we know what sin is.  God’s Law defines sin.  What is more sin uses God’s Law as a tool to provoke us into sinning and to make us subject to death.

Does this mean that it was God’s good Law that brought death to us?  Again, no, St Paul answers, but sin by working through God’s Law shows us how powerful sin is.  St Paul has described how, before we died with Christ, we were slaves of sin.  In Romans 7, he vividly describes what that looks and feels like.  In a powerful passage written in the first person, using the pronoun ‘I’, St Paul gives a graphic account of the experience of someone trying to keep God’s Law while still a slave of sin.  Quite simply, it can’t be done.  The condition of those who are slaves of sin but who want to keep God’s Law is wretched.

Having, then, answered the questions that arise from what he has written so far in his letter to the Romans, St Paul resumes his argument from where he left off in chapter 5.  He had finished chapter 5 by describing how we all stand condemned because of sin.  He now begins chapter 8 by telling the Roman believers that there is now ‘no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’.  Given how wretched our condition is outside of Christ, this is the best possible news.  But it is only in Christ that we find liberation.

Christ Jesus, he writes, has set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).  Those who are in Christ are now governed by a different spiritual law, it is the law of the spirit of life.  God has dealt with sin by sending his Son to condemn sin itself so that we no longer can be condemned because of it.  It is a powerful and life-changing message once we understand it.  Charles Wesley describes it better than anyone in this week’s hymn to go with the sermon!

But it really is a life-changing message and St Paul expects the lives of those who believe it to be changed.  He has already pointed this out in answer to the questions about whether the believer should continue in sin.  In chapter 6 he wrote that this is unthinkable.  But in chapter 7 he wrote how it was impossible for anyone who was not a believer who wanted to do good to do it.  What has changed?  We are ‘righteoused’ (justified) by faith.  We are no longer condemned with all the other children of Adam.  But how are we now to be ‘slaves of righteousness’?

The answer is: by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit hasn’t made much of an appearance in Romans so far.  Now, however, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage.  St Paul has been building up to this, and he has dropped hints along the way.  In chapter 5:5, St Paul wrote that God’s love has been 'poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’.  In Romans 6:4, he wrote that ‘just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’  More explicitly, in Romans 7:6, he wrote:

‘But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.’

We are no longer slaves of sin, we are slaves of God and slaves of righteousness in the new way of the Spirit.  The incredible thing is that the Holy Spirit enables us to achieve the righteousness that the Law required but which it was powerless to deliver (Romans 8:4).  Thankfully, we have died to the Law.  We don’t serve God that way any more.

St Paul sees the believer’s life in this world as now being governed completely by the Spirit.  Following Christ is not about keeping written commandments and trying to do good when we have the time.  It is, as St Paul describes it, entering an entirely new and different dimension of existence.  So different that it is, as we have seen, governed by different laws.  But for us to be able to exist in this dimension, we must have the Holy Spirit.  He is not an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, he is central to our existence as followers of Christ.  St Paul writes:

‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

There is much more that can and ought to be said, and I will try and say some of it next week!  For now, however, I want to make some observations on our journey so far through Romans.  St Paul began by saying he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16), and he has been explaining why.

1. There’s a lot of bad news

St Paul describes our ungodliness, our unrighteousness, and our sin.  He tells us we can expect nothing, but judgement and death.  And if that’s not bad enough, there’s nothing we can do about it.  We are condemned slaves of sin who are incapable of doing good, even if we want to.  There is amongst many church theologians, church leaders, and ordinary believers alike a desire to abandon this sort of talk and language.  Many are upfront about wanting to do so.  Others just quietly drop and ignore it.

We prefer instead to tell people good news.  This wouldn’t be quite so bad if the good news was good news about Jesus.  But often it isn’t.  At least, not especially.  We have totally bought into the popular idea that we are all wonderful really.  Jesus helps us to be the person that really we are and deep down want to be.

We are led to believe that it is not our rebellion against God, our unrighteous behaviour, and our sin that prevents us from being whole, but barriers in the world around us and in the unjust and unfair societies in which we live.  ‘It’s not my fault’ is no longer the cry of the spoilt child, but the slogan of a generation.  And so it is not me that must change but society around me.  It is not me who will be condemned, but anyone who gets in the way of me doing what I want to do or being who I want to be.

It is going to come as a terrible shock to a great many people to stand before God on the Day of Judgement, as St Paul describes in chapter 2 of Romans, and to be told that they are condemned and will experience God’s wrath as a consequence.

This is why telling people the bad news isn’t to wallow in guilt or to indulge in a kind of sadistic spiritual pleasure, but is simply to tell people the truth that they need to hear.  The truth, that is, about the society they live in, the human race of which they are a part, and about themselves as individuals.  Leave out the bad news and there is no good news.

You and I are not fundamentally good and need guiding; we are fundamentally bad and need saving.’  Jesus didn’t come to be our life coach; he came to be our Saviour.

2. It’s about a change of life

This bad news about ourselves and the world we live in helps us understand how amazing what God has done for us in Christ actually is.  God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, St Paul writes in Romans 8:3.  ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,’ he tells us in Romans 5:8.  There was and is no other way.  There was literally nothing we could do, or can do, to save ourselves.  How could there be given how bad our situation is?

We can argue over the precise meaning of phrases like ‘justification by faith’, but there can be no missing that whatever else they mean, they mean you and I cannot do good, cannot be reconciled to God, cannot enjoy peace with God, cannot experience forgiveness, and cannot save ourselves from judgement.  We can do nothing.  God has to do it all and God has done it all in Christ. 

All this is not about abstract theological concepts.  Unfortunately, even those who believe in it in a theoretical sense, live as if it is.  Even as I write these words, I know that they simply will not connect with many otherwise committed and sincere believers.  We have so bought into the prevailing ideologies of our day that we have become spiritually immune to what was simply the normal way of looking at things amongst believers in the past.

Nevertheless, what the Gospel offers to those who turn to Christ is nothing less than a new life in a new dimension.  It not only brings forgiveness and freedom from the past and new life in the present as we experience the love of God in Christ, it also opens up the possibility of a new way of living in the present so that we can become, not the person we want to be, but the person God wants us to be.  And what God wants for us is always more and better than what we want for ourselves.

The sad irony of the message of self-fulfilment pedalled to us by the world around us is that it is so much less than what God offers us in Christ.  Not only is it limited to life in this world in the here and now, it is a very limited life in this world in the here and now.  It is a life that often comes down to finding a few things you want to do before you die.  And we can’t even see how pathetic that is.

God has so much more for us in Christ, but it means trusting him and committing ourselves to him, and that means surrendering the control that got us into the mess we are in in the first place.

But this doesn’t mean there is nothing for us to do.  Once we enter the life that God offers us in Christ there are so many possibilities, possibilities made possible by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  What was formerly impossible because we were slaves of sin now becomes possible to as slaves of God.  What God’s Law was powerless to do the Holy Spirit is powerful to do.  We are a new creation in Christ and are called to walk in newness of life.

This will mean behaving in a certain way; a different way to how we lived outside of Christ and to how people live in the world around us.  St Paul will talk more about what this looks like in practice later in Romans.   It also means thinking in a new way.

Our outlook, our worldview, what our reading this week describes as our ‘mindset’, is to be that of the Spirit of God.  Our way of thinking is to be different to way the world in which we live thinks and to how we typically thought as slaves of sin.  Our values, attitudes, and priorities will all be different to what they were before.  Now they too will be those of God’s Spirit living in us.

3. It’s about a relationship

What St Paul has written so far to explain his understanding of the Gospel to the Roman believers in the hope they will support him as he takes it to Spain involves a lot of ideas.  St Paul writes on many different subjects and his argument is careful and tightly packed.  There is so much in it and much to think and discuss as we are trying to do in these sermons. 

St Paul, however, is not trying to sell the Gospel as a philosophical system to believe in or a code of ethics to live by.  It certainly involves ideas and guides how we live, but at its heart is a relationship with God in Christ made possible by the Spirit.

St Paul writes in Romans 8 of how important the Holy Spirit is for us to experience and live the new life that God gives us in Christ.  We are to let the Holy Spirit lead us in living this new life.  Those who are led in this way follow not out of fear, but trust.  It is the trust that a child puts in their parent when led by them.  St Paul writes:

‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.’ (Romans 8:14)

This is not an idea to be grasped, but a relationship to be lived and enjoyed.

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God …’ (Romans 8:15-16)

Children cry out to their father or mother, and we cry out to God in the same way.  Next week, we will see how we especially cry out in the suffering that inevitably we experience as humans in this world.  But it is by no means limited to this.  Our walk with God is that of a child with his or her Father.

The challenges we face in our lives are many.  Life not easy.  And it is not easy being a child of God in a world in rebellion against him, but God has given us his Spirit to lead us and to guide us.  Every step we take, every moment of every day in all we do, we have the Spirit help us and to be with us.

We are not alone, and, like St Paul, we too are not ashamed.


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