Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

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

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 12:9-21

Last week, we saw how St Paul tells the Roman believers that in view of all that God in his mercy has done for us, we should present ourselves as a ‘living sacrifice’ to God.  We are not to allow ourselves to be ‘conformed to this world’, but, instead, we are to be ‘transformed’ by the ‘renewing’ of our minds, so we can work out what God’s will is as we seek to live for him (Romans 12:1-2).

The renewal of our minds should mean seeing ourselves as we are and not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (Romans 12:3).  This doesn’t mean seeing ourselves as having nothing to offer, but being realistic as to what God has given us to share with fellow members of the body of Christ of which we are a part (Romans 12:3-8).  The body of Christ, the Church, is to be our support group to help us live for God.

In the rest of chapter 12, St Paul then gives a series of instructions about how the believers should live as those who are being transformed.  These instructions, of course, are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather are intended to give an indication of what a truly transformed life should look like.  St Paul continues in chapter 13 by telling them that this should include being subject to the ‘governing authorities and paying taxes’ (Romans 13:1-7).

The lectionary leaves this passage out of our readings through Romans, but as it is an important passage for us in working out our attitude to those who exercise political power over us, I intend to devote next week’s sermon to it.  The reading for next week is meant to be what St Paul writes in the rest of chapter 13.  What he writes there, however, is a continuation of what he is telling us about what a transformed life should look like, so I want to include these verses in what we are thinking about this week.

St Paul begins his list of examples of what a transformed life should look like by telling the Roman believers that love should be ‘genuine’ (Romans 12:9).  They are to ‘hate what is evil’ and ‘hold fast to what is good’.  They are to ‘love one another with mutual affection’.  He continues by describing what this sort of love should mean in practice.  Not least, it means not responding to evil with evil (Romans 12:17) and involves seeking to live ‘peaceably with all’ (Romans 12:18).  In Romans 13, after having told them what their obligations are to those in authority, St Paul writes that the key to how they live as believers is ‘love’.

Echoing the words of our Lord himself, St Paul tells them that all the commandments that refer to how we should behave to one another are summed up in the single commandment, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Romans 13:9).  ‘Love’, he tells them, ‘is the fulfilling of the law.’

All this comes as something of a relief after the eleven chapters that have gone before.  And it is very easy quietly to forget these difficult and challenging previous chapters.  What St Paul writes in chapters 12 and 13 is more what we think religion should be about: how to live our lives and behave towards one another in the here and now, and not about the wrath of God, unrighteousness, judgement, justification, dying to sin, keeping the Law (or not keeping it), receiving the Spirit, Israel and the people of God, and all the other things that St Paul writes about.

Ethics, that is, how we should live here in the present, is much more interesting than all this theological stuff.  Just as we are beginning to relax, however, St Paul suddenly tells us, quite literally, to ‘wake up’.  He writes:

‘Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14)

What St Paul is telling us is that our lives now are to be lived in the light of the salvation that we are hoping for and looking forward to in the future.  It is his understanding of this salvation, and of how the Gospel is the ‘power of God’ which makes salvation possible, that St Paul has been seeking to explain in the letter (Romans 1:16).

Being a follower of Jesus Christ isn’t simply about trying to be nice to one another, it is about salvation.  We will only be able to live lives of love and be saved, if we take notice of what St Paul has taken so much care to explain to us.  

Last week, I made reference to a story in the Gospels about something that happened in the life of our Lord.  It is the story of how Jesus casts demons out of a man from the country of the Gerasenes.  The man’s name is ‘Legion’ because of the number of demons that possess him.  After Jesus has freed him from his demonic possession, we read that when people come to see the man who had been possessed, he is sitting ‘clothed and in his ‘right-mind’ (Mark 5:15).  

St Paul begins this section of the letter in chapter 12 by telling us we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.  He closes it by telling us to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’.  It is only in Christ that we can be ‘clothed and in our right mind’, and it is only when we are that we will be in a position to be saved.

The life that St Paul is telling us we should live is one that we live while it is still ‘night’ and in which there is still darkness all around us.  We live it, though, knowing that the ‘day’ is near and the light will come.  We have largely lost this perspective in the Church.  Salvation is to us a present possession not something yet to come.  The ‘day of the Lord’ has effectively already taken place.  All that is left is for us to go to heaven when we die or some variation on the theme.

Can we remember nothing of what St Paul has told us?  How he began the letter by describing how the ‘wrath of God’ was being revealed; how we shall be judged by how we have lived; how we are all sinners?  This is why we need to ‘righteoused’, that is, justified.  St Paul explains all this in the first four chapters of Romans.  Having been ‘righteoused (justified) by faith’, we have ‘peace with God’ (Romans 5:1) and we ‘boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’ (Romans 5:2).  In other words, having been justified, it’s not over yet; we still need saving.  As St Paul explains:

‘Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Romans 8:24-25)

And here’s the thing: salvation will come only to those who make ‘no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires’.  I realize that this is anathema especially to protestants, who like to think that they ‘saved by grace through faith’ and not ‘by works’.  We will indeed by saved by grace through faith and not by works, but we will not be saved without works.  St Paul has been very clear about this.  Take, for example, these words from chapter 8:

‘So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’ (Romans 8:12-13)

Part of the problem is the confusion that exists over what it means to be ‘justified by faith’.  Now this is a complex and controversial topic.  It has divided the Church and still divides both it and scholars who study it.  I hope, then, that I am not thinking of myself more highly than I ought to think in the comments that I am about to make!

Reading what many have to say about justification, it is clear that justification and salvation are often thought to be one and the same thing.  Clearly, they are closely related, but St Paul distinguishes them.  He writes in chapter 5:

‘Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.’ (Romans 5:9)

Justification, in the way St Paul understands it, is something that happens to us now in the present; salvation is something that will happen in the future.  Justification, of course, affects what will happen in the future, and salvation affects what takes place in the present, but they are different.  

From the time, then, that we are justified to the time when we are saved, there is the period when we have to be transformed, until, finally, we are fully transformed not only by the renewing of our minds, but by the renewal of our bodies as well (Romans 8:23).  This is the time when, to use St Paul’s words, we will be ‘glorified’ Romans 8:30).  

This process of transformation is often described using the word ‘sanctification’.  It is the process by which we become more like Christ as we ‘leave aside the works of darkness’, ‘put on the armour of light,’ and ‘make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires’.  It is only, however, as St Paul has said earlier in Romans, if by the Spirit we ‘put to death the ‘deeds of the body’ that we will live and receive the free gift of ‘eternal life’ when salvation finally arrives.

This sort of language frightens many believers.  They worry that it makes it sound as if we earn our salvation after all; that salvation is not just by grace, but by our own efforts as well.  It is seen as undermining, if not denying, ‘justification by faith’, the defining doctrine of the reformation.  This, however, is to misunderstand justification by faith and its place in St Paul’s thought.

John Piper, an American pastor and teacher, who no-one who knows him would accuse of denying the doctrine of ‘justification by faith, helpfully puts it like this:

‘So we must learn to make the biblical distinction between earning eternal life on the basis of works, (which the Bible does not teach!) and receiving eternal life according to works (which the Bible does teach!). Believers in Christ will stand before the judgment seat of God and will be accepted into eternal life on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus. But our free acceptance by grace through faith will be according to works.’ 


The issue, then, is not whether we need works to be saved, but how we are to do the works that are necessary for us to be saved when ‘night’ is finally gone and ‘the day’ has come at last.  The key is the Holy Spirit.  Again, as St Paul tells the Roman believers:

‘If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.’ (Romans 8:13)

The idea of needing good works to be saved should indeed frighten us.  Frighten us, that is, not theologically because of our prejudices, but frighten us spiritually because of our complacency.  It should, to use St Paul’s words, wake us up.  

Again, as St Paul has explained the Spirit makes possible what we in the flesh can never hope to achieve.  In Romans 7, St Paul writes graphically about how, if left to ourselves, we can’t hope to do good: ‘for the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do’ (Romans 7:19).  Left to ourselves, we have had it; there is no hope.  We really can’t be saved without God’s grace.  The word grace means gift, and the gift that God has given us to enable us to live so we will be saved is the gift of his Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit who makes possible the love that is the fulfilling of the Law.  Yet again, as St Paul has previously written:

‘ … God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5)

It is only the love of God, freely given to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that makes it possible for us to love God and our neighbour as ourselves.  Without the love of God, there can be no love.  ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19), writes St John.  St Paul would agree: without the love of God, there can be no salvation. 

However, we can be saved because the love of God has made it possible for us to love in the way God commands.  But where then does ‘justification by faith’ fit into the picture?  A very real problem for believers today is understanding exactly what salvation is.  We struggle with the idea that some will be saved and some will not.  The default position of most believers is that that all will be saved.  If that is how we think, then we are going to have trouble making sense of much of the New Testament.

However, even those who accept that some will not be saved have problems accepting that salvation is from the wrath of God itself.  We prefer to think of salvation as us being saved from our sin and the wrong we have done, or in terms of what are saved for.  And all this is important.  But St Paul begins his explanation of the Gospel he preaches with an account of how the ‘wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of those who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth’ (Romans 1:18).  The first three chapters of Romans are about how we as human beings are ‘unrighteous’.  As the wrath of God is revealed against the ‘unrighteous’, only those who righteous can be saved.

Justification by faith is about how we can be righteous and so have ‘peace with God’.  St John writes that those ‘who do what is right are righteous’ (1 John 3:17).  The Jewish people believed, like St Paul himself believed before he encountered Christ, that the right thing to do was to keep the Law and that this was what determined whether you were righteous or not: righteousness, in other words, was ‘by the Law’.

Ironically, however, it was that very Law that had led him to persecute believers.  St Paul came to realize that the ‘right thing’ to do was to have faith in Christ.  Having come to faith in Christ, he then saw that he could not, in any case, keep the Law for all the reasons we have seen.  St Paul discovered that God judged those to be in the right who had faith in Christ.  Keeping the Law was rather beside the point; it couldn’t be kept even if we wanted to keep it. 

St Paul came to see that it was those who had faith who were the true ‘children of Abraham’ because they were the ones who followed the example of Abraham who had faith, and whose faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’ (Romans 4:9).  We too, St Paul writes, are ‘counted righteous by faith’ (Romans 4:24).  And, of course, once we are ‘counted righteous’, that is, ‘righteoused (justified) by faith’, we have peace with God because we are no longer unrighteous.  We cease being enemies of God and the wrath of God is no longer being revealed against us.

Having been ‘righteoused (justified) by faith’, of course, the question then is what happens next, which was where we joined the discussion in our reading through Romans several weeks ago.  Having told the Romans that we are justified by faith, St Paul can go on to ask whether we are to continue in sin.  The question makes sense because whether we are righteous or not is about whether or not we have faith in Christ, and not about how we live.  It is once we are justified by faith that we then think of how we should live to ensure that we will also be saved.  St Paul is convinced that after all God has done to get us to this point, he will see us through to the end.  Justification itself, however, is not the end, it is just the beginning.

When we come to Christ, we have only just begun.  So, having begun, do we continue in sin?  Of course not, St Paul answers, how can we who died to sin go on living in it (Romans 6:2)?  In dying with Christ, we are freed from slavery to sin (Romans 6:6) and have been ‘enslaved’ to God instead.  Not only have we died to sin, we have died to God’s Law.  We are now ‘discharged from the Law, dead to that which held us captive’, so that now, as St Paul writes, ‘we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Romans 7:6)’.

And as this week, St Paul tells us to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ and to make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires’, we remember that, as he has also told us, ‘Christ’s death condemns sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit’ (Romans 8:4).   To walk in the Spirit is to ‘walk in love’, for love is the ‘fulfilling of the Law’.

The dots of Romans all join up brilliantly, as I have been attempting to show, but St Paul expects us to make the effort to join them.

Finally, for this week, telling people today that they must ‘love’ is something that will always be met with approval from both believer and non-believer alike.  We all like the idea of love.  Whether we make any effort to practise it is another matter altogether.  But what do we mean by ‘love’?

What St Paul means by love is very different to what popular culture means by it.  Love for St Paul isn’t some kind of warm, fuzzy feeling, but something that requires both self-sacrifice and self-denial, which is something that we are far less keen on.  Love means honouring others, not ourselves, and being kind to our enemies.  As we shall see next week, it even means paying your taxes.

What is more, it is not just about the presence of good works, but also the absence of bad ones.  Love means ‘making no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires’, ‘abhorring what is evil’, and ‘seeking to overcome evil with good’.  Love means not engaging in ‘revelling and drunkenness’, nor ‘in debauchery and licentiousness’.  A lot of pagan cults included such behaviour as part of their rituals.  The Romans, more generally, were known for their excess.  Some of the believers at Corinth, where St Paul was writing from, had even gone in for such behaviour at the ‘Lord’s Supper’ (1 Corinthians 11:21).

St Paul tells the Roman believers that not only are they not to indulge themselves in this way, they are to avoid ‘quarrelling and jealousy’.  We might today avoid some of the excess St Paul describes, in Church at least, but quarrelling and jealousy are very much with us.  The way we do Church rather encourages it.

We have taken over into the Church the world’s way of doing things. We are conformed to the world in more ways than one.  We justify making decisions by quarrelling, only we call it discussion and debate.  We would never admit to jealousy, but we do approve of hierarchies and honours, and we allow competitiveness to thrive.  We even vote for Bishops.

The love that St Paul is talking about, however, involves a radical rejection of the way the world goes about doing things.  It involves us in washing each other’s feet, even the feet of those we do not particularly like.  As we will see when we look at chapters 14 and 15, it means welcoming those we don’t agree or get on with.  It puts the needs and interests of others before those of our own.  And when we are tempted to protest because something is not fair, love instead accepts the unfairness and gets on with it, leaving the fairness of it to God.

To put it another way: we are to love like our life depends on it, because, according to St Paul, it rather does.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

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

The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 12:1-8

We come this week to chapter 12 and to the final part of St Paul’s letter to the Romans. At this point, many readers of Romans breathe something like a sigh of relief. St Paul switches from careful and detailed argument that requires much concentration to follow to shorter words of encouragement and exhortation that, at first sight at least, seem far easier to understand. We can now put to one side what St Paul has said in the previous chapters and leave it for those who like that sort of thing!

We should, however, not be quite so quick to forget what St Paul has been telling us. St Paul closes what he has to say about the ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’ in chapters 9-11 by focusing on the ‘mercy of God’. He begins chapter 12 by appealing to the Roman believers ‘by the mercies of God’. It is, then, on the basis of the mercy of God that he has being describing in the previous chapters that St Paul now goes on to make his appeal in the final part of the letter.

As we read what St Paul appeals for us to do in these closing chapters, he wants us to remember all that he has told us about what God has done for us. When we hear what it is that St Paul now wants us to do, we won’t ask, ‘Why should I?’ Instead, as we remember the ‘mercies of God’, it will seem the only ‘reasonable’ thing to do. How else can we react except in gratitude and willing obedience?

We are right, however, to notice a change in how St Paul writes in the closing chapters of the letter. Having told us what God has done for us, he is now focusing on what we need to do in response. He wants us to respond to what he has written in a way that affects every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. We will only understand how to do what St Paul asks us to do, if we have understood something of what he has been trying to explain to us so far. As he makes his appeal, one that requires some serious action on our part and potentially great sacrifice, he hopes that we will keep in mind all that he has written and not put it to one side in the way we are tempted to do.

Imagine, for a moment, going to a motoring school to learn how to drive a car. We might get a bit impatient if the instructor begins by spending quite some time explaining to us how a car works. How you need petrol as fuel; how the engine turns the wheels; what the controls are for; how the brakes work; and so on. We, of course, are eager to sit in the driver’s seat and drive the car, but the instructor knows we need some understanding of the car, if we are to learn to drive it properly. It is only when we have some understanding of the car and how it works that it is safe for us to sit in the driving seat and start the engine.

To use a simple example: if we don’t know where the brake pedal is, we are soon going to be in trouble! We may not need to know all the technical ‘ins and outs’ of how a car works, but we do need to know some!

In chapters 1-11, St Paul has been attempting to explain his understanding of how the Gospel works, especially how it works in relation to the Law and God’s people, the Jews. How, as St Paul wrote back in chapter 1:

‘ … it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith …’ (Romans 1:16-17)

Having, then, explained how he understands the Gospel, in the hope that the Romans will feel able to support him in his preaching of it in Spain, St Paul now seeks to explain what effect it should have on us and how we live.

Firstly, St Paul tells us, we are to ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, which is our spiritual worship’ (Romans 12:1).

The Roman believers, and indeed anyone in the ancient world, would have been familiar with the concept of sacrifice as part of worship. Sacrifices were offered daily in the temple in Jerusalem. In Rome, there were temples everywhere and animal sacrifice was an integral part of Roman worship. Everyone who heard Romans read would have known exactly what was involved in sacrifice. It wasn’t just a metaphor; it was very physical and very real.

St Paul isn’t just using the idea of sacrifice as a metaphor here either. He is saying that instead of offering an animal in worship, believers are to offer themselves. Our body, which we are to present as a ‘living sacrifice’, refers to everything we are. It is the whole of me; everything that makes me who I am in this world. I am to offer myself in worship to God not as an animal that will be killed and burnt on the altar, but as one who will go on living. It is this that is our ‘spiritual worship’.

The worship of the Church, like Jewish and pagan worship, has sacrifice at its heart. At the centre of our worship is the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross and our response to it by sacrificing ourselves not once, but every moment of every day as we live lives of obedience for him. We find it hard not to think of worship as something that we go to Church to do. Worship, however, is not simply going to Church on Sundays, and singing hymns and saying prayers, although it includes that. It is something St Paul appeals to us to do every moment of every day.

Secondly, though, for us to do this, we are not to be ‘conformed to this age’, we must instead be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’.

It is one thing to want to serve God as a ‘living sacrifice’, but every day we are faced with choices, challenges, problems, and difficulties. How are we to know what God wants of us? If we are to worship God in everything we do, and if everything we do is to be an act of worship, we need to discover what God’s will for us is and what God finds ‘good, pleasing, and perfect’. It is only if our minds are renewed that we will, as St Paul puts it, be able to ‘discern what is the will of God’. Unless our minds are renewed, we haven’t a chance of knowing what God wants.

We need now to remember what St Paul told us in Romans chapter 1. St Paul, in explaining why the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness’ of human beings, explains that humans have made a conscious decision to reject God. God’s ‘power and nature’ are to be clearly seen in the things that he has made, but although we were created to know God, we have rejected him and abandoned his worship. Society’s’ rejection of God and religion is often portrayed as a sign of our ‘coming of age’ as a race. It is seen as humans leaving behind the superstition and primitive thinking of the past as our knowledge and understanding of the universe increases. It is nothing of the sort. St Paul wrote in chapter 1:

‘ … for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.’ (Romans 1:21-23)

We have, St Paul tells us, become ‘futile in our thinking’; lacking all sense, our minds are ‘darkened’; and although we claim to be wise, we are instead ‘fools’. This hasn’t changed in the so-called scientific age in which we live. We still worship, but rather than worshipping the one, true God who created us, we worship other gods of our own creating. We will always worship something. The need to worship something outside ourselves is intrinsic and essential to who we are as humans. It is only as our minds are renewed that we are able see clearly to worship properly again.

We love to think we are free-thinkers, free, that is, to think however we wish and to explore whatever ideas we find attractive. We condemn any who try to control our thoughts, and we resist any attempt to tell us what we should think. We are outraged when we hear of governments that go in for brainwashing and other forms of mind control. George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, ‘1984’, that has ‘Big Brother’ watching us and controlling us, is our ultimate nightmare. Little do we realize that it is a nightmare we have been living for most of our history. It is one that began a long time ago.

‘Claiming to be wise we became fools’: from the moment we are born we are being conformed to this world and taught how the world around us wants us to think. A world, that, as St Paul has described in the opening chapters, is in rebellion against God and which is under the power and control of sin. [It’s worth noting, as an aside, that it is even more serious than that, but St Paul chooses not to go into that in this letter. He will save that discussion for another time. (See Ephesians 6:10-19)]

As we grow up in this world, and as we are educated, we don’t just learn various subjects at school: how to read and do sums, for example; we learn how to think and what to think. We learn not just how to see and understand the world around us, but to see and understand in the way the world wants us to see and understand. Our minds, from even before we are born, are conditioned to think in a way that conforms to the worldview of the age in which we live.

Living the sort of life that God wants us to live isn’t simply about keeping a list of rules such as those that often appear in the self-help books and on websites, it is about a lifestyle that comes from a Spirit-based worldview. St Paul told us all about this in Romans chapter 8. He writes there:

‘For the mindset of the flesh is death, but the mindset of the Spirit is life and peace, because the mindset of the flesh is enmity toward God …’ (Romans 8:5-7)

St Paul tells us in our passage this week that if we are not to be conformed to this world, we must be transformed in the way he has previously described. Our minds and the way we think need renewing if we are to live lives that are ‘holy and acceptable to God’. Only in this way will we be able to stop doing what the world around us wants us to do and start doing what God wants us to do.

St Paul will go on to talk about how, in the Church and in other believers, God has given us a support group to help us. But before he gets on to that, there is something else very important that he wants to tell us. It often gets passed over all too quickly when this passage is read. St Paul writes:

‘For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.’ (Romans 12:3)

We have seen how our minds have become corrupted, and how we are not free any longer to think for ourselves but are constantly being conformed to the world around us, a world controlled by sin. This all began when we thought too highly of ourselves. When, as St Paul puts it, we claimed to be wise.

To avoid worshipping the one true God, we wanted instead to choose our own gods. In the past, as St Paul describes, these have been in the image of other human beings or even of animals. The Roman believers would have known only too well what St Paul was talking about. Many of them had worshipped such images before becoming believers. Many, now that they had become believers, would go to their death for refusing to worship them and, not least, for refusing to worship the Emperor of Rome itself.

We think that today we have escaped all this. After all, we no longer build temples to gods and goddesses; we don’t sacrifice animals in worship of divine beings, whatever form they take. We are so wise. We consider ourselves the wisest generation that has ever lived, and yet we are the biggest fools. We don’t worship the image of other humans and animals; we worship ourselves instead.

Thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think is now our religion. The tragedy is that this religion of Self has infected the Church. Instead of us offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God and serving him, we think he should serve us. We should be free to change the image of him that he has revealed to us in Christ to make it instead the way we think it should look. And so, Christ has become exactly the sort of teacher we want him to be: a sort of life coach who is always there for us, always forgives and understand us, always tells us how wonderful we are, and who makes very few demands of us.

It doesn’t matter how much we may have to change the Church’s traditional teaching and understanding of God; it is all about us now. We have created an image of the god we want, and we worship its creator. The Church is so conformed to the world, it is hard to tell them apart. Their ideas, concerns, and priorities are much the same. It goes without saying that the Church is there ‘for the city’; there is little difference between them.

In the Old Testament, when the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, they frequently embraced the worship of the gods of the nations around them, mixing the worship of baal with the worship of the one true God. God sent the prophets to warn them, but they refused to listen to his word through them. As a result, the people of Israel suffered destruction and exile. God doesn’t do threesomes. This mixing of the worship of one religion with another is known as syncretism. Again, the Roman believers would have known all about syncretism. The gods of the Greek Pantheon had been merged with the Roman gods. Participation in mystery religions took place alongside the Imperial cult and the worship of the Emperor. Households and cities all had their own gods. And they all lived happily together. The Church, however, was, as one scholar has put it, the ‘destroyer of the gods’. The Church, at the beginning, took seriously what our Lord said when he answered the question about which is the greatest commandment: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord’.

But here’s the thing: Christianity has itself now become heavily syncretistic. The religion of Self is now all pervasive in churches and as long as we get the honour due to us, we don’t much mind what else happens. So, if clergy want to invite members of other religions to join in our services that’s alright. As long as everyone knows that it’s all about what we want and makes us happy, and that we and our concerns are at the centre of what takes place, then all are invited to join in, whoever they may be and whatever they may believe!

The Gospel that is the ‘power of God to salvation’, which St Paul has been explaining and which now he asks the Roman believers to offer themselves in sacrifice to, is, however, one which puts us in our place. Not a place where we do not matter - why would God send Christ to die for us if we do not matter? - but one where God matters more, and where God, and not us, is at the centre.

In the Gospels, there is the famous story of when Jesus casts demons out of a man from the country of the Gerasenes. His name is ‘Legion’ because of the number of demons that possess him. After Jesus has freed him from his possession, we read that when people come to see the man who had been possessed, he is sitting ‘clothed and in his ‘right-mind’ (Mark 5:15). The Greek word here for ‘right-mind’ is the same word that St Paul uses when he writes that we should think about ourselves with a ‘sober judgement’ (Romans 12:3). It would be better translated that we should think of ourselves in a ‘right-minded way’.

It is only when our minds are renewed by Christ that we can be freed from conformity to this world and transformed to our right-mind, able to see ourselves in a right-minded way as we are clothed with Christ.

Thirdly, it is clear, then, that what St Paul is asking in these verses is no easy thing. Not only is the sacrifice we are being called to make itself demanding, the resistance to it, both from the world and from within ourselves, is also great. St Paul, in encouraging us not to think too highly of ourselves, also encourages us to see realistically what we can offer to help others in their worship of God. What we have to offer comes not from within ourselves, but from the ‘measure of faith’ (Romans 12:3) we have been given in Christ.

We are to offer this ‘measure of faith’ to those in the body of Christ as a way of building each other up and helping each other as together we present our bodies as a ‘living sacrifice’. St Paul gives a list of examples of how we may do this. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the ways we can serve God, but one that illustrates some of the possibilities.

What matters is not the particular gift we have been given, but that we use it for the benefit of the body of Christ. ‘We are one body in Christ and individually members one of another,’ writes St Paul. What St Paul is wanting the Roman believers to realize is that membership of the Church is not an optional extra: we are joined to one another whether we like it or not. We don’t choose to opt-in or opt-out of the Church; our membership is a fact by virtue of our faith in Christ.

Just as in the human body different parts have different functions so too in the body of Christ. Now the human body can function without quite a lot of it. From arms and legs to lungs and kidneys, there is much we can do without. We are, however, at our healthiest and best when all the parts work together in the way that they were intended. So too in the Church!

Presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice and refusing to be conformed to this world is not easy. If we are to resist all the many pressures to conform that we come under, we need each other, and we need each other to do their part. Sadly, there are far too many inactive members in the Church. St Paul challenges us not to be one of them. Whatever the ability we have been given by God to do, we are to do it. It is worth mentioning that, although St Paul doesn’t say it here, sometimes what may seem like the least spectacular gift can often make a big difference.

Not only are we not to be conformed to this world, we should remember that our ‘citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20); we do not belong here. This is what our Lord was so anxious to tell his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. Our Lord, however, told his disciples then that he would not leave them ‘comfortless’ (John 14:18), and St Paul too has reminded us in chapter 8 of Romans that God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness (Romans 8:26). He has also given us each other. The Church is to be an alternative society with an alternative lifestyle. We are different, and we should live like it.

Next week, we will see how St Paul gives examples of what this alternative lifestyle should look like. For this week, the challenge is for us to give our lives in worship to the One who gave his life for us and of whose body we are now a part.


Friday, August 21, 2020

YouTube Link

The Broadcast Services from Christ Church during the suspension due to COVID-19 are all available on my YouTube channel.

This is the link:

Monday, August 17, 2020

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32

We come this week to the third and final passage from Romans 9-11 in this series of sermons on St Paul’s letter to the Romans. Again, as in the past two weeks, just a few verses are given in the lectionary for our reading from the letter, but, as we have been seeing, it is not that easy. Romans 9-11 is a detailed and carefully argued part of the letter dealing as it does with an important issue that has arisen from what St Paul has written in Romans 1-8. It simply won’t do to select a few verses that we like the sound of. These chapters are far more important and significant than that.

These chapters concern the place of ethnic Israel in the plan and purposes of God and with what I have described as the ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’. The term ‘ethnic Israel’ describes those who are Jews by physical birth. While we may feel all this is no longer a major issue for us today, ironically, we only feel like this because the Church in the past has failed to heed St Paul’s warning in these chapters. It is a warning that we too are reluctant to take seriously.

Last week, we closed with St Paul’s series of questions about ‘calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved’ (Romans 10:13). St Paul asked how anyone can call without believing in the Gospel, and how anyone can believe without first hearing the Gospel, and how anyone can hear unless someone tells them, and then, he asks, how anyone can be told unless someone is sent to tell them. We saw from this that God is in control at every stage of our salvation.

After making this plain, St Paul then asks, as is his way in Romans, another series of questions that again rise naturally out of what he has said. If faith comes from hearing and hearing comes by the word of Christ being preached, have people, in fact, heard? Yes, says St Paul, people have heard. The Gospel has gone out into all the world. But where does that leave those who belong to ethnic Israel? Surely they haven’t heard or else they would have responded, wouldn’t they? No, says St Paul, quoting Scripture, although they have heard, they have instead been disobedient and have refused to obey the Gospel.

Where, then, does that leave ethnic Israel? Have they now been rejected by God? St Paul refuses to accept this as even a possibility. After all, he is himself ethnically a Jew, and he has believed. St Paul, however, realizes that the majority of his fellow Israelites have not, and that they are not going to any time soon.

In order to explain this appalling state of affairs, St Paul draws on Scripture, and uses the concept of ‘the remnant’. He gives the example of Elijah and the 7,000 who refused to ‘bow the knee to Baal’ (1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:4). While it was undoubtedly the case that most in Israel were unfaithful, some, those whom God had chosen by grace, remained faithful. God, at the present time, writes St Paul, has chosen such a faithful remnant from ethnic Israel.

This all might seem quite defeatist and pessimistic, except that St Paul believes it is all part of God’s plan for his people, and that plan, St Paul writes, still involves ethnic Israel. St Paul acknowledges that ethnic Israel has stumbled, but he refuses to accept that they have fallen away permanently from God. God is now using the disobedience of ethnic Israel and their refusal to believe the Gospel to bring salvation to the Gentiles.

St Paul, at this point, addresses the Gentile believers in the Roman Church. Given that earlier he has spoken specifically to Jewish believers, it is clear that the Roman Church is made up of both Jew and Gentile believer. The ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’ that St Paul deals with at such length in these chapters is an important question anyway. It is one that rises inevitably from St Paul’s explanation of the Gospel; it is, as a consequence, one that he needs to address.

It is, however, particularly important that St Paul addresses the question in this letter to the Roman Church, if he is to get, as he hopes, the support of the Roman believers for his preaching of the Gospel in Spain. How he answers the question will also be important for what he has to say later in the letter concerning a pastoral problem that has arisen as a consequence of St Paul’s churches being mixed communities of both Jews and Gentiles.

Addressing Gentile believers directly, then, he tells them of his hope, as an apostle to the Gentiles, that the way the Gentiles are responding so positively to the Gospel may actually make ethnic Israel jealous. This is the reason he makes so much of his ministry to the Gentiles.

St Paul, however, knows there is a real danger here, and it is to do with Gentile arrogance. He describes the people of God as an ‘Olive Tree’ (Romans 11:17). Some of the branches of the Olive Tree, those representing ethnic Israel, have been broken off and some wild branches, representing Gentile believers, have been grafted in. St Paul says to the Gentile believers who have been grafted in:

‘… do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.’ (Romans 11:18)

St Paul is aware of how Gentile believers might respond having become the ‘adopted children of God’ and having received so many blessings, seemingly at the expense of those whose blessings, originally, they were (Romans 9:1-5). St Paul writes that ‘branches have been broken off so that they, as Gentiles, may be grafted in’ (Romans 11:19). This could make those grafted in feel special and superior. So St Paul explains that those of ethnic Israel who were broken off were broken off because of their unbelief. The Gentile believers are now where they are only by faith. Rather than feeling conceited, they should be afraid! If God has not spared the natural branches, that is, ethnic Israel, he certainly will not spare the unnatural ones, that is the Gentile believers. St Paul warns:

‘Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.’ (Romans 11:22)

Well, that’s telling them and telling us!

It is a warning which, if it had been heeded by the Church in the past, would have avoided great pain and suffering. But before I talk about that, St Paul still hasn’t finished what he wants to say on the question.

Ethnic Israel’s failure to believe in their own Messiah was itself something of a surprise, and St Paul’s explanation of it as God using it to bring salvation to the Gentiles is another. St Paul, however, hasn’t finished with the surprises. His final surprise is one that, even today, many in the Church refuse to accept.

St Paul tells them – so that they won’t think themselves too clever – that a ‘partial hardening’ of ethnic Israel has taken place until the ‘fulness of the Gentiles’ has come in (Romans 11:25). Once they have, and here’s the surprise, ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26). Many just cannot accept that this means what it says. The explanation that is often given of the phrase, ‘all Israel’, is that ‘Israel’ here means all those who believe, both Jew and Gentile. This, however, would mean St Paul suddenly changing how he has been using the word ‘Israel’ so far in chapters 9-11. Up to now, he has used it of ethnic Israel. That he is still using it to refer to ethnic Israel is confirmed by what St Paul goes on to write. He explains why ‘all Israel will be saved’, and his explanation makes clear that he is still talking about ethnic Israel. After again quoting Scripture referring to ethnic Israel, he writes:

‘As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29)

Why, then, the resistance to what seems so obvious? It is because, historically, many in the Church have viewed the Church as replacing ethnic Israel. The Church, they have believed, is now God’s people on earth, which means that the Jewish people are not. The Jewish people are, of course, welcome to join the Church, but they do so, or so it is argued, with no special privileges. You will sometimes hear this idea that the Church has replaced ethnic Israel described using the word ‘supersessionism’. It is the view that ethnic Israel has ceased to be the people of God and the Church has become the people of God in their place with no future place for ethnic Israel in the plan of God. Sadly, this view has had catastrophic consequences that we are still living with today.

But what, more precisely, does St Paul mean when he writes that ‘all Israel will be saved’?

Especially since the holocaust, some have reacted strongly to the antisemitism of the Church, and have argued that it means that God has another way of salvation for ethnic Israel that will lead to their salvation without the need for faith in Christ. They can’t have been reading Romans. For St Paul, it is by faith in Christ, and only by faith in Christ, that the way to salvation can be found.

Even so, there are many ways of understanding the phrase, ‘all Israel will be saved’. I think the most satisfactory way, and the one that fits best with St Paul’s argument, is that ‘all Israel’ refers to both ethnic and believing Israel. At some point in the future ‘all Israel’, that is, both ethnic Israel, who in the present time do not believe in Christ, and the remnant who, like St Paul, do believe, will be saved.

This means that, at some time known only to God, there will be a coming to faith in Christ of the Jewish people. Our Lord himself, in Luke’s Gospel, spoke of this (Luke 21:24). This is part of our hope for the future. It should also be in the present, in the way it was for St Paul, our ‘heart’s desire and prayer to God (Romans 10:1)’ that the Jewish people may indeed come to faith in Christ and be saved.

St Paul concludes by describing the paradox of obedience and disobedience that he has been writing about. The Gentiles, who were disobedient, have been shown mercy because of Israel’s disobedience. Now because of the mercy that has come from Israel’s disobedience, Israel too will be shown mercy. All this, writes St Paul, is from God whose purpose in it all is to have mercy on all both Jew and Gentile.

St Paul closes his discussion of the ‘Jewish-Gentile Question’, and indeed the first eleven chapters of Romans, with a doxology in praise of the wisdom and knowledge of God. No-one can ultimately know or understand God’s ways. God remains absolutely and completely in control of all things.

Amen to that. But what does it have to say to us today?

1. We need to repent of our arrogance towards the Jewish people

If you pick up a book written recently about Jesus of Nazareth, you will inevitably come across this statement: ‘Jesus was a Jew’. This is something that has in recent years dawned on New Testament scholars as if they have discovered something that has been kept hidden since the birth of our Lord himself. The mystery is not that our Lord was a Jew and that this has now been revealed to scholars; the mystery is why something so obvious has come as such a revelation.

The Gospels themselves make clear that not only was Jesus a Jew by birth, he lived as a Jew. He was not in any way uncomfortable with being a Jew. Indeed, he saw his ministry as being entirely to do with his own people. In our Gospel reading this morning, he says quite bluntly to a Gentile woman who sought his help: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24)’.

The apostles were also all Jews and the Gospel they preached was a message that came out of their belief that Jesus was the ‘Messiah, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David (Matthew 1:1)’, whom God had promised to his people. As we have seen, however, not all believed by any means, and this set up real tensions between the emerging Jewish sect and mainstream Judaism. St Paul, before he became an apostle, may be an extreme example of the attitude of many Jews at the time, but he was by no means alone. As the new sect grew and took on an identity of its own, and as it became increasingly Gentile, it broke away from the family which had given it birth and, as it did, it renounced its heritage.

Worse still it turned on the Jews. They were seen as guilty of the ultimate crime, ‘deicide’, killing God, or, at least, the Son of God. The Church was now the people of God and the Church had replaced the people of Israel. The persecution of the Jews by Christians has been systematic and severe. We all know of the horrors of the holocaust. And we have all seen pictures and films about the ghettos that the Nazis established in places like Warsaw with those who were confined to them forced to wear badges to identify themselves as Jews. What we perhaps do not know is that the Jewish ghetto was the idea of the Church.

To take one example. In 1555, approximately 2,000-3,000 Jews lived in Rome. Pope Paul IV found their presence offensive, and decided to segregate the community, establishing a walled Ghetto. The Jews in the Ghetto lived in incredible poverty and cramped conditions, which only grew worse as their population grew. Jews were technically allowed to leave during daylight hours, but outside the Ghetto they had to wear clothing that identified their religion – yellow hats adorned with bells and a horn for men, and two blue stripes across the chest (the same mark donned by prostitutes) for women. The Nazis had good teachers.

This is not to suggest that it was just the Roman Catholic and not the Protestant Church that was antisemitic. The protestant reformer, Martin Luther, wrote about the Jews in language to rival that of Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf. Indeed, many Nazis looked to Luther as having been supportive of their ideology. In many ways, he was.

Antisemitism passed through the Church into society as a whole, and it is still very much with us. We see examples of it on a daily basis in the media. But surely not now in the Church? There are many good Christians who have utterly rejected antisemitism and who work to show love and support to the Jewish people. But, sadly, far more do not.

There are 14.7 million Jews in the world according to the latest figures. There were 16.6 million in 1939 before the beginning of the second world war. There were 5.11 million Jews in the world in 1948 on the eve of the establishment of the state of Israel. The maths are not hard to do to see the effect of the holocaust. It is estimated that had it not been for the holocaust, the number of Jews in the world would now be double what it is. Today, 6.7 million Jews live in Israel, that is 45% of the world total. If you want, then, to attack the Jewish people today without appearing to be antisemitic far easier just to attack Israel. [Source of Statistics: Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics]

Now Israel as a nation should be subject to the same scrutiny as other nations, and criticising Israeli policies and actions is not in itself antisemitic, but it does seem strange that Church leaders are very quick to speak out against Israel, but rarely a word is said in criticism of those who oppose her.

As followers of the Messiah, Romans 9-11 at the very least should challenge our attitudes to the Jewish people and encourage us to look upon the Jewish people with the same love and concern that St Paul, himself a Jew, showed towards them. And we should do this knowing, as St Paul writes, that ‘as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29)

2. We need to note both the kindness and severity of God

St Paul told the Gentile Christians not to become proud and reminded them that they stood now only ‘by faith’. If they ceased to be faithful, St Paul warned that they too would be ‘cut off’. We have seen that St Paul in chapters 9-11 addresses groups. We have also seen that, at the same time, it is impossible to ignore the implications of what he writes for individuals. Groups, after all, are composed of individuals. When St Paul warns the Gentile believers that they will be ‘cut off’ unless they continue in God’s kindness, he is writing still about both groups and individuals. His warning today, however, falls on deaf ears. We just don’t think that it applies either to groups or to individuals.

Most Christians simply think it is inconceivable that that God would cut them off or cut anyone else off for that matter. Now the motivation for this conviction is often a good one. It comes out of a belief and certainty in the love and mercy of God, something that is a major theme in these chapters. However, for St Paul there was no contradiction between the kindness and the severity of God.

Personally, on a human level, I would very much prefer the company of someone who thinks God loves me and forgives me whatever I may do, than someone who thinks God wants to punish me and see me burn eternally in hell. The trouble is that having got rid of the embarrassing teaching of our Lord and the New Testament about judgement and punishment, many in the Church have felt able to change other aspects of the faith without worrying too much about the consequences.

I will be looking a bit more at this on an individual level next week. This week, in closing, however, I want to talk about us as a group, that is as a Church and Churches.

The Church in the west and in westernized societies, such as our own here in Hong Kong, is currently responding to a decline in belief in society by reinventing itself for the times we find ourselves in. Everything is up for consideration: the way we worship, what we believe, and how we live. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. The Church should always be being reformed and renewed. But this reformation and renewal should always be in response to the Spirit and not in response to the world. We are not called to be popular or successful; we are called to be faithful.

The abandonment, then, of some of the central teachings of the faith and the embracing of ideas and attitudes of contemporary society, not least in the focus on self and identity, amount, I believe, to idolatry. Those Churches that are embracing such idolatry need to be very careful that they don’t find that they too will be cut off.

This is a challenge to those who still hold to the orthodox faith as revealed in the Bible and the Creeds to be faithful and not to bow the knee to the modern day baals. While in some churches orthodoxy may become the faith of the few – has become the faith of the few – we can take heart that God works through the few, through remnants.

St Paul finishes these chapters by praising the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (Romans 11:33). His ways are beyond our understanding. God still has many surprises in store for us both collectively and individually. This world can seem a very scary place and often it feels like those against us are greater than those who are for us. If, however, these chapters teach us anything, it is that God is in control whatever the appearances may be to the contrary.

‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.’ (Romans 11:36)


Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin mary

Here is the transcription of my sermon for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Blessed Virgin Mary


Isaiah 61.10,11 Galatians 4.4-7 Luke 1.46-55

In the Anglican Calendar, today is called quite simply, ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary.’ The calendar thus does what Anglicans do best, it ducks a difficult question. For the majority of Christians in the world, today, of course, is more commonly known as, ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ Orthodox Christians refer to it as, ‘The Dormition of the Mother of God’, that is, the ‘falling asleep’.

Today, then, marks the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or, to put it more accurately, what many believe happened to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the end of her earthly life.

Most protestants, of course, don’t believe anything happened to her that hasn’t also happened to every other Christian at the time of their death. Mary is no different to us, they believe, and so today will pass without so much of a mention of her by most protestant churches and Christians. The Anglican Church mentions her, but leaves it at that.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has only relatively recently acquired the status of being the official teaching of the Church. It was before that a ‘pious belief’; something that many believed and which it was OK to believe, but not something that was the official teaching of the Church.

That changed in 1950, when Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus promulgated the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Church. This was only the second time in the modern era that a Pope had proclaimed a doctrine to be infallible. The first was the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, another doctrine that concerns Mary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Assumption in this way:

‘The Immaculate Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of death.’ (Paragraph 966)

It needs to be stressed that although the promulgation of the doctrine is recent, the feast itself is very old, perhaps even, as many Catholics claim, the oldest feast celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary. What Pope Pius did was to make it obligatory for Catholics to observe it and to believe what it celebrated.

It is fair to say that this is one of Protestant Christians’ worst nightmares. Not only do they reject utterly the idea of BV Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’, the idea that a Pope can decide the matter goes against the doctrinal anarchy that Protestantism celebrates above all else. The cry, ‘It is not for the Pope to tell me what to believe!’ is at the heart of the Protestant protest. Whether the Pope gets it right or wrong is, for Protestants, somewhat beside the point.

Well, I am perhaps being a bit naughty here, and to be completely honest, I would have preferred it if the doctrine had remained a ‘pious belief’. But we are where we are. Leaving aside, then, questions of authority and who gets to decide who believes what, what can we say about the doctrine itself?

The last we hear of the BV Mary in Scripture itself is in the book of Acts after the Ascension of our Lord and before the Day of Pentecost. The disciples are gathered in an Upper Room where St Luke tells us:

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14)

The assumption in Acts being that the BV Mary was herself baptized in the Spirit. But, after that, we hear no more of her. We do, however, hear quite a lot about her family. As we have just heard, St Luke makes reference to our Lord’s brothers as being amongst those praying in the Upper Room. One of them, St James, went on to become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. The others were well-known preachers of the Gospel. St Paul can make mention of the ‘brothers of the Lord’ to the Corinthian Christians (1 Corinthians 9:5) and expect them to know who he is talking about.

But what of our Lady herself? We sort of know where she lived after Pentecost. We are told that on the Cross our Lord entrusted his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple and that, from that moment, he took her into his home (John 19:26-27). The most probable identification of the Beloved Disciple is the Apostle John. We know from St Paul that St John was one of the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). His brother, the Apostle James was killed there (Acts 12:2). We could have guessed the Apostle John’s importance from the central role he had in the earthly ministry of our Lord, being closely associated, as he was, along with his brother, with the Apostle Peter. The three in the Gospels forming something of an inner core of Jesus’ disciples.

But we know literally nothing else. Church tradition is itself divided. One tradition says that the BV Mary died in Jerusalem in the 40s. There is a Church to commemorate the place of her death by the Garden of Gethsemane. Another tradition says that she went to Ephesus with the Apostle John and died there. It’s impossible to know for sure, although I personally tend to the Ephesus tradition.

There have been those who have thought that the BV Mary did not die, but that, when, as Pope Pius put it, the ‘earthly course of her life was finished’, she was assumed while still alive to heaven. Although his words could be interpreted this way, this doesn’t seem to be what Pope Pius intended. No less a figure than St Pope John Paul in a general audience in 1997 made that clear, adding:

‘Could Mary of Nazareth have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh? Reflecting on Mary’s destiny and her relationship with her divine Son, it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother.’

What seems certain, then, and not in dispute today, is that ‘Mary of Nazareth’ did die, although many prefer the phrase ‘falling asleep’ or ‘dormition’. It is what happened next that causes all the argument. For Protestants, her body would have been buried and it would like all other bodies have decomposed, while Mary, like all the dead in Christ, waited for the resurrection of the dead.

For Catholics, and those who believe like them however, the BV Mary’s body was ‘assumed’ that it is taken up into heaven without suffering the decay that is common to all mortal bodies. It is important to note that Catholics believe Mary was ‘assumed’. This was not something she did herself, but something God did for her. Now here in heaven, next to her Son, she reigns as the Queen of Heaven.

Basically, then, what it comes down to is whether there is any on-going role for the BV Mary after her ‘dormition’, that is, her death. Protestants are increasingly willing to honour Mary as an example of discipleship and to acknowledge her obedience to God’s Word in bearing Jesus. But no more. Many Christians, however, want to go further and see her assumption into heaven as the beginning of a new ministry of intercession and care for believers.

Does it matter? It does if you are a Roman Catholic as it is the official teaching of the Church. It does if you are a Protestant who sees any mention of the BV Mary as the first step to idolatry. For others, it remains more of the ‘pious belief’ it was before Pope Pius’ intervention.

Personally, I am sure that our Lady won’t lose any sleep over us not believing in it, not, of course, that she does sleep if the doctrine is true. And I am also sure that our Lord won’t mind us honouring his mother in this way, even if we are hesitant about some of the details of the way it is expressed.

But before it seems like I have fallen into the typical Anglican position of ‘believe what you like as long as you love everyone’, let me say that even if we don’t think the details of the way the assumption is thought of are quite right, and are not happy with language describing Mary as the Queen of Heaven, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss an ongoing role for the BV Mary in the ministry of the Church.

Our Lord said to the Beloved Disciple, who in John’s Gospel is both a historical person and a symbolic figure, ‘Behold your mother.’ In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church convened Vatican II, a Council of the Church to renew its life and teaching, At the end of the Council, it was another Pope, Pope Saint Paul VI, who commended to the Church as a whole the title, ‘Mother of the Church’, for Mary.

For those of us who see an ongoing role for our Lady in the present, this description is a good way to see her. And she is not only the Mother of the Church, but our Mother too. One who prays for us ‘now and at the hour of our death’.

The Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us that our Lord shared at Nazareth the ‘life of an earthly home’ and felt and experienced all that mothers experience, as she did when her son went missing in Jerusalem.

So, for example, as we begin a new school year, a strange new school year, we don’t have to worry about whether our concerns for our children are legitimate or not, they are, and they have in the BV Mary someone in heaven who understands exactly how we feel and what we are going through because she went through it herself.

Today, then, we honour her not out of desire to worship her or because we assume something about her that’s not true, but because we value her and her prayers for us as a mother, our mother. And, as we ask others to pray for us here on earth, why not ask the saints in heaven to pray for us too, and who better than she who was ‘full of grace’ and she who all generations call blessed.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity

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

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 10:5-15

People frequently approach St Paul’s letter to the Romans as if it were a series of articles on different theological topics. This means that those preaching or studying Romans feel free to pick which article or subject they look at without necessarily looking carefully at what St Paul wrote before or after it. They use Romans a bit like you would use a reference book. You can look at the subject you are interested in without consulting what it has to say about the other subjects.

So, for example, the first few chapters of Romans have often been seen as about ‘justification’ (how someone becomes a Christian), followed by sanctification (what sort of person you should be as a Christian), then predestination (how God chooses who becomes a Christian), and then, finally, ethics (how a Christian should live).

Scholars themselves have not been immune to this sort of approach. In one recent major commentary, for example, the writer talks about how chapters 1-4 are basically St Paul summarising what everyone he wrote to already believed before he gets on to what he really wanted to say to them in chapters 5-8.

Romans, however, is not at all like that. It is a carefully written letter in which St Paul builds on what he says as he writes, so that you cannot just jump in and hope to understand it. It is a sustained and carefully argued piece of writing. The trouble is that it is also a very demanding piece of writing and the subjects St Paul deals with are challenging. They are made all the more challenging because they are not subjects we are used to thinking about.

We don’t spend much of our time worrying about whether God is angry with us; about what we need to do be accepted by him; whether, if we are male, we need to be circumcised and whether we need to keep God’s Laws as we find them in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. We don’t think of ourselves as ‘slaves to sin’ who are going to die as a consequence. We assume we can do good if we want to, rather than accepting that we can’t, regardless of whether we want to or not. We think we are wonderful, not wretched. And we have little or no conscious and immediate experience of the Holy Spirit. And all that is before we get on to the difficulties caused by our lack of familiarity with the social and historical context of what St Paul writes.

At times in the letter, St Paul expresses himself in a memorable and quotable way. Some of the quotes are very well-known, and rightfully so, but we miss their true meaning when we fail to understand them in their context. We should always remember to read a passage in context when reading the Bible, but it is especially important with the letter to the Romans, and even more so with the passage before us this week, containing as it does some very well-known quotes.

When St Paul writes about a subject in this letter, then, he hopes we will remember what he has written before. He doesn’t expect to have to repeat what he has written previously. If he had to do that an already very long letter would become even longer!

In chapter 8 of Romans, St Paul describes how we who have faith in Christ are the ‘adopted children of God’. The creation itself, St Paul tells us, is waiting with eager expectation our revelation as God’s adopted children. As we await this great moment when our true identity as God’s children will be revealed to the creation, we know that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love.

There is, however, a major problem with this. It was originally Israel who was God’s adopted son. It was the people of Israel who were God’s children and to whom belonged all the privileges that came with this (Romans 9:1-5). Now, it appears, it is us who are God’s children and Israel is not.

This is both how it appears from their failure to respond to St Paul’s preaching AND from what St Paul preaches when he preaches the Gospel. Not to be ‘under law’, then, as St Paul insists believers are not, would strongly seem to suggest that those who did see themselves as still ‘under Law’, in the way both believing and unbelieving Jews saw themselves, are no longer God’s people. And it is this that raises the whole Jewish-Gentile Question that St Paul is trying to answer in these chapters.

In chapter 9 of Romans, which we looked at last week, St Paul isn’t embarking on a new subject disconnected from what he has written before, but one that arises with urgency from all that he has written before. What he has written raises a serious question that he has to answer if he is to have any credibility with the Roman Church. This is a Church he hopes will get behind his preaching as he goes to Spain. It is a Church composed of both Jews and Gentiles for whom this is a pressing and not a theoretical issue. What makes it all the more serious an issue is that St Paul has come under heavy criticism in the wider Church, not least in Jerusalem, for what is seen as his negative attitude to his own people.

St Paul has attempted to explain his attitude to God’s Law, something he has also been misunderstood and condemned over. Now he seeks to explain how he understands God’s plan for his people who apparently, from what St Paul writes, God has chosen to disown, as his children, in favour of us.

Just how serious an issue this is can be seen in how St Paul tackles the issue in chapters 9-11. He begins chapter 9 by rejecting, in the strongest possible terms, the accusation that he does not care for his own people. He writes:

‘I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.’ (Romans 9:1-3)

These are not the words of a theologian or scholar writing a learned article for a journal or textbook; it is an intensely personal response of someone who cares deeply and is himself affected emotionally by what he is writing about. The last time St Paul expressed himself this way in Romans was when he was talking about his inability, left to himself, to keep God’s Law. Given, then, this apparent disinheriting of those who were previously God’s children, St Paul addresses the obvious question: has the Word of God failed (Romans 9:6)?

No, St Paul answers emphatically, because being God’s children has never been just about physical descent. The identity of God’s children has always been about who it is promised to. Here St Paul wants us to remember what he wrote particularly in chapter 4 of Romans. This is the boring chapter about the faith of Abraham that we always pass quickly over because it doesn’t seem to be of much relevance to us.

In chapter 4, St Paul has described how it was by believing God’s promise to him that Abraham was ‘counted as righteous’ by God (Romans 4:22). It is those who, like Abraham, believe the promise who are also counted righteous (Romans 4:24) and who become children of the promise and children of God.

St Paul asks, ‘Does this mean there is unrighteousness on God’s part? (Romans 9:14)’. Or as we might put it, ‘It’s not fair!’ It is fair, St Paul responds, because it is for God to decide whom he wants to have mercy on and whom he doesn’t.

St Paul anticipates the response to this. If it is all about God and God chooses who his children are, why does God still find fault. After all, who can resist his will? If God chooses those he has mercy on, he can’t blame those who aren’t chosen by him.

St Paul answers this by saying that God can do whatever he wishes and that it is his absolute right as God to choose those he wants to be his children and show his mercy to. And God has decided that this will be those he has called, and those he has called are not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles (Romans 9:24).

God’s choice results in a highly ironic situation. Gentiles who did not seek righteousness have found it, while the Jews who did seek it, failed to find it. St Paul now picks up on what he said earlier in Romans about being ‘righteoused (justified) by faith’. The reason the Jews did not find it was because they thought that it was obtained through God’s Law based on ‘works’, that is, on what they did rather than on faith.

St Paul begins chapter 10 by repeating his heart’s desire and prayer for his people to be saved. They do have a zeal for God, he writes, but they get it all wrong. They were, says St Paul, ignorant of the ‘righteousness of God’ and sought instead to establish their own by keeping the Law. In so doing they failed to submit to the way God establishes righteousness, which is solely by faith in Christ. Christ is the end of the Law. Righteousness is by faith. If he was writing today, he would have a footnote at this point saying, ‘See what I wrote about this earlier.’

Here, however, St Paul writes:

‘For ignoring the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.’ (Romans 10:3)

St Paul has told us at the beginning of the letter just how important this is. The Gospel, he wrote is the ‘power of God for salvation to all who have faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16)’. How is it? St Paul tells us:

‘For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith …’ (Romans 1:17)

I cannot begin to tell you how much argument there has been and how much there still is over the meaning of this phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’. You are probably already finding this week’s sermon heavy going, and for that I apologize. Suffice it then to say that whatever else he might mean by this phrase the ‘righteousness of God’, it is something that God does, which is available to us by faith, and without which we won’t be saved.

Quite what the Roman believers made of all that St Paul writes in Romans we don’t know. Certainly, we today find it incredibly challenging. It is hard to sustain our concentration and to remember all that St Paul has written. The ideas and concepts, as I have said, are difficult and demanding. If we have to understand all that St Paul writes, we are in trouble. Big trouble! Our reaction is an understandable one.

St Paul, however, perhaps realising how difficult it can seem, tells us not to despair. ‘The word is near to you,’ he writes quoting Deuteronomy. He sums up in very simple and straightforward terms what we must know. It is the bottom line of our faith. St Paul writes quite simply:

‘… if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.’ (Romans 10:9-10)

The ‘heart’ in the New Testament is the centre of our being. We tend nowadays to think of it as symbolizing the place of our emotions. The heart is that in the New Testament, but it is also the place of our thoughts, will, and reason.

When we truly believe in Christ, we discover for ourselves the ‘righteousness of God’. Righteousness that enables us to experience forgiveness, which brings peace with God, and makes possible a relationship with him. A relationship in which we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and demonstrate that Lordship in way in which we live. But what has all this to do with the Jewish-Gentile Question? Having reminded the Roman believers of the bottom line of the faith they believe in, he writes:

‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Romans 10:12)

Our salvation is still in the future. Those in the Roman Church who were concentrating as St Paul’s letter was read out to them, would remember how St Paul has said in Romans 8 how the suffering of the present time is not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). Then, in Romans 9, St Paul has written about how God has created ‘objects of mercy’ that he will make known the ‘riches of his glory’ to (Romans 9:23). These objects of mercy that God has created include, he writes, ‘us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:24)’.

There is a lot of calling taking place. God calling us and us calling on him. People have been arguing over the relationship between the two throughout the history of the Church. We don’t have to worry about it, however, as long as we remember that we must call upon the name of the Lord to be saved.

St Paul knows exactly what problem this requirement creates. He expresses it in a series of questions. How is anyone to call upon someone in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe unless they have heard what it is that that they need to believe? And how can they hear unless someone preaches the message to them?

And there we normally stop. There then follows a sermon about the need for us to preach the Gospel and share our faith. St Paul, however, doesn’t stop there, he asks another question. How can they preach unless they are sent? Our Lord when he saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd told his disciples that the harvest was plentiful but the workers few. They were to pray that the Lord of harvest would send out workers into the harvest. Salvation is of God and God remains in control of the whole process.

St Paul still has much to say about the Jewish-Gentile Question and we will see how he concludes his answer to it an unexpected and surprising way next week. But for now, we can perhaps pause and see what this has to say to us this morning. I have said how St Paul sums up the bottom line quite simply. It is, however, the bottom line.

Those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. But we must call on him, and this, both as a race and as individuals, we are very resistant to doing. This is because calling on the name of the Lord means admitting that we need God to save us.

Many times in my ministry I have met rich people who live lives of some luxury. If anyone has commented on their lifestyle their response has often been the same: ‘I have worked hard for this.’ They may have, but plenty of people work hard and don’t get the luck and the breaks that they have had. However, that would be to admit they are not as great as they like to think they are. But we are all the same.

God has offered us great riches in Christ, but we really don’t want it to be all about God. We want to be able to claim some credit for ourselves. We have tried our best. Our intentions are good. We are not as bad as some people. We go to Church. St Paul would say the same of us as he said of the Jews, ‘Seeking to establish their own righteousness they didn’t submit to the righteousness of God.’

We are drowning men and women who cannot swim and our only hope is to call out to God and trust in him to save us. We are powerless and weak; helpless and hopeless, wretched and lost. All we can do is cry out for help, but even in our powerlessness, weakness, helplessness, hopelessness, wretchedness, and lostness, we are still too proud and want to go on pretending we can do this.

Why are we like this? Because we are blind, rebellious sinners who hate to acknowledge our need of God. It’s really not that complicated. It is, however, why we need the mercy of God. A God who was not merciful would have given up on us long ago and yet in his mercy he calls out to us and causes the light of the Gospel to shine in our lives, so that we may see our need and respond to his call.

And even then, after having experienced, in the righteousness of God, his grace and mercy; having found peace and forgiveness in Christ; we still want to hold on to our pride. We feel very pleased with ourselves that we have believed the Gospel, that we go to Church on Sundays (when we can), that we support the work of the Church when we have the time.

And faith is to be celebrated. It’s great that we believe the Gospel, but we go a step further and think that God should be pleased with us that we have granted him a place in our life, that we turn up in Church on Sundays, and that we sacrifice some of our precious time and resources to support his work.
Jesus deals with this one. He asks whether anyone having a servant will praise that servant for doing what they are supposed to do. He makes the point forcefully:

‘So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’’ (Luke 17:10)

This is a warning we need to hear. It may seem, however, perhaps an inappropriately harsh note on which to finish today. It is, though, how St Paul closes the series of questions he asks about how anyone is to call upon the name of the Lord unless they have heard the good news. It has been cut from the reading this week. Those who compiled the lectionary perhaps wanted to avoid this harsh note., but we can’t avoid it:

‘But not all have obeyed the good news …’ (Romans 10:16)

Obeying the good news may seem a strange way to speak about having faith in Christ. St Paul puts it that way because the Gospel is not good advice that we can take or leave as we see fit. It is the good news of salvation sent to us by God himself. Good news that came at a terrible price, but which offers us who believe it salvation and future glory.

‘ … there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.’ (Romans 10:12)

But we must call on him. And for many that is something they simply do not want to do. Don’t be one of them!

Today, may we be amongst those obey the good news: who believe in our hearts and confess with our lips and so are saved.


Monday, August 03, 2020

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity

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

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 9:1-5

We have reached Romans chapter 9. The next three chapters form a distinct section within the letter and need to be read and understood together. Last week, we saw how St Paul brought his argument in chapters 1-8 to a dramatic conclusion by asserting that there was absolutely nothing in all creation, seen or unseen, that could separate us from God’s love. Even pain and suffering, he wrote, ‘worked together for the good of those who loved God’. How to follow that! 

The way that St Paul follows it comes as a bit of a let down for most readers of Romans. St Paul begins by talking about his fellow Jews, and then goes on to discuss what God’s purposes are for them. As this is not all about us, we are not really all that interested. To make matters worse, when there are bits that do seem to apply to us, we don’t much like the sound of them. They seem to suggest that it is God who chooses us and not us who choose God. That can’t possibly be true, can it? 

Shockingly, some people in the past have thought that it can and that this is what these chapters teach us. This only makes these chapters even more suspect in our eyes. After all, we all know as a self-evident truth that when St Paul says we are ‘justified by faith’ what he means is that we get to choose whether or not we believe the Gospel. What St Paul should be doing in these chapters, then, is pitching God to us and explaining why God would be lucky to have our worship. What he should not be doing is telling us, as he does, that God is like a potter with clay who can do with us whatever he likes (Romans 9:21). 

We find frankly abhorrent the suggestion that some have made that this means that God rejects people even before they have had a chance to reject him first. We resent the idea that God chooses us before we have decided for ourselves whether we want to believe in him or not. We are free autonomous beings with a will of our own, not lumps of clay to be molded into something over which we have no say. 

This negative reaction to these chapters isn’t just one had by readers who don’t really understand them or who don’t like them when they do, but one shared by scholars who have taken a long time studying them. Many commentators in the past have just quickly passed over them and moved on to the practical stuff St Paul has to say in chapter 12. Who cares whether the Jews believe in Christ or not? 

Thankfully, there is a greater realization in scholarship today that while these chapters may not seem important to us, they were clearly important to St Paul, whether we agree with him or not. In his mind, they clearly were a crucial part of what he felt he needed to say to the Roman Church to get their support. 

Part of our problem in understanding these chapters and their significance is that we approach them from the wrong side of history. We have well and truly moved on from the days when the main controversy in the Church was whether you and I, as Gentiles, could be church members and, if we can, on what basis. For most of the Church’s history, the issue hasn’t been the ‘Gentile Question’ that so occupied St Paul and the other early church leaders; if there has been a question, it has been the so-called Jewish Question. This is a question that the Church has answered in such a way that it finally resulted in the holocaust and the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and the like. It was the religious antisemitism of the Church that made possible the secular antisemitism of the Nazis. 

Sadly, both types of antisemitism are still with us. We see it in the present day attacks on Jewish people and property in the major cities of our world. We are seeing it being played out in the disputes taking place in the British Labour party at the moment. It is also still very much with us in the Church, which is one of the reasons why it is so very hard to find a Church leader with anything good to say about Israel. Attacking the state of Israel has become for many an acceptable way to express their antisemitism. 

So, although we approach the Jewish-Gentile Question from this point in history, we still need to hear what St Paul has to say about it from his own very different point of view. But what was that viewing point? 

We need to remind ourselves of a few basic points. St Paul was a Jew. He tells us this repeatedly in his letters. We often think that his experience of the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road meant he became a Christian and stopped being a Jew. He certainly was converted from violently not believing in Christ and from being an opponent of the Gospel to believing passionately in Christ and to becoming an advocate for the Gospel. He did not, however, cease to be a Jew. 

We can perhaps be forgiven this particular misunderstanding, if not some of the others, as there were many in the Church at the time who thought that St Paul really had turned against his people. Indeed, it is because he had gained this reputation of having abandoned his people and their customs that St Paul needed to explain his understanding of the Gospel at such length in this letter. 

Which brings us to these chapters. St Paul, so far in Romans, has written at length about his attitude to the Law and why he takes what is seen as such a negative attitude to it: the righteousness we need does not and cannot come by the Law. St Paul doesn’t blame the Law for this, he blames both us, as humans, and sin. Sin, he explains, has taken control of both us and the Law. God has had to do for us what neither we nor the Law could do. This was all out of his love for us; love which was expressed above all in the death of Christ for us. Having loved us so completely and absolutely in Christ, God is not going to stop loving us now whatever happens.

But how do we know that we can trust what God says? God might mean what he says, but doesn’t the example of Israel show that things can go wrong? Given St Paul’s reputation as having abandoned his people, St Paul, in writing Romans, would have had to explain his attitude to his own people anyway. Indeed, he has already said something about it in chapter 3. Given, however, all that he writes in chapters 1-8 and the way he finishes chapter 8, it has now become even more urgent. 

Doesn’t the Jewish people’s failure to respond to the Gospel mean that God’s word to Israel has failed? And if it has, why should we think his word to us won’t also fail? How can we trust a God whose word we can’t be sure of?

We need to pause here and note that not all in the Church at the time St Paul is writing would have agreed with St Paul’s assessment of the Jewish people’s response to the Gospel. St Paul’s own assessment of the situation is clear. His experience of preaching the Gospel has convinced him personally that the Jews, as a whole, are not going to respond positively to the Gospel: quite the reverse. And this causes him much pain and, as he puts it in this week’s reading, ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ in his heart (Romans 9:2).

We tend to forget that although St Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, he still believed that the Gospel was ‘to the Jew first’ (Romans 1:16). This provided the strategy for how he went about preaching the Gospel. Whenever he visited a new place, he went first to the synagogue and only when they didn’t respond there to his preaching did he go directly to the Gentiles. Even when eventually he arrived in Rome as a prisoner, he ‘called together the local leaders of the Jews’ (Acts 28:17).

Despite this commitment to the priority of the Jews, St Paul suffered greatly at the hands of Jews both in and out of the Church. While Gentiles responded positively to his preaching the Jews, on the whole, did not, and often turned on St Paul, violently at times.

It was in the light, then, of this negative experience that St Paul formulated his understanding of why the Jews would not accept Jesus as their Messiah and Saviour.

St James and the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, however, had a somewhat different experience and perspective. When St Paul he arrives in Jerusalem shortly after having written Romans, they tell him:

'You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.’ (Acts 21:20)

We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that St James was held in high regard by Jews in Jerusalem. This very different experience to that of St Paul convinces them that there are grounds for optimism. The question that St Paul asks about whether the Word of God has failed if the Jewish people do not respond to the Gospel and believe in Jesus as the Messiah simply hadn’t arisen because they were, in fact, responding, not all, by any means, but a significant number.

In AD60, then, whether or not the Jews as a whole would respond to the Gospel was still an open question. There was evidence both ways. The leaders of the Church in Jerusalem would still, at this stage, have seen some grounds for optimism. St Paul, however, was convinced that they were not going to respond to the Gospel – at least, not yet.

For St Paul, the question that has to be answered is the Jewish Question and why Jews as the people of God are not responding to the Word of God in the Gospel. For St James and the Jerusalem leaders the question that has to be answered is the Gentile Question and where the Gentiles fit in to what God is doing for his people the Jews.

In whatever way the question is framed, St Paul fully realizes that this is an urgent issue for the Church, which is why he spends so much time in Romans addressing it. What is so amazing and controversial about what he writes, especially given his own Jewishness, is that he makes the Jews the problem. The question that has to be answered for St Paul is not why the Gentiles are responding, but why the Jews are not.

Our problem is that we don’t see the problem! For us, the Gospel is about believing in Christ whoever you are. It doesn’t matter, we think, if you are a Jew or a Gentile, or anything else for that matter. Our response to the problem is: ‘What’s the problem!’

This is where being on the wrong side of history comes in. Living when we do in a Church that is almost 100% Gentile, we just don’t see how big a deal this all is. We believe in the Gospel, why is it such a big deal that the Jews do not?

St Paul begins chapter 9 by telling us why it is such a big deal. He describes the status and privileges that belong to Israel as the chosen people of God. Israel is uniquely God’s and Israel is special.

What St Paul writes then in chapters 9-11 is his answer as to why, as he sees it, the Jews, even though they are God’s people, are not responding to the Word of God in the Gospel and certainly not to his presentation of it. It is also in many ways a prediction that they will not respond to it and that this is all part of God’s plan for them.

The reason that St Paul gives for the Jews not responding to the Gospel, either in the present or for the foreseeable future, is that God himself is preventing them from believing it. This, he believes, is so that the Gentiles can be given time to become part of the people of God. God has not forgotten his people, Israel, and at some point in the future, when the full number of Gentiles have come in, ‘all Israel’, he will tell us, will indeed be saved as St James and the other leaders of the Church in Jerusalem hope.

The sheer brilliance of St Paul’s explanation of what God is doing is that it answers both the Jewish and the Gentile Questions at the same time as well as explaining why God’s Word has not failed despite some appearance to the contrary.

Brilliant or not, while St Paul may have offered an answer to the Jewish-Gentile Question, which itself is not a problem for us, his answer makes statements that certainly are a problem for us and for how we understand the way salvation works.

Ironically, and it is ironic, while we today do not have a problem with the whole Jew-Gentile issue, we do have a problem with St Paul’s response to it. It comes down to a simple question: How can God choose to save some and not others? And how can he deliberately ‘harden’ some, as St Paul puts it, so as to prevent them from having faith and finding salvation? This really does not fit in with our view of God. Many would prefer to be circumcised rather than believe such an idea!

So, in the commentaries, books, and sermons on these chapters, there is what is known today as a ‘trigger warning’: ‘These chapters contain material that some may find offensive’.

Others immediately begin what they have to say about these chapters by answering the problem that what St Paul writes causes for them rather than with the problem that St Paul is actually writing about.

The result is that it is almost impossible to read or hear anything about these chapters today without from the start being told that these chapters are not about individuals and their salvation. St Paul, we are assured, is not saying that God chooses some individuals to be saved and some to be damned, he is talking instead about ‘groups’, even though he refers to individuals such as Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, Esau, Moses, and Pharaoh to do so. The individuals, we are told, are representatives of groups.

That’s alright then, except, of course, groups are composed of individuals and if God hardens the heart of someone to prevent them joining a group, as St Paul says God does, then the issue of individuals is back on the table. If God chooses the group which is to be saved, but acts to prevent some people getting into that group, then that sounds very much like God chooses which individuals should be saved after all.

The way that most people approach these chapters today is to see salvation as being like one of those group tours you go on when on holiday. The tour is visiting a famous tourist site and it’s up to you whether you want to join. The destination is of the group tour is chosen in advance, but whether you go on it is up to you.

The problem is that St Paul seems to suggest that God acts in such a way as to prevent people from joining the tour. St Paul concludes his initial response to the question he is answering:

‘So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.’ (Romans 9:18)

St Paul himself is very much aware of the questions that this gives rise to. He writes:

‘You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”’ (Romans 9:19)

The fact that he expresses it in such specific and individual terms suggests that maybe he is not indulging simply in group speak in the way we may think. So how does he answer his own question? He basically tells us that it should not be asked. God, he writes, is free to do whatever he chooses and with whomever he chooses. St Paul isn’t too bothered about human freedom; he is far more concerned about God’s freedom. He knows that humans are not free, we gave up that freedom to become ‘slaves of sin’ a long time ago in our history.

St Paul began Romans by telling us that our problems as a race all began when, although we knew God, we ‘did not honor him as God or give thanks to him’ (Romans 1:21). We will never find the answer to our problems either as a group or as individuals until we are prepared to honour God as God and give thanks to him. The road to salvation begins here.

And yet, still we cling to the idea of our freedom. Why is it so important to us? Speaking for myself, if I were to be given the choice between allowing God to choose for me or having the freedom to choose for myself, I would go with God choosing for me every time. I am not able to get even the simplest of things right. I have trouble controlling my diet, let alone my life. People spend millions of dollars every year going to therapists to get help in understanding themselves and their actions and still they are none the wiser. God, however, knows us better than we know ourselves, and better than we can ever know ourselves.

This doesn’t mean that self-knowledge is unimportant. Quite the reverse, it is vitally important. Unfortunately, however, we don’t want to know the things that really matter about ourselves: that we are separated from God, slaves to sin, dying and destined for wrath; that in us, there dwells no good thing, and that, as a result, we are incapable of doing even the good we may want to do; that our freedom is an illusion and delusion; and that we are subject to powers and forces we cannot see or control.

Instead, we cling to the idea that we make the decisions and call the shots; that we choose who we want to be and that we mold the clay of our being. We ourselves, and no-one else. This pathetic attempt to delude ourselves into believing that we are our own creator is no more than a desperate attempt to assert our independence from God. What’s our problem? Our problem is that we are rebellious and idolatrous. But, and this is what St Paul teaches us in these chapters, even in our rebellion and hardness of heart, God remains in control. That’s what it means to be God.

So how does God make decisions about us? St Paul doesn’t dwell on this question in these chapters as this is not the question he is answering. He does, however, tell us the basis on which God makes his decisions for us who have faith in Christ, and it is mercy. As we will see in the coming two weeks, ‘mercy’ is at the heart of God’s plan for both Jew and Gentile, you and me.

You show mercy to someone who is not in a position to help themselves; to someone who admits their need and pleads for help; to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

God wants to show us mercy, but we will never experience it until we are willing to surrender our pride, abandon our claim to freedom, and honour God as God. This means admitting that we are creatures, that this means we don’t and can’t understand some things, and that we must trust God to do what is right.

Why should we trust him? Because he has shown us what he is like and what his plan for us is in starkest of ways in the death of Christ for us on the Cross. As we look on him who died for us, we see God’s love for us and know with certainty that his plans for us are for good.

We may not be able to answer all the questions, but one thing I know is that left to myself I would be not able to come to know God. I cannot find God; I need him to find me.

Thankfully, I know that in Christ, he has.