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.


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