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.


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