Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of the second sermon in my series of sermon on St Paul's letter to the Church at Philippi.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

In the sermon last week, we saw that St Paul’s dominant emotion in thinking about and praying for the Philippian believers was ‘joy’. He uses the word joy in its various forms sixteen times in the letter. In our reading this week, however, he asks the Philippian believers to ‘complete his joy’. His joy over them is real, but it is not unalloyed. 

While the Philippian Church does not seem to have had the problems that some of his other Churches had, there do, nevertheless, seem to be one or two clouds hanging over it. We get some idea of the nature of these clouds from what St Paul writes in chapter four. He writes:

‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel …’ (Philippian 4:2-3)

The phrase St Paul uses here, ‘be of the same mind’, emphasizes something he says throughout the letter. In chapter one, for example, he tells the Philippian believers to strive ‘side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel’ (Philippians 1:27). He begins chapter two by asking them to complete his joy by being of ‘the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’ (Philippians 2:2).

What all this suggests is that there was some conflict in the Church at Philippi over personalities. The disagreements between Euodia and Syntyche, and between others in the Church, are not serious enough for St Paul to have to write at length about them in the way he writes, for example, about disagreements in the letter to the Church at Rome. The quarrelling he writes about in the letter to the Church at Rome is ‘quarrelling over opinions’ (Romans 14:1). Here in the Church at Philippi, the quarrelling seems to be more about ‘quarrelling over personalities’.

Speaking as a pastor, I would say that most of the conflict in churches is caused by conflicts that are more to do with personalities than opinions. The conflicts that occur are often presented as arguments over matters of principle, but, at their heart, there is often something else far more fundamental that has to do more with the inability of people simply to get on with one another.

In Church, we talk a lot about doctrinal and ethical issues, far less about relational ones. Our Lord, on his last night with his disciples before his death, gave them an example and teaching about what he wanted their relationship with each other to be like. In order to do this, as they arrived for their last meal together, he famously took on the role of a slave and washed their feet. He then said to them:

‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord - and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 12:13-15)

In a Church, as in any human group, there are people who like to be looked up to and admired. They want to be leaders. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having leaders; the Church needs them. The issue is what type of leadership the Church should have. It is interesting that it is only in the letter to the Philippians that St Paul refers to leaders in a formal sense. He addresses the letter not only to the ‘saints’ in general, but also to the ‘overseers and deacons’ (Philippians 1:1). There seems to be some competition between the various leading personalities in the Church at Philippi. St Paul is anxious that it should end.

In this, he is echoing the words of Jesus. On one occasion, our Lord tells his disciples when they argue over who should have the best positions in the Kingdom:

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:25-28)

These passages and others like them are often read at ordination services of the clergy. Far easier to read them then and get them out of the way! Despite our Lord being so clear about the nature of leadership in the Church, we still persist with forms of leadership and church organization that are modelled on those in the world around us. We cannot be surprised then when they result in the same problems that we see in the world around us and when church leaders behave as the Gentiles do.

Leaders are, however, expected to set an example in what it means to be a leader in the body of Christ. St Paul, in chapter two, points to the example set by two leaders known to the Church at Philippi that showed what true spiritual leadership should be like. First, in chapter 2:19-24, St Paul describes how he has no-one working with him like Timothy. The others, he writes, all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. Then, secondly, St Paul describes how Epaphroditus, himself a member of the Philippian Church, came close to dying in the work of Christ. Epaphroditus was, St Paul tells them, prepared to ‘risk his life’.

But it is not just leaders that are expected to live sacrificially. Leaders are expected to set an example in the way St Timothy and St Epaphroditus did, but we, as members of the Church, are expected to copy it. And this is what St Paul urges the Philippian believers to do in our reading this week. Using words that St Paul will take up in the letter to the Roman believers, he tells them to ‘do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit’, instead, ‘in humility’, they are to ‘regard others as better’ than themselves (Philippians 2:3). They are to think of others and not just themselves.

In this letter to the Philippian believers, St Paul uses the Greek word for ‘mind’ in its various forms ten times in four chapters. In the letter to the Romans, he uses it thirteen times in sixteen chapters. In Romans, we saw how, after explaining various aspects of his understanding of the Gospel, he urges the Roman believers not to be ‘conformed to this world’, but to be ‘transformed’ by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2).

Having a renewed mind means thinking in a new way. One of those new ways St Paul describes in both letters. It is that believers are not to think of themselves ‘more highly than they ought to think’ (Romans 12:3). In chapter 8 of the letter to the Roman believers, St Paul writes that the ‘mindset of the flesh is death’, but that the ‘mindset of the Spirit is life and peace’ (Romans 8:6).

How we think as believers matters. This is a major theme in the letter to the Philippians, and we will see more of what St Paul has to say about it as we progress through the letter.

You may have heard the phrase, ‘What would Jesus do?’. Some people wear this phrase, or the letters ‘WWJD’, on bracelets and necklaces. It is seen as a way of approaching difficult decisions and problems. Here, however, St Paul urges the Philippian believers to consider how Jesus would think. This is not simply about what Jesus would think about individual issues, which is also important, but about what Jesus’ outlook and attitude would be. We are to ask ourselves, ‘HWJT’, how would Jesus think? It is to do with our mindset and our worldview in general.

This is so important today when the Church and its members are increasingly adopting a worldview and mindset which owes more to the world around it than it does to Jesus and the Spirit.

I am stressing this particularly because there is the temptation with this week’s reading to focus on the amazing words St Paul writes in our reading about our Lord and who he is. And they do tell us a lot about who he is, but these words about our Lord follow St Paul’s command to the Philippians to make his joy complete by being of the same mind. The mind they are to have is the mind of Christ. These words about our Lord focus not so much on who he was, they rather take that for granted, but on what he did and what happened as a consequence. We are to think like Jesus and act accordingly.

Our Lord was in the ‘form of God’. His position could not have been more exalted, but he ‘emptied himself’ and took the ‘form of a slave’. He became ‘obedient unto death, even death on the Cross’, and, for people at the time, there was no more shameful death than crucifixion.

That his followers should themselves be prepared to empty themselves and become servants was a constant theme in the teaching of our Lord. He said explicitly:

‘The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Matthew 23:11-12)

Jesus taught that those who humbled themselves would be exalted as he himself was to be and as St Paul goes on to describe. St Paul has written about his own suffering, suffering which the Philippian believers themselves experience and share in. This suffering is not to be avoided, but to be embraced. St Paul tells them that God has ‘graciously granted them the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well’ (Philippians 1:29).

The reason that we can embrace suffering and service is because our Lord embraced it. He promises, that if we follow his example, then we too, like him, will be exalted and experience the glory of God.

Until that Day, Jesus tells us that in following him we are to ‘deny ourselves and take up our Cross’ (Matthew 16:24). Our experience of suffering and opposition is a part of what is involved in taking up our Cross and following Jesus. This is what it means to ‘work out our salvation with fear and trembling’, as St Paul commands later in chapter two (Philippians 2:12). As we do so, it is God who is at work in us to enable us both to ‘will and to work’ the way he wants us to (Philippians 2:13).

As followers of Christ, we are to live lives that are radically different to that of the society in which we live. We are not only to be different, we are to stand out as different. St Paul tells the Philippian believers that they are to do this:

‘ … so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.’ (Philippians 2:15)

Light both attracts and repels. Our hope is that our lives will so reflect the character of Christ that people will be drawn to them and come to know Christ for themselves.

Some will, but others will be repelled and try to black out the light as they did with Christ and as they are trying to do with St Paul at the time he is writing this letter. This St Paul describes is ‘evidence of their destruction’, but of the believers’ ‘salvation’ (Philippians 1:28). All this will come to completion on the ‘day of Christ’ when, if we are faithful, then like St Paul, we will be able to boast that we did not ‘run or labour in vain’ (Philippians 2:16).

One of my biggest frustrations is how we as a Church are often little more than a religious charity. Even the causes we espouse and those we promote are those which are the political and social fashions of our day. To read the church press is just to read the secular press with some religious words thrown in. We are not radically different; we are boringly the same.

This wouldn’t be so bad if, alongside our desire to appear relevant, we were also prepared to challenge society’s values when they contradicted those of the Gospel. We are, however, frightened that if we were to speak out, then not only would we not be listened to, we might find that our seat at the table of power is taken away. Or, worse still, that those with power might turn on us and oppose us. Our obedience to the Gospel might even lead to death!

St Paul describes the world much in the same way that our Lord does: as ‘crooked and perverse’; its opposition to the Gospel as a sign of its destruction. What are we doing to counter the crooked ways of the society we live in? In what ways are we resisting the perversity of the ideologies of our age that are so ruthlessly promoted in our culture? How are we, as St Paul puts it, ‘striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the Gospel’ (Philippians 1:27)?

The message of St Paul in our reading this morning is one that people today particularly need to hear. The Gospel challenges our obsession with ourselves and with our desire to promote ourselves. Jesus showed that the path to glory lies not in self-fulfilment, but in obedience, suffering, and sacrifice.

We like to think that we are accountable to no-one but ourselves: ‘I am enough’. But here’s the thing: ‘You’re not’. I would really recommend a new book by Allie Beth Stuckey, ‘You’re not enough (and that’s okay). Escaping the toxic culture of self-love’.

Because that’s what the culture we are living in is: a toxic culture that promotes the lie that we are enough. The lie that we don’t need anyone, least of all God, only for us to discover that we are not enough. Tragically, when we discover our inadequacy, and we will, all too often we find ourselves alone with no-one there to help us pick up the pieces of our own self-destructive behavior.

The good news of the Gospel is that when we run out of faith in ourselves, Christ is there inviting us to put our faith in him instead. It is only when we are free from ourselves that we become free to be ourselves. To be, that is, the person we can become in Christ. For it is when we humble ourselves that we find ourselves exalted and when we become obedient unto death that we find the life that only God in Christ can give.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.  This week, I begin a new sermon series on Philippians.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Philippians 1:21-30

Having finished our series on St Paul’s letter to the Romans last week, we are beginning this week a new series on St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippi was a city in Macedonia that had the status of a Roman colony. Philippi had been at the turning point in Roman history. It was here in 42BC that Octavian and Mark Anthony fought Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, at the battle of Philippi. Octavian and Mark Anthony won. Octavian went on to defeat Mark Anthony, and to establish himself as the Emperor Augustus. The Republic, which existed before, was now dead. In 27BC, the Emperor Augustus renamed the city, Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis.

But Philippi was important for a far more important reason than one to do with who ruled human empires. Philippi was the first city in Europe where the Gospel was preached by Sts Paul, Silvanus, Timothy and their companions on what is misleadingly known as St Paul’s second missionary journey. St Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, was it seems, one of these companions.

The story is an interesting one. St Paul and those accompanying him had reached Troas, a city on the Aegean Sea, having been prevented from preaching the Gospel up until this point. At Troas, St Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia who pleaded with him saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia, and help us. (Acts 16:9).’ They immediately, St Luke tells us, set sail and arrived at Neapolis, the port of Philippi. They then travelled some nine miles inland to Philippi itself.

In the letter to the Church in Rome, St Paul wrote that the Gospel is the ‘power of God for salvation to the Jew first, but also to the Greek (Romans 1:16)’. This was not only a theological statement; it was a missionary strategy. When he could, St Paul always began his preaching of the Gospel with the Jews. There was, however, apparently no synagogue in Philippi. On the sabbath, then, they went looking for a ‘place of prayer’. In other words, somewhere that Jews might gather to pray when there weren’t enough people to form a synagogue. They came across a group of women gathered by the river outside the city. They sat down and spoke to them. In other words, this was a deliberate decision to share the Gospel with them. I’ll let St Luke take up the story:

‘A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.’ (Acts 16:14-15)

I think it is interesting that it was a man in St Paul’s vision who asked for his help, but it is a woman who first responds to his preaching. This is significant because, as we shall see, women play a major role in the Church at Philippi, as indeed they did generally in the Churches that St Paul established. This challenges the popular picture of St Paul as being something of a woman-hater. The truth is rather that women played an important part in his work. Lydia became a patron of his work at Philippi as Phoebe did at Corinth.

Not everyone in Philippi was as receptive. The full story is told in Acts chapter 16. Suffice it to say that after a night in prison, St Paul and the others have to leave Philippi. It was, however, the beginning of a significant partnership. The Philippian believers and the Churches of Macedonia seem to have supported St Paul without causing him the sort of problems he had with many of his other Churches. Philippi supported him practically sending him money for his work. This is something that St Paul acknowledges and is thankful for in the letter. He writes

‘You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.’ (Philippians 4:15-16)

Indeed, it is because of he has received a gift of money that the Philippians have sent to him with Epaphroditus, a member of the church at Philippi, that St Paul writes this letter. If the letter to the Church in Rome is St Paul’s pitch to the Roman believers for support for his planned mission to Spain, the letter to the Philippians is St Paul’s ‘thank you’ to the Philippian believers for their support for the work he is doing in the Aegean region.

St Paul, when he writes the letter, is in prison for preaching the Gospel. Despite being in captivity, however, he tells the Philippian Church that his imprisonment has actually helped to spread the Gospel (Philippians 1:16). The reason why he has been imprisoned has spread throughout the place where he is imprisoned. But where is that exactly? Traditionally, it has been thought that St Paul is in prison in Rome, and so this letter would have been written after the letter to the Roman Church. This is still the view of the majority of commentators. It is not mine!

St Paul is described in Acts as having been imprisoned on three separate occasions: overnight in Philippi, for two years in Caesarea, and then again for another two years in Rome. There were, we know, many other imprisonments. St Paul alludes to one of them in the letter to the Church in Rome (Romans 16:7). As his imprisonments in Caesarea and Rome both occur after he wrote the letter to the Church in Rome, he must be referring to a different imprisonment not described by St Luke in Acts.

There were others also as we know from what he writes in 2 Corinthians (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23). Again, as the letters to the Corinthians were also before his imprisonments in Caesarea and Rome these too must be imprisonments that we don’t the details of.

St Luke doesn’t tell us everything that happened to St Paul, and he doesn’t try to. He is just giving us an outline of St Paul’s ministry and some episodes from it. Much else happened in St Paul’s life and ministry that we do not know about, including various times spent in prison.

So where were these other imprisonments? We don’t know for certain, but a good candidate for one of them is Ephesus. We know from what St Luke does tell us how St Paul had big problems there with those who wanted to get rid of him. In 1 Corinthians chapter 16, St Paul writes from Ephesus:

‘ … for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.’ (1 Corinthians 16:9)

Having left Ephesus, he later describes his time there:

‘We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.’ (2 Corinthians 1:8)

This had led some scholars to suggest not only that St Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus for a time, but that it was from there that he wrote the letter to the Philippians. I think they are right. Philippians ‘fits’ really well into this time in St Paul’s life and work. In 1 Corinthians he writes about having fought ‘wild beasts in Ephesus’ (1 Corinthians 15:32). This is probably not meant to be taken literally, but it does at least indicate serious opposition. Wherever St Paul was, however, we know from what he writes that his life was threatened.

If, then, Philippians was written from Ephesus, when was it written? If it is from an imprisonment in Ephesus, it would mean it was written before the letters to the Corinthians and the subsequent letter from Corinth to the Romans. The letter to the Romans was written about AD57-58. This would mean the most likely date for the letter to the Church at Philippi, if the imprisonment is in Ephesus, would be in the mid AD50s.

The letter itself begins, ‘Paul and Timothy …’ (Philippians 1:1). It was customary for a letter to begin with the names of those whom the letter was from. St Timothy, we know, had been with St Paul when the Philippian Church was established, and he was well-known personally to the Philippian Church.

I feel a little sorry for St Timothy. He is completely over-shadowed by his more famous mentor. He was, however, a significant figure in his own right in the early Church and in the Pauline mission as St Paul himself tells us. He was frequently entrusted with work to do on St Paul’s behalf and accompanied him on his travels. St Paul tells the Philippians that he is planning to send Timothy to them soon (Philippians 2:19).

As well as accompanying St Paul, St Timothy is named as the co-sender of six of the thirteen letters that are attributed to St Paul in the New Testament (1 and 2 Thessalonians; 2 Corinthians; Philippians; Colossians; and Philemon). He is mentioned by name in two others (Romans and 1 Corinthians), and two are sent to him personally (1 and 2 Timothy). That leaves only Ephesians, Galatians, and Titus where he is not named in some way. St Timothy is even named in the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:23). We don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, but whoever it was, the author expected his readers to know St Timothy!

St Paul pays tribute to St Timothy in this letter to the Philippians:

‘I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.’ (Philippians 2:20-22)

Apart from reminding us of the importance of people like St Timothy in the history of the Church, this also should help rid us of another misconception about St Paul’s ministry. St Paul is often pictured as something of a lone ranger, working as a pioneer on his own, preaching the Gospel and single-handedly establishing churches. Based on this image, St Paul is also frequently described as someone it was hard to get on with and who didn’t have many friends as a result. St Paul has to work on his own, it is suggested because he was hard to work with.

It may suit his detractors to describe him like this in order to undermine the force of some of what he writes. But like the picture of him as a woman-hater, it couldn’t be more wrong. St Paul had many who worked with him and who were willing to risk their lives for him. Prisca and Aquila, for example, whom, as we saw, he greets in Romans chapter 16, were two of them. He also names many more who worked with him. Here in Philippians, he names four of his ‘fellow workers’. As well as St Timothy, there are: Epaphroditus; Syntyche and Euodia, both women; Clement; and unnamed others he pays tribute to. The Philippians themselves he describes as partners in the Gospel (Philippians 1:5).

St Paul was the leader of the mission and an outstanding servant of Christ, but he was not alone, and he didn’t work alone.

This ought to make us think about whether we have as inclusive a model of ministry today. One that allows for the ministry of outstanding individuals, but one which does not leave God-gifted individuals to labour alone, and which recognizes different people and different gifts in ministry.

In writing to thank the Philippian believers for their financial support brought to him by Epaphroditus, St Paul tells them of his circumstances. He also, however, has heard of some conflict in the Church at Philippi between two of his fellow-workers. He has probably heard this from Epaphroditus, and he wants in his letter to the Church to deal with this conflict and bring it to an end.

Last week, we read in Romans how St Paul tells the Roman believers that they are to ‘welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions’ (Romans 14:1). Quarrelling and conflict over opinions does, of course, happen in churches. Far more common and just as divisive, however, is quarrelling over personalities. St Paul, as we shall see as we go through the letter, in seeking to end the conflict between different individuals at Philippi writes about this issue as well.

There are in fact some interesting links between Romans and Philippians, which is, of course, what you would expect given they are by the same author. However, if Philippians was, as I believe, written before Romans, we see some of the ideas that are present in Philippians being developed in Romans.

Here in chapter one of Philippians, St Paul is explaining how he feels about the prospect of being sentenced to death. He writes what is a famous sentence:

‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.’ (Philippians 1:21)

He goes on to say that he is hard pressed to know which is best for him, living or dying, but as it is better for the Philippian believers that he remains alive, this is what he expects to happen. His point, though, is that whether living or dying, he finds meaning and purpose in Christ.

Our reaction to this is to think that while this may be how people like St Paul feel and think, it is not how ordinary believers like us see things. St Paul, however, believes that this way of thinking should be central to every believer’s life and conduct. He tells the Philippians:

‘Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ …’ (Philippians 1:27)

As we go through the letter in the coming weeks, we will explore in more detail what St Paul means by this. For now, it is important to note that St Paul takes his desire to live or die for Christ as the starting point for his advice to the Philippian believers on what should be their own motivation for how they live.

We may think that St Paul is primarily thinking of how we would behave if we were to find ourselves in a situation where, like him, we were on trial for our faith. Would we be willing to die rather than deny it? He is, in fact, thinking primarily of everyday life and ordinary situations, and this is how he develops the idea in the letter to the Church in Rome.

Last week, we saw how St Paul tells the ‘strong’ that they should be prepared not to eat meat and eat only vegetables, if that helps the ‘weak’. He explains how every believer should approach life as a follower of Christ. He writes:

‘We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.’ (Romans 14:7-8)

In reality, it is often easier to be faithful when we are up against it and facing extreme danger. It concentrates the mind. It is much harder to live out our faith in the trivia of everyday life. So, if told by those in authority not to go to Church, we are confronted with a stark choice, and we at least know what we should do. But how do we behave when we are involved in quarrelling over opinions in the way St Paul describes in the letter to the Church in Rome or over personalities in the way, as we will see, was happening in the Church at Philippi?

It is one thing to stand for our faith when openly challenged; another altogether to live it out in the day to day challenges at home, at school, or at work. In these situations, we find ourselves focusing on what we want, rather than on what Christ wants. Sometimes, it can be easier to die for Christ than it is to live for him.

But for the believer, St Paul tells us, living for Christ means living Christ. There are no breaks, rest days, or holidays. It is a 24/7 affair.

This makes being a follower of Christ sound difficult. That’s because it is, and because being a follower of Christ is not at all like how it is presented in most Churches. Following Christ is all too often presented today as being about having a special friend who is always there for you, so that you don’t have to worry about how you live; someone whom you can call upon whenever you need him and whom you know will always come running.

Instead, St Paul describes a very different life: one of suffering, striving, and struggling. In Romans, St Paul makes it plain that suffering is not an optional extra in following Christ (Romans 8:17). Here he says the same thing. He tells the Philippians:

‘For he (God) has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well …’ (Philippians 1:27)

Most of us do not see suffering as a gift, but St Paul is only repeating what our Lord himself told us when he said we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). All this makes being a follower of Christ hard and demanding. It sounds like a miserable existence.

But here’s the thing: it is hard and demanding, but it is not miserable.

St Paul is in prison, he is in real danger for his life, even fellow believers are deliberately acting in such away as to add to his suffering in his imprisonment, and yet what word does he continually use in Philippians to describe how he feels? It is the word ‘joy’. He uses the word ‘joy’ in its various forms sixteen times in Philippians.

St Paul begins the letter by saying how he prays ‘in joy for everyone of them’ (Philippians 1:4). Even though some believers are seeking to add to his suffering, he still ‘will continue to rejoice’ (Philippians 1:18). And although he personally desires to die to be with Christ, he feels sure that he will stay to help them in their ‘progress and joy in the faith’ (Philippians 1:25). He will have more to say to us about joy as we progress through the letter.

How to define joy? It is not the same as happiness; that feeling we get when everything goes our way, or when we do or get what we want. Joy is the certainty of knowing that whatever happens, however good or bad it may be, nothing and no-one can take away from us the most amazing gift of all, the gift of Christ himself. A gift so amazing and overwhelming that what then matters most to us is no longer the passing pleasures of this world, but that we may, as St Paul expresses it, be ‘pure and blameless for the day of Christ’ (Philippians 1:10).

We will, of course, fail at times. We will struggle, and we will meet opposition, not necessarily the sort of opposition that St Paul faced, but opposition, nevertheless, from those whose values and worldview are radically different to those of Christ. However, rather than being discouraged when such opposition comes, we will instead see it, as St Paul encourages the Philippians to see it, as confirmation of our ‘salvation and that from God’ (Philippians 1:28).

So how are we doing? Has Christ become such a part of our lives that St Paul would pray in joy for us? Is it really that what living means for us is Christ? St Paul challenges us to ask ourselves how real and how personal our faith is and how committed to it we are.

May our hymn this week then also be our prayer:

‘Take my life, and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to thee;
take my moments and my days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.’


Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity. This is the last sermon in this series!  Next week, I am planning to start a new series on Philippians.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 14:1-12

St Paul begins chapter 14 of Romans with the word, ‘Welcome’. Then again in chapter 15, he tells the Romans believers that they are to:

‘Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ (Romans 15:7)

We begin every service at Christ Church with a welcome. In days sadly now past, we used to begin each service with the notices, the first of which was always a welcome to all present, and to any newcomers or visitors in particular. We have maintained this welcome in our Broadcast Services. It is important, and it is sincerely meant. All are welcome to join us Christ Church, and we are glad you are here.

St Paul, however, while also meaning this when he tells us to ‘welcome one another’, means more than this. And to understand what that more is, we need to understand why on earth St Paul finishes a letter as important and as serious as Romans by talking about vegetables. He introduces the subject in chapter 14 by writing:

‘Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.’ (Romans 14:1-2)

At first sight, it might be thought that St Paul is about to discuss whether or not we should become vegetarians. Whether we should or not, that, however, is not what he has in mind. Those he refers to who eat only vegetables are not vegetarians as such. These particular ‘vegetarians’ are Jewish believers, and Jewish sympathizers, who want to live according to God’s Law and who are worried that the meat generally available is ‘unclean’ according to the standards of God’s Law and, therefore, not to be eaten. Because of the uncertainty of whether it is or not, it is easier for them simply not to eat meat at all.

That it is Jewish believers that St Paul has in view is confirmed by what St Paul goes on to say in chapter 14 about how ‘some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to alike’ (Romans 14:5). A concern to keep the Sabbath and observe the food laws of God’s Law were, along with circumcision, something that distinguished and separated Jews from everyone else in the ancient world.

This issue of whether it is alright for believers to eat meat is one that St Paul has encountered before only in another context. This was an issue he has had to deal with in the Church at Corinth, the place where he is writing the letter to the Romans from. The issue at Corinth, however, was somewhat different than here in Romans.

The ‘weak’ in Corinth were Gentile believers who had previously been involved in pagan worship. Much of the meat available in Corinth had previously been offered in sacrifices to idols. The weak believers in Corinth still thought that idols were real, and were in danger by eating such meat of falling back into idolatry.

The ‘weak’ St Paul is referring to in the letter to the Romans, however, are Jews who had become believers and who still wanted live according to God’s Law. St Paul draws upon what he has previously said to the Corinthian believers in what he now says to the Roman believers.

In chapter 13, St Paul has written of how ‘love does no wrong to a neighbour’ and that ‘love is the fulfilling of the Law’ (Romans 13:10). The loving thing when it comes to eating meat is for the ‘strong’, that is, those who don’t have a problem with eating meat of any kind, to take into account the feelings and scruples of the ‘weak’. Here, in Romans, this is those who don’t want to eat anything forbidden by God’s Law.

Our own reaction to this, of course, is to identify with the strong and to wonder what all the fuss is about. We get what St Paul is saying about being considerate and taking other people’s feeling into account (whether we do it or not is, of course, another matter), but, seriously, vegetables and eating meat … really? Is this really a fitting conclusion a letter as important as Romans?

I have been careful so far not to say that this was actually an issue in the Roman Church itself. Commentators are divided on this. Some think that this was THE issue in the Roman Church and that it is the key to understanding both why St Paul wrote the letter to the Romans and to what he writes in it. I have to say that I just don’t see it. Others think St Paul is just writing in general terms about an important issue, but not about one that was particularly a problem in the Roman Church. However, that doesn’t explain why he devotes so much space to it, and it would, quite literally, take up space on the scroll it was being written on – valuable space at that.

So why does St Paul write in this way? St Paul has devoted a lot of space so far in the letter to the Jewish-Gentile question. This has been in the background of all that he has written, coming to the foreground in chapters 9–11. Again, this is not an issue we are much interested in today, so we sort of just forget it once we get to chapter 12. St Paul, however, has not forgotten it.

St Paul has written at length in the letter about circumcision, God’s Law, and the place of ethnic Israel in the plan of God, all of which are issues that affected the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the Church. There is only one issue that he hasn’t yet dealt with, and now he does so in order to bring the letter to a conclusion. The reason he leaves it until the end is perhaps because having begun the letter with the unity and equality of Jew and Gentile in sin, he wants to finish with an issue that threatened the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ.

We need to remember that while the issue of ‘unclean’ meat is not that big a deal to us, it was to Jews then and, indeed, still is for observant Jews today.

The Syrian King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes from 175BC to 164BC subjected the Jews in Israel to a rule of tyranny, during which he tried to make them abandon their religion and adopt Greek ways. Many did. Others refused and suffered terribly because of it. Mothers who had their babies circumcised had their babies murdered and hung around their necks. Antiochus didn’t stop there. He tried to make the Jews eat ‘unclean food’. The first book of Maccabees tells us:

‘But many people in Israel firmly resisted the king's decree and refused to eat food that was ritually unclean. They preferred to die rather than break the holy covenant and eat unclean food—and many did die.’ (1 Maccabees 1:62-63)

The issue that St Paul is writing about in these chapters was not for Jews a matter of ‘opinion’, but a matter of life and death.

Food is pretty fundamental to our lives. We are becoming more aware of the importance of what we eat both in terms of our own individual health and of its the consequences for the health of our planet. But the importance of food lies not just in what you eat, but also in whom you eat it with.

Believers in places such as Rome and Corinth would have met in relatively small groups in different houses. St Paul refers specifically to one such group in Rome meeting in the house of Prisca and Aquila (Romans 16:5). We know that when believers met as a Church in groups, they met to eat (1 Corinthians 11:17-22). The Lord’s Supper in the early Church was a real meal with food and wine. Enough wine, in fact, for people to be able to get drunk (1 Corinthians 11:21)! If each of these groups were made up of people of like mind when it came to what it was right to eat, then a group that ate only vegetables would find it hard to meet with a group that ate anything. If the groups were mixed, it would be even more of a problem.

Now we may feel that the answer would be, as it is today, for believers to eat or not eat what they want. Like today when we go out with friends where some are meat eaters and some vegetarians. The vegetarians have one menu; the meat eaters another. But for Jews, and for many Jewish believers, it really wasn’t just about what you ate, it was very much also about who you ate with.

Eating together is a sign of friendship and acceptance. It is today; it was so even more in the first century. Our Lord you will remember was criticized by the Pharisees for ‘welcoming sinners and eating with them’ (Luke 15:2). Our Lord by eating with ‘sinners’ demonstrated that he truly welcomed and accepted them.

When St Paul tells the Roman believers to welcome those ‘weak in the faith’ and to ‘welcome one another’, he is insisting that unity in the Church matters and that believers must not let this issue divide them. They must not let it prevent them ‘welcoming’ each other to their meetings.

St Paul writes of the need for both the weak and the strong to respect each other. However, drawing on what he wrote to the Corinthian Church, he tells them that it is the strong, who eat anything, who should take the lead in making fellowship possible by not eating meat, if that is what it takes. He tells them:

‘Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.’ (Romans 14:19-20)

Although they may disagree on some of the details, most commentators basically see this as what St Paul wants to teach on this issue. And I am sure that we are right to hear this message in what St Paul writes. Unity matters in the Church, and we need to be prepared to make sacrifices for it. I am not, however, happy with this as a full explanation of why St Paul is writing about this issue here in the letter.

We began looking at this issue by arguing against the view that this was an unimportant issue, and while we have acknowledged that it was important for some in the Church, we are in danger of concluding that St Paul tells the Roman believers that this was an unimportant issue after all, and not one worth worrying about and certainly not worth dividing the Church over.

St Paul certainly doesn’t think it should be allowed to prevent believers ‘welcoming one another’, but I think that it is all a bit more complicated than that.

If, as many believe, St Paul is dealing with a pastoral situation that actually existed in the Roman Church, one in which the strong who ate meat despised those who did not, and those who didn’t eat, judged those who did, he goes about it in a rather strange way. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Firstly, St Paul throughout what he writes on this issue, labels the Jewish believers ‘weak’ and the Gentiles ‘strong’. These are terms that would be deeply offensive to many in the Church. Those that St Paul labels ‘weak’ certainly would not have seen themselves as weak. In the first place, they were doing what they believed that God had told them to do. This isn’t dietary advice from a lifestyle magazine, but commands in the Law of God given by God.

In the Scriptures, it is Daniel, a prophet of God, who eats only vegetables and who refuses to drink wine rather than risk compromising his faith while in exile in Babylon (Daniel 1:8-16). That’s Daniel of the Lions’ Den fame! This is not someone that you would normally think of as weak. There is even a Sunday School song holding up Daniel’s strength as an example for us to follow: ‘Dare to be a Daniel,’ it urges us. But here St Paul uses a word for those who do dare to be a Daniel that elsewhere is used to describe someone who is ill!

Now this could just be an unfortunate choice of words except that St Paul doesn’t just see the weak as weak. He writes:

‘We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak …’ (Romans 15:1)

The weak aren't just weak, they have 'failings', that is, they have a deficient understanding.

Secondly, there is some real role reversal going on here. One of the reasons that Jews refused to eat meat in the ancient world was because they couldn’t be sure it had been slaughtered in the way prescribed by God’s Law. Another was that they didn’t want to eat meat that had previously been offered in pagan sacrifices: ‘food offered to idols’ as it is more commonly described.

In Corinth, a Church dominated by the strong, St Paul is anxious that the strong should not lead the weak into sin. He is worried that if the weak are encouraged to eat meat offered to idols, they may be led back into idolatry. There he defines being weak as having a weakness for idolatry. Abstaining from meat, then, rather than being about being strong in keeping God’s Law, is associated with being weak and even having a tendency to idolatry.

Thirdly, in case anyone isn’t sure about where he is coming from on this, St Paul spells it out, he writes in no uncertain terms that the strong are right and the weak are wrong. He writes:

‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.’ (Romans 14:14)

The weak are genuine brothers and sisters in Christ, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they are wrong. St Paul is sure of that, but the strong need, nevertheless, to humour the weak – ‘put up with their failings’ is how he expresses it – and not ask them to go against their conscience, even if they are wrong. For them it is ‘unclean’, even if it isn’t really.

Pastorally, if your goal is to bring two differing groups or individuals together, this seems a dangerous approach. In Romans 14 and 15, St Paul argues that believers are not to pass judgement on each other (14:4, 13); they are each to be convinced in their own minds (14:5); they are to seek peace and mutual upbuilding (14:19); they are to be careful not to do anything that will hurt their brother and sister (14:20) or cause them to stumble (14 21); they are not to please themselves (15:1); they are, instead, to build up their neighbour (15:2).

This is all good conciliatory stuff, but then, St Paul has to go and spoil it all by describing those who eat only vegetables as weak, wrong, and failing. The weak are the last people to think they are weak. They think they are the ones who are strong by eating only vegetables! They are, therefore, more likely to see St Paul’s words to the strong as patronizing rather than reconciling.

Most of the Roman believers may not have known that St Paul uses a word to describe the Jewish believers that he has previously used to describe those with a weakness for idolatry. However, at least two of the leaders of the Church in Rome would have known. Prisca and Aquila, for example, were with him when he wrote to Corinth using it to describe believers there. If the Jewish believers in Rome found out that was how he had previously used a word he is now using to describe them, they would be unlikely to be very happy about it. Surely St Paul would realize this?

All this suggests that ‘eating meat’ is not a major issue in the Roman Church itself. If it is, then given how he expresses himself, St Paul can forget any support he hopes for from those he describes as weak!

So, what is going on?

As I have said frequently throughout this series of sermons, we need to remember what St Paul writes earlier in the letter. In Romans 11:11-32, St Paul addresses the Gentiles in the Roman Church directly, and warns them in the strongest possible terms not to be arrogant. I don’t know whether the Roman believers heeded the warning, but as I have said, it is a warning the Church in the future was to ignore. One of the more obvious ways that Gentile arrogance was likely to show itself was in this issue that St Paul is writing about in Romans chapters 14 and 15, which makes it such an appropriate way to bring the letter to a conclusion.

In warning against any possible arrogance on the part of Gentile believers by ignoring the dietary sensitivities of some Jewish believers, St Paul wants at the same time to protect the Roman Church from a problem that he personally has had recent and painful experience of and a problem which he has had to face constantly throughout his ministry. It is a problem caused for him by Jewish believers. In fact, by those he describes as weak! It sometimes goes unnoticed how St Paul actually ends Romans. It gets lost in all the personal greetings. St Paul writes at the end of chapter 16:

‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil. The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.’ (Romans 16:17-20)

St Paul is referring here to Jewish believers who themselves, out of a commitment to a particular understanding of God’s Law in the life of the Church and believer, refused to eat with Gentile believers who didn’t share the same approach to God’s Law. There may well have been ‘weak’ believers in Rome, but there can’t have been that many if St Paul feels able to write in the way that he does without having to worry about causing offence himself. St Paul knows, however, that the Roman Church does indeed face a challenge. It is the same challenge that faces him everywhere he goes and which he has just had to face at Corinth.

In Philippians, which we will looking at in the next series of sermons, St Paul warns one the Churches closest to him, in ironic way, of those whose ‘god is their belly’ (Philippians 3:2). He also writes to the Colossians:

‘Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.’ (Colossians 2:16)

St Paul knew from bitter experience that his opponents in attacking him demanded that Gentile believers obey God’s Law by being circumcised, if they were men, by keeping the sabbath, and by observing the food laws, which effectively meant not eating meat. St Paul has rejected this demand as contrary to the Gospel. He has explained how instead believers have become one in Christ by dying to God’s Law and its requirements. Believers fulfil the Law now not by only eating vegetables, but by loving one another.

At the same time, St Paul wants to guard against Gentile arrogance and make possible fellowship between a weak Jewish believer who still keeps the Law and Gentile believers who do not. This is to be achieved not by Gentile believers insisting on their rights in the Gospel, but, again, by loving their Jewish brother and sister in Christ.

In seeking to establish a basis for fellowship between Gentile and Jewish believers, St Paul does so not by surrendering the truth of all that he has written about Christ fulfilling the Law, but by arguing that when it doesn’t affect the truth of the Gospel, believers should be prepared to do what is best for their brother and sister in Christ. In so doing, he makes it clear that those who keep the food laws are ‘weak’ people, who need to be put up with, and that anyone insisting on keeping the food laws as a requirement for believers are just wrong and false teachers.

By tackling the issue in this way, St Paul seeks to protect the Church in Rome from the false Gospel that is often preached by those who insist on believers observing the food laws and not eating meat, while also guarding against any arrogance on the part of Gentile believers that may prevent unity and fellowship in the Gospel.

St Paul concludes both his discussion of this issue, and indeed his explanation of his understanding of the Gospel, with a wonderful passage in Romans chapter 15 that includes this verse:

‘For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.’ (Romans 15:8-9)

St Paul began our reading this week by telling the Roman believers to ‘welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions’. He closes the letter by telling them to avoid those who ‘cause dissensions and offenses in opposition to the teaching they have learned’. There is a real tension here. How are we to know who to welcome and who to avoid?

We hear much today about inclusivity and diversity, about the need to be welcoming and accepting. We hear somewhat less about the need to ‘keep an eye’ on people and, if need be, to ‘avoid them’.

St Paul would tell us to welcome anyone, whatever their opinions, who in faith is obedient to the Gospel as he has explained it in this letter. He would tell us to avoid anyone who comes trying to divert us from that obedience.

St Paul was committed to bringing about the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5; 16:26) through his preaching of the Gospel of Christ. He wasn’t ashamed of the Gospel because he knew it was ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, but also to the Greek’ (Romans 1:16).

The ‘obedience of faith’ is both the obedience which is faith itself and the obedience that comes from it. St Paul has explained how we are all are ‘slaves to sin’ and how only through faith in Christ can we be ‘enslaved to God’ instead. We will all one day, St Paul tells us in the reading this week, ‘appear before the judgement seat of God’. ‘Every knee shall bow before him and every tongue shall give praise to him.’ And ‘each of us will be accountable to God.’

St Paul sought to be accountable to God as a ‘slave of Christ’ and as an ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ . He lived the ‘obedience of faith’. May we follow his example and do likewise in our own service of the Gospel.

Having, then, explained his understanding of the Gospel to the believers in Rome, St Paul’s hope now was that the Church in Rome, united in faith, would support him when he went to preach this Gospel in Spain. I just wish we knew whether he actually made it there.

I really hope he did.

‘Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.’ (Romans 16:25-27)


Sunday, September 06, 2020

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

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

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Romans 13:1-7

The passage before us in Romans 13:1-7 is one that has been both misunderstood and misused in the past. It has been used to justify obedience to the cruelest of regimes and by those regimes to justify complete control over their subjects. The idea of obeying a ruler because their authority comes from God is one that does not sit easily with present day notions of how political power should work in modern democracies. Today, we believe in the ‘divine right of democracies’ in the way in the past people have believed in the ‘divine right of Kings’. Both I believe are wrong. To justify the absolute right of a ruler using this passage is to misuse it, but also wrong is a rejection of such authority in the name of modern ideas of ‘freedom’. St Paul would find both approaches unacceptable.

To try and understand what St Paul, in this passage, commands us to do, we need first to ask why he wrote it and why he wrote it here. This question is not so easy to answer as we might think. St Paul has been writing about how believers in Rome should live as those ‘being transformed by the renewing of their minds’ (Romans 12:2). Romans 13:8, about how ‘love is the fulfilling of the Law’, and what follows in the rest of chapter 13, follows on very well from the end of chapter 12. So well, in fact, that some have even argued that this passage about being ‘subject to the governing authorities’ wasn’t even written by St Paul and wasn’t originally part of the letter. They argue that it has been added at a later stage. There is, however, not a scrap of evidence for this, and it is rightly rejected by most interpreters of the letter.

These verses from Romans chapter 13, in any case, are not so out of place as at first they may seem. In Romans chapter 12, St Paul gives examples of what a transformed life should look like, including the need for believers not to seek revenge, but to leave ‘vengeance’ to God. Believers are not to be overcome by evil, but to ‘overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21). It is with this thought that St Paul leads into our passage this week. St Paul is answering the implied question of how evil in this present world is to be dealt with if believers are not to respond to it in kind. Is evil to be allowed to go unchecked?

The answer that St Paul gives is that God himself checks evil through those who exercise political power. Those in authority are put there, St Paul writes, by God, and are, therefore, ‘ministers of God’. As ministers of God, the only right thing for a believer to do is to be subject to them. ‘Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed,’ he writes (Romans 13:2). What is more, any who do resist will ‘incur judgement’. Notice that St Paul says we are to be subject to them not that we are to support them or agree with all they do and say. It is possible to be subject to them without approving necessarily of what they are doing.

Even with this proviso, the first response, of course, to this is always to see the problems. ‘What about tyrannical governments that oppress and abuse those under them?’ There are many examples that come to mind, and they hardly need listing. In recent years, we can think of many examples from Hitler and the Nazis to Stalin and the Soviet Union with plenty of others to go with them. This week in the news, we have been hearing about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in Russia with all fingers pointing at President Putin. Are believers to see such a ruler as the ‘minister of God’? The simple answer is, yes.

Many in an attempt to get, as they see it, St Paul off the hook for such a shocking answer argue that St Paul is not talking about rulers in general. They point to the fact that, at the time St Paul is writing the letter, Nero had recently come to power and, at the beginning of his rule, there were grounds for optimism and for thinking that he would be a good and benevolent ruler. That, of course, is not how it turned out, but some suggest it is this optimism that leads St Paul to write about rulers in such glowing terms. One of the leading commentators on Romans goes as far as to write:

‘Paul does not envisage the possibility of either a totalitarian or a tyrannical government or one failing to cope with the just rights of individual citizens or of a minority group.’ (J. A. Fitzmyer, Romans)

I find it incredible that anyone could come to such a conclusion. We need to remember that St Paul describes himself as a ‘slave’ of someone who was crucified by the very government that he is now telling believers to be subject to (Romans 1:1). St Paul, we know, has previously been imprisoned by those in authority. In Philippi, he was imprisoned unjustly, albeit for just a night (Acts 16:16-40). But there were other imprisonments that we do not know the details of, including one he refers to in chapter 16 (Romans 16:7; 2 Corinthians 11:23).

While the imprisonments in Caesarea Philippi and in Rome were still ahead of him, and while he wasn’t to know that he would be murdered in Rome by the very authority he tells the Roman believers to be subject to, he was hardly ignorant of the Roman authorities’ capacity for cruelty and tyranny. And yet, he can still tell the Roman believers that the authorities that exist have been ‘instituted by God’ (Romans 13:1). How can he say this if he knows how awful the authorities can be? The answer, I think, lies in his understanding of both human nature and the power of God.

Human nature he has described at length in Romans. Again, as I have said many times in this series of sermons, St Paul expects us to remember what he has written before in the letter. He couldn’t be clearer that human nature is sinful. All are under the ‘power of sin’; there is ‘no-one who is righteous, no not even one’ (Romans 3:9-10). This includes both those in authority and those under them. Humans left to themselves will always be true to their character. They cannot help themselves. They must be restrained and regulated. They need someone to control their impulses to evil: those, as St Paul puts it, who are a ‘terror not to good conduct, but to bad’ (Romans 13:3).

That those who govern are themselves of the same character, that is, sinful and unrighteous, would be frightening were it not for the fact that God is able to bring good out of evil. St Paul, as a devout Jew who knew the Scriptures, knew that throughout Israel’s history God had shown himself to be the one who controls all the nations upon earth, so that even when rulers are at their most evil, even then their evil serves his purpose. God, for example, used the pagan ruler, Cyrus, as his ‘anointed’ to get his people back to the promised land (Isaiah 45:1) just as he had used Pharaoh before him to fulfil his purposes. Neither of them was a particularly nice ruler. St Paul has already explained how God is in control in answer to a different question in Romans chapters 9-11. There he writes:

‘So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’’ (Romans 9:16-17)

These verses give a clue as to where St Paul is coming from in his attitude to those in authority. Believers today have very much allowed themselves to be caught up in the political ideologies and agendas of this age. This is often for the very best of reasons, but the result is a fatal compromising of what should be the mission and priorities of the Church. Incredibly hard though it is for us today to accept, the mission God has given the Church is not to work for democracy, human rights, or even social justice in this world, but to seek the salvation of people from it by proclaiming the Lord’s name in all the earth, so that people may call upon it: ‘For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord,’ as St Paul tells us, ‘shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13).

In the interest of full disclosure, I need at this point to say that this is not how most Church leaders, teachers, and theologians see it. I realize that what I am saying is something of a minority opinion. There is not the time for me to go into what the majority opinion is, but you will have no trouble finding it out. In fact, simply listen to or read what most Christian leaders are saying or writing at the moment, and it will immediately become clear. I would, however, just comment that there is an irony here.

One of the things that gets said time and time again by church leaders is that in the past the church has allowed the Gospel to be identified and corrupted by whatever has been the prevailing culture. So, for example, western missionaries during the time of the British Empire are condemned repeatedly today for spreading the cultural and colonial attitudes of the west as much as they spread the Gospel.

I don’t deny for one moment that this happened. But what do those in the Church who make this criticism think is happening at the moment by how they are allowing the Gospel to be identified with the social justice movements of our day? The so-called ‘colonialist’ missionaries sincerely thought their ideology was good, true, and even Biblical in the way that present day social activists think theirs is too. We are all children of our age, which is precisely why St Paul tells us that we are not to be ‘conformed to this age’, but to be ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’.

Those in the Church who adopted a colonial mentality in the past were wrong to be conformed to the thinking of their age as are the social activists of our own age. What all ages have in common, apart from their sin, is the need for those who live in them to be saved. Which brings us back to one of the reasons that St Paul wants order and government to work in this world, even if it means God using sinners to provide it. In 1 Timothy, chapter 2, St Paul writes that

‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Many believe that St Paul is writing this from prison in Rome some years after he wrote the letter to the Romans. If this is the case, there can be now be no possibility that he is under any illusion about what Roman authority is like. However, rather than criticizing those in authority, he instead urges ‘prayers’, and even ‘thanksgivings’, for them, so that believers can get on with their lives in a ‘quiet and peaceable’ way. He suggests that this is related to God’s desire for people to be ‘saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’. God’s desire is to be our desire, and it is this desire that is to motivate us too in prayer and mission. The precise form and system of government by which God uses sinners to control sinners, so that this can happen, is not, in the first instance at least, to be our main concern.

This, I know, is not only unpopular, but even offensive to many. I apologize for any offence, but the New Testament does call for believers to take a different view of the world than the one that is dominant in most Christian thinking in the present. The dominant thinking today is that Christians should be involved in and engaged with the society in which they live. I would suggest that the New Testament instead demands that believers should be both separated and detached from it. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it:

‘For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13:14)

Or, as St Paul puts it, writing from prison to a Roman colony:

‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

This urgent emphasis on the priority of salvation explains, I think, why St Paul includes this passage about being subject to the governing authorities here in the letter. Let me explain.

St Paul will go on in chapter 13, again as we saw last week, to tell the Roman believers to ‘wake from sleep’ because their salvation is nearer now than when they first believed (Romans 13:11). St Paul will also tell the Romans at the end of the letter, in chapter 15, what his plans for the future are before salvation comes.

St Paul describes how he has preached the Gospel, which is the ‘power of God for salvation’ (Romans 1:16), from ‘Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum’ (Romans 15:19). He makes it his aim, he tells them, never to preach where ‘Christ has already been named’ (Romans 15:20). At the time of writing, he is planning to go to Jerusalem before setting out to Spain by way of Rome (Romans 15:28). As an apostle to the Gentiles, he wants the Gentiles in Spain to hear the Gospel. You will remember that he is hoping that Rome will provide him with support for his mission to Spain.

This all seems straightforward enough. For St Paul, however, there is the worry that there is the danger that it may not be quite as straightforward as perhaps it seemed. In AD49 the Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome. The reason for this expulsion, the Roman writer Suetonius tells us, is that they were rioting over one ‘Chrestus’ (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4). Many scholars think this is a reference to ‘Christ’. Whether it is or not, we know that the expulsion affected Jewish believers too.

It was because they had been expelled from Rome that St Paul, when he arrived in Corinth in about AD50, first met Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who were to become two of his closest associates (Acts 18:2). Priscilla and Aquila went with him when he left Corinth and went to Ephesus (Acts 18:18). He left them at Ephesus to engage in preaching the Gospel, while he first went back to Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts 18:19).

All attempts at dating have to be tentative and approximate, but this would be about AD52-55 if we follow the chronology of Acts. Aquila and Prisca, to use St Paul’s version of her name, are still with him when he writes 1 Corinthians, which was towards the end of his time in Ephesus. He tells us that there is a Church there that meets in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19). At some time before St Paul went again to Corinth, where he is writing the letter to the Romans, Prisca and Aquila returned to Rome. We know this because he greets them at the end of the letter in chapter 16 (Romans 16:3). They are the first of the people St Paul knows in Rome that he does greet, and he describes them as his ‘fellow-workers’. He also greets the ‘church in their house’.

It is, then, perhaps not unreasonable to think of Prisca and Aquila as a sort of advance guard sent to Rome to get things ready for St Paul in the way they had at Ephesus. It is possible that he was planning for them to go to Spain with him. Whatever his plans may or may not have been, they didn’t work out as he hoped. Nevertheless, St Paul is, at the time of writing the letter to the Romans, working on the assumption that he is heading for Spain (Romans 15:23, 28).

The last thing St Paul needs, however, is any trouble in Rome before he sets out to Spain. He needs the situation in Rome to be stable. In other words, he needs the believers to be able to live the quiet and godly life he writes about in 1 Timothy, and which he urges believers to pray for those in authority to make possible by maintaining law and order.

Roman authority, however tyrannical it might at times be, and sometimes it could be very tyrannical, did, at the very least, maintain law and order. Rome, whatever its faults, by providing strong and ordered government, made it possible for the Gospel to spread in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without it. We are, then, to give those in authority the money they need to enable them to fulfil their ministry. As St Paul puts it:

‘For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.’ (Romans 13:6)

We are, then, to pay taxes ‘to whom taxes are due’. Or, as our Lord puts it: ‘we are to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). We recognize the authority’s usefulness in creating the conditions for preaching the Gospel by restraining evil, but we don’t expect them to be very good at promoting righteousness, or as we may put it today, social justice.

Finally, then, although this passage raises some challenging questions, it was never intended by St Paul to be the final word on how believers are to relate to those in authority. He recognizes the legitimate God-given role that those in authority have, and he wants to make sure that the Roman believers recognize it and honour it. We shouldn’t, however, make him say either more or less than he says here.

Are we then to have no concern about life in this world and simply wait until the next? Of course not, whenever we have the opportunity, we are to work ‘for the good of all, and especially for those who are of the family of faith’ (Galatians 6:10). But we are to realize that the good we can do in this world is limited by the very nature of the world itself and of those who live in it. Rather, then, than seeking to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, we are to pray for day of its coming and, in the meantime, to model it in the Church.

As always, our Lord provides the example to us of how we should relate to those who exercise political power in this world. When he appeared before Pilate, our Lord remained silent at the accusations made against him, Pilate says to him:

‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ (John 19:10)

Jesus’ reply is the ultimate put down of the arrogance of those who wield political power in this world. He replies to Pilate:

‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above …’ (John 19:11)

Silence in the face of power is the exact opposite of what we are encouraged to have by many in the Church today. We are instead urged to speak out against injustice and to make our voice heard. Jesus’ silence, however, spoke louder than any words. Jesus and St Paul recognize that the power earthly rulers have comes from God, and by recognizing it, relativize it: God, not Caesar, is in control.

The irony is that those most critical of those who exert political power in this world are often the very ones who most seek it for themselves. It is, however, not for us as followers of Christ to seek the overthrow of those who exercise power in this world nor are we to seek it for ourselves, but, instead, we are to demonstrate, by who we are and who we serve, a different way. As believers, we reject the pretentiousness of power and the pomposity of those in this world who exercise it, not by rebelling and rioting against it, but by modelling a radical alternative to it. Jesus said to his disciples:

‘You know that the rulers of the pagans lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’’(Matthew 20:25-28)

The problem with political power is that it is not powerful enough. It is powerless to change the human heart or to bring salvation. How sad, then, that we continue to prefer it to the real spiritual power that our Lord gives to his disciples: the power to forgive or to retain sins (John 20:23). In this week’s Gospel reading, our Lord tells his disciples that ‘where two or three are gathered’ in his name, he is there among them (Matthew 18:20).

We may be tempted by the Devil’s offer of all the kingdoms of this world if we but ‘fall down and worship’ him. It is, however, when two or three gather in Jesus’ name that the Ruler of all is in our midst and through his presence with us, even now here in this world, we experience the Kingdom that is to come.

Maranatha. ‘Even so, come Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20).