The First Sunday after Trinity 2023
Facebook group members will know that my original intention for the next few weeks was to preach on St Matthew's Gospel. Over the past few years, I've preached sermons going through St Mark's Gospel, St Luke's Gospel, and St John's Gospel. It was my intention to preach this year through St Matthew's Gospel. However, as you will have noticed, our second reading as we enter the season of Trinity is from Romans. And we're going to be reading through Romans for our second reading from now until the middle of September, September 17th, to be precise. So, I have decided instead to preach on Romans!
I am not quite sure why the readings start today at chapter four of Romans, but the fact that they do means that this week I can introduce Romans and then start properly on Romans next week, because Romans chapter five, verse one is a much more natural place to start if you're not going to start at the beginning.
Well, if you do the maths, this means there's about 13 Sundays when we'll be having readings from Romans. And you may think, oh my goodness, that's a lot of sermons on Romans. If you are thinking like that, can I just mention Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, who was the minister of Westminster Chapel during the 20th century? On October 7th, 1955, he began a series of sermons on Romans on a Friday night. They attracted 500 to 600 people. Those were the days! He finished preaching on Romans twelve and a half years later, having preached 372 sermons. They've been edited and transcribed, and they're available to buy in 14 volumes.
So if you think 13 sermons isn't quite enough, you can go and get Martin Lloyd-Jones's sermons. Many of them are available online to listen to as well. If you do think I'm getting off a little bit lightly, I intend to do a series on a few chapters of Romans for Lent 2024. Whether or not we get anything like 500 people to them, I rather doubt.
St Paul's letter to the Romans is 7,114 words. St Paul averages 4,134 words in his letters. Seneca's longest letter is 2,495 words, so quite a bit short of the 7,000 plus words of Romans. St Paul's letter to the Romans, then, is long. But it's not long as we would think long. You can read it in a few minutes. It's shorter than a lot of reports that I'm sure many of us have to read in the course of our work. Although it is not long by our standards, the scholarly literature on Romans is immense, far beyond any one person's ability to get on top of. It's very easy, when seeing all that's been written about Romans, to feel bewildered and overwhelmed Because there are many different and conflicting interpretations of what St Paul meant by what he wrote in his letter to the Romans, scholars will argue at length even over single words.
Well, faced with all this, we need to remember that St Paul originally sent his letter to a church composed of many who were poor, illiterate, and uneducated. But he expected them to understand what he wrote. St Paul wrote Romans from Corinth in the winter at the end of the AD 50s. He spent three months there at Corinth before he went on to Jerusalem. So he had time to think and time to write. As he wrote, he wrote having been active in ministry as an apostle for some 25 years. He had already established churches in Galatia, in Philippi, in Thessalonica, in Corinth, in Ephesus, and these are just the ones we know about. What we have in Romans, then, is the mature reflection of somebody who had been engaged in ministry for a considerable period of time. The question is, of course, why did St Paul send the letter to Rome?
St Paul did not found the church in Rome. It wasn't even an associate of his who had established the church there. Indeed, as he sends the letter to Rome, he has to apologise for not having visited Rome before. So why go to all this trouble to send such an important letter to people many of whom he didn't know and a church which he had never visited? Well, the answer is that St Paul felt he had finished the work God had given him to do in the east of the Roman Empire and that he was now being called by God to go to the west of the Empire and specifically to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28).
St Paul's hope is that Rome will supply him with the material resources he needs for that mission to Spain and will also give him a base to work from. This reminds us, firstly, that St Paul wasn't the real founder of Christianity. Sometimes you hear people say that it was St Paul who founded the Church, or that St Paul was the second founder of Christianity. Well, it's true he was a major apostle. He founded many churches. But there were several churches he didn't establish. He didn't establish the church in Jerusalem, the church in Antioch, the church in Alexandria, the church in Rome, and others besides. St Paul was important, but not perhaps quite so significant as some people think.
Secondly, St Paul wasn't a lone ranger. He wasn't somebody who just went off on his own to do his own thing. He always worked in teams. In Romans 16, he sends greetings to people in the church in Rome whom he did know; people he had worked with in the past. Many of them are women. And this reminds us that St Paul wasn't hard to get on with.
You often hear people say he was a very difficult person to get to know. No, he wasn't. The people that he greets in Romans are people he's been imprisoned with, people he's been close to death with. And it also reminds us that he wasn't a misogynist; he wasn't someone who disliked women. The person who delivers the letter to the Romans to Rome and the person who first reads it out, because they wouldn't have been able to read it for themselves - there would have only been one copy to begin with - the person who reads the letter out to the church in Rome and the person who first teaches on Romans was Phoebe, a woman. We know that tells us in Romans chapter sixteen verse one.
Well, in Romans, St. Paul explains how, as an apostle to the Gentiles, he sees his mission to the Gentiles. He is sharing his understanding of the Gospel with them, so that they will know what it is they're getting into if they support him and get behind him in his mission to Spain. Now it was necessary for him to do this because there was significant disagreement in the Church over the Gentile mission. We forget that Jesus came unto his own, that is, he came to Jews, to the Jewish people. After Jesus' ascension, the church reached out to pagans, to Gentiles. But this raised questions over which there was a lot of argument, because Jesus hadn't left any guidance as to the basis upon which Gentiles were to be admitted to the church.
St Paul and the early church all agreed on the fundamentals of the faith. They agreed that the Scriptures were inspired by God. They agreed that God was the creator of the world and that he had sent his Son into the world. They agreed that Jesus had died, had risen, and had ascended. They agreed that Jesus had died for our sins. They agreed that we should worship around a common meal. They agreed on the sending of the Spirit and that the Spirit was active in their midst. All the things that we today would say in the Creeds, they largely would have agreed on. They might not have agreed on it in the same detail as we now have it, but they would have been united in the basics of their faith.
The problem was, what did this Jewish message about a Jewish Messiah mean for people who weren't Jews? Fundamental to the Church's faith was that Jesus was the Christ. So fundamental was it that the title ‘Christ’ became Jesus' name. Jesus the Christ became Jesus Christ. But what did it mean for a pagan to confess faith in a Jewish Messiah? And what did pagan Gentiles have to do when they did confess faith in this Jewish Messiah? Did they also have to keep God's Law as God had revealed it to his people in the Scriptures? Well, the obvious answer as many people saw it was, yes, of course the Gentiles had to keep God's commandments. Of course they had to keep God's Laws. Others said, well, yes, they do have to keep God's commandments, but there are some things that God asked us Jews to do that they don't have to do. So the answer is yes and no.
St Paul, however, said, no, they don't have to keep God's commandments; they don't have to keep God's laws. And that was controversial. St Paul's position eventually won the day, and we now accept it without question. So we don't keep the Sabbath holy; we do work on it. We do eat pork, at least most of us do. We do wear garments, perhaps are now wearing garments, of more than two fabrics. These are all things that are forbidden in the Old Testament Law. Men who become Christians today don't feel the need to be circumcised. So when Bishop Timothy leads the confirmation service in the Autumn, he won't be asking a doctor to conduct a physical examination of the men to make sure they're circumcised. As parents, we don't feel that as well as getting our children baptized, we also have to circumcise our sons.
But God said to Abraham that any male who wasn't circumcised could not be a member of the people of God (Genesis 17:14). So where did that leave the pagans, the Gentiles who were becoming members of God's people? The point is, St. Paul couldn't take Rome's support for his mission for granted. He had to explain himself, and he had to explain his understanding of what the Gospel meant for pagans. Well, his three months break in Corinth gave him the chance to explain in a careful and systematic way how he saw the Gospel for Gentiles.
He begins by telling the Roman Christians that he's looking forward to his visit to preaching the Gospel in Rome. And he's looking forward, he says, because the Gospel is the power of God to salvation to all who have faith to the Jew first but also to the Greek to the pagan to the Gentile. The reason he says the Gospel is the power of God to salvation is because in the Gospel is revealed the righteousness of God and it is revealed ‘ by faith for faith’(Romans 1:17). And St Paul will spend quite a lot of time in Romans explaining what he means by this.
Now when we hear that the Gospel is by faith, for faith, we probably don't have a problem with that. But for the first Christians who were Jews, the righteousness of God was revealed in the Law for people who kept the Law. Yes, they believed in Jesus the Messiah, but that didn't mean that they didn't also have to keep God's Law to be righteous. And people who didn't keep God's Law, by definition, weren't righteous. But St Paul says, no, the righteousness of God, what God wants, is by faith for faith.
Now, while we today probably don't think that ‘by faith for faith’ is too controversial, we may find the reason that St Paul gives for saying it's by faith for faith somewhat more disturbing. In the first four chapters of Romans, St. Paul explains why we need the righteousness of God by faith, and he explains why we all, without exception, need it.
Firstly, he says we need the righteousness of God because we as as human beings are unrighteousness. He begins his account of his Gospel, not with the love of God, but with the wrath of God. ‘For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven’, he writes, ‘against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of human beings who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth’(Romans 1:18-19). I don't know if you're one of those parents who produces portfolios for your children. In them you display, quite rightly, certificates showing their achievements as well as pictures of them doing what they love and what they're good at. And you submit them as a way of showing the school that you're submitting the portfolio to a feeling of what your child is like, what the child looks like as a person. As adults, we do it with a CV when we apply for a job. We list all our achievements, all our skills, and so on and so forth, to show future employers why they would be stupid not to employ us.
St Paul in the first chapters of Romans does that with the human race. Only the portfolio of the human race is one of failure, wickedness, and rebellion against God. St Paul says that human beings are dead in sin, disobedient to God, and as a consequence doomed under the judgment of God. In other words, St Paul concludes that the human situation is a desperate one. There is none who is righteous, no, not one, all have sinned, he writes, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:10, 23).
‘Diversity, equality, and inclusiveness’ are the key words of our generation. Companies all want to make their mission statement DEI: diverse, equitable, and inclusive. St Paul begins his account of his Gospel by saying the Gospel meets that criteria. It meets that criteria because no matter who we are, we are all equal in sin, and all alike included under God's judgement. We are equal in sin and facing the wrath of God. All alike; no exceptions.
Now, St Paul doesn't write all this to make the Romans feel bad and he doesn't write it to make us feel bad, although, it has to be said, if we haven't felt bad, then it's unlikely we have ever understood the Gospel. All are sinners, all need saving, all can only be saved the same way. And to be saved we need to be righteous, but no one is. So we need the righteousness of God. We are ourselves are not righteous, we need God's righteousness. St Paul writes that the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel through faith for all who have faith, not just the Jew but also the pagan. Which pagans? All pagans! The Gospel is through faith for all who have faith.
Having explained this in chapters one to three, St Paul, in our reading today in chapter 4, gives the example of Abraham. Now this is a key example because the Jewish people saw Abraham as the father of the people of God, and St. Paul agrees that Abraham is the father of the people of God, but says St Paul, the people of God are those who share the faith of Abraham and those who trust in God in the way Abraham trusted in God. And crucially, writes St Paul in our reading, Abraham had faith in God before he was circumcised and before he did anything that could be counted as good. He trusted in God while still ungodly, unrighteous and as a sinner.
And so to be part of the people of God, people who look to Abraham as their father, St Paul writes, we need the same trust in God and in God alone that Abraham had. Now St Paul will go on in Romans, as we will see, to unpack the implications of this and to answer the questions which he knew would arise from it. But he wants to make sure that we all have understood from the word go what it is he's saying.
The Gospel is for all who have faith in Christ, but it is only by faith, not by works, not by good works, not by works of the Law, not by keeping God's commandments, but solely by trusting in God and in what God has done for us in Christ. This, says St Paul, is the Gospel he is going to Spain to preach. This is the gospel he wants the Roman Christians to get behind. All of which is great. But the problem for us with all this is that it's not how we think today.
I don't think many of us worry too much over whether we're righteous or not or whether we keep the Law or not. I doubt that many of us worry about whether or not God is going to punish us or not. Not only is the language that St Paul uses not our language, his concerns are not our concerns. Preachers like me attempt to put what St Paul has written into the language of our day. We try to show why his concerns should be our concerns. But we're hampered by all the arguments there are over what St Paul meant and by the divisions in the church historically over what he meant.
It is no wonder that people say, isn't it all too much trouble? Ross, you'd been better to have stuck with St Matthew! At least there are some good stories in the gospels. But St Paul writes that the Gospel is the power of God to salvation. Well, this makes it something that matters. It also means that the Gospel is not just another creed that we believe in or code that we follow. It is something we can have confidence in, but it is also something we ignore at our peril.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus says that he has come not to call the righteous but sinners. And St Paul tells us, that's you and that's me. So hearing the Gospel message to sinners isn't just a nice idea, something to do on a few Sundays in 2023. What we are dealing with is a message that St Paul claims is absolutely relevant to us, to our life, and to our our future. Jesus said he came to call sinners. It is in the Gospel that Jesus calls sinners to him today. And so Paul tells us that the call of Jesus can be answered by having faith and trust in him, by trusting that he will heal us and forgive us our sins in the way the woman with the hemorrhage trusted, that simply touching his cloak would give her healing.
Our faith can make us well too. We are, of course, free to turn away like the Pharisees did. We are free to get on with other things we think more important and find more interesting. But if we like St Paul, believe that the Gospel is the power of God to salvation, we will want more than 13 sermons. 372 sermons won't be enough because we will want to make absolutely sure we have understood it and have responded to it.
St Paul writes, ‘I'm not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation, to the Jew first, but also to the Greek, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, by faith, for faith’.
May we be amongst those who have faith and are saved.