Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Time to Wake Up

The great enemy when it comes to writing sermons is time, or rather the lack of it, especially when you are preaching every week, as I am at the moment. 

Ideally, time would be spent on reading and preparation, then on producing a written version, followed by some thought being given to delivery and the production of the notes needed for the sermon itself. Then, in an ideal world, the sermon would be recorded and posted online together with a transcription of the sermon as preached as well as the written version for those who wanted to take time over it. 

Most weeks, however, it is only possible to complete part of this process or to complete it inadequately. The written version is normally something that doesn't get finished!

This week for the sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, however, I have managed to complete a written version.  So, instead of the transcription, here is the longer written version. The actual preached sermon can be heard at the link below!

Time to Wake Up

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 13:8-14

Last week, we saw how St Paul teaches the need for us to love and for that love to be real. He tells those he writes to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

What follows immediately after this in Romans 13, then, is something of a surprise. St Paul writes about the need for believers to obey those in authority and to make sure they pay their taxes. He is quite strong in how he puts this. St Paul writes:

‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.’ (Romans 13:1-2)

St Paul goes on to describe those in authority as God’s servants and ministers (Romans 13:4, 6). This is why those he is writing to pay taxes, he tells them.

This is a passage that continues to trouble Christians today. What about when the authorities are not only people we disagree with but are also truly bad people. Surely St. Paul doesn't see them as instituted by God, and surely he doesn't expect us to obey them whatever they tell us to do?

The first thing to be said about this passage is that St Paul was only too well aware that the authorities could be really bad people. After all, he had been on the receiving end of the cruelty of those in power more than once. What is more, he had held them to account when he felt they were in the wrong (see Acts 16:35-40).

This passage in Romans, though, is not our reading today, and as much as I would like to say more about it, I must resist the temptation. What I would say, however, is that the principles that St Paul enunciated in our reading last week apply here as well.

Firstly, we are not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good, and this applies to our relationship with those in authority as well as to anyone else. Secondly, St Paul hasn’t stopped discussing how our love is to be real at the end of chapter 12. He continues his discussion on how our love is to be real on into chapter 13 and into this passage about the governing authorities. The need for us to love applies to the many issues we face in the world that St Paul has said we must not be conformed to, and it applies in the world of politics and government as much as anywhere else.

It is only because we have such a romanticized and sexualized view of love that we don't see the connection with what Paul writes about love in our reading last week and what he writes here in Romans chapter 13 about the governing authorities.

That St Paul has not left off discussing the theme of love at the end of chapter 12 is to be seen in how he continues after this passage in chapter 13. After telling the believers of the Church in Rome to obey the government and pay their taxes, St Paul writes,

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.’ (Romans 13:8)

St Paul tells them in the passage that follows, and which is our reading today, that all the commandments are summed up in the single command to love your neighbor as yourself.

St Paul was accused by some in the Church of teaching that believers didn't have to worry about how they lived and what they did (Romans 3:8). St Paul himself asks the question of whether God's grace, that is, his unconditional love for us, means we should continue in sin? He answers it with an emphatic, ‘No!’ (Romans 6:1,15). He realizes, however, that his teaching could seem to suggest otherwise. As, indeed, could his teaching about the God’s Law. He tells the Roman believers that we have died to God’s Law (Romans 7:1) and that we don't serve God any more according to the written code, but in the newness of the Spirit (Romans 7:6).

So, does this mean that there are no rules? There were those who thought it meant exactly that. The Corinthians, for example, had a slogan, ‘All things are lawful to me’, and they used it to justify all kinds of behaviour, even going to a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

St Paul definitely doesn’t think it means this. He firmly believes that there is behaviour that is absolutely incompatible with a believer’s life in Christ and that if a believer is led by the Spirit in the new life that Christ gives that there are things that they simply will not do. In Galatians, St Paul describes these things as the ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19).

Again, we saw last week that we live between two times, the time of Christ's death for our sins as our Saviour and his return as our Judge. How are we to live in this in-between time? Many then as now lived as if they were asleep, as if they didn’t have to worry too much about how they lived. St Paul calls his readers to wake from sleep. He tells them that the night is far gone and the day is at hand. He urges them to cast off the ‘works of darkness’ and put on the ‘armour of light’ to protect themselves from the darkness.

St Paul gives three examples of the works of darkness that believers are to cast off. The first two are typical behaviours of the night, ‘partying and drinking’ and ‘sexual promiscuity and licence’. The third is different to the other two, ‘quarrelling and jealousy’. The past lifestyle of some of the Gentile members of the Church may well have included partying and drinking and promiscuity and licence in it, as is the case today. Today, however, we may feel that these two types of behaviour are not typical of church members generally! That may be true. But quarreling and jealousy, sadly, have been major problems in the Church from the beginning. It serves as a reminder to us that we should not focus only on certain types of bad behaviour and ignore others.

St Paul closes, firstly, by telling them, using the metaphor of getting dressed, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and secondly, to make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires. They are to so copy Christ and how he lived that they look like Christ, and in living as Christ lived, they are not to satisfy their own desires. The life St Paul calls them to live is the precise opposite of one that makes self-fulfilment its goal.

How are we to apply all this today?

Firstly, it wasn't just in St Paul's own day that people thought that love meant the freedom to do whatever they felt was right. In the 1960s, there was a general rebellion against rules and authority. Many truly believed that ‘love is all you need’. Anything to do with law and commandments, rules and regulations, was to be done away with. We may not put it quite so crassly now, but the belief continues that as long as you do something ‘out of love’ that's what matters.

The question is, however, what is love? It means so many different things depending on who is using it. Ideally, we would find a different word than ‘love’ to use. It is clear that St Paul’s idea of what it is and what many today think it is are very different. Given how the word love is used and understood today, using the word love to describe what St Paul and the New Testament tell us to do simply confuses and even enables conduct contrary to love as the Bible understands it.

For St Paul, love isn't contrary to the Law, it's what the Law was all about and what the Law itself was pointing to. As St Paul has previously explained, the problem wasn’t with the Law but with our inability to keep it. Love represents a different way of achieving what the Law itself was seeking to achieve. If we love, we will do what the Law wanted us to do all along.

For many today, however, love rather than enabling us to fulfil the Law is about me finding fulfilment for myself and satisfying my own desires. If it feels right, do it! If challenged about whether what we are doing is right or not, often the response is to ask how something can be wrong when it feels so right?

As we have seen, St Paul closes chapter 13 by telling us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires. The fact that something feels right is no guarantee that it is right. Indeed, the very fact that something feels right ought in itself to serve as something of an alarm call to us. It should alert us that it may be our own selfish desire, what St Paul calls the desires of the flesh, that is telling us to do something, rather than something that the Holy Spirit is leading us to do.

St Paul writes that love does no wrong to a neighbour. If something we want to do is primarily about what is good for us rather than what is good for others, it is at the very least worth questioning and reconsidering.

Secondly, as well as an emphasis on ‘love not law’ there has been a general feeling that the Church has been too negative in the past. It was, many claim, too concerned with telling people what they should not do rather than being positive about what they should do. This sounds good in theory, but it has led to people not being sure that there is anything they shouldn’t do. What we should or should not do has now largely become a matter of individual choice with no-one’s choices being either wrong or better than anyone else’s.

St Paul is far more robust and realistic. He tells us we are to cast off the works of darkness. Having surrendered to the prevailing cultural climate, we in the Church have failed to tell people both what these works are and why they need to cast them off. The works of darkness are not only wrong in and of themselves, they hurt and damage both ourselves and others.

Let us take the works of darkness that St Paul gives in our reading this morning by way of example. Firstly, as we all know, alcohol is a real social problem. A lot of crime and violence is caused by drinking and drunkenness. As are broken families and domestic abuse. Secondly, sexual permissiveness has become the norm. But did you know that STIs are at an all-time high? How many people on any one day in the US have an STI? The answer is 1 in 5. That figure is from the Centers for Disease Control. Now you may say that’s the US. AIDS Concern, however, did a survey amongst young people in Hong Kong and discovered of those they surveyed that 17.5% of the girls had had an STI. We are very selective about the diseases we let affect our behaviour, don’t you think? Thirdly, I think we can all agree that envy and jealousy can lead people to do things that harm others, but they also harm the person who is envious and jealous. Envy and jealousy add to stress and anger, which are closely linked to several illnesses. Anger itself is a risk factor for heart disease and long-term stress harms the immune system and has been linked with several forms of cancer.

It may sound to our ears today that St Paul is being negative and opposed to anyone having a good time and enjoying themselves, the reality is that the desires of the flesh lead to destruction, disease, and death.

When St Paul tells us to put on the armour of light, he is not only telling us what we should do instead, he is telling us how we can protect ourselves from the darkness, that, after all, is what armour is for. But if you are going to put the armour on, you first need to take the clothing of darkness off, which is why St Paul closes our passage with the metaphor of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ and making no provision for the flesh.

Our goal as believers is to become Christ-like. Sometimes when people like me talk about love it sounds all very abstract and unreal. For the believer, love is not an abstract concept. Love is a person. If we want to know what love looks like, we look at Jesus and if we want to see the right way to live, we look at Jesus. Our goal in life is to become like him. We are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.

May God grant that each of us puts on the Lord Jesus Christ and becomes more like him.


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