Monday, September 25, 2023

United in the Truth

While I have no idea how long I am going to be able to keep it up for, I have again managed a written version of the sermon for this week!  This week, the written version is much longer than the sermon and has significantly more material in it.  It is for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.  The link below is to the recording of the sermon itself.

United in the Truth

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Romans 15:1-13

Last week, we looked at how St Paul deals with an issue that was preventing different groups of believers in the church in Rome from getting together with one another. This was not just an issue in Rome but was an issue more generally in the early church. The historical and cultural context of the issue was the different backgrounds of the believers in the early church.

Those Jews who had become believers had previously had a lifestyle based on God's Law. This Law regulated all of life, including what a person could and could not eat. Those who were from a pagan background had had no such limitations on their diet.

A major question, then, was how much believers who had previously been pagan in their lifestyle should adopt God’s Law once they had become believers and what the status of the Law itself was now that the Messiah had come.

St Paul's spends quite some time in the letter to the Roman believers explaining his own position. He states quite clearly that all believers, both Jew and Gentile, have died to the Law and that they no longer serve God according to the ‘written code’ (Romans 7:6).

St Paul would be expected, therefore, to think that the food laws no longer applied to the believer and that all food could be eaten. He did think that, but, in a surprising turn in Romans 14 and 15, St Paul also argues that if someone believed they should go on keeping the food laws, as some did at Rome, then they could do so, as long as they did not judge those who did not keep them. St Paul states the principle that whatever a believer does is to be done to honour the Lord, and if someone eats in such a way that is honouring to God, then they should be left alone to get on with it (Romans 14:5-9).

Furthermore, St Paul also argues that those who don't keep the food laws, those he calls the ‘strong’, should voluntarily give up their right to eat anything they like and not eat meat, if by their not keeping the food laws and eating meat, they cause harm or grief to those who do (Romans 14:21).

St Paul believes that the question is not what people may or may not eat, but whether they accept one another or not. He urges them to accept one another, so that together with one voice they may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 15:6-7).

Many people today have a very distorted view of the Apostle Paul. He is often seen as having been very dogmatic and inflexible. St Paul certainly was firm in what he believed, and he could be uncompromising when he needed to be, but one of the most fundamental things he believed in was the unity of believers in Christ and the need to preserve that unity as much as possible. He lived by that truth, and he possibly died for it.

St Paul tells us in chapter 15 that at the time of writing the letter to the Roman believers, he was preparing to go to Spain to preach the Gospel and that he intended to visit the Roman believers on the way. St Paul informs us, however, that, before this, he intends to visit Jerusalem to deliver the money he has collected for the church there (Romans 15:22-29.

St Paul tells the Roman believers to accept one another. He is not sure, however, that when he gets to Jerusalem whether he himself will be accepted by the believers in the church at Jerusalem (Romans 15:31). St Paul was right to be worried. When he gets to Jerusalem, St James, who is the leading figure in the church there, together with the other leaders of the church, tell St Paul they are pleased with all that he has achieved in his mission to the Gentiles so far. They are, however, far more concerned by what people are saying about St Paul and his attitude to God's Law and the effect it may have on their own mission to the Jews. They are worried what the consequences of a person with St Paul’s reputation coming to Jerusalem may have for them in Jerusalem and beyond. They say to St Paul:

‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.’ (Acts 21:20-24)

In what must be one of the worst pieces of advice in church history, the leaders in Jerusalem suggest that St Paul goes to the Temple to take part in a Jewish ritual to show his respect for the Law and to demonstrate that what the Jewish believers have heard about him is not true.

St Paul acts in the way he told the Roman believers to act. While he doesn't see any obligation for him to continue to follow Jewish customs and practices, he is willing to do so out of love for his fellow believers in Jerusalem. Through no fault of his own, it all goes disastrously wrong, and St Paul loses his freedom, having almost lost his life in the process.

People are aware that St Paul spent a long time in prison and even that he wrote some of his letters while in captivity. If, though, you ask people why St Paul was imprisoned, the answer you will often get is ‘for preaching the Gospel’. This, however, is not the case. As we have just read, St James and the other leaders of the church had been preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem without any of them being arrested. St James says there were thousands of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and the authorities at the time seemed happy to leave them alone.

The reason, in fact, that St Paul was arrested and imprisoned was not for preaching the Gospel as such, but for attempting to reach out in love to the ‘weak’ in Jerusalem in the way he had told the ‘strong’ in Rome to do. His actions, however, were misunderstood by the Jews leading to the Roman authorities imprisoning him to prevent the Jews from killing him. It appears from what St Luke writes that the leaders of the church and the believers in Jerusalem did little to help him. It is noticeable that there is no mention of the Jerusalem church and its leaders again in the book of Acts after this incident.

St Paul accepted the believers in Jerusalem and reached out to them in love. It is not at all clear, however, that they accepted him. Acting out of love can be costly. It cost St Paul his freedom and nearly cost him his life. It may, in fact, actually have done so. We know that after being taken prisoner in Jerusalem, St Paul spent two years in prison in Caesarea and then a further two years as a prisoner in Rome. We do not know whether after the two years as a prisoner in Rome, he was released or executed.

I said last week that there were three fundamental principles that emerge from what St Paul writes to the Roman believers about accepting one another.

  • that God will grant us the wisdom to know when we need to argue for the truth and the courage to do so
  • that whatever we do will be honouring to the Lord
  • and that in all things we will put the love of others before the love of ourselves

In the letter to the Roman believers, St Paul faces up to the question of the Law and a believer’s relationship to it. St Paul is clear in what he writes to the Roman believers that keeping the Law is not the basis for our acceptance by God; it is no longer the way we serve God; and it is not the means by which God will save us in the future. In Galatians, St Paul is prepared to cause whatever division is necessary to guard what he regards as fundamental truths of the Gospel. As long as these truths were accepted and understood, however, St Paul could live with people voluntarily choosing to keep parts of the Law, as long as they didn't judge those who did not.

Of course, those who kept the Law in St Paul’s day would have struggled with the idea that keeping God's Law could be something that was optional. But St Paul believed that, although he himself did not see the need to continue to keep parts of God’s Law, respecting those who did was, at least, a way that both types of believers, strong and weak, Jew and Gentile, could come together with one voice to glorify God.

This issue was eventually settled not by discussion and debate, but by the events of history. Firstly, by the Jewish War of AD 66-70 and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman army. This ended the leading role of the church in Jerusalem and diminished the influence of Jewish believers in the church more widely. Secondly, and linked to this, issues surrounding the Law became far less of an issue as the Church became predominantly Gentile.

If historically, however, the Church had learnt from this dispute and had adopted the principles that St Paul taught, it would have avoided at least some of the divisions that were later to hinder its mission and to cause it so much damage. Damage, sadly, that is still with us today.

So,what about today?

It is important to see that St Paul can be flexible in his approach to the weak because he knew what he believed and what was essential to the Gospel he preached. It wasn't a case with St Paul of anything goes or that unity comes before everything else. Indeed, St Paul spends the first 11 chapters of Romans establishing how he understands the Gospel and what it means for those who come to know God through it. It is only after having done so that he turns to how what he has said is to be lived out in love.

St Paul believed that it was false teaching about the Law that threatened the truth of the Gospel in the churches he had established. He writes in very strong terms against those spreading this false teaching and warning of its dangers (Philippians 3:2-3). This was by no means the only issue to threaten the church in its early years. In St John’s churches, for example, the truth of the Gospel was threatened by false teaching about the person of Christ, and St John responds to it in the same way and with the same determination that St Paul had responded to the false teaching in Galatia, refuting the teaching itself and urging the church to have nothing to do with the false teachers (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 10).

We can then see a four-step approach in what St Paul writes:

  • recognizing when thinking and teaching is false and presents a challenge to a fundamental truth of the Gospel
  • refuting the false thinking and teaching by a clear explanation of the Gospel truth showing where the false thinking and teaching is wrong
  • warning against the false thinking and teaching and those who are spreading it, urging believers to avoid them where necessary
  • applying the truth that is being challenged in a way that maintains unity and accepts legitimate differences of opinion

St Paul closes his letter to the Roman believers with a passage that often gets overlooked. St Paul warns them:

‘Now I urge you, brothers, to keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and stumblings contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.’ (Romans 16:17)

The Biblical writers are all clear about the need both to recognize and resist false teaching; what in former times was called heresy. But a word of warning! False teaching is not just teaching with which we disagree but teaching that poses a real challenge and threat to the truth of the Gospel. St Paul thought that those who taught that a believer should only eat vegetables were wrong, but he didn't accuse them of false teaching. The church has too often in the past divided over issues that at the time were believed to be about fundamental truths but which, with the benefit of hindsight, can be seen to be what St Paul describes as differences of opinion.

So, with that caution in mind, are there any issues today that we should beware of as a threat to the fundamental truths of the Gospel? I think there are three. There is, however, only the time for me to give one, and then only briefly! I realize, of course, that what I am about to say needs exploring in far greater detail than is possible now.

One of the most serious challenges we face today, I would suggest, is over the issue of human identity. The Bible begins with a very clear assertion about the nature of human beings. The Bible teaches that human beings are created by God in the image of God:

‘So God created humans in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)

Not only the man in the image of God, nor only the woman, nor even simply the man and the woman individually, but both together, so that the image of God is to be found in a proper relationship and mutual interdependence between man and woman. This means a recognition of the equality of men and women, but also a recognition of the difference. It is an equality and difference that is not abolished in Christ but affirmed.

This enables us, I think, to recognize the error of those who, for example, are at present teaching both transhumanism and transgenderism. Human identity, we need to teach is not to be found in an assertion of human autonomy and freedom but in an acceptance of God's plan for his creation, a plan which involves maintaining that God created us as man and woman in the image of God.

This will be interpreted differently by different people in the Church when applied to the roles of men and women in the Church and society. For some, for example, male and female roles will look very traditional. For others, there will be a desire to explore new ways of expressing what it means to be a man or a woman in Christ.

It is here in the area of interpretation and application that there is a need for love and acceptance. What, I would suggest, there is no room for is the idea that we are free from all constraints to choose whom we want to be. The Bible neither recognizes nor gives such freedom. We are not free to choose whoever we want to be but rather in Christ we are given the freedom to become who God wants us to be.

True freedom is only to be found in becoming who God calls us to be in Christ, and then serving Him as children of God. We can only discover who God wants us to be when we discover God himself for ourself. In this, and indeed in every issue, as the Psalmist says, it is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom (Psalmist 111:10).

In conclusion, firstly, we need to know our faith. If we are going to argue and make a stand for the Gospel, we need to know what the Gospel is. I think it is true to say that many sincere believers do not know their faith very well. St Paul begins his letter to the Roamn believers by writing:

‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (Romans 1:16)

We need to know the Gospel both because our own salvation depends on it and also because this is what we are called to preach and this is what other people's salvation depends on. One of the reasons St Paul writes Romans is to explain the Gospel he preaches as the Apostle to the Gentiles and to show what difference it ought to make in the lives of those who believe it. The result of St Paul’s efforts is the longest letter we have of his.

Too often we do not think it matters what we believe. People who stand for what they believe and who insist on the truth of the Gospel are often, as St. Paul was, labelled dogmatic and bigoted. But if a doctor prescribes medicine for a patient and insists that the patient takes it, the doctor is not described as dogmatic and bigoted for not being flexible about whether or not the patient should take the prescribed dose. It's just being sensible.

The Gospel is the power of God to salvation, and we need to insist on it, and insist that people believe in it if they want to be saved. We need to know our faith!

But secondly, we need to accept one another. The truth of the Gospel is to be the basis of our acceptance of one another. It is the basis of our own acceptance by God, and we should accept all who are accepted by God and who accept the truth of the Gospel. Which means we need to put aside our own prejudices, our own preferences, and prioritize coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Standing for the truth of the Gospel is not the same as standing for our own opinions, and too often in the past the Church has divided over people's opinions rather than over the truth. I will resist the temptation to give examples.

So, as Paul closes his letter to the Roman believers and as we end on our journey through it, let us pray that God will grant us to know the power of the Gospel unto salvation and have the courage to preach it and to stand for it. Let us also commit, like St Paul, to prioritizing unity amongst ourselves. Because we will only be able to preach the Gospel, we will only be effective in preaching the Gospel, if we are united in Christ.

St Paul prays for the Roman believers that with one voice they may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we too with one voice glorify him.


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