1st Sunday after Trinity
Romans 3:21-31; Mt 9:21-31
St Barbara’s 14.6.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome has been described by New Testament scholar Professor James Dunn as “probably the single most important letter ever written by a Christian. As an explanation of the Christian faith, (he goes on), it is arguably the most important Christian document of all time.” People such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley and the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth, all have written of how the letter to the Romans was pivotal in them coming to faith in Christ.
This is what John Wesley, for example, wrote in his journal on 24th May 1738: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.” And he goes on to describe how hearing the letter to the Romans brought about his conversion. Profound change.
We should not be surprised at the impact of the letter of Romans. It seems at this point in his life and ministry, Paul wanted to set down a thorough and detailed explanation of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, indeed the most thorough account we find anywhere in the NT. Over the next five weeks we are going to explore this letter, and see what it has to say to us today.
As we start, it is worth reminding ourselves of Paul’s own story. He grew up as a zealous and committed Pharisee, someone who was passionate about holiness, and who believed that the only way to honour God was to obey the Jewish law, in particular commandments about keeping the sabbath, eating only kosher food, and all males being circumcised. These were all things that stressed the distinctiveness, the otherness, of the Jewish people from everyone else, that kept them apart. When the followers of Jesus began to challenge the centrality of keeping the law, he was one of the first to denounce them, and actively sought to hunt them down and persecute them.
It is in the midst of this zealous crusade that Paul encounters Christ in such dramatic fashion on the Road to Damascus. He discovers that Christ truly is God’s Son, the Messiah. But more than that, in the most extraordinary turnaround, his passion for God is channelled into a whole new direction. From believing that God was really only the God of the people of Israel, Christ now makes him his apostle to the Gentiles, in other words, he is appointed as Christ’ official representative, ambassador, to the entire non-Jewish world. He that had been building up the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile is now called to go and knock them down.
Let’s just pause there for a moment. Paul had a passion that was being channelled in the wrong direction. Christ takes that passion and channels it in such a way as to lead to God being glorified and the church growing exponentially. I wonder what for us are our passions? What are those things that we love, that energise us, that inspire us and motivate us? It maybe music or sport or gardening. It may be being a parent or the work we do. How can that passion be used to glorify God, to shine his light in the world, to build up the church? For some, you may already be doing that. For others, maybe we need a Damascus-road transformation, to take what we love and use it in God’s service.
Well we’ve thought about Paul. What about the church he is writing to, the Christians in Rome. Well, as some of you know, one of my passions is ancient Roman history, so I have to be careful here not to digress. Suffice it to say however that Rome at this stage is a city of about one million people, a city about 20 times larger than any other city in the western world at this point. Its a city that acts like a magnet, attracting people from all over the Mediterranean world, and amongst those are Christians, such as Aquila and Priscilla, who you may remember we met a few weeks ago. Several Christian fellowships are formed. But then something significant happens. The Emperor Claudius in 49AD expels all Jews from the city, possibly for riots, we’re not quite sure. Jewish Christians have to leave as well, which leaves the young churches as purely Gentile gatherings. For five years, the churches in Rome develop a non-Jewish style to their practice and customs – the emphasis on keeping the Sabbath, on eating kosher-only food, on circumcision is dropped. But then Claudius dies and the Jewish Christians return, and what they find, they are not happy about. Tensions mount. It is the conflict between those who desire the “old normal” and those who want the “new normal”.
It strikes me that that is a tension we will begin to see more and more in our own times. The three-month lockdown is our equivalent of Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews. Everything has been thrown into the air. For some, they want things to just return to how they were. For others, they want things to continue in the new norms that have been established.
Take work. There will be some wanting working patterns to return to life before the lock-down. Others will be hoping that the patterns of home-working and tele-conferencing will be here to stay. In institutions like the NHS some will argue that we need to get back to the old way of doing things as fast as possible, while others argue that the new patterns of working should be maintained.
And take our own church. Many people will want to return as soon as we can back to the previous ways of worship, the old normal, exactly the way things were before. Others may prefer we continue in this new normal, because for some, on-line services have meant they have been able to participate in services that they had previously been unable to attend, and certainly the numbers of people joining the services on line are such as to suggest that.
But the point is that as we look ahead to the easing of the lockdown what will be normal will feel different for all of us. We will have differing hopes and differing expectations. It will be important for us to recognise that. So Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome to remind them of what in the midst of all this change was of the most fundamental importance: the faith in Christ which draws us together. As we wrestle with how life may look in the future, our cornerstone must be our faith in Christ.
After his initial introduction, Paul begins his letter with a message that is not particularly palatable. Everyone has sinned, everyone has messed up, everyone has fallen short of God’s standards. He addresses the Gentile Christians first. Despite of God’s evident existence in creation, Gentiles had chosen instead to ignore him, to worship created things (idols) rather than the Creator himself. The non-Jewish people of the world are guilty before a just and righteous God.
At this point in the letter’s reading the Jewish Christians may be forgiven for feeling a little smug – it looks like Paul is siding with them – the Gentile Christians need the Jewish law. Without it they fall short. But then Paul turns to the Jewish people. They too have fallen short. Despite having the law to point them to the fact they were falling short and needed God, they failed to act. Either they slavishly followed the letter of the law, failing to realise that no matter how hard they tried they would fall short, or they abandoned it altogether, choosing idolatry and faithlessness instead.
And so Paul states: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Its a sobering message, but one we need to hear. There is no place for superiority or a “holier than thou” attitude. Through our own efforts, in the eyes of God, we all fall short. It is tempting to want to lambast the failings and sinfulness of others, to find fault, whether that is of our politicians, of whatever political persuasion, or our employers, or our neighbours. And sometimes there are wrongs that it is right to hold to account – there can never be a place for racism or sexism or abuse of others, for example – but we can never do so from a place of moral superiority. If we find fault with others, we must only do so from a place where we acknowledge that we also fall short. We are called to humility. Let us follow Christ’s example of kindness, mercy and forgiveness.
Which brings us to the great theme of the whole letter: if all fall short, if our efforts can’t achieve it, how can we be made right with God. The answer, Paul tells us, is justification by faith, a theme so wonderful and extraordinary that it deserves a whole sermon to itself, so we’ll begin to look at that next week.
In the meantime, you may want to start reading the letter to the Romans at home, and do pray and think about how your passion can be channelled to God’s glory this week.