Sunday, October 17, 2010

What it takes to be a Christian - Romans

Since the beginning of the year Richard Cleaves, our Minister, has preached a series of sermons on Paul's Letter to the Romans during our Sunday evening services.

The sermon followed a reading from Acts 28:11-31. In that final chapter of Acts Luke tells of Paul's arrival in Rome and leaves Paul "proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance."

Although Paul wrote his letter to the Romans a number of years before, in all likelihood during a three month period when he was staying at Coring that is referred to in Acts 20:3, it makes sense for Romans to follow straight on from Acts. It is as if Romans contains the summing up of Paul's preaching of teh Kingdom of God and of this teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Richard suggested that the whole of Romans can be summarised in two words that Paul uses in Romans 1:7 and again in Romans 16:20 "grace" and "peace".

Paul's account of the Christian faith in chapters 1-11 can be summed up in the one word "grace"

Paul's challenge to living the Christian life in chapters 12-16 can be summed up in the one word "peace".

For this final sermon Richard took as his text Romans 1-16 in its entirety.

It is not insignificant that the sermon was preached on Sunday, 17th October 2010 only days after 33 miners had been rescued from a mine in Chile, in a historic mine rescue. The miners had returned to the mine that Sunday to share in a service of thanksgiving.

Grace and Peace
What it takes to be a Christian
Paul's Letter to the Romans

“The word Christian today is more of a soporific than a slogan. So much – too much – is Christian: Churches, schools, political parties, cultural associations, and of course Europe, the West, the Middle Ages.

I read those words more than thirty years ago and they still ring true today.

They were written by Hans Kung in what was then a best seller, On being a Christian.

It was a book as he said at the very outset written for all those who, for any reason at all, honestly and sincerely want to know what Christianity, what being a Christian really means.

It is written also for those
Who do not believe, but nevertheless seriously inquire;
Who did believe, but are not satisfied with their unbelief;
Who do believe, but feel insecure in their faith,
Who are at a loss, between belief and unbelief;
Who are sceptical both about their convictions and about their doubts.
It is written then for Christians and atheists, Gnostics and agnostics, pietists and positivists, lukewarm and zealous Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox.

And somewhere in that long list was me more than 30 years ago.

What Hans Kung had to say captivated me … and I feel it even more so now.

What is special about Christianity? He asks early on in the book.

Many seek to answer that question by looking for abstract axioms, concepts, principles, ideas.

But Hans Kung was convinced – and he persuaded me.

It is not possible to find the answer there since Christianity, as its name alone suggests, cannot in the last resort be reduced to any kind of eternal ideas, abstract principles, human attitudes. The whole of Christianity is left hanging in mid-air if it is detached from the foundation on which it is built.

The foundation upon which Christianity is built is Jesus Christ.

With the eye of the historian we can uncover the Jesus of history. With the eye of the believer we can see through Jesus to the God who is love.

Jesus Christ invites faith and demands obedience of those who would follow him.

He offers us the free gift of love reaching out from God into our innermost being – that’s to say ‘grace’.

And he challenges us to live in the peace God gives and become peace-makers in a world too often divided. Romans 1:1-7

I want to say a big thank you to the likes of Hans Kung who have been an inspiration to me down through the years, and many others starting from my parents, through my Sunday school teachers, to my school teachers, lecturers, the many people in the churches I have belonged to through the years, not least this church and those I have shared with in the fellowship of our Congregational Federation, especially on our training course. Romans 1:8-15

Some criticised the BBC for sending so many to cover the Chile mine rescue. I wanted to say thank you! Wasn’t it wonderful to have so much of the news bulletins filled with Good News! What a remarkable rescue!

If that’s Good News how much more does our Christian faith rooted in Jesus Christ deserve to be called ‘Good News’. It is good news that we have received, and Good News that we are called on to share.

This Good News is nothing less than the power of God for salvation for all who believe, whatever background they come from. Romans 1:16-17

Mind you, it is not possible to get away from the bad news. It is our responsibility as Christians to turn the spotlight on the world we live in.

Where we see injustice, where we see immorality, where we see what is wrong we must speak out. Romans 1:18-32

We stand by the ten commandments, narrowed down to two Love God, Love your neighbour, summed up by Jesus in the Golden Rule do to others what you would have others do to you.

That sense of justice, the essence of that morality, that golden rule is not ours alone. On the wall in the Tantur Institute seminar room in that conference on reconciliation I attended a couple of years ago in Bethlehem was a poster with that Golden rule quoted from all the religions of the world.

There is something that is common to humanity, call it conscience if you will, that at rock bottom can tell the difference between right and wrong. Romans 2:1 – 3:20

How tragic that there is within us all, each one of us, the capacity to get it wrong. And it is the sad tale of the whole of humanity that we get it wrong.

But that is not the end of the story.

Jesus Christ presents us with a way out.

In that Chilean mine they called that pod that brought about that remarkable rescue ‘the phoenix’ – so-called after the bird that is destroyed but then arises again out of the ashes of the very fire that destroyed it.

For us as Christians Jesus Christ is nothing less than the phoenix – he is the one who offers a way out, a way to break the impasse.

The reality is that all of us, all of humanity, each one of us, without exception falls short of the ideal. We do not live up to it.

It can feel as if we are trapped in a world that is so destructive. Jesus shared with our humanity to the point of the cross and utter devastation. Through his resurrection we can share in his victory and see that destruction does not have the last word. That is liberating.

It can feel as if God has to be against us because we have so let him down. We can look to the cross, hear again Christ’s words of forgiveness and know that he has restored the closest possible relationship we could ever hope for with God.

It can feel as if we have to carry the weight of the world’s evil on our shoulders. We can look to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and see that he has shouldered that burden. As we see in him the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, we know that he has taken away the sin of each one of us and God accepts us as we are.

Look to Jesus. Believe in Jesus. And there is a transformation. Romans 3:21 – 4:25

It must have taken some doing to step into that pod, into that Phoenix. Stepping from it was the most wonderful step of freedom anyone of those men had taken. The second to step out, Mario Sepulveda, leapt and sang and handed out stones and later explained the spiritual crisis he had experienced underground: “I was with God and I was with the devil, he said. They were fighting over me and God won. I grabbed on to the best hand. I held onto it and never thought for one minute that God wouldn’t get me out of there.”

The 17th miner to be set free Omar Reygadas, knelt on the ground, clutching a Bible as family and friends, and President of Chile looked on in silence.

What a difference their faith made to those miners in that ordeal.

What a difference our faith can make to us in any ordeal we face.

Jesus draws us into the embrace of a loving God who takes us by the hand and enables us to stand in that grace, knowing that we are forgiven. There is no escaping the world with its sufferings: as we journey through that world God holds us by the hand and enables us to face that world with endurance, with patience, and with a hope that will not disappoint us.

How can we be so sure? Because through Jesus Christ it is nothing less than the love of God that is poured into our hearts by that unseen yet very real strength and power of God that is his Holy Spirit. Romans 5:1-21

For those miners buried for 17 days before they were discovered and for another 49 days before they were set free it was nothing less than a burial and a resurrection.

Jesus comes with us, alongside us, and shares our humanity at its abject lowest … and then he lifts us into the presence of God in all his glory. A wonderful love that will not let us go. For us that experience is nothing less than a death and resurrection.

It is as if we can go right back to the beginning and begin all over again.
Romans 6:1-23

It is tough, however.

And the doubts and the questions remain.

And faced with some of the awfulness of our world, those questions get tougher.

It’s all very well the preacher latching on to the faith of those miners – but in so many other places the rescue doesn’t come. The suffering prevails.

And even in our own lives evil seems to have the last word.

The good that I would I do not, the evil that I would not that I do. Romans 7:1-25

The reality is that we cannot do it on our own.

I have often felt that if Christianity were nothing more than a way of life to follow it would be a recipe for breakdown and disaster for none of us can live up to the challenge Jesus Christ asks of us.

But Christianity is Good News.

That Good News is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

And that power of God is let loose in our lives.

Sometimes people say prayer is the key. And it is. How vitally important prayer is. But what about those times when prayer doesn’t come, when prayer doesn’t work.

My words go up, my thoughts remain below
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

It is precisely at those times when we find ourselves groaning in despair that God is actually with us. Remember the footprints. At that moment when there is only one set of prints and we feel as if God has abandoned us and we wail and groan inside … that’s the moment when God is carrying us. Those very groans and wails are nothing less than God within us in that unseen and yet very real presence of his groaning and wailing with us. The strength of that Spirit bears us through.

We are not alone. There is a strength beside us and within in the unseen, yet very real power of God, the Holy Spirit. Don’t be put off by the excesses of the Toronto Blessing, of speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit is fundamental to our Christian faith, we cannot do without it – for that’s the strength we need to see us through.

For well over twenty years I have had a plaque on the wall of my study that says, Lord help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I together can’t handle.

In the conviction that God is present with me from day to day in his unseen yet very real power of the Holy Spirit, I can say that I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:1-39

That’s a conviction that is for me at least a very personal one. But for some in the church today it is a conviction to hold on to in the face of very great hardship and even persecution. One of those places where that is very apparent is in the Middle East. And it is focused in the Holy Land.

Jesus offers us the grace of God’s free forgiving love.
Jesus draws us into the peace of the presence of God and asks us to be peace-makers. How important for us to support in our praying and in every way we can those Christian churches who are seeking to live that out in the midst of the conflicts that come especially when the extremes of Judaism and Christianity clash with the extremes of Islam. Romans 9-11

The whole point of faith, the whole point of grace, the whole point of being in this relationship with Christ is that it shapes the way we lead our lives.

That’s what it all builds up to.

In response to the wonderful gift of God’s free forgiving love, let’s offer the whole of our lives in service to God by being of service to one another.

Let’s not go it alone.

Let’s play our part as part of the body of Christ, working together with those who share the faith in the life and work of the church.

Let us above all love one another, with a love that is sincere and genuine, with a love that does not draw boundaries but embraces all, with a love that shows honour and respect, and with a love that reaches out even to those who are our enemies. Romans 12

Alice Brown belonged first to Highbury when it was in Winchcombe Street, and returned to the church at the death of her sister about ten years ago. In her room in Lilian Faithful House she has a book case of 200 books most of which are books of poetry and classics of English literature. I found myself on Friday afternoon reading some of the poetry of Shakespeare and of John Donne.

I passionately take my stand on the insight of John Donne …

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never sent to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee ….

As Christians we have to be part of society and more than that we have to play our full part in that society. Romans 13

As Christians we have to be part of a community of Christian people that we get to know by name. How vital to the well-being of our church is our visiting scheme and the visitors meeting on Thursday – how important the lists we have of those who belong, diligently kept up to date for our visitors meeting. How important that we know each other by name. Of each other and of others outside we must never be judgemental and we must always recognise that the most important members of our church family are those who are the most vulnerable. Romans 14:1 – 16:24

The God of peace will overcome all evil
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be with us.
Romans 16:20

And so to God who is able to strengthen us according to this wonderful good news that is nothing less than the power of God for salvation to all who believe,
To God who is able to strengthen us according to the message of Jesus Christ, a message that contains the key to the very meaning of life.
To God who is able to strengthen us according to those commandments that shape a life of faith
To the only wise God be glory for ever.
Romans 16:25-27

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing,
So that we may abound in hope
By the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13


J Elliott said...

If you replace each appearance of the word 'Blessing' with 'Get up, go ahead, move, do something', and then read the whole passage, you will find that it gives the passage as a whole more coherence:

The last sentence ('Rejoice..., for in the same way they presecuted the prophets who were before you.') isn't then just balancing its predecessor, but is a fitting concluding sentence for the whole. [Because a prophet is someone who 'speaks out' - not someone who has supernatural powers]. It has a recapitulating resonance with the previous verses. This makes the passage sound more authentic.

The meaning is drastically changed from what we are used to, but the authenticity of this re-understood meaning is evidenced by the way Jesus himself behaved as he went about preaching.

Felicity and Richard said...

I have always found that interperation of the word usually translated 'blessed' intereesting.

Coming from Elias Chacour it was not only intersting, but a moving and powerful challenge to re-visit those words.

Isn't it interesting how that reading makes so much better sense of the climax to the 'poem'. It accords so well with the reference to 'prophets' and with the practice of Jesus.

This passage becomes very much a call to action and leads into the words on light and salt.


J Elliott said...

If it really is true that Jesus was encouraging people to 'speak out' it follows that this would have caused antipathy towards him from the occupying Roman authorities and/or the religious leaders. (The religious leaders may have been trying not to provoke the Romans - for good reasons, or bad reasons or both). That then would make more sense of why they wanted to get rid of him.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light