Grace Presbyterian Church
July 23, 2017, Pentecost 7A
Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9
If last week’s reading from Romans 7 – “I do what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to do what I do” – was marked by linguistic difficulty and a person shift to make a composition teacher weep, today’s reading from the next chapter does one thing exactly right in terms of written composition and exposition: it starts with a wonderful topic sentence.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Not only is it fair to call this a spectacular topic sentence for today’s passage, it’s quite possible to say that this is the pinnacle of this whole epistle. The first seven chapters of Romans point to and lead us toward this truth; everything in the rest of the book follows from it.
One might argue that a wise preacher would stop here. I could just go ahead and say Thanks be to God. Amen. And be done with it. It’s that good as good news.
But no, not quite. There’s a reason Paul didn’t stop here, and there’s a reason a wise pastor can’t stop here. As good a word as it is, this sentence — “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” – is not, in fact, the end of the story. In many ways it’s only the beginning.
You see, this isn’t a detached, abstract reflection floating about in some undefined ether or atmosphere. This is a direct statement, with a concrete, tangible, and even unavoidable effect on the lives of those who are, as Paul says, “in the Spirit,” who “walk … in the Spirit,” or for whom “the Spirit of God dwells in you” or “Christ is in you.”
Paul goes about saying this in so many different ways, but all of them point to a same basic idea; a life that is so bound up in Christ, so completely occupied by and contained in the Holy Spirit that there is no longer any room for the sin that had previously occupied and dominated what Paul has so far called “flesh.”
A word of clarifiction about that: when Paul uses that word “flesh” (the usual epistle translation of a spectacular Greek word, σαρχ (sarx), he isn’t referring merely to the human body – for that he uses another really good Greek word, σωμα (soma). No, when Paul speaks of “flesh” (or sarx) he is referring specifically to the human in its sin-occupied condition, the human who does what it doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do what it knows is right to do – the Chapter 7 human torn between the desire to do right and the compulsion to do wrong.
So it’s not about human bodies being all sinful and irredeemable; Paul will make that clear in verse 11. Reminding his readers of the One who was once dead but lives forever, Paul goes so far as to say that “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” It isn’t about “conquering” or “subduing” our mortal bodies – which, after all, are every bit as much a part of God’s creation as all of nature around us – but of no longer being enslaved to or bound by the sin that once held sway over those mortal bodies. And if we are truly in the Spirit, or in Christ, then that power of sin can no longer hold that sway.
Even the Law is redeemed. Remember how Paul spoke of even the good Law being twisted by sin? With sin no longer having power over us, as verse 4 says, “the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled” in those who are in the Spirit.
In short, we are set free – not by anything of our own doing, but by the action of God, in Jesus Christ, working in us through the Spirit. Sounds very Trinitarian, doesn’t it? Paul never does articulate a specific doctrine or idea of the Trinity, but sometimes he sure sounds like it.
Notice how in the central section of today’s reading, it almost seems as if Paul’s focus has shifted. Whereas in previous chapters Paul has spoken so much of the flesh – that sin-dominated body – now he begins to speak of our minds. Take verse 5: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” That wonderful first verse of the chapter, in other words, is no excuse to disengage. Quite the opposite: now that there is no condemnation, the challenge of living in the Spirit begins.
Last week’s sermon alluded to Paul’s past as Saul, a Pharisee-turned-persecutor of the early followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. You might remember the story, told in Acts 9, of how Saul, on his way to Damascus to root out other Christ-followers, was overwhelmed by an appearance of Jesus on that road, losing his sight for a time and being convicted of the sin of his ways. To borrow from the parable Jesus tells in the gospel reading for today, Saul might have seemed the hardest, rockiest soil possible, yet nonetheless Jesus’s word takes root in him strongly and deeply.
But Paul doesn’t respond to this dramatic intervention by disappearing. He does go away for a while, after a few early attempts on his life, but by Acts 13 Paul (with the new name) is back, and the rest of his life is devoted to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. The news of “no condemnation” was no resting place, but the beginning of a new and challenging life for Paul himself, as it is for any of us who are in the Spirit.
Paul will have a lot more to say about what this “no condemnation” means for us, particularly in chapter 12 of this epistle and after, that great stretch of this letter where “the rubber hits the road” as Paul begins to speak of what the life of one who is “in the Spirit” looks like. But for now he points us to examine where our minds are focused. Are our minds focused on the things of the flesh? And let’s not confuse that with mere bodily pleasures – the “things of the flesh” include such earthly pursuits as riches, power, fame, and so many of the things the world calls good. It doesn’t take a whole lot of looking to see how many of those around us – even those who call themselves Christians, even those who call themselves Christian leaders – have given themselves over very publicly to these “things of the flesh.” They strut about in the halls of power, glorying in their “unprecedented”[i] access to presidents and congressmen rather than rejoicing in being in the Spirit. Anyway, Paul does not have a good word for those whose minds are set on “things of the flesh.” Don’t overlook verse 6: “To set the mind on the flesh is death.”
Fortunately, that verse continues: “…but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” “No condemnation” is not an end, but a beginning; a beginning of a life lived in the Spirit, lived with Christ living in and through us, wholly submitted and obedient to the freedom of God, serving God in perfect freedom.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Praise be to God. So what now?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #405, Praise God For This Holy Ground; #282, Come Down, O Love Divine; #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life; #313, Lord, Make Us More Holy
[i] Adelle M. Banks, “Conservative evangelicals revel in their ‘unprecedented’ presidential access,” via Religion News Service, 19 July 2017, religionnews.com/2017/07/19/conservative-evangelicals-revel-in-their-unprecedented-access-to-the-president/ (accessed July 20, 2017, via Twitter).
Grace Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2017, Pentecost 6A
Living Right But Getting It Wrong
Even in comparison to some of the dense and thorny stuff that has come before, the seventh chapter of Romans comes off as a curious and confusing piece of writing to biblical scholars and preachers.
For example: how many of you have in your lifetime had the experience of grading papers? I did. Had Paul submitted it as a writing assignment in a composition class, I fear that it would have been returned with numerous red marks, questions, and corrections about carelessly changing the tense and person of his account.
Nonetheless, as twisty a piece of writing as the chapter offers, it marks a key moment in revealing how Paul understood the whole business of sin and redemption, while also simultaneously upholding the Torah, or Jewish law (we know it as the first five books of the Old Testament) and insisting on its inability to bring salvation to humanity.
Just before today’s reading, in fact, verse 13 refers back to a point made first in verse seven; that the law is not sin (emphasized by that favorite exclamation of Paul’s, “by no means!”), but the law is the means by which sin is made known to us. In verse 13 Paul strengthens the argument by observing that the power of sin actually made use of the law – and the law is a good thing, remember – in order to bind the individual to sin.
Remember that what we modern Christians tend to think of when we speak of “sin” is often quite a different thing from what Paul is talking about. We might speak of “sins,” or perhaps of “a sin” as being the problem. Paul is not speaking of an individual lie we might tell, or an infidelity we might commit. Paul wants us to understand sin, in the words of Ted A. Smith of Vanderbilt Divinity School, as “an active, aggressive power that seizes hold of God’s good gifts – like the law – and bends them towards death.” John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” – the utter inability of the human to transcend sin on his or her own – comes close to expressing this idea. Sin certainly causes us to commit sins, but it is a far more powerful and oppressive thing than any individual sin. We’re born into it, we are mired in it, and absent the dramatic intervention of God in Jesus Christ, we die in it. However one interprets this kind of sin, as cosmic force or as chronic human disease or whatever metaphor you use, with this understanding of sin in mind, this extended and convoluted passage unfolds differently, or perhaps more expansively, than we are perhaps accustomed to understanding.
Paul’s slip into first-person – “I do what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to do what I do” – tends to nudge us into reading the passage as a lament on Paul’s inability to live up to the law, always falling short and doing in the end what he hates. This is a strange reading, though, when one remembers the other letters Paul has written before. In both the letters to the Galatians and the Philippians, Paul is quite insistent on his success in keeping the law. Galatians 1:14 finds him claiming that “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Philippians 3:4-6 finds even more striking claims Paul makes on his own behalf: “If anyone else has reason to be confident … I have more …. As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” This doesn’t sound a lot like the stammering and flip-flopping of Romans 7.
But also buried in that Philippians passage is the key: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (3:6). Remember how we are first introduced to Paul in the New Testament? Back in the book of Acts we meet him, still called by his birth name Saul, at the stoning of Stephen, holding the coats of those doing the stoning and approving of the deed. We catch up with him again “breathing threats and murder against the disciples” and zealously persecuting those who had taken up with the new sect. Saul didn’t do these things because he was a wild man bent on violence and destruction; he persecuted Christians because of his zeal to follow the Law. Paul, writing to the Romans, no doubt remembered Saul the zealous and blameless follower of the law and what came of his rigorous adherence to the law. Paul knew that even the one who followed the law most zealously ended up in the power of sin. You can’t keep any law well enough to save yourself.
That is our condition, absent the action of God, the gift of the “easy yoke” as Christ says in the gospel reading.
Even as much as Paul describes his “delight” in the law, he knows sin is close at hand ready to twist and distort that love of the law into something evil. If even the law can be twisted and misused so powerfully, we indeed can understand Paul’s lament in verse 24 – who can rescue us, indeed? And yet the very next words from Paul’s pen point to the answer – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
We cannot deliver ourselves from sin. This is done for us. We are delivered from that bondage to sin in the dramatic cosmic intervention that is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Ted Smith of Vanderbilt puts it, “God does not just give us individual humans the willpower to live our best lives now, or say that it does not matter if we do not. In Jesus Christ, God sets the cosmos free from bondage, redeeming the law and opening the way to life, and life abundant.”
And yet we humans – particularly we Christians – are prone, and even eager, to bind ourselves (and others) to some kind of law again. Perhaps it is biblical law. Maybe we are prone to pull out the Torah – or particular, individual verses from the Torah – to wield as weapons against those we want to keep out (while conveniently ignoring those individual verses from the Torah that might indict or inconvenience us more directly). Or perhaps it is more a law of our own making that appeals to us. Maybe we want to judge our own righteousness by how often we’re at church, or how much scripture we have memorized, or how well we avoid certain sins (while ignoring those that do catch us). Maybe we might recognize that we sometimes let the law of the land, or the rules of “patriotism,” or some other kind of secular guidelines infiltrate our thought and become a law that we use to promote our own righteousness and diminish others who are not like us. God knows we have a lot of religious “leaders” doing exactly that these days.
All of those “laws,” wherever they may originate or however they may infiltrate our minds, are as powerless against sin, and every bit as twistable by sin, as the good Torah that Paul describes. Anything less than whole-hearted, abject surrender to the grace of God is that powerless and that twistable.
We are powerless to resist sin on our own. We don’t like to hear this; we who have been raised in a culture of independence and “rugged individualism” aren’t keen to be told that we can’t do … well, anything. We are confident in our own power to “get out of” whatever condition might bind us. We are not unlike the mathematician John Nash, as portrayed by Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind, who claims he can use his own analytical skills to set himself free from his mental illness, even though his doctor warns him that the mind on which he relies for analysis is the very source of his illness. We don’t want to accept what some preacher says when we know we can “do better” on our own.
And yet Paul is laying before us here the utter futility of any such claim. Our own efforts to live up to any standard – be it the Torah or anything of our own devising – will not deliver us from the sinful state in which we are all mired except for God’s divine rescue.
We have trouble understanding this because, well, when we look around the world doesn’t really look redeemed. Maybe we don’t really feel redeemed; often we don’t act redeemed. And certainly we are not yet at that point where we will fully know what it is to be redeemed by the action of Jesus Christ. But that is our place; that is the door that has been opened to us. Even so, even though we don’t really feel it, the promise that follows directly after this passage – “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” is our hope, not just for the future but even for the present. The way to life is open. Christ’s yoke is easy; Christ’s burden is light.
It is a radical thing to trust, especially in that which we cannot see. It’s a lot easier to rely on “law” or “rules” than to live relying only on the redemptive love of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And yet this is our only “escape”; only in this redemption done for us by God through Jesus Christ does our life here on earth have any chance to be anything other than the same old quagmire of sin and despair that we were born into.
Wretched people that we are, who will rescue us from this mire of sin? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. No matter how much it pains us, let our prayer always be; Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #42, Your Faithfulness, O Lord, Is Sure; #440, Jesus, Lover of My Soul; #765, May the God of Hope Go With Us
Grace Presbyterian Church
July 2, 2017, Pentecost 4A
Freed to Obedience
I’m not sure if Bob Dylan ever studied Paul’s epistle to the Romans, but at least one song in his repertoire suggests he might have. I don’t think it’s one of the songs that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it still counts.
Maybe you remember Dylan’s evangelical phase? The first big single from that phase made it onto a Grammy Awards broadcast back in 1980. It was a thumping gospel-tinged number called “Gotta Serve Somebody.” And he did win the award that year.
It’s not the most complicated song, not quite the heights of poetry; Dylan runs through a list of things you might be, where you might live, any number of possible conditions – you may be a doctor, you may own banks – but by the chorus it doesn’t matter:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody/You’re gonna have to serve somebody/It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
As we’ll see shortly, this really could be a short take of one of Paul’s main points in this last half of Chapter 6. Paul might only quibble with the “gotta” part of the title: he would simply say that no matter what you think, you are serving somebody. It’s just a matter of whom you serve.
Picking up where we left off last week, Paul does another of his patented wrap-up-one-point-while-starting-another transitions, using verses 12-14 both to reinforce his previous point that you are no longer under the power of sin but under the rule of the grace of God, while at the same time urging that we are not merely to relax into this new rule; if anything, living into this grace is an active, even imperative thing – not at all passive.
For Paul it is imperative that we no longer present our bodies (our physical beings) or any part of those bodies as “instruments of wickedness.” (Given the frequent military use of the root of the Greek word here, the phrase might better be translated “weapons of wickedness”.) Paul’s talk of “members” gets people a little nervous or even giggly sometimes, but think of it this way: is there any part of you that cannot be used for malice, harm, menace, or some other kind of sinfulness? Think of the damage your hands can do, the horrors to which your feet can take you, the malice that can be unleashed by the tongue, the licentiousness in which the eyes can engage. You can go on from there. No part of us is beyond being a “weapon of wickedness”; therefore it is our imperative that, as creatures redeemed into the grace of God, we choose – actively, repeatedly choose – to live into that grace by not giving up our bodies to serve the bad, but presenting ourselves to the service of God.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and neurologist who was also a survivor of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. One of his more famous observations (or at least attributed to him), drawn at least in part from his time in those camps, was that:
Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In that response lies our growth and our freedom.
It’s not a perfect parallel, but it’s not bad. We are not compelled to continue in sin; God provides the space of grace to choose, over and over again, to submit ourselves to obedience, and our freedom is in that space.
There are so many things that would draw us back, not all of which would seem to fall into the category of “wickedness” (a word that probably trips up as many of us moderns as the word “sin” that is so pervasive in these chapters) – but anything that draws us away from God can be exactly that. The nineteenth-century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard seemed to intuit this well; he writes:
O Lord Jesus Christ, weak is our foolish heart, and only too ready to let itself be drawn – and there is so much that would draw it to itself. There is pleasure with its seducing power, the manifold with its confusing distractions, the moment with its deceptive importance, and bustle with its vain toil, and frivolity’s careless squandering of time, and melancholy’s gloomy brooding – all of these would draw us away from our own self and to them, in order to deceive us. But Thou who art the truth, only Thou our Savior and Redeemer, can truly draw a man to Thee, which indeed Thou hast promised to do, to draw all unto Thyself. So God grant that we by entering into ourselves may come to ourselves, so that Thou, according to Thy word, canst draw us to Thee –…. (Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, trans. Walter Lowrie, 2004 edition, 141)
This helps us towards Paul’s great contention. As he did in last week’s reading, Paul uses an image deeply familiar to his readers, but one far less pleasant than baptism. Paul speaks of his readers as slaves – inevitably, slaves to sin, or slaves to God. Even knowing that some of his readers or hearers likely had been or still were slaves (and apologizing, if in a slightly passive-aggressive way, in v. 19), Paul nonetheless points to the inevitability of being bound to one or the other; if we are not bound to God, we are enslaved to sin.
We are apt to speak of “freedom” a lot, particularly two days before Independence Day. It is a much used part of our national vocabulary, and sometimes highly abused by those who would seek “freedom” to abuse or extort or otherwise harm “the other.” Paul would find such talk incomprehensible. Verse 16 makes it clear; any “freedom” we gain in Christ is freedom to obedience to the God who made that grace in Christ possible. As such, our full obedience, our full allegiance must be due to God, and only to God, if we are to claim to be under the dominion of God’s grace. We serve God, otherwise we are serving sin.
Where the language of justification was prominent in last week’s reading, in these verses the language of sanctification – the immediate and ongoing process of being made holy – takes greater place. The two ideas, though, can’t be separated. It’s not one being necessary for the other or one following the other, but of both being necessary and both being consequence of God’s redeeming grace. If we are under God’s grace we are justified by the grace of God and we are sanctified by our dying and rising in Christ and we are being sanctified by our dying and rising in Christ. It’s now and it’s done and it’s a lifelong doing. And part of that is living in obedience to God, which we can only do by the grace of God.
Dylan was right: you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Choose wisely.
For freedom to obey, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #331, God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand; #187, Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #699, Fill My Cup; #697, Take My Life
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2017, Pentecost 3A
Called to Rise
One of the great challenges in reading (or preaching) through Romans is that there are very few places in this letter where you aren’t automatically dropping into the text in the middle of something. It’s not quite a theological stream-of-consciousness, but it feels like it sometimes, and unless you are reading the entire epistle straight through (a feat of stamina, that) you are coming in either in the middle of an idea or in the middle of a transition from one idea to another. The latter is the case with today’s reading, not unlike last week’s passage from the beginning of the previous chapter of this book. (Of course, Paul isn’t writing in chapters; this really is one long letter undivided by chapters or verses or any such thing – those are much later emendations made to help more modern readers find their way around Romans as a book of the New Testament.)
The question that begins our reading makes the transitional nature of this passage quite clear. “What then are we to say?” only makes sense as a follow-up to some previous discussion, in this case an exuberant expounding upon sin and grace, with Adam as the one through whom sin entered the world and Christ as the one through whom grace is introduced to overcome the power of sin, finally concluding with (in 5:21) “so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It may not be the most poetic verse in all of scripture – Paul was no Shakespeare – but it is in its own way beautiful and powerful.
Thus we come to Paul’s transition: “What then are we to say?” How do we respond, fellow followers of Christ?
Now it’s not exactly clear whether the question that follows this one is an actual question Paul faced in his work, or if Paul is employing a rhetorical flourish that allows him to get to the point he wants to make. The question has certainly come up in the literature of theology since Paul introduced it here, but mostly in the writings of long-ago figures such as Augustine. To us today, it sounds ridiculous (I hope!), maybe something like the smart-aleck retort of an overly cocky high-school sophomore:
“Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound?”
Before getting to Paul’s answer, one thing needs to be clarified. Note that Paul doesn’t say “should we continue to sin”, but “should we continue in sin?” For this passage, and really for all of this epistle, we need to lay aside the idea of individual particular transgressions and understand that Paul is talking about a condition of sin – a separation from God, an inability (apart from the grace of God) to live in any way apart from the power of sin as mentioned briefly last week.
So, continuing, Paul’s answer is another rhetorical flourish – translated here “By no means!” – but you might get more of an understanding of Paul’s incredulousness by substituting a more modern equivalent. My mind keeps coming up with “No way!”; a younger generation than mine might come up with “As if!” Whatever conveys for you that the suggestion is utterly ridiculous and almost impossible to take seriously, go with that.
What Paul would have his readers (and us) understand is that being in Christ means not just not liking sin or not wanting to sin; it is to be dead to sin. It is to be no longer under its domination, no longer willing to choose to submit to its power. Our reality is no longer the rule of sin, but the rule of grace given by God; to suggest that we might sin more in order to get more grace is to misunderstand most profoundly what grace is and how it works in us.
But that idea of being dead to sin is what Paul works out here, and in order to do so he turns to something that his Roman readers are most familiar with, an act that the community engaged in on a fairly regular basis; the act of baptism.
To be sure, baptism in this early period of the church looked not at all like it does in churches today, and I’m not just talking about churches that sprinkle from the font like us Presbyterians. For one thing, archaeological evidence strongly suggests that, in those locations that came to be built or dedicated or used specifically for worship, the baptismal pool was in fact in the center of the room – not a pulpit nor even a table for communion. Such structures were round and descended by steps down to the pool at the lowest point in the room. Even if the group or groups in Romans did not regularly meet in such a place it is most likely that they sought out such a location for the ritual of baptism.
You can see what that does to the baptismal rite. The convert being baptized actually had to descend to the pool, and ascend up from it after being baptized. As a result the image of baptism actually is pretty easy to tie to Paul’s description here and elsewhere; in being baptized we go down (with Christ) to death, and are raised up (with Christ) to new life.
These early church groups often added another element reinforcing this visual image of descent and ascent with another signifier of change; the one being baptized cast away the garment they were wearing before entering the water, and put on a new garment upon coming out of the water. Being changed visually became a sign of being changed completely.
It’s no surprise, then, that Paul would turn to an image his readers could readily identify in order to explain what it means to be dead to sin; it was a visceral way of communicating the importance of the idea, one which affected the entire community, many if not most of whom had experienced the rite of baptism in becoming part of that community (and those who hadn’t yet were possibly in the process of getting to that point).
But Paul is not merely concerned with being dead to sin, no longer under the power of sin, but he also wants the Romans to understand the consequence of being dead to sin. Being dead to sin is being alive to Christ.
Some commentators on this passage draw a parallel between Paul’s language here and the foundational story of the Hebrew people, the Exodus. As long as the Hebrew people remained in Egypt they remained enslaved to the power of the Pharaoh; only after being delivered from Egypt (including passing through the waters of the Red Sea, a nice parallel to baptism) were they truly free to be a people, and particularly a people of God.
Similarly, Paul wants his readers to understand that being dead to sin (marked by passing through the waters of baptism) was deliverance from slavery to sin, and deliverance to freedom and life in Christ – not just immediately, but also for eternity.
This is the call of the follower of Christ; to know oneself, in Christ’s crucifixion, to be dead to sin – not bound to that power any longer – but to be raised up, in Christ’s resurrection, into new life in the grace and love and freedom of Christ.
You will remember that, even after passing through the Red Sea, the Hebrew people did commit sins – including a whopper of a sin involving that golden calf. Likewise, we are not immune from individual acts that would be called sins, but we are not bound to them. We are not under the power of sin over us as an ongoing condition. One “sin” does not equal the power of sin. We repent, because we have sinned, but we are not enslaved to it. We don’t drop the Prayer of Confession from our order of service, but we don’t say it without an answering Assurance of Pardon, reflecting the grace into which we have been delivered. In between the two the font is filled, the water splashing into this glass bowl reminding us of the waters of baptism through which we have passed, marking our deliverance from the power of sin and into the everlasting freedom of resurrected life in Christ.
So, sin more to get more grace? No way. Live in the resurrection.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #664, Morning Has Broken; #822, When We Are Living; #485; We Know That Christ Is Raised; #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 18, 2017, Pentecost 2A
Welcome to Rome
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is widely and consistently regarded as one of the thorniest, most puzzling, most contentious, and most uplifting and joyous books in the New Testament. Yes, all of those at the same time.
It is a letter unlike Paul’s other letters in that the apostle is addressing a fellowship he does not know. By the end of the epistle it is clear he may know a few individual members of the church at Rome, but it is not a church with which he has ever had any involvement. At the time he writes this letter he’s never even been to Rome.
As a result Paul is not addressing specific questions or issues within the Roman church to the same degree as in letters to the churches at Corinth or Galatia, for example. Instead, Paul is writing to the church at Rome for a variety of different reasons, not least of which is to introduce himself to a congregation that doesn’t know him, at the same time hoping (as he says by chapter 15) to enlist their aid for future mission endeavors, including a hoped-for journey to the land we today call Spain (a journey that ultimately never happened).
The Roman assembly may not have met Paul, but they’ve heard of him. Furthermore, not everything they’ve heard about Paul necessarily came from his friends or supporters. As a result, while Paul certainly has friends in Rome, there are also plenty there who are, at minimum, uncertain about this guy whose reputation seems to be equal parts great evangelist/church starter and major troublemaker. Therefore Paul feels the need to provide something of a “theological resume” as part of his appeal to the Roman Christians.
In addition, in writing to the Romans, Paul was (we can guess) reasonably knowledgeable about the makeup of that church even if he had not played any role in its founding. Clearly he knew some people who had been involved in that congregation and had told him about it some. As a result, Paul was able to address the Romans, not from a position of complete unfamiliarity, but with some awareness of the church and its people. One thing he evidently knew was that the Roman “church” (which may have been one group meeting in a home of one of its members, or several such house churches spread around the city) was made up of both believers who had come to be Christians out of a Jewish background and Gentiles who had converted to the faith without first becoming Jews. Paul has by this time had some experience grappling with the questions and disagreements that arose in some churches between such groups. Here, though, instead of rehashing those old disputes, he begins his letter (taking most of the first four chapters) by emphasizing as strongly as possible, the one thing he saw both Jewish and Gentile Christians having in common; the utter futility of each without Christ. Even by 3:9 Paul has made it clear that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” save for the intervention of Christ.
That intervention is, in short, faith – whether faith in Christ or the faith of Christ is not made completely clear, but faith becomes that through which the power of sin over all (Jews and Greeks, remember) is undone and overthrown. Chapter 4 discusses that faith in the person of Abraham, who had long been revered in Hebrew/Jewish tradition for his deeds – answering God’s call to depart from his home and be the ancestor of a new nation. Paul, though, cites Abraham’s faithfulness as the locus of his righteousness.
Therefore as Chapter 5 opens Paul is actually wrapping up one idea to start a new one; “…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
It’s easy to get hung up on the word “boast,” particularly since Paul has been using it so far in Romans in ways that, frankly, don’t make sense to us modern readers (and I’m not completely sure it made sense to Paul’s contemporary readers, either). The choice of word seems to be influenced by some measure of disagreement among the Roman Christians and the need for Paul to have stressed that both Jews and Greeks were under the same condemnation of sin outside of faith. The law, as Paul argued, gave the Jewish portion of the church no cause to boast, as the law did not prevent sin from prevailing (though it was very effective for pointing out their sin). Therefore, the only thing for a Christian to “boast” in has nothing to do with the Christian him- or herself, but only in the work of God, the redemption enacted in Christ.
And frankly, Paul’s talk about how we “also boast in our sufferings” not only sounds just wrong to anyone who has ever known suffering, but also it is frankly the kind of passage that too often gets twisted into what one writer has called a “clobber verse,” the kind which those with more power or influence or status use to “clobber” those who Jesus might call “the least of these,” in this case by persuading them that their suffering is somehow the will of God when no, it isn’t.
The following sequence sometimes doesn’t help either, with its seeming suggestion that one has to suffer in order ever to get to hope – again, a way of clobbering the unfortunate or the suffering. “You have to suffer if you ever want to build character, or patience, or hope.” You see how it works? This is where it helps to remember Paul’s words from later in this letter.
You’ve probably heard it like this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That’s over in Chapter 8. Even that can become a clobber verse until remember that it is not about God wanting bad things to happen to us; it is that in all the things that happen to us, God is working for our good – not because of but despite the bad. Likewise here in chapter 5, we don’t gain hope because we suffer; we gain hope because God works in us despite the suffering to lead us to endurance, to character, or to hope.
But not just any hope. I had a little bit of dialogue with a seminary classmate from those several years ago who is preaching on this same passage today, and on this subject of “hope” and just what kind of hope we’re talking about here. She was making the point that for us, far too often, hope (despite what Paul says in verse 5) really does disappoint us, or at least it sure seems like it.
And the thing is, she’s right. Hope does disappoint, most of the time.
We hope our loved ones will recover and continue to live among us, and they don’t. We hope the institutions of our society will seek justice instead of merely enforcing order, and our daily headlines make it clear they do not. We hope that we ourselves will truly live up to our best dreams, and we do not.
And Paul still says “hope does not disappoint.” And he’s still right too.
The question is, are you hoping for, or are you hoping in?
We know what it is to hope for – whether it’s the child hoping for a new dog for Christmas or me hoping for a clean result every time I go for a cancer screening, we hope for some thing, usually something fairly specific, something good or beneficial or at least not harmful. Sometimes our hopes are fulfilled – sometimes the child gets the bicycle, and my cancer screenings keep being clear so far – but painfully often we are disappointed. The new job doesn’t come, or turns out to be a horror show when it does. We send our child into the world and things don’t go well; maybe they end up back home in disappointment. Our own health fails.
When we hope for, inevitably we will be disappointed. Bodies fail us. Other people fail us.
But we hope in God. And that hope does not disappoint, because God does not disappoint.
God doesn’t promise us a dog or a bicycle or a perfect new job or perfect health. What God promises us is God, God’s own self, the love that is God.
As Paul goes on to point out, we already know that love because God has shown us that love in dying for us – and dying for us when were weren’t even good people. That’s not how we’re accustomed to things working out, as Paul’s little meandering thought in verse 7 reminds us. Hollywood certainly wouldn’t show us a movie in which the hero dies for the villain. That’s just not how it works. And yet while we were still “sinners,” while we were still “ungodly,” while we were still “the bad guys,” Christ died for us.
So we know God’s love, and that does not disappoint. When others around us disappoint and harm and murder and commit gross injustice, God’s love does not disappoint. When our very world spins recklessly off its axis and the very fabric of our basic living together is trashed and torn by purveyors of hatred, God’s love does not disappoint.
You might remember, from Matthew’s gospel many weeks ago, Jesus warned his disciples that his coming to them was no guarantee of peace; he did “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34; that was way back on March 12, a long time, I know). But here’s the thing; even when the sword has come, even when we are set child against parent, when we are beset by those who mockingly call us brothers and sisters … God’s love does not disappoint.
It may not seem like much; it might not seem like anything more than survival at times, as my pastor friend said, but God’s love is there, holding us up when we don’t even realize it. And that hope, that undying love of God, is where we are not disappointed.
We’re going to be in Romans for a while now, and I would encourage you to hold on to this point. It’s a book with some bleak lows and some incredible heartfelt highs. But whatever comes, whatever other arguments and meanderings and exaltations are to come, this is something to hold on: hope does not disappoint. Christ does not disappoint. God’s love does not disappoint, and that is where our hope – our only real hope – stands.
And for that undying hope, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #10, Sing Glory to the Name of God; #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #353, My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less; #832, Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand
Grace Presbyterian Church
June 11, 2017, Trinity A
Trinity Sunday is a field of landmines.
As one of the few special Sundays on the liturgical calendar that takes a doctrine as its subject rather than an event in the church’s tradition, it can easily seduce a preacher into a futile attempt into explaining said doctrine. Not only is such sermon unlikely to be very successful at engaging hearers, but it also puts the preacher at risk for any of a multitude of errors that have, at some time in the church’s history, been denounced as heresies.
I’m not kidding.
If you saw my Facebook page this week or the church’s page this weekend, you might have noticed an odd little animated example of these pitfalls attached to the Trinity. In the cartoon St. Patrick attempts to explain the Trinity to a pair of supposedly simple Irish cousins through (at their request) a series of metaphors, only for those “simple” Irish country folk to shoot Patrick down with the name for the heresy expressed in the metaphor. Water appearing in three different forms – liquid, ice, vapor? Denounced as “modalism,” which was named as heresy at the council of Constantinople way back when. The three-leaf clover? A violation of the teaching that the three persons of the Trinity are of one substance, and are not distinct “parts” of God. This goes on until Patrick finally rants:
All right, fine! The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith, and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed, which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance; that we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty!
To which those “simple” cousins respond, more or less, “well, why didn’t you say so?”
So no metaphors here. Accidental or not, I don’t need any heresies to deal with right now. Preaching is hard enough as it is.
But if it’s all that difficult, then what’s the possible benefit of having a whole Sunday devoted to this mysterious and seemingly inexplicable concept? Why have a Trinity Sunday at all if all it does is get preachers in trouble?
I think there are a few reasons.
I doubt this is a primary reason, but one of the great benefits of the doctrine of Trinity to the development of a real, humble, mindful spirituality is precisely that it is so incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to explain or to comprehend.
Humanity has this terrible, destructive habit of taking very scant scriptural evidence – say, the two passages read today, both of which more or less take Trinity as given without bothering to explain – and turning (or trying to turn) them into hardened dogmas to be used for judgment rather than instruction for the purpose of edification. Even a couple of days ago, when I was supposedly on vacation, I ended up in a conversation in which I ended up being asked “so who am I supposed to say wrote it,” referring to part of the Bible, to which I could only respond “you’re supposed to say you don’t know.”
Do we really think we will win the world to discipleship by logic and factual argument, or by having an airtight system in which no one can poke holes? No, that really isn’t how it works. The sooner we give up the idea that we’ve got God pegged the better. Really, what kind of God would an easily explainable God be?
Following on this, another possible value of the Trinity as a subject to consider is perhaps in its suggestion of community and togetherness even in the very nature of God. God is One, even as God is Three – Father, Son, Spirit in a relational sense and in the formula we usually speak in many churches, but we might also describe the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, emphasizing ways that humanity has experienced God working in God’s world from creation to the redeeming act of the cross to the ongoing sustaining presence recognized in the form of a mighty wind and tongues as of fire at Pentecost. It’s possible we would be well served to widen our vocabulary for speaking of the Persons of the Trinity, rather than being tied down to a single exclusive formula that fails to teach us and bring us into a deeper experience of God as One and God as Three, an experience that might lead us to reconsider our own experience as community, as the body of Christ, as the recipients of the fruits of the Spirit, so that we understand ourselves much more as “we” and get less hung up on the “me”.
This last also points to something that is most useful about these scriptures offered for Trinity in the lectionary. As noted before, both the passages from Matthew and 2 Corinthians more or less seem to assume a three-in-one God even as they also put forth God as still one even as three, so to speak. Matthew’s record of Jesus’s parting words to his disciples places the now-familiar Trinitarian formula – “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in the context of Jesus’s charge to the disciples to go – “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… .” While there’s a certain moment of pause when we, recognizing Jesus as Son of God, note that he’s evoking himself in this formula the way Matthew describes it, we don’t really think about it too much; it has simply become so commonplace that it is part of the sonic furniture of worship, so to speak, only examined more closely on an occasion like today.
Paul’s closing salutation, on the other hand, is born of a much more difficult situation. 2 Corinthians is a hard letter, written to a church that had brought great stress and humiliation upon Paul, and the letter consists a great deal of Paul letting them have it theologically. Nonetheless, as the letter comes to a close Paul chooses to use this salutation to remind them of what they have in common, the experience of God that binds them together to one another and also to the God they worship in common.
While we don’t want to get hung up on trying to make this into Trinitarian dogma – “grace must come only from Christ, love only from God, and what does communion even mean?” – we do want to take note of how such an evocative greeting points us again to how we are bound together in God. We are bound together with all the saints in the grace that brings us before God, the love that builds us up in God, and the communion or fellowship we share with one another in God. Paul points the Corinthians (and us) to the fact that while we have experienced God in these differing ways, they are all experiences of God. Three in one, one in three.
Maybe that’s the point here. To speak of this inexplicable mystery of a three-in-one, one-in-three God is perhaps to force ourselves to be sensitive to how we have experienced God. The unspeakable grace and mercy of a Savior who suffered so in redeeming us and restoring us to God; the unspeakable love of a Creator God whose providence is truly limitless; the unspeakable sustaining power of the Spirit that perhaps we don’t recognize until the end of a day we were absolutely convinced we would never get through, only to discover that somehow, we did.
No analogies here, no set answers, no easy formulas. Today a preacher can only step away from the pulpit with mystery still fully in place, challenging you – challenging us – to be utterly confident in precisely what we can’t explain, in unending love and undying mercy and unexpected support that we can know as being from God even if we could never write a doctoral dissertation to prove we have conquered it.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sustainer, Three in One, One in Three, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty; #25, O Lord, Our God, How Excellent; #11, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud; #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord
Grace Presbyterian Church, June 4, 2017, Pentecost A
Numbers 11:24-30; 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Acts 2:1-21
I confess that I get excited about Pentecost.
It isn’t necessarily for theological reasons, although there is plenty of theological meat to chew on where this day is concerned; nor is it because of any particular part of the liturgy, although there are a lot of good hymns available for the day – far more than can really be used in one service.
No, I get excited because we get to break out the red vestments. And as you can see, I like to go red.
Aside from services where an ordination is involved, Pentecost is the only Sunday of the liturgical year to which the color red is assigned. That seems strange to me – it’s not as if the Holy Spirit takes the rest of the year off, really – but between the dominance of green, purple’s hold on the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent, and white’s reign over Easter and Christmas, red just doesn’t get any other chances.
Of course the association of the color red with Pentecost comes quite specifically from the Acts story, in particular the “divided tongues, as of fire” that appeared in the room with, and rested upon, the disciples. You know, “red” for fire. And as far as it goes, that association works just fine for the particular occasion of Pentecost.
I wonder, though, if we run a risk of confusing the “red” of the event of Pentecost – this wild, unexpected outburst of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, leading to an event in which they were able to proclaim the gospel to a diverse and multilingual crowd in languages they themselves did not know – with the Holy Spirit itself. And that would be a bad thing for our understanding of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we need to be looking for a few more colors and shades of color other than our usual red.
Even the anthem just sung by the choir points to the Spirit as much more varied and less monolithic than our usual Pentecost reading suggests. A “mighty” Spirit, to be sure, but also a “gracious,” “truthful,” and “holy” spirit too. This is part of Paul’s message to the Corinthians – the Holy Spirit is about more, much more, than ecstatic utterances and flashy displays of spiritual power on which the Corinthians have become fixated. For Paul, the Spirit is what (or who) builds us up, who gives us the gifts that enable us to work together and live together and function together as the body of Christ. Those spectacular displays of ecstatic utterance were only upbuilding as long as the Spirit was also giving someone the gift of interpreting that utterance, while gifts such as teaching and leading were of more directly uplifting quality.
The extended passage from Joel quoted by Peter in his speech in Acts 2 points to yet another aspect of the Spirit. In this passage (you can compare it with Joel 2), what seems to be the key to the Spirit’s work is vision – vision that is not limited by age or status of any kind; “your sons and daughters shall prophesy … your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams … even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” This gift of prophesying, this gift of vision and dream, will be poured out on all, in Joel’s words, and Peter seizes upon this image in the wake of this event of the Spirit, even if “vision” doesn’t seem to be the first thing that comes to mind after what had just happened.
The Holy Spirit’s work among us is multifaceted indeed. We would be well-advised not to limit its work to the spectacular and dramatic and maybe a little eccentric. In essence, the Spirit is what sustains us in all ways, directly in a way that the ascended Christ did for the disciples while in human form on earth.
Of course, as Paul indicates in part, there are things the Spirit cannot, or perhaps will not, do.
I have to admit that I wonder about 1 Corinthians 12:3 these days. I don’t know that anyone would call for Jesus to be cursed when speaking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it sure seems to me that these days there are an awful lot of people running around trumpeting “Jesus is Lord!” with absolutely no evidence that the Holy Spirit is guiding their lives, and a ton of evidence suggesting that it is not. When we do things that are not even remotely reconcilable with the life and teaching of Christ, we just can’t claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
And yet we have a loudly self-proclaimed “Christian” (and a candidate for Congress) body-slamming a reporter for a question he didn’t like; another loudly self-proclaimed “Christian,” a radio host, defending said candidate by saying that if anything was going to “save Western civilization” it was going to have to be, and I quote, a “more aggressive, a more violent Christianity”[i]; and a congressman, also a self-proclaimed “Christian,” saying that we humans didn’t need to be worrying about climate change because God would “take care of” it, despite all that stuff in Genesis about being stewards of, you know, God’s creation.
You can’t do and say such things and claim to be led by the Holy Spirit. You just can’t be anti-Christlike and claim to be led by the Spirit. You just can’t, no matter how many times you call Jesus’ name. That’s not how it works.
When the spirit we are discerning shows us Jesus; when it builds us up into Christ’s body; when it cannot be contained by our preconceived plans as in the curious story from Exodus when prophecy wasn’t limited to the chosen elders; we then can have some trust that the Spirit is indeed the one we call Holy. When it doesn’t do those things, or when it does the opposite of those things, run very fast in the opposite direction.
For the gracious, truthful, holy, mighty Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #66, Every Time I Feel the Spirit; #292, As the Wind Song; #287, Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading; #289, On Pentecost They Gathered
Image credit: agnusday.org. Maybe not just fire?