As it turns out, this sermon was not preached, since nobody turned up and the service was cancelled! I don't know how well it would have preached. . . perhaps there will be a chance to preach it some other time.
9 April 2000
Once upon a time there was a young lady called Phoebe. We don't know very much about Phoebe, but we do know that she was a deacon in the Church, probably based in Corinth, and in about 57 AD she was preparing to move to Rome. And she was feeling rather shy about introducing herself into the lively and flourishing church she knew was there, so she went to her friend Paul, who knew people in the church, and asked him to help.
Paul, who was hoping to be in Rome himself very soon, agreed to write, and took the opportunity to write to the Church in Rome all about his faith, and what Jesus had done, as he saw it. And the result is the letter we know as the Letter to the Romans, from which our reading came.
You know, it's quite extraordinary, isn't it. The letter was written, they think, in about 57 AD, only about 25 years after the Resurrection, People who had known Jesus would still be alive - perhaps even his Mother, if she was as young as we have been led to believe. And yet Paul can write in these terms about Jesus.
They say the letter to the Romans is authentic Paul, so it's absolutely horse's mouth, not filtered through Luke like his speeches in Acts. What you see is very much what you get, and if you know anything about the letter, it is pretty densely packed with what we now call "theology". So let's see if we can unpack this chapter a bit.
2. Putting it in Context
Well, "a text without a context is a pretext", so let us see where these verses fit in the letter. Paul starts off by giving a picture of the human condition as he saw it, which was really rather pessimistic! But I doubt he would have been able to say anything better about the world today, alas. Human beings don't change much. The first few chapters of Romans are pretty depressing - people, Paul said, ignored God despite being aware of him through creation and so on, so God let them get on with it, and it is no good, he writes, tutting about the dreadful things they get up to since it's only basically through God's grace that we don't do them! He points out that if you are Jewish but don't keep God's law, you are worse than those Gentiles who do seem to know, however dimly, what God wants of them.
But the Law, Paul says, only ever goes to highlight that nobody at all is righteous. All of us are sinners in God's sight.
But then the mood changes. We may be sinners, but through God's grace we don't have to stay that way! Abraham, after all - well, it wasn't his obedience to God that saved him, was it? Even though he was obedient. No, it was the fact that, come what may, he believed God that made God consider him righteous.
And then this great chapter, chapter five. Do you know, the first Bible Study I ever went to was on this chapter? I had a Living Bible, and I still remember that it translated the first verse of the chapter something like "Now that we have been made friends with God through faith in his promises.....". And that was nearly 30 years ago!
Anyway, the point is that in chapter 5 Paul attempts to explain the mechanism by which God "makes us his friends". He doesn't really succeed, of course, because this sort of thing is what is known as a mystery - the more you think you know, the more there is to know, because it's of God. But I think Paul knows that. What he's groping after is an explanation that satisfies, even if it's not the whole truth.
3. And so to Our Reading
And then we come to the verses that we read earlier. They really aren't easy verses, are they? I am sure Paul knew what he was trying to say, but I'm not at all sure that I know! He is trying to contrast Adam's legacy with that of Christ. I don't know whether he believed that Adam was a real person, or whether he is just using his name as a metaphor for the first human beings, who rebelled against God. Not that it matters either way. For Paul, our legacy of being human is that we are sinners. We can't help it. Being human means being a sinner. Until now. Now Jesus has come, and, like Adam, his coming has affected us all. What Adam left as a legacy to the human race was sin; what Jesus has left is freedom from sin, justification, friendship with God. Whatever.
What interests me, though, is the way Paul phrases it. He doesn't say that friendship with God is only available to those who have faith, or to those who have been chosen, or whatever. He says it is available to all: "Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous". And elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 15:22 to be precise, he spells it out even more clearly: "for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ." All, you notice. Not just those who have been chosen, nor those who have faith, nor those who have been "saved", whatever that means. But All.
We don't like that much, do we. We who know that, through faith in Jesus, we have been reconciled to God, we do rather find in us a need to limit those who are like us. Human nature, really. And, of course, it's perfectly true that we do need faith to know Jesus. But St Paul says there are no exceptions. God, he tells us, was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Again, the whole world.
But if that is so, if we are saved whatever, if God has reconciled us no matter what, then what are all those verses about faith about? Why do we need faith? Why are we bothering to walk with Christ if, at the end of the day, we will all go to heaven anyway?
Well, one good reason is that we are told over and over again that we do need faith. For all the verses that support universalism, the belief that everybody eventually goes to heaven, there are others that deny it. And we, you and I who have faith, do know that we are saved. Other people do not, and it is possible that they are not. Although I suspect it's more probable that those who would absolutely hate spending eternity with God won't have to!
But the point is, are we directing all our efforts solely towards what will happen when we die? That, after all, is someday. It is now that whether or not we have faith affects us. Jesus said he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Abundantly!
Our salvation is here and now. The Psalmists in the Old Testament knew that; when they sang "Lord, save me!" they meant here and now, today, this directly minute! They had little concept of life beyond the grave: "Nobody praises you when they're dead!" For the people of ancient Israel, the life of faith was very much a matter of faith in what was happening now, today. Moses and Aaron, in the reading I decided not to have, were expecting God to make Pharaoh let the people go, not to some vague spiritual "promised land" but to somewhere that was extraordinarily real. A place that - well, I haven't visited yet, but Patrick has, and so have my parents and lots of other people.
And I think that is where sometimes we make mistakes. We know that some day, when this life is over, we will go on with God somewhere else, in what we call heaven. Okay, not all Christians believe that, but the vast majority of us do, and we live our lives in the light of that. But sometimes I think we forget that being reconciled to God is something that matters here and now, today. It's not only about "pie in the sky when you die". It's about abundant life here and now, today.
Every so often God reminds us of this, when he sends a renewal or a revival. In the last century, we were rather good at forgetting it, though. And as far as I know, God hasn't yet started sending any 21st-century renewals or revivals, although I may be wrong.
So where does that leave us? Still stuck in the endless round of sub-committee meetings that Methodists seem to feel necessary to prop up the church? If all are saved through Jesus, but we who have faith can have abundant life in this world, too, isn't that a little dreary?
I think maybe we need to be challenged, from time to time, to enjoy our lives. That does not, of course, exclude serving God. I remember someone telling me, years ago, that a few weeks before she was due to set off to serve God as a missionary in Africa, she wondered whether she was doing the right thing because she was so looking forward to it! Fortunately her counsellor was old and wise, and said to her, "But whatever makes you think that God would call you to spend your life doing something that would make you unhappy?"
It's a sad view we sometimes have of God, isn't it, that he would want us to be unhappy? We seem to think that because we are supposed to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves, this precludes any possibility of having fun! Who knows, we might be given neighbours to love that we also like very much! We might find that the sphere in which we are supposed to love God is something that we really enjoy doing.
Jesus took all the sin and sorrow and shame and stuff and dealt with it on the cross. It's over. Finished. We are living in a post-resurrection era where the power of sin that came in with Adam is finished. "For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous."
And as we have the immense privilege of knowing we are among that "many", let's live that way! Amen.
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