28 July 2014

Sermon – “Dead and Alive” (Romans 6:1-11)

Eighty years ago these words by were being sung for the first time on Broadway:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like…
Anything goes.
The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…
Anything goes.

Cole Porter’s lyrics, once regarded as racy, seem tame by comparison with what is everyday experience nowadays. In many ways they express the spirit of our age: “Anything goes.”

Perhaps it should not surprise us that there is nothing new in that perspective. I suspect that, if you looked, you would find its promoters right back to the dawn of time. The author of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament experimented with this lifestyle. “Come now,” he said to himself, “I will make a test of pleasure. Enjoy yourself… Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure…” (Ecclesiastes 2:1,10).

Back in the first century there were those who suspected Paul of espousing just such a philosophy. It all arose out of his radical adherence to the great Christian doctrine of grace. This is the teaching that Paul has been at pains to expound through the first five chapters of his letter to the Romans: that eternal fellowship with God is not something that we earn (whether through obedience to the Law or by any other means). Rather it is a gift that we receive as we put our trust in Christ. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” I rather like Eugene Petersen’s rather expansive treatment of these verses in The Message:

Saving is all [God’s] idea, and all [God’s] work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.

And so in response to Paul there were those who were asking, “If being reconciled with God is entirely a matter of his grace, of what he has done for us in Christ, then does that mean it doesn’t matter what we do?” “Indeed,” they were saying, “if we take your argument to its logical conclusion, then perhaps we should sin all the more, for then we will receive all the more of God’s grace.”

Although there is no evidence that anyone in the Roman church was seriously proposing that lifestyle, it has cropped up in the church from time to time. Some of Martin Luther’s radical disciples taught something like it and he condemned their teaching as “antinomianism” (from anti, “against”, and nomos, “law”). A century after Luther, during the Commonwealth period in England, there arose a movement called “Ranters”. The Ranters believed that as Christians they were not constrained by any provisions of the law, that whatever was done in the Spirit was justifiable. Rejecting organized religion and all forms of religious and moral restraint, they saw nudism, free love, drinking and swearing all as valid expressions of spiritual liberation.

The Past

Needless to say, Paul is eager to defend his teaching against such arguments. And he does so through an experience that was common to all of those to whom he was writing: baptism. Most of those in the Roman church would have been first-generation Christians. And so their baptism would have been something that they remembered, I should think, vividly. Remember that in the church’s earliest days baptism almost always followed directly from conversion. On the day of Pentecost the three thousand new believers were baptized almost immediately upon their response to Peter’s message of repentance and faith. The same was true later of the Ethiopian official, Simon the magician, Cornelius and his relatives and friends, Lydia the cloth merchant, the jailer and his family at Philippi, and Crispus the synagogue official and his household. So when Paul calls upon the Romans to remember their baptism, they are looking back at a close-knit series of events that formed the key turning point in their lives.

To be baptized was a radical act of identifying totally and wholly with Christ. We see that in Paul’s use of the preposition “into”. It is a word that indicates action, movement, direction. Almost without exception, when people are baptized in the New Testament they are baptized into: into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, into the name of the Lord Jesus, into Christ. Being plunged underneath the water was a dramatic participation in Jesus’ death on Golgotha and his burial in Joseph’s tomb. The old Prayer Book of 1662 put it this way, in the exhortation that followed baptism:

[Remember] always, that Baptism doth represent unto us our profession; which is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him; that, as he died, and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin, and rise again unto righteousness…

So it is that, going back to the earliest liturgies, baptism has always included a form of renunciation of sin. The questions that are put to candidates before their baptism in our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are clear and forthright:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

Paul puts all of this in blunt terms: To have been baptized, to have repented and put our faith in Christ, he says, is to have died to sin. But what does this mean? Does it really imply that sin lies entirely in our past? I think most of us would confess that such is not the case. As we shall see in the next chapter, even Paul admits his ongoing weakness in the face of sin. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” So how do we come to terms with what Paul is saying here?

The Process

John Stott explains it well in his commentary on this passage when he uses the image of marriage. He asks,

Can a married woman live as though she were still single? … It is not impossible. But let her remember who she is. Let her feel her wedding ring, the symbol of her new life in union with her husband, and she will want to live accordingly.

Then by analogy he asks,

Can born-again Christians live as though they were still in their sins? … It is not impossible. But let them remember who they are. Let them recall their baptism, the symbol of their new life in union with Christ, and they will want to live accordingly.[1]

So it is that when we put our faith in Christ, when we are baptized into Christ, there are four things that are happening. First of all, we are receiving the full benefit of what he has done for us through his own death and resurrection—the forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and a new life as subjects of his kingdom and members of his family.

At the same time we are entering into a whole new commitment. In the gospels Jesus challenges us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow him. And Peter echoes, “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). What Jesus and Peter (and Paul in this morning’s passage) are talking about is a daily dying to sin and rising with him.

Just as it would be wrong for a married person to behave as though they were single, so it is unthinkable, once we have committed ourselves to Christ, to suppose that sin does not matter. Paul makes that emphatic after he asks the hypothetical question, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” His answer: “By no means!” The words in Greek are far more emphatic: Me genoito! Various translations have rendered it in different ways: “Of course not!” “I should hope not!” “Certainly not!” “Never!” “No, no!” the New English Bible puts it. Or as J.B. Phillips translates it, “What a ghastly thought!” In every case the words are followed by an exclamation mark. The short story is that Paul could not be more unequivocal. Even to entertain the thought that sin could be consistent with life in Christ is anathema.

A third thing to remember and related to this is that what Paul is writing about is a life-long process. This is implicit in his use of the word “walk” in verse 4. Think too of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom that we have been hearing in our Gospel readings in recent weeks. They all have to do with process, with growth: seeds coming to life in the soil and eventually producing grain in abundance, a tiny measure of yeast in a lump of dough causing it to rise into a loaf of bread, a mustard seed growing into a bush big enough that birds can nest in its branches. That process is not always uniform. In fact it is rarely so. We all have our ups and downs in the life of discipleship. There may even be occasions when we mess up royally. But do we not revel in them? Do we celebrate them? No, we repent and return to the Lord.

And that brings me to the fourth aspect of baptism. While we are baptized as individuals, baptism ushers us into a community. Think back to what we say together in this church when a candidate is baptized. “We receive you into the household of God…” Paul’s words in this passage are not in the singular but in the plural. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death…” “We have been united with him in a death like his…” “We know that our old self was crucified with him…” We’re not playing singles tennis here. We’re part of a team. And when we stumble and fall there are others who are there to tend our wounds, to help us to our feet and to get us back onto the field again. Think again of what the congregation promises at every baptism:

Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?
We will.

The Promise

“Dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”: a benefit, a commitment, a process. And it is also a promise. For while we will never make it in this life, never even get anywhere near, we walk towards the day when we will indeed be dead to sin, when we will be fully alive in Christ. Our walk, the process that was set into motion at our baptism, has a destination. “Beloved,” wrote the aged apostle John, “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). May God keep each one of us faithful along the journey.

[1]     Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 179,180

21 July 2014

Sermon – “This grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:1-10)

On the afternoon of Thursday, 5 August 2010, miners and technicians working 2300 feet below the surface in the San José mine in Chile heard an ominous rumbling. In an instant they knew that they were trapped. The 121-year-old mine was located in an area of geological instability and had a history of safety violations and accidents, including two deaths and the entrapment of seventy miners only four years previously.
On the surface it was assumed that the workers had probably not survived the collapse or would starve to death before they were found, if ever. However, a huge outpouring of concern both within Chile and around the world prompted the government to become involved in the search and rescue effort. Seventeen days after the collapse, a hand-written note in bold red letters was found taped to a rescuer’s drill bit: “We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us.” Until that time the miners had been cut off entirely, surviving only on dwindling rations.
A vital link was established through a borehole the diameter a grapefruit. However, it would take another eight weeks and the concerted efforts and expertise of a multinational, multidisciplinary team before all the men were finally brought to the surface. It is estimated that, as the thirty-three emerged from the mine, more than a billion viewers were watching on from around the world.
Now I want you to take a moment to imagine yourself as one of those miners. Imagine first of all the hopelessness of being trapped by a rockslide nearly half a mile underground with no way of escape, no one to hear your desperate cries for help. Imagine, two weeks later, hearing the rat-a-tat of drills and then seeing one bit as it pokes through through the rock face. Imagine, after eight weeks of waiting, the anticipation as slowly, gradually you are hoisted to the surface. Imagine standing for the first time in the open air, breathing in its freshness, seeing the twinkling of the stars, and being embraced by family and friends you thought you never would set eyes upon in your life again. In a spiritual sense, the experience of those miners is a kind of parable of what Paul is describing in the opening verses of chapter 5 of Romans.
For the first two and a half chapters, Paul has been relentless in driving home the point that each of us, left to ourselves, is entrapped and enslaved by the darkness of sin. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God” (3:10,11). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We are the miners, trapped in the mine. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
However, God has graciously come to our rescue. He has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has justified us, redeemed us, atoned for us. Forgiven, freed and reconciled, we now stand and breathe in the fresh air of his grace. So it is that Paul writes in verse 2 of “this grace in which we stand”—I believe with arms wide open, inhaling into our lungs the freshness of the Holy Spirit. It puts into my mind that iconic opening scene in The Sound of Music. The camera pans over a fresh green meadow surrounded by the grandeur of the Austrian Alps. Then it circles in on Julie Andrews as she bursts into song: “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” In Paul’s words once again, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Perhaps a better translation of that word “boast” would be “rejoice”, “exult”, “revel”. The mood of this passage is one of exuberant joy, the joy that Jesus promised no one can take from us.


The first element of this new environment as Paul describes it is peace. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Perhaps it is the influence of the New Age movement or of Eastern religions, but when we think of peace on a personal level today, I suspect that what comes to most people’s minds is inner tranquility, sitting in a lotus position and quietly chanting, “Om.” For such people finding peace involves retreating into the inner world of the spirit, escaping from the distractions and the negativity of the world around us.
By and large when the Bible uses the word “peace”, however, that is not what it is referring to. For one thing, the biblical authors were not so naïve as to think that we could ever find peace within ourselves. Speaking for myself, my own experience more resembles the words of Charlotte Elliott’s hymn. When I look inside myself I find that I am “tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without…” Not that there are not times when we need solitude and when it can be a healing experience for us. But that is not the path to the peace that Paul is writing about here.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about this in his little book Life Together, when he wrote,
Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.[1]
In the Bible, peace is a relational word. It almost invariably refers to peace between people. Thus to have peace is to be reconciled. It is to be in a healthy relationship with another person. And so we find spiritual peace not by retreating into ourselves, but by turning to God. We remember Jesus’ words that we read in the Gospel a couple of weeks ago, “Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28,29).
Ultimately, however, that peace has been made possible not by our coming to God but by his coming to us. We were too weak to do anything about our condition, as Paul reminds us in verse 6. The word can be translated “sick”, “feeble”, “powerless”. As one of our Prayer Book collects reminds us, “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Or as we once confessed in the old service of Morning Prayer, “There is no health in us.” And as we have heard already in the preceding chapters of Romans, we were trapped and enslaved by our own sin. In our rebellion we had become God’s enemies. So it is that God himself has taken the initiative. As Paul writes elsewhere, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” “He himself is our peace,” and “he has made peace through the blood of his cross”. All that is left to us is simply to trust him.


“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But that is not all. Paul declares that we also boast in our hope of sharing in the glory of God.
Viktor Frankl was one of those few who survived the Nazi death camps of World War 2. Immediately after his experience, in 1946, he wrote a book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning, which has since become a classic. His central observation was that it was those who saw meaning in life, in other words those who had hope, who were the most likely to survive. This comes out especially in an incident he relates after a particularly punishing day.
Our senior block warden … talked about the many comrades who had died in the last few days, either of sickness or of suicide. But he also mentioned what may have been the real reason for their deaths: giving up hope. He maintained that there should be some way of preventing possible future victims from reaching this extreme state. And it was to me that the warden pointed to give this advice… I said that … whoever was still alive had reason for hope… I also told them that … I had no intention of losing hope and giving up. For no man knew what the future would bring, much less the next hour… Then I spoke of the many opportunities of giving life a meaning. I told my comrades … that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death… They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning… And finally I spoke of our sacrifice, which had meaning in every case. It was in the nature of this sacrifice that it should appear to be pointless in the normal world, the world of material success. But in reality our sacrifice did have a meaning… The purpose of my words was to find a full meaning in our life, then and there, in that hut and in that practically hopeless situation.[2]
Now Frankl was an existentialist. He did not acknowledge the existence of God or of any kind of hereafter. His hope was pinned to earthly goals, worldly realities. The hope that Paul writes about, on the other hand, is a “hope in sharing the glory of God”, a hope, he says that “does not disappoint us”. It is a hope that enables us not only to survive, but even to triumph in our sufferings. The word translated “sufferings” has to do with being squeezed in, what we might call living in a pressure cooker. What he says is that that pressure does not crush us. Instead, it only makes us stronger, producing endurance. And that endurance in turn issues in character. I would prefer to translate that word with something like “genuineness” or “authenticity” or “integrity”. In fact it is used for the testing of metals in a furnace, and hence Eugene Petersen renders it “the tempered steel of virtue” in his translation in The Message. We find something very similar in the First Letter of Peter, where we read,
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6,7)
And out of all of this, says Paul, arises hope. Yet while suffering, endurance and character may provide the context of hope, they are not its foundation. What truly gives us hope is our experience of the love of God in Jesus Christ.


Paul speaks about that love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. And what a grace it is that we should be able to experience and feel that love within our very selves!
Ultimately, however, that love is measured not by our personal experience, powerful as that may be, but by the cross. It is in the cross that we see the full extent of God’s extraordinary love. It is rare, Paul says, that someone would give their life for a good person. But God’s love is such, that even though we had rebelled from him, even though we may have turned our backs on him and cursed him, he gave his Son to die for us. It is from the cross we learn that there is no one who is outside the extent of God’s love, no one who cannot be brought into his saving embrace.
It is this unquenchable, indefatigable love that we see in the cross and that has come to us through the Holy Spirit. It is this love that gives us hope, that is the source of our joy and exultation. Let us humbly yield to it and breathe it in deeply so that it suffuses and enlivens the whole of our being.

[1]     page 77
[2]     pages 102-105

08 July 2014

Sermon – “No Room for Boasting” (Romans 3:19-28)

If you listened carefully to this morning’s New Testament reading, you may have noticed that there was one word that came up with amazing frequency: six times, in fact, in the first two verses, and then three more times in the last two. It was the word “law”. It is one of the key concepts in this letter to the Romans: key because the Roman church was made up of a mixture of Jews and non-Jews, and for Jews the law was something that was central to their identity as a nation. It marked them off as God’s people. And so the law, and its place within the Christian faith, became a crucial topic. Is it still in effect or do we disregard it altogether? What are we say about Jews who disobey the law, or about Gentiles who keep it?
Lest you think this interest in the law was a bit excessive, let me read you this excerpt from an article in the Wall Street Journal three years ago.
For decades, the task of counting the total number of federal criminal laws has bedeviled lawyers, academics and government officials. “You will have died and [been] resurrected three times,” and still be trying to figure out the answer, said Ronald Gainer, a retired Justice Department official. In 1982, while at the Justice Department, Mr Gainer oversaw what still stands as the most comprehensive attempt to tote up a number. The effort came as part of a long and ultimately failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law. The project stretched two years. In the end, it produced only an educated estimate: about 3,000 criminal offenses. Since then, no one has tried anything nearly as extensive.
None of these studies broached the separate—and equally complex—question of crimes that stem from federal regulations, such as, for example, the rules written by a federal agency to enforce a given act of Congress. These rules can carry the force of federal criminal law. Estimates of the number of regulations range from 10,000 to 300,000. None of the legal groups who have studied the code have a firm number. “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” said John Baker, a retired Louisiana State University law professor who has also tried counting the number of new federal crimes created in recent years. “That is not an exaggeration.”[1]
By contrast, the number of laws that Paul was referring to in the Old Testament can be counted. According to the rabbis there were 613 in all—365 negative ones and 248 positive. And all of them flowed from just ten commandments, which in turn Jesus summarized in two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. It seems simple by comparison.

A Silence: The law makes us conscious of our sin (19-20)

Paul’s aim, as this morning’s passage opens, is to help his readers understand the basic purpose of the law itself. Sadly, there were those who saw the law as a kind of stick with which to beat those who lived outside its provisions. They took great pride in their possession of the law and in their knowledge of the law, but they were not necessarily all that careful about keeping the law. Or at best they were selective about it. While they were fastidious about circumcision, they may not have been entirely honest in their financial dealings. While they scrupulously obeyed the dietary laws, their sexual mores may have been questionable.
In this regard they were really no different from anyone else. We are quick to see others’ flaws and foibles. Yet we are blind to our own—or at best we try to minimize them or make excuses for them. Jesus brought that out when he asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).
And so, Paul declares, God did not devise the law so that we could point an accusing finger at others. Rather (in the words of the New Living translation), “Its purpose is to keep people from having excuses… The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” The version of this passage in The Message puts it even more clearly:
Whatever is written in these Scriptures is not what God says about others but to us to whom these Scriptures were addressed in the first place! And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else? Our involvement with God’s revelation doesn’t put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else’s sin.
I try to get into the gym a few times each week, and there are a number of us who kvetch from time to time about people who don’t re-rack the weights, who don’t bother to aim when they throw away their paper towels, who don’t flush the toilets … and the list could go on and on. Yet I need to ask myself, what about the times when someone has tried to share something important with me and I haven’t bothered to listen? What about the times when I have promised to do something and promptly forgotten about it? What about the times when I have failed to control my tongue? Suddenly the paper towels seem trivial by comparison.
Paul’s whole purpose up to this point in the letter is to demonstrate beyond any doubt that no one stands outside the condemnation of the law. The law teaches us that we are all without excuse. We have no defense. We can only stand in silence before the Judge of all.
The principal point of the law [wrote Martin Luther] is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it showeth unto them their sin, that by the knowledge thereof they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek comfort and so come to … Christ.”[2]  

A Sacrifice: The cost of reconciliation (21-26)

And this brings us to Paul’s next point. For here we come to one of the most important words in all of Scripture. It is the little word “but”. That little word is the fulcrum on which the whole of the gospel swings. It introduces us to what New Testament scholar C.K. Barrett has described as “perhaps the richest and most important paragraph in the whole letter”.[3]
The law condemns us all. It’s like one of those action-adventure flicks. Our hero is being chased by a band of murderous hooligans. He scrambles over a chain-link fence and into an alleyway. The he realizes that it is a dead end. There is no way out. The thugs move towards him, rolling up their sleeves, drooling at the thought that in a moment they will be beating him to a pulp. Then suddenly you hear the whirring of a helicopter overhead. A rope dangles in front of our hero and he is whisked off into safety as his attackers reach up in a last vain effort to grab him by his boots.
That is the effect of that one word “but”. In the words of the New Living Translation, “The more we know God’s law, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying it. But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law…”
How has he done this? In three words in verses 24 and 25 Paul gives us three vivid images. The first is “justification” and here Paul brings us into the courtroom. We stand before the judge, guilty as charged. Yet instead of imposing upon us the full force of the law and giving us the sentence we justly deserve, he grants us a pardon.
Paul’s second picture is of the slave market. It comes to us in the word “redemption”. In the ancient world captives of war were often paraded into the marketplace and auctioned off to the highest bidder to become slaves for the rest of their lives. The law teaches us (and rightly so) that we are captivated and enslaved by sin. Yet God has graciously released us and given us a new freedom. “If the Son sets you free,” Jesus promises us, “you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
The third place to which Paul brings us is the altar. Paul tells us of Jesus as being put forward as a “sacrifice of atonement”. In the Old Testament atonement always involves sacrifice. This was to underline the fact that reconciliation—true reconciliation, that is—never comes without a cost. It is not a question of just pretending that nothing is wrong. It is not as though we can just leave our sins behind as though nothing ever happened. “The righteous, loving, faithful God,” writes C.E.B. Cranfield, “does not mock or insult his creature man by pretending that his sin does not matter, but rather himself bears the full cost of forgiving it righteously—lovingly.”[4]

A Standing: Made right with God through faith (27-28)

Whether it is as Protestants or as products of the twenty-first century or a combination of both, we tend to shrink from the often gory depictions of past centuries of Jesus on the cross. We prefer our simple, sanitized versions, that work well as a decoration on a living room wall or on the covers of our prayer books. Someone has observed that Jesus died not on a silver cross between two candlesticks, but on a wooden cross between two thieves. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ may be criticized at points but it does bring across the sheer brutality of the cross. There Jesus has taken the full brunt of our sin in all its ugliness upon himself.
Yet the point of all this is not to overwhelm us with guilt, but to draw us to faith. For on the cross we are confronted not only with the horror of our sin but even more with the wonder of God’s grace. There is a prayer in our Book of Common Prayer that begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” The cross stands as the symbol of God’s condemnation of human sin. Yet it also stands as an invitation, in the words that we heard from Jesus in this morning’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Here is how Eugene Petersen puts the final verses of this morning’s passage in The Message: “What we’ve learned is this: God does not respond to what we do; we respond to what God does… Our lives get in step with God and all others by letting him set the pace, not by proudly or anxiously trying to run the parade.” In the cross of Christ God has taken the initiative to deal with sin, yours and mine, once and for all. All that is left for you and for me to do is to trust him.

[1]     “Many Failed Efforts to Count Nation’s Federal Criminal Laws”, Wall Street Journal, 23 Jul 2011
[2]     Quoted by John Stott in Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 104
[3]     Reading Through Romans, 15
[4]     Romans, A Shorter Commentary, 68