25 June 2015

Sermon – “You, Me and the Gospel” (Romans 1:7-17)

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This is the first sermon I preached at Messiah Episcopal Church, on 26 September 2004.
Preaching on an occasion such as this is a daunting experience. This is really kind of a test run—like Wilbur and Orville Wright standing on the grassy fields of Kitty Hawk a century ago and looking at their newly-constructed flying machine. They had spent months designing and building wings, fuselage, engine, propellers and all that they thought it would take to accomplish the first powered flight, not to mention years of dreaming, studying and consulting from their bicycle shop in Ohio.
In your case you have a search committee that fasted and prayed, studied, met and traveled for more than a year and a half. And I know for a fact that their dedication was mirrored many, many times over by others in this congregation, who have prayed fervently, trusted hopefully and waited patiently as events gradually unfolded.
So here we stand on the runway, and we nervously ask ourselves, like Orville and Wilbur, is it going to fly? On their fourth attempt on 17 December 1903, Wilbur managed fifty-nine seconds of flight, reaching an altitude of 852 feet, and the brothers knew that they had entered the era of human flight. Perhaps some of you are thinking already that a fifty-nine second sermon would be a good way to introduce my incumbency at Messiah. If so, I am sorry to have to disappoint you. Yet my hope for this morning is that we may begin to have some sense that we are at the beginning of a fruitful partnership, and that together by God’s grace we may have the joy of seeing this church truly soar on eagle’s wings. So would you turn with me in your Bibles to the first chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Romans as we embark on our first adventure in exploring God’s word together.
My reason for choosing this passage is that Paul’s circumstances as he wrote were very similar to mine as I stand in this pulpit this morning. This is Paul’s attempt to introduce himself to a Christian community that he soon hoped to encounter face to face. Although he had no doubt met a number of its members as he and they traveled through the Roman Empire, he had not yet had the privilege of meeting them as a congregation. So he spends some time at the beginning of this long letter reflecting on who they are, who he is, and the nature of the ministry in which they share—which is what I want us to do now in the moments that remain to us.

You

The first thing that Paul affirms about his fellow Christians in Rome (in verse 7) is that they are loved by God. I don’t know if you have ever paused to consider what an amazing statement this is. What Paul is speaking about here is not some generalized kind of love. There are no doubt some of you who could say that you love Canadians. And I do not for a moment doubt the genuineness of your affection. But that is not the same as saying that you love me or that you love my wife (which many of you have already shown you do even without really knowing us). In the same way the love of God, of which Paul speaks here, is a very personal, individual love. It is not merely that God loves people (which he does) or that he loves Romans (which he does) or that he loves the Christians at Rome (which again he does). It is that he loves Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junias, Ampliatus and Urbanus, Apelles, Herodion, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Rufus, and each of the rest individually and personally.
This morning I want to affirm each of you in that divine love. I hope that there is no one who will leave this place this morning without a deep sense that God loves you personally, as an individual. Perhaps you have heard the story of Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, who was once asked after a lecture at Union Theological seminary what was the most profound theological statement ever made. His answer: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” You may not feel that way—I can’t say that I do all the time. You may not be able to make sense of it—and I would ask who among us does. Yet that does not alter the fact that God loves you more deeply, more constantly, than you can ever imagine.
The second thing Paul says is that they are “called to be saints”, or, as he says in verse 6, “called to belong to Jesus Christ”. You may be here for any number of reasons—perhaps curiosity to see the new rector, perhaps to test the waters, perhaps because you would never be anywhere else on a Sunday morning. Yet in a fundamental sense, whether you acknowledge it or not, you are here because, no less than the fishermen who stood repairing their nets by the Sea of Galilee, you have been called by Jesus Christ—called to follow him, called to serve him, called to become like him.
Paul’s word for it is that you have been called to be saints. It may seem a rather daunting title for us mere mortals. The word in Greek is the same as “holy”. What Paul is saying here is that when Jesus Christ calls a person, he never leaves them the same. Yes, he fully accepts us as we are. But when we are drawn to him, we are drawn into a process of transformation that continues until the day we die and will not leave any part of our lives untouched.
To spend time in the company of Jesus is to find ourselves being changed. And that is exactly what happened to these Romans. In Paul’s words their faith was being reported all over the world. Perhaps Paul was exaggerating a little when he spoke as he did. Yet the fact remained that their lives were being changed to the point that people were talking about it.
When Jesus Christ begins to make a difference in our lives, we in turn begin to make a difference in the lives of others and in our world. We become the salt and light that Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount. And I know that you are a congregation that is making a difference in many ways in the world around you—ways that do not make newspaper headlines, but I know that there are many whose lives have been touched and continue to be touched through what Jesus is doing in and among you here at Messiah. Long may that continue!

Me

Having said a little bit about his readers in Rome, Paul goes on to reveal a few things about himself. When I met with the search committee, I told them that I saw the role of the rector in a parish as helping people to look outward and upward—outward beyond our comfort zones into the world around us, because it is so easy for us to be so absorbed by our internal life that we become a “holy huddle”; and upward in prayer, because it is always a temptation to do things on a merely human level and to forget to involve the Lord and to look to his guidance.
It seems to me that Paul saw himself doing much the same kind of thing. Twice—in verse 9 and verse 15—he shares his eagerness to proclaim the good news about Jesus. Let me tell you that I share that same eagerness. I can’t claim that every sermon I preach is a “royal George”, but nothing will give me more delight than to explore the Scriptures with you. My goal will not be to help you become some kind of walking Bible encyclopedia. Rather it is, in Paul’s words elsewhere in the New Testament, that you may be “thoroughly equipped for every good work”, that together we begin to catch a glimpse of God’s perspective on life in this increasingly complex world and make a difference in it as a result.
Paul also speaks about his prayers “at all times” on behalf of the Romans. For my part I have not ceased to pray for you since the day I accepted the call to become your rector. And I know full well that you were praying for me long before that. I count myself deeply privileged to enter a community that takes its prayer life seriously. I am humbled by your dedication.
As a result I am not sure that there is much I can teach you about prayer. Yet I trust that we can explore it together. So it is that with Paul, I recognize that we are in a partnership. I pray with him that our relationship may be one of mutual encouragement, that our exposure to one another may make us only want to grow in faith, to go deeper into the love of Christ.
There are some people I love to be around because they bring out the best in me. In their presence I can never be catty or sarcastic, for somehow they help me to become more of the person that I ought to be in Christ. Perhaps you know people like that as well. It is my hope that we can be that kind of person for one another as we seek to serve Christ here at Messiah.

The Gospel

Paul has said something about his readers and something about himself. Yet all of this is really just a preamble to his real subject, one that will take up the remaining fifteen chapters of his letter. That subject is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ—and I would be remiss if I did not follow in his footsteps and speak about it. Three things:
Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel. There are many things he might have been ashamed about: his past as a persecutor of Christians, the mysterious thorn in his flesh that caused him such weakness, his delays in fulfilling his promise to make it to Rome. But one thing he was not ashamed of and that was the good news of Jesus Christ. I don’t know about you, but there are many things I would rather talk about than Jesus—the weather, sports, gardening, my health, to name just a few. To be truthful, the gospel comes rather low on my list. I wonder if the same isn’t true of some of you as well. Not that we need to be buttonholing people and shoving the gospel down their throats, but we do need to learn not to be ashamed of it, even more, to be confident in it. And Paul gives us two reasons why:
First, the gospel is the power of God. Perhaps you already know that the word Paul uses here is dunamis. It is the word from which we derive our English word “dynamite”. And so the gospel is dynamite. Those of you who are involved in Alpha know that. You have seen people’s hearts being set aflame by the gospel as you share it week by week. Over the past couple of days I have been able to spend some time leafing through this marvellous book some of you have written about yourselves. As I read it I find myself deeply moved as I see lives that have been transformed by the gospel. And that has been the experience of my own ministry again and again that, as people are exposed to the gospel faithfully and consistently, it inevitably has an impact on their lives.
Secondly Paul tells us that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Volumes have been written on that word righteousness, but essentially and put very simply it has to do with right relationships. It is through the gospel that we learn how we come into a right relationship with God. And that, says Paul, is through faith from start to finish. But what I want you to note here is that Paul uses the present tense. He does not say, “In the gospel a righteousness from God has been revealed,” but, “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.” That is, the good news of Jesus is self-authenticating. It is not merely a quaint story from the past. So often to the surprise of those who hear it (and sometimes to the surprise of those who proclaim it) the gospel speaks to us in the present and makes Jesus a reality for us today.
My hope and prayer for you and me at Messiah is that we may grow as a community that has no doubt about the power of the gospel—that as we proclaim it and live it we may know daily the wonderful life-giving presence of Jesus in our midst and never be the same as a result.
Father, I thank you
that in your grace you have brought us together in your service.
I pray that in your mighty power you may move among us
to make us a gospel proclaiming, gospel living community
where your love is known,
where Jesus is reverenced and served
and where your Holy Spirit leaves no life untouched—
for the glory of your great and ineffable name.

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