Readings: Romans 5:1-11 and Mark 10:17-22
Holy spirit may all that I say and all that we hear lead us closer to Jesus.
Sarah’s lovely introduction to Romans last week told us that Paul was writing this letter to a church which was divided. It was divided between a group who thought that salvation came from obeying the law, as good Jews in Jesus’ tradition did, and those gentiles who thought that obeying the law, especially being circumcised, wasn’t necessary for salvation. Paul hasn’t met these people but he wants to try to sort out this dispute. So the letter he wrote to the Roman church, like the letter to the Galatian church in Turkey, was all about the question of what is the place in the life of those of who follow Jesus of non negotiable rules dictated by church authorities? Does that sound familiar? Are we ever oppressed by rules? I grew up with no putting on swimming costumes in the garden on Sundays…seems unbelievable now…but the principle was good, about making the Sabbath different. We have other rules now which may seem equally ridiculous in due course.
Let’s bring Paul to life. As Sarah indicated he was a passionate man and a clever privileged man. Those two things don’t always sit easily together. He could be bossy and opinionated, and pretty demanding. And he did things with enormous energy and conviction and love for the people he was engaged with.
Two huge things drove Paul. One, in the early part of his life, was his upbringing as a Jew, as a dedicated keeper of Jewish law. He was happy to hunt down and kill the Jewish Christians who were preaching against the Law as the one way to reconciliation with God. Does killing because you think you are right sound familiar? Obeying the Law was a tough call but if that’s what it took to be right with God Paul would do it. Like my silly Sunday rule what Paul was trying to do was good; he wanted to be right with God through obeying every law from Leviticus to Deuteronomy. That was exhausting: every day you were riddled with guilt and hatred and superiority towards those who argued against you. But what Paul knew very well, what we all know and what he argues here in Romans 1-4 and in Galations, is that keeping a set of rules is impossible. Rules are only there to keep all our base human stuff of jealousy and egotism and revenge and selfishness and laziness at bay, to let us live together in some way as human beings. We all disobey them, jump the traffic lights, whatever but they hold society in check. They don’t make us happy, or give us a reason to look forward to the day, they work to make us guilty.
The second absolutely related thing which drove him, the crossroads of his life, is when this all got blown away on the road to Damascus when Jesus met him and challenged him and blinded him and turned his life upside down. What he found there was an overwhelming freedom from all that bigotry in a God who was love, and who brought salvation through faith not the law to everyone. You can’t get much more upside down, nor can you eat much more humble pie than Paul had to do. Paul’s utter conviction about faith in God’s love being the way to reconciliation, his great goal, let him do some remarkable things. One of these was to not be ashamed, as Sarah told us last week. Paul wasn’t ashamed to say he’d been wrong! I’m reminded of people coming out as gay – learning not to be ashamed is hard.
This root of Paul’s passionate conviction about faith in the redeeming love of God as the only way, has to be in our mind as we read and understand his words. It’s of huge importance to us too as we examine our own inner convictions or hidden assumptions about our faith, for ourselves and others. What do we think is ‘necessary’ for us and others to do in order for God to love us and others? Only faith, says Paul. Will that shake us too?
Such faith is what brings us peace, the peace and joy which Paul never knew as a law keeping Jew. We too can be at peace with ourselves before God because God has accepted us just as we are through our trust in Jesus. Paul rejoiced for his whole life in his release from law keeping. Who, he asks, would die for a righteous man? Maybe someone…but Jesus died for us while we were still rebellious and uncaring and selfish and failing to keep the law. No more retribution, says Paul, skipping with glee and joy, no more of that thing I used to dread and used to hand out to other people in spades. Yes we have to keep the commandments – but we do it from love not from fear.Jesus challenged Paul on this but he challenged someone else.
READING Mark 10 17-22
This young man was loved by Jesus but it wasn’t enough. He knew how to be restrained and follow rules. But when Jesus challenged him by saying that’s not enough, you have to leave all that privilege behind and become totally dependent on me and the grace I bring you, then this lovely young man went away sorrowful because he was very wealthy. God isn’t viciously full of demands, except that we accept the love which Jesus shows God has for us and trust him and act accordingly.
And so says Paul, we have hope, hope which comes pouring into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Such a hope! Hope is in short supply often but we have it through our trust in Jesus through whom we are reconciled to God. We don’t have to earn it, just believe it.
This hope leads to rejoicing. We rejoice in God’s glory and in our salvation through faith in Jesus.
But then there’s the tough bit, the bit where Paul has a flash of the old self. His nature is extreme – he never does things by halves.
Paul says we rejoice in our hardships, because they build us up and give us a ‘tested character’ . Paul knows this from the inside. He’s been through such a lot, but he rejoices in it because that’s the walk with Jesus. It’s not fluffy joy, it’s utter conviction that we are inseparable from the love of God in Jesus.
Rejoicing in hardship sounds like very muscular Christianity and I need to say that I know much less of physical hardship than many here, but there is a deep truth in what Paul says about perseverance. We lay the spadework of our faith each day, and I have challenged myself through this sermon to think how I can find something of God, find God reaching out to me, in each day. We are such poor creatures of our wills and bodies: we don’t do what we know we should and our bodies betray us very often. Habits are a good thing when we are troubled, habits of prayer and habits of knowing what our trust is based on, of rejoicing in the solid fact of our salvation. When tough times come the habits of trust can count for much. I’m reminded of Maximilian Kolbe who volunteered in prison under Hitler to die for a young man who had been chosen for a retributive starvation group – and how he kept the faith in sharing Jesus with the rest of the group. There were many people who died for their faith in the early church as there are now and we need to pray for all those threatened for their faith, for them to have an upholding knowledge of God as Paul outlines it here. What are our habits of meeting God each day?
We don’t need to be people of great saintliness. We just need to recognise and be thankful and acknowledge that God is with us in the frantic rush and mess of our lives. It may be a quick prayer for strength or patience or for someone you meet or remember, but Paul is saying that as we consciously bring the hardships to God it encourages us to see God at work, and to remember that however tough it is God is there at work in us by the spirit. It’s not Pharisee stuff, making a song and dance: it’s just each day recognising that like it or not – and we should like it! – God is with us and we can act in ways which reflect the love of Jesus. I recently was worried about my son and as I was praying for him I found myself saying ‘you love him more than I do – can we do this together’. Our great gift of God’s love expressed in Jesus happens all day, every day.
So we have faith in the one who died for us, who calls us like Paul to an overwhelming joy in our salvation through faith in him.