6th Sunday after Trinity
23.7.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we conclude our series on the writings of Paul by looking at his longest letter, the letter to the church in Rome. It is a letter that has had a huge influence on the history of the church. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Karl Barth (the greatest theologian of the 20th century) all came to faith through reading this letter. Of all his letters, it is this one that gives the fullest explanation of the Gospel.
Like with his letter to the Colossians last week, Paul was writing to a church he had never had the opportunity to visit. Part of the reason for his letter is to let them know that he is intending to visit them as he heads out on his intended missionary journey to Spain. He wants to share with them his understanding of the gospel message, so that they can see he is a legitimate apostle, and welcome him when he arrives. And he asks Phoebe, one of the key leaders in the Corinthian church to deliver his letter and speak on his behalf to support his letter if need be.
The main part of his letter is taken up with giving a clear, systematic account of the Christian message, the Gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ. Remember, at this point, less than 25 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, the church is still working out its theology, still trying to make sense of the extraordinary miracle of Christ and the powerful, energising, transforming work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. So Paul sets himself the task in this letter of providing some foundations for people’s faith.
He starts with the declaration that everyone is in need of salvation because all have sinned. In one famous phrase he says: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. All, everyone, there are no exceptions. Any suggestion that the Christian faith is for those who see themselves as better than others, or that there are people who are more superior or holier than others, is swept away. All have sinned. And what is sin? It is the falling short of the glory of God. It is the failing to live in a way that honours and worships God in every act, in every word, in every thought. It is the sobering reality that all have failed to pass the test – all have fallen short of the standards of God.
Even when we don’t mean to sin, we can’t help it. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (7:15). If you are anything like me, you can identify with those words. How often am I determined to be patient or not fly off the handle with someone, and yet still find myself losing control? How often do I commit to behaving better or more thoughtfully towards a loved one, and yet still mess up? And indeed how often do I commit myself to living for God and then end up living a lot of the day as though he were not there?
We sin; we fall short; and the remedy for our failings cannot be found within us; it cannot be found by trying harder. That was the point Paul was making to the Jewish Christians who were still trying to win God’s approval by obedience to the law. It cannot be found either by appealing to some innate human goodness because our innate human sinfulness is too strong.
But then Paul moves on to the good news, and it is wonderful good news. Just as all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, so all can be brought into a right relationship with God and live in the glory of his presence. How can this happen if we can’t achieve it by our own efforts? The answer is that God has achieved it for us. It is through what he has done through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we can be made what he calls “righteous” or “justified”. As our representative, Jesus took onto himself all the consequences of the pain, suffering, sin and death that we have caused in the world by dying for us on the cross. Not only has he taken it upon himself. Through his resurrection he has overcome it. Evil and sin will not have the final word.
As Paul wonderfully proclaims: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (8:1). We are now free to call almighty God “Abba, Father” because in Christ we are welcomed as his children, as one of the family.
So, because of what Christ has done, we are given a new status – we are forgiven, welcomed into God’s presence; we are given a new family – we are brought into the family of God, we are his children; and we are given a new future – a future where we will live in the presence of God and experience his glory and praise.
This is Paul’s theology, all crammed into 11 chapters of dense theology. But interspersed throughout he drops in thoughts and encouragements relevant to our daily lives, none more so than when he touches on the theme of suffering. He recognises that the church in Rome are experiencing suffering and persecution and that there will be more to come. But he encourages them not to despair. The gospel is a message of peace with God and of joy, and we should not allow our sufferings to rob us of that truth. Indeed sprinkled throughout this letter are some wonderful encouragements in coping with our sufferings.
Firstly, our suffering can be redeemed, God is able to bring good out of even the worst of situations. Suffering can produce perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope – hope in a God who ultimately overcomes evil with love, overcomes death with life.
Secondly, no matter how bad our current sufferings, they will pale in comparison with the future of life with God that awaits.
Thirdly, God knows that sometimes our struggles are such that we don’t know what to pray. As Paul writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” He comes alongside us. He shares our pain. He prays the words we cannot express.
Fourthly, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him”. He is working for our good, even if in the midst of our pain and suffering we are struggling to see it.
And fifthly, there is nothing – not hardship, persecution, famine, suffering – nothing that can separate us from God’s love. In those wonderful words, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38-9). Take heart.
And finally, as with all Paul’s letters, there are practical instructions as to how to live. There is a wonderful moment, after 11 chapters of dense theology, when he writes: “Therefore (ie, in the light of all that I have just written), I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” (12:1). And what does that mean? It means devoting ourselves to one another; treating people with greater respect than we would seek for ourselves; sharing with those in need; practising hospitality; rejoicing with those who rejoice, and mourning with those who mourn; working for harmony and peace. In a word, it means to live a life of love.
We have come to the end, for now, of our journey with Paul, though our readings will continue until the end of the week. If there are two things only you take away from the last few weeks take away these two great Pauline truths:
It is what Christ has done for us – his great act of love on the cross – and not what we have done for him, that brings us into a life-giving relationship with God.
And secondly, the most appropriate response that we can make to this extraordinary, freely given gift is to live a life of love in return.