Sunday, July 24, 2011

6th Sunday after Pentecost - July 24, 2011

Our reading this morning from Paul's Letter to the Romans is a magnificent portion of scripture.  It is full of the gospel, like the sun is full of light or like the sea is full of water.  There is a cascade of promises that come one after the other, all building in a magnificent crescendo.

There are eight promises that I count: 1) The Spirit helps us in our weakness. 2) The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans to deep for words. 3) For those who love God all things work together for good. 4) For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined, called, justified, and glorified.  That is to say, he finishes what he starts. 5) If God is for us, no one can be against us. So no one can be against us! 6) The Father gave us Jesus, and will therefore also give us all things. 7) No one can put us on trial because it is God himself who has justified us. Nor can we be condemned by anyone because God is the only one who could condemn. 8) Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Any one of these promises all by itself would be great and wonderful good news.  All of them together is extravagant.  And yet that is exactly what Paul is writing.  

And here I would like to take a step back because it's easy enough to miss out on something important.  Paul is writing to small house churches in Rome.  It's about twenty years after the death of Jesus.  The Christian faith has been spreading, but it's a very small fish in a very large Pagan ocean.  These small Roman churches to which he is writing have undergone persecution.  And they are so vulnerable.  They are so vulnerable since they live right by the lion's mouth, right at the heart of the Pagan Empire, Rome.  

And the promises,...... the promises seem vulnerable in a place like Rome.  Paul promises that there will be no one to condemn.  Really?  Jesus himself was condemned to die by a Roman government official.  How can Paul say that there is no one to condemn?  

"If God is for us, who can be against us?"  How about the entire weight of the Roman world, the largest empire the world had ever seen?  

"God will give us all things?"  All things?  What about protection?  What about safety?  

It might seem like Paul is ignoring some rather obvious difficulties.  But he's not.  The persecution and the danger is right before his eyes.  He writes, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered."  So how can he declare these promises in such a situation? 

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul is laying out a long theological argument.  At the heart of it is this: In baptism, you are joined to Jesus Christ in his death.  Then the Holy Spirit raises you up and makes you a new creation.  So, Paul teaches, you are the Old Sinner AND you are the New Creation: two distinct persons.  We tend to get caught up in loads of old sinner stuff, but God is concerned with the new creation, the new person that is creating.

Here is how this applies.  Paul is declaring these promises of God not to the old sinner, but to the new creation. 

The old sinner would hear these promises and laugh out loud.  The old sinner is going to look at the situation that the little Roman churches are in and say, "Wait just a cotton pickin' second.  There's danger all around!  There’s tons of condemnation.  These promises are too good to be true."  The world often looks at the promises of God in the Bible and says, “Show us the proof.”  There is no proof.  And these promises are not for you who have no faith.

The new creation, on the other hand, lives by faith.  The new creation isn’t interested in the supposed evidence, but clings to the promise.  And so what happens is this, "for those who love God (that is, for those who have faith) all things work together for good."  There will be persecution and hardship and so on.  
  • But the one who lives by faith will know that the Spirit is interceding for them.
  • The one who lives by faith will experience that God is giving them everything they need.  
  • The one who lives by faith will be certain that God will bring them through it all, that they will never be separated from Him, no matter how bad things might seem.
They don't believe this because the evidence points that way.  That’s not the way faith works.  They believe it because they have heard the promise.  And then a great and glorious thing happens.  Even in the midst of hardship, these faithful ones are sustained by their Lord.  They are given more than they need to overcome great tragedy and heartache.

In the case of these Roman churches, here is what happened.  The Emperor Nero came to power in the decade following Paul’s letter.  There was a terrible fire that consumed much of Rome.  There is an old tale that may or may not be true, that Nero himself lit the fire to clear land for his own construction projects and that as he looked out over the blaze he played his fiddle (hence the expression “to fiddle while Rome burns”).  To defuse public anger, he blamed the Christians for having set the fire. 

In the ensuing persecution many Christians were killed, including, we think, the Apostles Paul and Peter.  Christians were burned to death as human torches.  They were let loose in the Coliseum to be eaten by lions.  And yet, the Roman Christians continued to believe the promises.  And they continued to endure.  They kept sharing the good news.  They kept serving their neighbors.  And the amount of people coming to know Jesus Christ and his promises continued to grow in spite of great hardship.

Why?  Because for the new creation, the one who lives by faith, these promises are very real.  And God faithfully keeps them.

In our own day and age, in northwest Iowa, there isn’t anything like the persecution that the Roman Christians endured.  But that does not mean that these promises aren’t for us.  They are!  For we too have been baptized into Christ’s death and raised up as new creations, as people who live by faith.  And these promises from God will bring us through every hardship and God will bring us safely home.  I mentioned at the beginning, that these promises formed a kind of magnificent crescendo.  This crescendo arrives at that last promise and it is with that word that I want to close today,

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment