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St Columba's Crosspool

Open to God, Welcoming All

“God is kind, but he’s not soft”: reading Paul’s letter to the Romans

July 30, 2013

Summer’s here, and as we all know, one of the delights of summer is planning our holiday reading.  The day are long, life is less busy, and it’s a great time to relax with a novel, some poetry, or a spiritual read of some kind .  Some of us have the opportunity to go away on holiday, and some of us don’t but the great thing about reading is it can transport you to another world without leaving the comfort of your favourite armchair. I’ve got an inviting pile of books to take away with me when we go away next week.

I’m going to propose some holiday reading for us at St. Columba’s, which is that we read Paul’s letter to the Romans together, and we’ve planned a sermon series for the next month to help us get to grips with this extraordinary book, which is one of the most magnificent writings of the New Testament.  The plan is to spend five weeks at this, and in that time we’re going to cover highlights from the first eight chapters of Romans – that is the first half of the book  – it comprises sixteen chapters in total.

Now maybe you’re thinking that “holiday read” and “Paul’s letter to the Romans” don’t belong together in the same sentence.  I can hear your thinking “But I like my holiday reads to be relaxing and enjoyable.  Reading Paul sounds like seriously hard work, and I’m not sure I’ll even understand it!”

Well, I agree, sometimes reading the Bible can be hard work, but actually I think we make it harder for ourselves than it need be by using translations that don’t completely work for us.  I want to suggest that for our holiday read of Romans we use the Message translation.  Eugene Peterson is a biblical scholar and pastor who was frustrated that his congregation found the New Testament difficult to read and understand, so he wrote the Message twenty years ago.  It’s a very free translation, more like a paraphrase, but wonderfully energised and alive with the excitement of the good news of Jesus Christ.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It’s quirky and has some slightly strange Americanisms, but the Holy Spirit breathes through its pages.

So now a how-to-do it:  If you use the internet, you can go to a site called “Bible Gateway” which has around 100 translations of the Bible.  Just click on the Message, and you can download Romans – remember, we’re only working on the first eight chapters.

If you don’t have access to the internet, we have printed out some hard copies, which you’ll find in the welcome area.  Please could you donate 30p per copy to cover the costs of photocopying.

Over the next month Linda, Kon, Steve and I will aim to open up these first eight chapters with you.  When we read the and study the Bible it’s always important to try to understand what it meant when it was first written – but the more important step is to listen out for what it means now – what God wants to say to us in the here and now through the pages of scripture.

And the letter to the Romans is a book through which God has spoken very powerfully.  It is a book that has changed lives and changed the course of world history.

An example for you:  In the sixteenth century the church in Western Europe had lost its way.  It had become corrupt and materialistic, telling people they could buy their way to heaven.  In Germany, a monk called Martin Luther read the letter to the Romans and it helped him get to the nub of the problem.  The church was saying that Salvation- eternal life with God – was dependent upon the stuff we do.  Romans was saying that salvation – eternal life with God – is dependent upon what God has done in Jesus.  It’s not what we do, it’s what God does.  That means, it’s all about grace.  Luther’s reading of Romans led to the great movement of renewal we call the Reformation, which changed the course of history.

You’ll probably know that Paul the Apostle wrote a number of letters (“epistles”) to churches.  Paul was a pastor and a missionary and most of his letters are to churches that planted, and usually they are a response to particular problems that had cropped up in the life of the church.   Bu his letter to the church in Rome is different – he hadn’t founded the church, or even visited it.  There wasn’t any particular pastoral problem he felt called upon to address.  This letter is much more like a complete exposition of the Christian faith. It’s as though Paul has decided to sit down and tell his readers…”You want to know what salvation in Jesus Christ is about?  Well , OK, let me tell you!”

The second half of the book – chapters 8 – 16 – deals with the question of the place of Israel, of Jewish people, within God’s saving plan.  This question was very close to Paul’s heart and he devotes a lot of air time to it.  We probably don’t have the time to go into that this time around, but suffice to say that with the whole tragic history of Christian anti-semitism, and the genocide that has attended it, the question of Christian- Jewish relationships remains an important one.

So the big theme for Paul – and for us – in this letter to the Romans is – “What is salvation  – and how does God take us there”?

Salvation.  It’s on one of those really important words – really important realities! – that have become a bit of a religious jargon word.  In the seventies I lived my Christian life surrounded by stickers saying “Jesus saves”.  Salvation  means exactly that:  the saving action of God in Jesus.  The problem is that the phrase “Jesus saves” became a cliche, emptied of meaning through repetition, and you used to see it graffiti-ed:  “Jesus saves, but Moses scores on the rebound!”  How can we rescue salvation – this ultimately precious gift from God – from the language of cliche?  The bible has lots of ways of talking about it:  redemption, healing, liberation, life in all its fullness,  being born  again, resurrection life, life in all its fullness, the kingdom of heaven.  You choose the phrase that speaks to your heart.

Salvation isn’t a dry concept, it’s an experiential reality, and it’s something that Paul knew for himself from that moment on the Damascus Road when Jesus Christ entered his life in such a dramatic and unexpected way.  You can read about that is Acts, chapter 9.  And it’s that experiential reality of Jesus that drives through Paul’s writing, and whose energy and urgency is so well communicated in this Message translation.

Let’s hear Paul talking about what salvation is like.   This passage is from chapter 5 of Romans:

Romans 5: 1 – 5 (Message translation)

The joy of salvation, the wondrous story that becomes our story.  That’s what Paul wants us to know about, but we mustn’t jump the gun.  Before we leap to God’s solution, we need to have fully understood the human problem.  Paul begins his letter to the Romans by laying this out.  In chapter one we find initial greetings and pleasantries before Paul moves on to the substance of what he has to say.

His start point is of a world where things have gone out of kilter.  The Message translation summarises this section for us with a heading that reads, “Ignoring God leads to a downward spiral.” It’s a graphic picture of human sinfulness.  Paul was very aware of tendency to identify sinfulness as something other people get up to, rather than something we are implicated in, and if you listen you’ll hear how at the end of this passage he is careful to warn against judgementalism and the casting of stones. Sally’s going to read this passage for us:

Romans 1: 18 – end, 2: 1 – 4 (Message translation)

This is the downwards spiral from which God in Jesus wants to rescue us.

As I came to prepare this sermon it made me reflect that the problem of sinfulness is probably not a theme that figures large in my preaching. My generation of Christians has been one that has been raised to stress mercy over judgement and divine forgiveness rather than human sinfulness.  In doing so I, and we risk serving up “gospel-lite”, and perhaps dumbing down the power and profundity of what the Bible has to say to us.  As a preacher, preaching about sin can be difficult.  We can easily give the impression that sin is something to do with you rather than something to do with me.  Of course sin is always to do with us.  In the Church we need the confidence to speak with moral authority, of course, but we need to do so with humility, and not from some assumed moral high ground. Christ does not occupy the moral high ground, rather he sits with sinners and kneels at our feet. When in the church we talk about sin and morality, we need to remember this.

I find the Message translation speaks to us with freshness and conviction about the mess we get into when we separate ourselves from God.  “People trivialised themselves into silliness and confusion so there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives.”  I find this is an apt description of the vacuous shallowness of celebrity culture.  It’s morally empty.  It’s not how human beings were intended to live.

I was brought up short the other day by a BBC news report after the birth of Prince George, which estimated that that baby had already boosted the “Windsor brand” to the tune of £500 million.  I was horrified that this child’s birth should be reckoned in terms of his monetary value to the British economy.  This is sinfulness:  a measure of the decadence of our society that idolises wealth, and in which everything, and increasingly everyone, has their price. “They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand,” and for the Ipad you can buy at any website.  Except, of course, the glory of God is not a commodity, and cannot be floated on the stockmarket.

“All have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God.”  It’s important to acknowledge the reality of this, and to take responsibility for our own actions and choices, which have consquences that result in practical and spiritual and damage for others as well as for ourselves.   Sin is about the choices we make, yet it is also about the structures we are caught up. As a Christian, I believe that  unfettered capitalism which fetishes wealth and ruthlessly pursues sort term economic growth whilst despoiling the planet in the process is a sin and an affront to God.  Yet I – and we – we can’t simply opt out.  We can’t stand outside the picture, we’re part of it. We need to work out what repentance means from within, not from outside the system.  I’m sure you can think of many examples of sinful systems that you are part of not out of any choice of your own. Our pensions depend on the stock market and the stock market is full of ethical grey areas.  The world of work, the world of business is full of uneasy compromises and least worst solutions. It’s a fallen world, and none of us has clean hands.

We need to wise up to this, but not get anxious about it.  The point of being a Christian is not to stay morally pure at all costs.  The fact of the incarnation – of Jesus becoming human – is God’s way of joining us in this messy, compromised world of sinful systems.  He joins us, starting where we are, and then takes us with him on a journey to a place that we have dreamed of, to the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory.

“God is kind, but he’s not soft.  In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life change.” (2: 4)

And how does he do that exactly?  Well, stay tuned, come and hear the rest of the sermon series and don’t forget to read Romans for yourself.