The Avon Valley Partnership of Churches, based in Fordingbridge, are looking for an enthusiastic person with:
- Good communication skills
A gifted leader and team player to help and inspire us, as we seek to create an attractive church community throughout the benefice for young people, children and their families.
The Avon Valley Partnership benefice is a group of people of all ages and a variety of backgrounds who are united in our love for Jesus and our desire to serve others.
We have seven churches that lie on the Western edge of the New Forest, UK, in the Diocese of Winchester. The benefice is large and diverse.
Remuneration will include salary and pension contributions.
Salary range £26-£29,000 pa.
There is an Occupational Requirement for the post-holder to be a committed Christian. Consideration would be given for a job-share with two part-time roles.
Closing date: Friday, 11th May, 2018
Interviews: 25th May, 2018
Start date: summer 2018
If you require further information about the role, please contact Kate Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07770944054
An application pack can be downloaded here:
YC&FW Application Form
Christmas Midnight FB, Hale Xmas morning 2017
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.”
The Nativity – Gari Melcher
Christmas day… Christmas day… what is there left to say today… many of you will have been to various carol services or nativities in recent weeks, perhaps the Christingle service earlier. As we prepare for today… we have read and sung about the very special birth of a very special child 2000 years ago.
Christmas day… Christmas day… So many hopes, so many expectations… I don’t know about you, but for me, for a long time, I have found Christmas day a really difficult day…
We got married young, and expected that a family might follow… each year went by, and there was no child… at christmas time we began to feel more and more outside what was going on… the John Lewis ads, the Oxo ads… sell us this image of the perfect christmas… that version of ‘real love’… that’s very cosy & beautiful, very acquisitive, … that’s all about spending christmas with your children, eating huge amounts of food and large, generous presents…
where did that leave us, without children,
or what if you were single, or gay, if you were on your own at christmas, or if you’d lost a loved one, or if your family were spread across the globe, if you weren’t able to afford to buy into this picture…
It’s easy for us to desire this image of a perfect christmas, it’s very comforting, and can be aspirational…
and sometimes in church, it is easy for us to collude with this too… our images of the nativity can be equally cosy – the mum, the dad, the baby… the immaculate shepherds & kings… the clean, fluffy sheep. Our services and celebrations can easily focus on children & families, reinforcing this ‘ideal’… can we end up promoting a Mariah Carey christmas, of saccharine & sweet comfort?
14 years ago, I was forced to confront this… after many years, I was pregnant, and so excited… but 14 years ago, we had a miscarriage on christmas day… on a day when all are focused on the birth of a child, we were mourning the loss of our child… the unfulfilled hope and dreams that we had.
Part of me wanted to turn away from the christmas story, to reject it… I was so angry… how could this happen on christmas day.. of all days… I felt even more on the outside…
and yet, the more I read the christmas accounts in the gospels, I began to realise how radical, subversive and utterly generous are their accounts of the good news of the incarnation.
The picture I have given you on the front of your order of service is ‘The Nativity’ by American artist Gari Melchers.
I’ve chosen this picture, showing an exhausted Mary, having given birth to Jesus. Laying on the floor, resting, leaning against a weary Joseph. Crouched over, in this borrowed space. The pair are looking at their son, this child, wrapped in borrowed cloths in a manger.
This echoes the reading that I’ve given you, to take home and reflect on – the Mary of your Christmas cards… are we willing to see the real Mary in the stories… or do we want to turn her into a perfect, saintly, virginal Mary, with the perfect child who doesn’t cry.
The nativity story, that seems so safe, in the beautiful christmas card images we all have hanging at home… is a powerful, uncomfortable story.
It’s a story of light coming into the darkness.
Jesus was born, a real human baby, to real human parents, that loved him and cared for him in difficult situations – and although we like to portray an idyllic stable… it’s perhaps more like the picture on the front, an abandoned space. Making use of a corner somewhere, on the hard floor… to give birth to this child.
There is a massive contrast between the greatness of Jesus, as we understand it now… and the wretched circumstances of his birth.
The more you read the Christmas accounts, the more you realise that it is a story of outsiders…
Mary, unmarried Mary… having a child… would she be suspected of adultery?
Joseph… would they think his wife was tainted?… did he really want to go through with this?
If Mary & Joseph knocked on your door, would you welcome them in? would I let them in?
And then the visitors at the stable… the shepherds… Luke tells us they lived in the fields… I know we like to picture them with their nice, clean, white cloths on their heads… but there’s every chance that they were smelly & dirty… they’d been sleeping rough, in the fields… these were the first visitors on that first christmas… is that who you would want to celebrate the birth of your child with? … is that who you would like to have in your home for christmas?
And then, as we’ll get to at epiphany… we have the magi… would we have let in these strangers from the east? illegal immigrants? foreigners? they’d been following the stars? speaking a different language? are these the visitors you would choose at christmas?
So if you’ve bought into the perfect christmas picture, and are feeling slightly dissatisfied… or disappointed… or concerned that this year, it might not be the ‘perfect christmas’… think back to those outsiders at that first christmas…
And then remember the people you will see this christmas…
Will you welcome the people you encounter this christmas season? Will you extend your love to them?
How about that smelly relative that you’d quite like to park in the corner (or give a good bath)… you don’t really want them there… but somehow it was ‘your turn’ this year…
may they remind you of the shepherds …. smelly & rough in the stable
and that relative that witters on, and you’re not quite sure what they’re talking about… or that one that gives you a really strange present that you’re not quite sure what to do with….
may they remind you of the magi, from foreign lands… and bearing strange gifts
you see, there is no such thing as a perfect christmas… the Jesus we worship here tonight wasn’t born into a conventional, cosy family.
Jesus was born into mess. He was born into confusion, and uncomfortable surroundings.
If we want to begin to understand something of the truth of Emmanuel; God with us, then we need to get out of our Christmas comfort zone.
God’s gift to the world of Jesus…. of God in human form, is the most incredible gift to the world, showing us that we too can discover God within us too.
Somehow, over the centuries, we’ve turned this radical gift into a moralistic religion… we’ve started to judge each other and ourselves… we want to fit in, we want to be OK… we think that somehow if we’re good enough, God will love us… that somehow we can earn that worthiness…
We lie to ourselves… we try and live up to our own image of ourselves… we try and be the person that we’d like to be….
(I know it’s not just me… )
But just as there’s no perfect christmas… none of us ever live up to our own perfect ideals for ourselves… we all fall short, we all mess up… we’ve all got bits of ourselves that we’d rather no-one else saw…
and our families don’t live up to our ideals for them either… there is no such thing as a perfect husband or wife, there’s no perfect child or perfect parent either…
And when we hear Jesus teaching, that all we need to do is to love God, to love our neighbour, and to love ourselves… if we’re really honest with ourselves – often the hardest thing of all is to actually love ourselves as we are, right now.
How many of us live in the past… we’re angry, we’re upset,…. if only this thing hadn’t happened to me… then I’d be OK…. if only so & so hadn’t said or done x, y, z…. then I’d be OK… if only… if only…
Or perhaps you live in the future… I’ll be OK… once I’ve got a bit more money,… or once I’ve won the lottery… or once we’ve had a perfect Christmas dinner with everyone… or once this health problem has gone away… then I’ll be OK… next year… it will all be OK… if only… if only…
But Jesus didn’t come for who you might be if only…
The only place we can encounter God is always now… it’s always here and now within our life experience as it really is. Paula D’arcy says – “God comes to you disguised as your life.”
Frederick Buechner says – “Listen to your life.”
The angels message is for us too… Do not be afraid… Fear not… Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
This baby was born, to show us that God loves us right now, as we are… we have nothing to fear. God loves you, right now, exactly as you are. Whoever you are, whatever has happened in the past… whatever you’ve done…
This baby, born in the messy stable… came to share with us God’s love for who we actually are.
Are we willing to live in this moment now… and to accept the reality of who we are… to open ourselves up, to love ourselves as we really are… not just who we’d like to be… if only… can we accept that God really does love us as we are…?
In those moments when we can let go of that control… when we can surrender, and be just as we are, right now… it’s in those moments that we can encounter glimpses of God too…
When we allow that perfect, idealised version of ourselves to be broken… when we let ourselves live with our own cracks… that’s where the light gets in… the humanity!
On the back of your order of service you’ve got a picture of a pottery bowl… a bowl that has been broken and then been repaired with gold, in the Japanese tradition. Their understanding is that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.
I think that is a good metaphor for our faith too… when we let go of who we think we might be… when we live with who we actually are… when we accept our own brokenness… and start to actually love ourselves… to let God in, and let that love happen… it’s a beautiful thing.
Many of you will know Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Today, we’ve blessed our new altar frontal here… and we’ve remembered the story… the design from 8 years ago… the aspirations of how it might be… the time living with the unfinishedness… the courage to look at the pieces, to let them be broken and re-formed… and the beautiful finished piece that we have here today… the wholeness that has come through the brokenness… just like the japanese pottery, repaired with gold…
Are we willing to let our lives be transformed too?)
As we gather round the table for communion shortly… it’s this same paradox of brokenness and wholeness.
This baby Jesus, born in a mess… grew up, lived and died to share that love with us. Through his own brokenness on the cross, he showed us that we could be whole.
As we receive the bread and the wine, we face our own reality… these gifts shared freely with us, with the broken, real people that we actually are…
This love of God accepts us as we are right now, here tonight…
But just like the broken bowl… God doesn’t leave us where we are now… the gift to us, through the baby Jesus… is the call to keep choosing life… the broken bowl is transformed with gold… and we too are continually called to transformation… God meets us where we are, he loves us as we are… and he calls us to love ourselves, and be transformed through this universal gift of love. That love transforms the broken bits of our life, the bits we wish were different, the bits we’d like to hide… God’s love weaves them together with golden light… to encounter the beauty within the brokenness.
So tonight, I invite you to encounter Jesus… to encounter your true selves… to encounter this love… through the mystery, the paradox, the wonder… of God with us… shared through bread and wine.
I pray that this year you will have a beautiful, messy, broken, wholly imperfect, wonderful Christmas.
May the words that I speak and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock & our Redeemer. Amen
In case we’re ever lulled into the thinking that being a Christian is a nice, cosy, comfortable place to be – that we can just gather with our friends, with like-minded people to sing hymns and say prayers, and then go about our lives feeling reassured that we are OK… this passage from Matthew is a massive challenge to those illusions!
Sometimes it’s easy to choose to only see one side of a person… and I think this is particularly true of Jesus.
How many of us grew up with the Sunday school poster of Jesus standing near some trees, with animals all around him, looking very peaceful & gentle? (For those of you familiar with the Disney pictures of Snow White, also standing in the trees, surrounded by animals… there’s something vaguely familiar!)….
And this gentle Jesus image is reinforced by some of our songs – some of you may be familiar with Charles Wesley’s hymn – Gentle Jesus, meek and mild …. lull me, lull me, Lord to rest…. I shall life the simple life, Free from sin’s uneasy strife, Sweetly ignorant of ill, Innocent, and happy still..
(it’s OK, I’m not going to make you sing all 14 verses of it!)
Today’s gospel reading is a wake up call… it’s a challenge to each and every one of us.
Jesus is talking with his disciples and trying to tell them what was going to happen. He’s shown explaining to the disciples that he must be killed and on the third day raised.
Peter is upset, and he responds- “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” (This seems like a perfectly reasonable response, when someone very close to him has just said that he is going to be killed!)
Is this just Peter’s concern about the personal loss of Jesus?
As well as the personal loss… could this also be Peter responding to his idea of what the Messiah must do… and for the disciples, they’re not yet ready to accept that it must mean death.
And Jesus reply here: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Wow…. I’m not sure this is the sort of language we might be tempted to ascribe to Jesus… especially the gentle Jesus in the woodland with the animals… if we were thinking about him as a leader of this small team of disciples…
Today… would he be hauled up in front of HR for bullying? “Get behind me, Satan!”… those are strong words… (it was only last week that he was proclaiming that Peter was the rock on which he was going to build his church.)
I’m guessing the disciples would have to be pretty resilient!
Each time they think they’ve understood… they’re suddenly silenced and made to realise that they’ve still not really got it.
Then we’ve got a selection of sayings from Jesus:
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
These are probably familiar words to you… we’re used to hearing them…
but I want to stay with them for a little bit this morning.
These words are so counter-intuitive… to the disciples then… but also to us now.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
We live in a society focused on the now, on the individual, on success.
If you read any self-help book, or listen to documentaries on the telly – self-denial is not the in thing.
The world at the moment seems to be built on social media, on the story of ‘self’… it’s filled with pictures, with selfies… showing success
Only this week, Louise Hay has died…the lady that wrote a lot about the power of positive thinking… that all we have to do is think positively… boost our self-esteem and all shall be well.
Jesus call here to his disciples… and to us… is not about joining in this game of self-esteem, of promotion of self.
However we have to be careful too, it’s not about self-hate here either… just giving up things also won’t make us Christian either.
This call to lose their lives… is a call to change our orientation – it’s not about self… it’s about turning to God.
A call to life, that isn’t about self… that’s radical… it’s completely & utterly lifechanging.
” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
This is the whole gospel in a nutshell… and yet it’s so hard… as hard as a camel entering the eye of the needle!
Thomas Merton talks about the true self and the false self.
I wonder if part of the life we have to lose, is the impression, the illusion of ourselves that we have.
The False self is the person that we want ourselves to be… that we would choose to show other people, or kid ourselves that we are.
This false, private self is a projection… and for most of us, we spend most of our lives trying to maintain this image of ourselves.
And our sin comes from this false self, as we feed our self with our own selfish desires…. we fill our lives chasing pleasure and experiences that will build us up… we crave the feeling of feeling loved, of being special…
but in chasing that false self, in maintaining that false self…
sometimes it is really hard to let go of that illusion, of that image
to discover who we truly are.
This passage has got particular resonance for me, this year. As you know, I’ve had to live with some intense mental health problems.
At the height of the mania, I had become an extreme, intense version of my usual self… sometimes not being able to hold onto thoughts long enough to speak a whole sentence. (in contrast to now… where you may wonder if I have too many words!)
In that time, Thomas Merton’s True Self/ False Self took on new meaning for me, as I could no longer rely on my intelligence, my capability. Any competence or confidence that I would usually put on is lost to me.
But…In the quiet of night, stripped of all my defences, I had such a strong sense of God, of light and life, of peace… and all I could do is be,
is be who I am.
I couldn’t even rely on Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’… I couldn’t trust my thinking, or what I was getting from my senses…even that, I had to let go.
After Bishop Jonathan, Christine & Phil had taken me to hospital, I wondered if I’d said goodbye to all those that I love. In the darkest moments, I couldn’t even tell if I was alive or dead… is this what is meant by dark night of the soul?
And yet there was also such a gift of this mental health journey. In the intensity of the situation, there was also such peace, such liberation in those moments too. All the trappings of life, of status, of ability… they’re meaningless in those moments of life and death. All I can do is be present, be open to the moment, to choose life.
For me, those moments have been such a gift… a momentary insight into what these verses mean… as I had to let go of my own abilities, my own capabilities… my own sense of self and how I could solve the situation…
I had to let go of all of that… and in that vulnerability… to be open… to let God.
And there was such peace in that moment… of knowing that I am loved by God, I am accepted by God… even when I can’t do anything… that all I can do is bask in that love
I’m not suggesting that each of us should be looking to go through mental health problems….
but I think Jesus can use any of our experiences in life… and sometimes it’s the really tough experiences…
that in those times…we can see glimpses of him, and his calling to us.
I’m reassured by the role of the disciples in this story… these are the people that had been closest to Jesus for several years, travelling around with him, listening to his stories, knowing him as a person.
They’ve been sent out already, preaching and healing in the towns they come to…
And they’re still learning… learning what it means to be a disciple.
I’m reassured… because they don’t always get it right… Peter, who was called to be the rock, the foundation of the church… still gets it wrong… and he goes on to get things wrong again… but he keeps getting back up, and responding, following Jesus.
This is such encouragement to me… and hopefully to all of us… even the disciples got it wrong… they made mistakes… they fell, they turned away…
This life of discipleship can’t be learned in advance, from a manual…
We’ve got the bible to help us…
But our faith, our lives… can only be worked out as we live
As we live through the joyous times…
but also as we live through the difficult times…
each of us is called by God…
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Will you choose that life?
“Come Holy Spirit, bring us light, teach us, heal us, give us life. Come, Lord, O let our hearts flow with love and all that is true.” Amen (Hymn 408, v2, Margaret Rizza)
I’m really excited by our readings this morning, there is so much to think about from within these two short passages. (I will try not to get over excited and talk all morning!)
In our reading from Romans, we’re at the transition point in the book of Romans. Very crudely, the first 11 chapters address doctrine, and the next few chapters relate to ethics… how we put this into practice.
The first two verses of our Romans reading are really rich, dense Paul writing – and they set out a theme that Paul will unpack in various ways.
“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God – which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
There’s something really tangible about this… we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice…. and that is our worship… This isn’t just about thinking holy thoughts, or turning up to our holy club on a Sunday morning… he’s talking about sacrifice.
We are to present our whole persons to God, living real people, in a particular place and time… presenting ourselves to God, our whole selves.
And Paul tells us that this offering of ourselves is holy and acceptable to God… in other translations it puts this even more positively, not just acceptable, but pleasing, or well-pleasing to God.
And Paul repeats this in the next verse too, that our renewal, our offering of ourselves actually brings pleasure to God…. in earlier chapters he reminds us that as we are remade, restored in God’s image, that is pleasing to God.
Wow, how amazing is that! As we come together today, as we offer our whole physical selves in worship to God, that brings pleasure to our almighty God.
And that’s just verse 1!
Verse 2 is also packed, helping to start off this new section of Romans, with verse 1 emphasising the body, the physical; here in verse 2 it focuses on the renewal of the mind.
JB Philips translated this as – “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”
But this isn’t just about putting up barriers and resisting the pressure from outside… we’re not called to find some unsullied world within… that would echo various strands of gnosticism, the discovery of a hidden spark that just needs to be uncovered…
Paul is stronger here
In chapter 1, he reminds us that the natural state of the mind & heart are rebellious.
We are not called to simply live authentically and resist external pressure… there is far more action here, we are called to be renewed, to be transformed
so that what proceeds from the transformed mind does indeed reflect the image of God. (New INterpreters Bible Commentary, p705)
Paul is offering us hope, hope of a renewed mind, able to think for itself what will please God.
These two verses walk a fine balance between sacrifice and fulfillment, between an ethic of self-denial and one of self-discovery… we are invited to walk this path, of transformation and discovery of the new self that we are called to become in Christ.
We have the whole gospel in a nutshell, as grace fulfills nature… – but only by putting it to death – the living sacrifice… and then by bringing it to life again – the renewing of the mind. It is the pattern of death and resurrection laid out for us throughout scripture…
taking up the cross is the way to life
and no matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, for a day or a lifetime…. this is never easy… we keep having to make the choices, to offer ourselves before God, to give up ourselves, to give ourselves away, to be transformed in body, mind and spirit… knowing that God is at the heart of everything.
We’re reminded of the command to love God with all our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength… and that as we do this, it brings delight to our loving Creator.
(Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections) Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian, in his commentary on Romans describes Christian ethics as – ‘the great disturbance.’
This isn’t meant to be some nice, cosy advice from Paul, that allows us to continue living our lives unchanged – and perhaps just point the finger at others…
Discipleship is about presenting our real, physical selves to God… Present your bodies…
Paul isn’t asking us to present some idealised version of ourselves, with all the weaknesses hidden away…
He goes on to remind us that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that they need to come together in Christian community. We don’t each have to have all these virtues… thank God!
Paul is saying that the whole community is to be shaped by the Messiah himself
We are called together, to help each other out. No one is called to be more important than any other, there is a unity in believers – and he then goes on to show how this may work itself out with some different gifts.
I wonder if this theme of Great Disturbance also applies to what is going on in our reading from Matthew.
Peter and the other disciples have been constantly having to revise their opinions of themselves, of others and of God… as they live in the unsettling presence of Jesus.
And now Jesus is putting them to the test..
He starts with the easy question… – what are other people saying…
Everyone’s always happy to chip in with that one – what do other people think… and the disciples all join in with the theories that they’ve heard about Jesus.
But then comes the crunch question
Who do you say I am?
(Jane Williams – Lectionary Reflections) It isn’t really a fair question. After all, the disciples are demonstrating, by their very presence, by all that they have given up, what they believe about Jesus.
Why is he pressing them now to formulate it? Jesus response to Peter gives the answer.
To know who Jesus is is vital…. that question is still just as important to us today… who do you say Jesus is?
It is not enough to believe that he is very important. It is not enough to believe that he is like the other prophets and messengers of God.
When Peter declares “You are the Messiah”, he is saying what has to be said. Jesus is the key to the whole of God’s relationship with what he has made.
And it is on the basis of that confession, that Peter is made the rock on whom the Church is built.
That’s huge… this is to be our defining characteristic – our knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Does that seem an adequate foundation for the church? Don’t we need more rules?
How odd that Peter’s sole qualification for the job – apart from the gift of a big mouth! – is that he can recognize the activity of God when he sees it.
And funnily enough, that’s what Paul is working for too… his call to the Romans… his call to us.
Be transformed, – body, mind, heart and soul – so that you may discern what is the will of God.
Be transformed, so that you may discern what is the will of God. Amen
(Many references from New Interpreters Bible Commentary and Jane Williams Lectionary Reflections)
May the words of my lips & the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our rock and our redeemer – Amen
So we’ve just got started on our readings from the book of Romans. Almost every Sunday between now and the end of September the New Testament lectionary reading is from the book of Romans – so today, rather than go into detail on the passage, I thought I would give a bit of an introduction to the book of Romans, to help set the context for the next three months of readings that we’ll be hearing.
There are 27 books in the New Testament – we’re all probably most familiar with the first four – the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Gospel – meaning Good News, these four books all tell the stories of Jesus. Then there is the book of Acts, which is a bit like Luke part 2 – which tells the story of the early church and Paul’s missionary journeys. And the last book is Revelation, the visionary, apocalyptic account.
Sandwiched between Acts and Revelation we have 21 letters – a collection of letters written by Paul, and a collection written by other people (although there are still disputes about some of the letters, about whether they were actually written by Paul, or by other people.)
Whenever we look at passages from the bible, there are several different places we can stand, to help us consider what is written…
we can look at the world behind the text – what was the world of the person writing that particular bit of the bible, and who were they writing it to
we can look at the text itself… what is there in the way that it is written, the particular words used etc…
and then there is the standpoint of us, 2000 years later, who are reading this text as scripture, what does it mean for this particular text to be scripture, what is it saying to us today. When we heard it read, we also heard – This is the word of the Lord… Although these are historic documents from a particular time, we’re not reading them just for historical interest, or as literature… we’re reading them as scripture, we need to determine what these letters say to us today, and how they enrich our faith and our understanding of God.
For each of the letters in the bible… they didn’t start out expecting to be documents that would be incorporated in our bible, and still being read 2000 years later… I suspect Paul would be rather surprised to find that his letter to the christian communities in Rome was now being read worldwide by millions of people!
Each of the letters was written by a pastor and teacher, writing to a particular community at a particular time in relation to a particular situation or crisis that was going on.
So in the case of Romans, Paul was writing a letter to the community in Rome… he was adapting his theology, his understanding of God, to help the church in Rome think about particular situations…
As we read it today, as part of scripture, I think it’s important that we remember who it was written for in the first place… as this can help us better understand what Paul was trying to say, and the situation he was addressing. Understanding the history, the target of the letter, can help us think about how the text speaks to us today.
So, what do we know about the book of Romans. Nobody doubts that Paul wrote this particular letter, in the middle to late 50s of the first century AD – so only 20-30 years after Jesus has died, risen and ascended. It was written whilst Paul was in Corinth or nearby, planning his final voyage to Jerusalem, with his intention of going on from Jerusalem to Rome and then to Spain. At the time of writing, he hadn’t yet met the community in Rome.
In the time of Emperor Claudius, the Jews had been expelled from Rome, around year 49. Under Emperor Nero a few years later, the Jews had been allowed back – so at the time of this letter there were likely tensions within the church house groups between the Gentile believers who had been able to stay in Rome, and the Jewish believers who had only just returned (it is likely that they had lost property and their community ties whilst they’d been in exile.)
In chapter 11, Paul appeals to the Gentiles not to boast over Jews, and this letter responds to the anti-Jewish feeling that was around. (Remember Paul himself was a Jewish believer – and so Paul was trying to prevent some of the Gentile vs Jewish disturbances that had happened elsewhere.)
The letter to the Romans contains the longest and most complex sustained argument in any of Paul’s letters… It sets out God’s plan of salvation and righteousness for all of humankind… so just a little topic then! Perhaps that’s why we have three months to read it and get to grips with it!
Bishop Tom Wright, in his commentary, tells us ‘It is no good picking out a few favourite lines from Romans and hoping from them to understand the whole book. One might as well try to get the feel of a Beethoven symphony by humming over half a dozen bars from different movements.’ (New Interpreters Bible Commentary)
It is a really interesting book, and if you have time, I would recommend sitting and reading it together, not just in the little chunks that we will have on Sundays.
There are some key themes that Paul develops in the book of Romans, which we’ll see over the coming months.
“The theme of God’s ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ resonates throughout the letter. AT stake is God’s faithfulness in the face of human faithlessness” Paul uses rhetorical questions throughout the book to draw this out.
(2:3-4, 21-23; 3:3,5,7,9,27-29; 4:1; 6:1-3, 15-16; 7:7,13; 9:14,19,30; 11:1,11)
(The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, study bible – intro to Romans)
Paul sees himself as Christ’s apostle, and he feels compelled to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles”, or all the nations – and this includes the people of Rome – just a little task then!
He is really clear in this book about God’s salvation for all that believe, whether they are Jew or Gentile – but he is very clear that this includes the Jews.
As with others of Paul’s letters, there is a lot of moral teaching too.
Some see the book as being about justification through faith… but I think it is more than that. In this letter to the Romans, Paul sets out that those who have been baptised into Christ must no longer let sin have dominion over them. (6:1-14), They are no longer to live as the unbelieving world does, but to give “spiritual worship” to God through sobriety of thought and bodily purity.
It’s about how we live our lives in faith… not just having faith… but that faith affecting all that we do, the way that we live, the way that we relate to each other, the way that we worship.
The theme of universal accountability to God’s justice also flows through the book of Romans. No-one is free from God’s judgement… there’s no way round it.
Romans is an appeal for holy living, for all of us to be transformed by our faith, and to celebrate this call as believers in God.
The reading that we had today, from Romans 6, reminds us of the whole story of our faith.
As Christians, we are all living from within a very particular story. “It is the subversive story of God and the world, focused on Israel and thence on the Messiah, and reaching its climax in the Messiah’s death and resurrection. No Christian can ever tell this story too frequently, or know it too well, because it is the story that has shaped us in baptism, and that must continue to shape our thoughts”, our lives, our prayer, now and ongoing. (New Interpreters Bible Commentary reflection, Tom Wright, p547)
“This whole chapter shines a bright spotlight on the dangerous half-truth, currently fashionable, that “God accepts us as we are.”” (New Interpreters Bible Commentary reflection, Tom Wright, p548)
The question at the start of today’s reading raises this question. Is God’s acceptance enough?
God does indeed accept us as we are… that is part of the story.
Grace reaches us where we are, and accepts us as we are… if it didn’t, nobody would ever be saved!
Justification is by grace alone, by faith alone…
but that is only the first bit of the story.
Yes, God accepts us, God’s grace reaches us exactly where we are…
But grace is always transformative… God accepts us as we are, but God doesn’t intend to leave us where we are…. Romans is not an easy, comfortable read
verse 1 says “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? and the answer is – By no means! How can we who have died to sin go on living in it?”
Yes, Paul spells out the radical inclusivity of the gospel, God’s love is for every single person throughout the world…
but this passage also spells out the holiness that we are each called to…
as our story is woven together with Jesus story, we are called to turn our back on our sin… that is the hard graft of Christian life, it requires serious, deliberate effort, day in day, out. We are called to keep turning our back on sin… we are called to live our lives under the lordship of Christ, made in the image of God.
So I invite you to take seriously our readings from Romans over the coming weeks, to read them and consider them, and work out what they mean for you in your daily life. How are you going to put them into practice?
This isn’t just a Sunday morning thing, it isn’t just a baptism thing… this isn’t easy, or comfortable….
but liberation will come as we continue to allow God’s love to work in us, to transform us. AMEN