Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge & Breamore on Trinity 2, 25th June 2017, Rachel Noël
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