St Michael’s and St Barnabas 7th October 2012
Reading – Romans 1:1-7
Theology has a bad reputation. I guess even at the mere mention of the word eyes tend to glaze over and minds start wandering. Theology is generally thought of as being boring, obscure, irrelevant, something studied only by those who don’t have anything better to do. Picture a theologian and you think of an old man in an ivory tower, wondering how many angels can balance on a pinhead, or engaged in learned arguments over the finer points of German philosophy.
Now it may be true there are theologians like that. But at its best, theology can, and ought to, be an exciting, living branch of study which helps us to know God better. After all, “theology” itself means an encounter with the word of God. It was never intended to be a dry academic subject reserved for those in higher education. It is supposed to help us live out our faith day by day so that, for example, we can explain ourselves when someone asks how they can be saved, or we can defend our beliefs when we are challenged about the lost gospels of the early church.
And the fact we don’t like theology means, I believe, that the church is all the poorer in its life and witness. Because, unless we are clear what we believe and why, we can end up muddled and confused in our thinking.
Take for example the word “Christian”. All the statistics show that the majority of people in this country today still call themselves “Christians”, or at least “Church of England” – I realise they’re not necessarily the same thing! But in my experience many people who think of themselves as Christians don’t necessarily understand what that term means. For some, it refers to a vague belief in God, without any knowledge of Jesus. For some, it refers to someone who is a good person. For some, it refers to a person who lived and died two thousand years ago. How have we as a church allowed this state of affairs to arise? The answer, I would contend, is that we ourselves have become muddled and confused, and unable to explain clearly what we believe.
Today we are starting a new sermon series in Romans. I’ve always held back a little from preaching on it because, yes, it does contain a lot of theology. Sometimes Paul will use words we find hard to understand. Sometimes he will write long sentences that seem quite tangled and need reading more than once. But if we can get past the way Paul writes, we will find – as countless men and women have found over the centuries – that this book will transform our understanding of what we believe and why.
Take today’s passage. We may feel daunted by some of the phrases Paul uses. It’s certainly not the normal way anyone else would start a letter! But if we burrow a bit deeper we will find there is so much in this passage that is helpful to us understanding what exactly it means to be a Christian.
For example, some think being a Christian involves choosing a particular set of beliefs. It’s as if there’s some kind of spiritual supermarket with an aisle for every major world religion. In this imagery a Christian is someone who has gone down the aisle marked “Christianity” and decided to pick up their beliefs from that particular shelf, rather than the one round the corner called Hinduism or paganism or anything else.
And this is a particularly common point of view at the moment. We may even find friends who do not share our faith applauding us for the choice we have made. “You’ve become a Christian? Great! Whatever works for you”. It’s as if the spiritual path we go down is a matter of our own choice and preference. The actual path isn’t important, just so long as we make our choice.
How would Paul respond to this kind of argument? Well, one thing you can do when you read this kind of passage is to see which words he keeps repeating, because presumably they are the most important ones. When I first began preparing this passage I made a “Wordle” out of it, but if you’re not hi-tech, a pencil or highlighter pen will do just as well.
And when you start looking at the words he repeats you soon find one of the most important is this little word “called”:
Verse 1: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God
Verse 6: And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
Verse 7: To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints
In other words, you are not a Christian because you made a choice. Even before you made a decision to follow Jesus, God was calling you. You may have put off making a response for years. You may have tried to ignore the still small voice inside you. You may have tried to run away. But in the end you came to Jesus because God left you with no option. Indeed there may be someone here this morning who knows God is calling them but hasn’t yet made a response. All I can say to you is stop struggling and come to Jesus today. You will save yourself so much heartache and sleepless nights if only you yield to Him.
And the next time someone says, “Whatever works for you”, tell them clearly that you didn’t choose to follow Jesus voluntarily. God came to you, God showed you the cross and the empty tomb, God showed you you needed to respond, and you responded. Don’t let anyone get away with the idea that the Christian faith rests on human choice alone.
Or again, some think that being a Christian means following the example and wisdom of a great teacher. I always remember hearing a talk when I was student where the speaker – who I should add was training for the Anglican ministry – pointed to the cross and talked about the three points referring to Jesus, Aristotle and Socrates.
Again, this is a very popular line of argument. It comes from a desire to make Christianity more like other world religions, and to play down its claims to be unique. Often it’s supported by the idea that the early church added in all the miraculous stories about Jesus as a kind of afterthought in order to attract more believers. That’s why whenever anyone makes a claim – no matter how far-fetched or outrageous – which seems to undermine the faith as traditionally understood it is seized upon as evidence which gives weight to this theory. Jesus was married; the early church suppressed the real story; Paul invented Christianity – you know the sort of stuff.
How would Paul answer this kind of argument? Well, first of all he would point to the Old Testament prophecies. In verses 2 and 3 he talks about the gospel God promised beforehand through his prophets regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David. In other words, Jesus didn’t just suddenly appear from nowhere. He was the fulfilment of many, many promises made beforehand in the Hebrew Scriptures. So if you want to explain away the Jesus of the Christian faith, you have to explain away the Old Testament as well, and deny there is any connection between the two. Once you had done that, you’d have to explain why the teachings of a group of people who had such mistaken ideas about a carpenter from Nazareth managed to turn the world upside down.
Secondly, Paul would point to the empty tomb in Jerusalem, where, as he says in verse 4, Jesus through the spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God. Because, whether you like it or not, the empty tomb is one of the best attested facts of the ancient world. You might prefer another explanation, or try to ignore it, but the resurrection happened. It proved that Jesus was who He said He was. Now you might find that to be a problem because it makes Jesus different from all the other great teachers of world history. But to Paul and to all who have been called by God it is the best possible news because it shows that Jesus is alive, and the source of salvation to all who believe and trust in Him.
In a moment I will go on. But let me just stop for a moment, and ask if you have really grasped the truth of what Paul is saying here. Sometimes even if we’ve been following Jesus for a long time, it’s possible for our view of Him to shrink. We may know in our head that Jesus is the promised Son of David, and the powerful Son of God. But have those truths actually impacted your life? When was the last time you gazed in awe and majesty at Jesus, and marvelled at who He really is?
We do not choose to be a Christian. God calls us. We do not follow a great teacher. We worship the Son of David, the Son of God. At which point the reply often comes back, “Well, that’s all very wonderful. Just don’t take your beliefs with you when you leave church this morning”. Because according to this line of argument a Christian is someone who has a private set of beliefs, as if being a Christian was a hobby like bird-watching or clog-dancing.
And once again this is a very popular argument. It certainly seems to be the position that the government is taking towards the church community in this country at the moment. Providing you don’t wear a cross at work, or object to what you do on moral grounds, or get in the way of the equalities agenda, then you Christians can carry on practising your faith as much as you like when you get home. At least that’s the message I seem to be picking up – correct me if I’m wrong.
Now it’s very easy to fall in line with this point of view. After all, we don’t want to go round causing trouble and picking fights. We want to win people to Jesus by our gentle behaviour and our peaceful submission. And yet, and yet…the theme that comes out again and again in Romans is that our faith needs to impact on every part of our life. Look, for example, how Paul describes himself in verse 1: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus. Or again look how Paul describes the church in verse 7: To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.
What does Paul mean by these words? Well, let’s think first of all about the word “servant”. The thing about a servant is that it’s not a part-time occupation. If you watch Downton Abbey, you know that the staff below stairs don’t generally have a lot of free time, even if one of them seems to be always going off to London. You’ll also know that that the job of the servant is do what they’ve been told, even if at times they might not understand their instructions. Their one aim is to serve the lord of the house.
And it’s exactly the same for us if we call Jesus Lord. Because if Jesus is Lord, then we are His servants – full-time and under His instructions. We can’t simply decide to serve Him when it’s convenient either to us or to those around us. We have been set apart to do Jesus’ business, wherever and however He calls us.
This leads me on the second word I mentioned just now, “saints”. Now again a little bit of theology will help us to understand what Paul is talking about here. Paul isn’t talking about medieval miracle workers and their shrines. Nor is he talking about a special class of Christians who are better than the rest. No, Paul here is talking about what we are called to be as followers of Jesus, what God wants you and me to be. And that is “set apart”, devoted to serving Jesus and Jesus only.
For a few of us that service will involve full-time ministry just as Paul was called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God. Indeed it is probable there are one or two people here this morning who maybe without even telling anybody else are wrestling this sense of call. I don’t know exactly who you are, but if that applies to you, then I would urge you to think about making the next step of faith this morning. For others of us, that service will involve some kind of job or profession, such as teaching or caring for others. For all of us, that service will involve using the gifts and skills God give us to bring glory for His name.
The point is, there is no one form of service better than any other. Because one thing we will find again and again in Romans is that are all called by God, to worship Jesus, set apart in His service. Not just individually, with you in your corner, and me in mine. But together, as the body of Christ, so when others look us they at last begin to understand what it means to be called a Christian and as verse 5 puts it, they respond in the obedience that comes from faith.
Let us pray…