St Michael’s and St Barnabas 21st October 2012
Reading – Romans 1:18-32
There is no doubt it was tough being a Christian in Ancient Rome. In AD 49 the emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews in the city to leave because – according to the writer Suetonius – “they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus”, almost certainly one of the first independent references to Jesus Christ of Nazareth. By the time this letter we call Romans had been written in the mid-fifties AD, the Jews had been allowed to return. But the Christians continued to attract hostility from Romans and Jews alike. Indeed when we read Romans we shouldn’t forget that only a few years later in 64AD Christians were publicly accused of starting the fire that burnt the city to the ground, with Nero ordering some of them to be thrown to the dogs, others to be crucified or burned.
For the Romans, Christians were both a threat and a source of ridicule. They were a threat because they asserted Jesus was Lord, when everyone else knew that the real Lord was the emperor. But who was this Jesus anyway? Every other tribe or religious group had an image of their god, and it is said there were 82 different temples across Rome each with an idol of their own particular deity. Not so with these Christians. They claimed to worship an invisible God. What a bizarre idea!
And what about their so-called love-feasts? Secret gatherings where men and women called each other brothers and sisters, and claimed to eat the flesh and blood of their Saviour. It’s perhaps not too surprising that rumours of incest and cannibalism began to circulate. It all seemed far too unnatural behaviour. But most shocking of all, these Christians seemed to worship someone who had been crucified. How revolting! Crucifixion was reserved for slaves and barbarians. At least one Roman writer said quite clearly that was never a subject for polite society conversation, an unspeakable horror definitely not to be mentioned at dinner.
But the Jews too found the idea of a crucified Messiah repulsive. As far as they were concerned, anyone who was hung on a tree bore the curse of God. How could an untrained carpenter who died in this way possibly be any kind of Saviour? The Messiah should have been a powerful political figure who burst into history and set the Jewish people free. There didn’t seem to be much evidence that’s what Jesus had done.
Then there was the whole attitude of these Christians to the law. They claimed to honour the Hebrew Scriptures. But they didn’t practise circumcision, or keep the Sabbath, or follow all the rules and regulations about food. Nor did they even think there needed to be a special class of teacher who could make sure the law was being properly carried out. No, instead they claimed this fellow Jesus had actually fulfilled all the Scriptures, and that the Jewish people should believe and trust in Him! How ridiculous that all seemed.
So the Christians in Rome faced all kinds of pressures, from Jew and Gentile alike. Yes, the church was growing. Yes, people from every kind of background were coming to know the Lord. But the question they must have been asking was this: if as Paul has just said the gospel is the power of God for the salvation for everyone who believes (verse 16) where was the evidence of God’s power at work outside of the church? What was God doing in the lives of the people around them?
I guess if we’re honest those are exactly the kind of questions we find ourselves asking from time to time. It’s not that our faith is lacking. We can tell from our own lives that our God is a God of power. But you go out onto the streets of Plymouth, into the homes of our families, our friends, our colleagues, and where do we see Him at work? What evidence is there of Him being alive and active?
If that’s kind of thing you’ve ever wondered then our reading from Romans can help give some answers.
Verse 18: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Because, according to Paul, that is how we see God at work in the wider world. When we look at the news and see all the terrible things that are going on, it’s not simply because men and women have turned their backed on God, or they are victims of evil forces greater than themselves. It’s also that God is revealing his wrath. And just in case you think this idea is some weird aberration on Paul’s part, let’s not forget that in our gospel reading Jesus Himself also talked about the judgement of God. The desolation of Jerusalem in AD70 was not just a case of Romans defeating Jews, or an accident of history. It was the very outpouring of the wrath of God.
Now we don’t talk much about the wrath of God, and with good reason. The idea of God’s wrath seems to be about as far removed from the God of love as you could possibly imagine. Generations of hellfire and brimstone preachers have left us with this picture of an angry and irritable God striking down poor innocent people for no apparently good reason save for His own pleasure. And we have quite rightly recoiled from this idea of God’s wrath as something cruel, barbaric, the very opposite from the Christian understanding of our faith.
But that is to completely misunderstand what Paul means by wrath. If you love someone passionately, deeply, then it is only right and proper that you express sorrow and anger when that love is spurned, despised, rejected. Love which doesn’t care whether or not it gets a response is not really love. And that is as true for God as for us human beings. God is deeply passionate about us. He made us in His image so that we might love and worship Him. When we turn our backs on Him it is in the nature of God’s love to be sorrowful and angry at our stubbornness and coldness of heart.
So when you read Paul saying the wrath of God is revealed, don’t get the impression he is talking about a different God from the one who loved the world so much He gave His one and only son. It is rather because God loves us so deeply that He reveals His wrath, to show the enormous care and concern He has for a world which tries to live as if He wasn’t there.
And it’s not as if God’s wrath is being revealed on innocent, unsuspecting victims. For as Paul goes on to say in verse 20 since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. You see, when it comes to knowing our creator, God does not play guessing games with us. The beauty of the sunrise, the power of the volcano, the food on the plate day by day, they all attest to one thing, that we have a God who is able and willing to care for us. As the psalmist says in Psalm 19: the heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Stand outside on a clear night and look at the stars; watch the course of the sun each day; feel the power of the wind and the rain. If we could only see, we would understand exactly what God our creator is like.
The trouble is, as Paul makes clear in verse 21, our hearts have been darkened by the sin that lodges deep within us. We no longer see the hand of God at work within our lives. We praise the human cleverness that causes us to enjoy so many good things day by day. We rejoice in the latest scientific theory that explains away the mysteries of the universe. We are, in short, guilty of idolatry. Oh yes, we no longer have 82 different temples devoted to 82 different gods. We are much too advanced and rational for that. But we have other gods we follow, gods of progress or fashion or wealth, that are as much idols as anything the ancient world ever invented. And when we no longer acknowledge God’s part in our existence, when we worship created things instead of the creator, that is when we invite the wrath of God upon lives. Not, as I’ve already said, because our God is cruel and barbaric, but His deepest passion, His deepest longing, is that we turn back to Him, and He rightly gets angry when we no longer involve Him in our lives.
So how does God reveal His wrath? Does He start lobbing thunderbolts, or unleash famine and pestilence, or call for the Grim Reaper? Not according to Paul in this passage. He does something far more subtle, but far more effective. He simply gives us over to the desires and devices of our hearts. He lets us do whatever we want to do, and leaves us to deal with the consequences of our sinful actions. It’s rather like a parent dealing with an unreasonable child who is always whining for chocolate. In the end the parent decides the only way the child can see sense is by giving him chocolate, more chocolate, and even more chocolate. The only difference, that in that kind of situation, the child usually learns.
Paul however is far less optimistic that we learn from God. Three times, in verses 24, 26 and 28, he says how God gave them over. And it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that he could having been writing equally well about society today as life in Rome back in AD 55.
First of all, in verse 24, he talks about how God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity. Because one of the first signs of a society that has turned its back on God is that there are no longer any boundaries. In the name of freedom and progress any kind of sexual behaviour is tolerated, or even celebrated. The Biblical norms of marriage and chastity are ridiculed and attacked, and those who hold to them are accused of living in a different era. If you think I’m exaggerating, then listen to Boris Johnson’s recent speech where he said that marriage belonged in the Stone Age. Ask your MP what he thinks of the plans to change the very definition of marriage. According to a letter from Oliver Colvile sitting on my desk at home, marriage should no longer just be between a man and a woman. Very soon I may find myself breaking the law by restricting who comes to this church to be wed.
And this leads me on to verse 26 where Paul says that God gave them over to shameful lusts. I better preach on this verse while I still can before it becomes a hate crime. Let’s be absolutely clear what Paul is and is not saying. Paul is saying that sex between two people of the same gender is wrong. It is wrong because it is denial of God’s purpose for humanity, that male and female were made in the image of God, and by their union together they display something of God’s plan for the world. But let’s also be clear. Paul is not saying that gay people go to hell. He is not saying we should condemn or write off people with a homosexual orientation. If we believe in a God of love and compassion, we should stand by, support and seek to understand those who find the Bible’s teaching difficult. Our lack of welcome, our own prejudice is also a sin, and we have no right to cast the first stone in an area where so many people have so many different personal struggles. Paul would have been horrified to learn how often his words have been used as a blunt weapon to wound and hurt people in debates, and that was never his intention.
What Paul is doing here is attacking the attitudes that despise what is good and proper, and celebrate what is opposed to the will of God. He goes on in verse 28: Furthermore since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. I haven’t got time to go through all the evils Paul lists in verses 29-31. The point worth making here is that they are the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is the disobedience of the heart that sees God’s commandments as things to be broken, that celebrates freedom from any form of moral control, that as Paul says in verse 30 invents new ways of doing evil.
There is no doubt Paul’s words here are both immensely powerful and immensely challenging. I wonder how Paul’s hearers reacted when they first heard them. Perhaps they noticed how Paul switched from talking about “you” and “I” to “they” and “them”. Perhaps they thought Paul was simply talking about people out there. Perhaps they even began to applaud the way Paul was talking about wickedness out there, in Rome and the wider world.
If so, then the first verse of the next chapter would have come as a big shock to them. Chapter 2, verse 1: You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Paul wasn’t writing about the wrath of God to make the Christians in Rome feel superior to others, or smug that they themselves had been saved. Rather all that he was saying was meant to drive them and us to our knees in our prayer:
To pray for God’s mercy upon ourselves, because we are part of the society in which we live, and we stand as much in need of God’s grace as the next person.
To pray for God’s mercy on those we know and love, that even as they are given over to sin and wickedness, they might cry out to the Lord to save and help them.
To pray for God’s mercy on our parish, our city, our nation, and our world, that He would stay His hand of judgement, and open hearts and minds that are blind to their Creator’s presence.
God, you see, is looking for a people who share His passion and deep concern for the world He has made. Just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, so He longs that we wrestle in prayer for the city in which we live. So don’t just tick this reading off as another part of Romans dealt with, or as some theoretical discussion. Use it as fuel for your prayers, to seek after God and to declare we want to see His kingdom come. For His name’s sake. Amen.