Thursday, June 12, 2008

the power of God (romans 1)

I will be preaching this summer from Paul's Letter to the Romans, which is the epistle reading in the lectionary. Most scholars believe that Romans was the last of Paul's letters to the church, and that it represents his mature reflection on the gospel. I recognize that the apostle Paul himself suffers from what some would describe as a bad reputation; I have heard both atheists and preachers in the evangelical tradition acknowledge their love for Jesus and their disdain for Paul, whom they describe as anti-Semitic, insulting to women, legalistic, and dogmatic.

In the weeks to come I invite you to read the Book of Romans for yourself. God has used this particular book throughout history to reform the church. In the 4th century a mysterious voice spoke to Augustine and told him to “pick up and read” the Bible. He randomly opened it to Romans. Martin Luther (16th Century) called it "the very purest gospel". John Wesley (18th Century) felt his heart "strangely warmed" at Aldersgate in the hearing Luther's preface to the Romans. And in the 20th Century, the great theologian Karl Barth found grace in the aftermath of World War I and strength to stand against the Nazism of World War II in the pages of Romans.

God has also used this book, the letter to the Romans, to ignite the human conscience, and to inspire personal faith, and that is my hope for us as well. So, let’s move directly into it.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel”, Paul writes in chapter one, verse sixteen. What did it mean that Paul was not ashamed? There are some things of which we are ashamed, as a church. We can look back in history and there is shame in the way that we have treated groups of people---this is rooted in discrimination and prejudice. We can look back in history and there is shame in how we have not lived up to our most fundamental convictions as followers of Jesus---we think of the church’s complicity in the crusades, or the slave trade, to name just two incidents.

The Christian witness to the gospel has always been imperfect, it has always been flawed. Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “we have this treasure”[the gospel] in earthen vessels” It is true.

And yet this is not the shame to which Paul refers. As one of my favorite preachers, Fleming Rutledge argues, the gospel was too new, the church too young for this kind of shame. The shame was related to the kinds of people who made up the early Christian church.

“Not many of you were wise…not many were of noble birth…God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, we proclaim Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews, foolishness to the gentiles, but to those who are the called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1).

Paul was a Roman citizen, and he was also trained as a Pharisee by the prominent teacher Gamaliel. He was a person of stature. And yet, Christianity emerged not from the seat of power, the Roman empire, but from a backwater area of Israel, the Galilee. Can anything good come from Nazareth?, someone had asked, about Jesus himself.

In other words, among the powerful, and from the beginning, Christians were people who sort of embarrassed us. I grew up in south Georgia, in the deep south. Religion there was often something that was slightly embarrassing.

In college, I was heavily involved in the sciences, especially biology and later psychology. Most of my professors were not believers; they were good people, conscientious people, but not people of faith, and they lived in a culture where this was a badge of honor. I remember a conversation with one of my professors, an experimental psychologist, a brilliant man. He liked my background as a student. “What did I see in my future?”, he asked. At that point, I was leaning toward the ministry, although I was not sure where that would take me.

“I think I am going to seminary”, I said. He looked at me and his expression said it all. “Why would you want to do something like that?”, he said, in so many words. I did not say very much, I was, in that moment, embarrassed, and somewhat ashamed.

I had not yet come to the clarity of the apostle Paul. I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation, and there is the core of the matter: the power of salvation is not self-help, not human effort or agency or good works. Salvation is through the power of God.

What is salvation? It comes from the greek word soteria, and it has to do with recovery, with rescue. A couple of summers ago I was driving near our cabin in the mountains. It was late in the day on a summer afternoon. It was raining, just slightly, the way it often does in the smoky mountains. As I was driving I noticed, by the side of the road, a piece of furniture, a dresser of some sort. When you live with a woman who is interested in interior design, only one thing comes to mind. I quickly drove to our place, and asked Pam if she wanted to see it. Within seconds we were on our way.

We claimed the piece of furniture---she actually knew the real name for it, it was a vanity, and we took it to our place, and she worked over a few days to restore it. Later it became a part of a room that was renovated in our cabin. That piece of furniture was salvaged. It was saved.

God salvages us, our human condition. The questions surrounding salvation that are most often asked---can you lose it? do you have to feel sure about it? ----are not the crucial ones. The most important issue has to do with the One who saves us, who has the power to save us, and that is God, and that is good news.

The gospel----the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, nothing more, nothing less---is the power of God. The power resides not in my goodness or yours, not in my expertise or yours, not in my pedigree or yours. The power resides in the gospel, which is able to salvage us.

Who can be salvaged, who can be rescued, who can be saved? It is the power of salvation for everyone who has faith, for the Jew first, and also for the Greeks.

For the Jew first…for the religious. Here is a problem. Sometimes the religious do not think they need to be salvaged. We are ok the way we are. Here pride gets in the way.

But also for the greeks…for the pagan. The gospel is not only for those who are inside the church, inside the temple, inside the sanctuary, whose names are etched in the membership rolls of the congregations. The gospel is for the greeks, for the gentiles, for the outsiders, for the pagans.

And this leads to the statement about the human condition in Romans 3: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. I want you to say that word with me: all. All have sinned.

That word all is the great inclusive word: what we have in common is the human condition. The lectionary skips over the remainder of chapter one of Romans and all of chapter two and the first part of chapter three. Paul describes some of the manifestations of sin among those outside of Israel and the church. There is a list of the sins at the end of Romans 1: it includes violence and gossip, particular sexual behaviors and wanting what my neighbor wants, and lack of compassion. If we read it closely we discover ourselves there, in that list, if we are honest.

And because we are often good at seeing the sin in others, Paul reminds us, in chapter two, verse one, that when we judge others we bring that judgment upon ourselves. Then Paul saves his harshest critique for those inside the biblical tradition---we have the law, we have heard the good news, we should know better!

Doesn’t that sound like a parent: you should know better!

All of this builds to a conclusion, about us, about you and me: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All.

We have to start there, in that recognition, for only then is the ground fertile for the seed of the gospel, only then do we look up and cry out for help, only then do we ask, “how can I, how can we be salvaged?”

I am not ashamed of the gospel, Paul says, I am not ashamed to admit that I am a sinner, that I am broken, that I fall short, that I miss the mark, that I am flawed. Somewhere along the way, brothers and sisters, we have really lost touch with this message. The church is not the gathering of the righteous, not a beauty pageant of the perfect, not a collection of folks who have not yet been voted off the island.

The church is the assembly of the unrighteous, the sinful, the broken, all of us fall short, all of us miss the mark, all of us are flawed. All.

And yet….in that confession there is a power. In that confession there is good news. In two weeks we are going to focus on the fifth chapter of Romans, and one of my very favorite verses in the Bible: God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Today, we are beginning a journey. Through this summer I ask you to stay with me, to stay with this book.

I know. We are sophisticated people. We are educated people. We don’t live in the country any more, like our grandparents did, we moved to the city. All of this talk about sin and shame and needing to be saved….didn’t that go away with summer camp meetings and sawdust revival services and discredited televangelists? Isn’t all of that a little…. embarrassing?

There is Paul, most of the New Testament was either about him or written by him, there is Paul, Paul the educated rabbi, Paul the multi-lingual world traveler, Paul the Roman citizen, there is Paul saying, to anyone who will listen: I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation, to everyone who has faith.

The bad news is that we are all lying there, to one degree or another, by the side of the road, damaged, flawed, in need of repair or rescue. The good news is that God does not pass by, on the other side of the road. God stoops to our weakness. God saves, and restores, and delights in the new creation. Isn’t that good news?

Sources: Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel; Garry Wills, What Paul Meant.


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