An Unconditional 'Yes'
Sermon preached by
I have just been on a journey, or rather, several journeys. As you know, I live in Hong Kong and for my summer holidays I have come over to Bedford, attended my other brother's wedding in Manchester, visited my Mum and Dad in Liverpool, and am now back in Bedford before going home tomorrow. Hong Kong, Bedford, Manchester and Liverpool and back.
With any journey you have to prepare, to get ready. Paul, when he wrote Romans was in Corinth and he too was preparing for a journey. The first journey was to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem there was much poverty and starvation among the Christians because of a famine. Paul had been organising a collection amongst his churches to help relieve their suffering. He wanted now to take it to the Jerusalem Christians as soon as possible. The second journey was to Rome.
It is impossible to overestimate the significance of Rome. Rome was the centre of Paul's world. The heart of the empire. Everything that happened, happened there. Paul had preached all over the Roman Empire, but he had never preached in Rome. Now he intends to preach there.
The third journey Paul has in mind is after Jerusalem and Rome. Paul always wanted to preach where no-one had preached before. Paul's job was setting up new churches and at the time of writing Romans, there were no churches in Spain. Paul was preparing for a Spanish mission.
So when he wrote Romans, Paul had each of these journeys in mind. He wanted to tell the Romans he was coming to visit them and he wanted their support for the Spanish mission-in fact he hoped Rome could be his base. But before all this he had to go to Jerusalem.
Now if I told you that someone like Paul was coming here to preach you would probably be quite excited. If I also told you that St Mark's or Putnoe Heights was to be the centre of a new Christian mission, you would probably also feel very proud. Paul to us is a saint, apostle and hero, and anyone like him would be welcomed. His position in early Christianity was a little different.
Paul had been a Jew, not just any Jew but a Zealot, a Pharisee, the strictest of Jews. When he became a Christian he became convinced that Christianity was not just for Jews but also for Gentiles. That was controversial enough. But Paul went further. He believed that Gentiles could become Christians in their own right without also becoming Jews. The Gentiles were the spiritual equals of Jews. This was revolutionary.
Now we take it for granted, but for hundreds of years the Jews had believed, and God had told them, that they were the chosen people, they were special. God had singled them out for special treatment. Read the Old Testament, read the Prophets and this is the message that comes out over and over again.
And when the prophets consider that God may have a role for the Gentiles, they picture it as the Gentiles turning to Jerusalem, worshipping at the Temple and adopting Jewish ways.
But for most of the time they were not mad on Gentiles. You see that in the Gospel reading this morning. Dogs were Gentiles and children were Jews. In the Gospels, even Jesus is hesitant, to put it mildly, about the Gentiles.
After his death, the church saw itself as Jewish, a movement within Judaism, to convert Jews to belief in the Christ, the Messiah. When Gentiles started believing in him as well, they were faced with a problem. Some said 'no', no Gentiles on any grounds. Others said 'yes--if', if they adopted Jewish ways.
And then came Paul who took his 'unconditional yes' position. And all hell broke lose. Paul was hated. Everywhere he went, Christians would go, telling his churches why he was wrong, why he was not to be believed. He hadn't been a proper apostle, he didn't know what he was talking about, he couldn't be trusted. It was the original disciples you had to listen to. They stirred up opposition and generally said all they could to make life difficult. Paul was not popular.
So he was unsure whether his collection for the Jerusalem Christians would even be accepted or whether the Romans would want him to come and preach. And so in Romans he states his Gospel. The message he preaches. The Romans must decide for themselves. In Romans 1:16 he states it clearly:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God to salvation to all who believe.
Paul then explains what this means in practice. It means all can be saved regardless of who they are. God makes no distinctions: Gentiles and Jews alike. There he explains that God wants to have mercy on everyone. It is a revolutionary message for the readers.
We of course have learnt this, haven't we? We never pass judgement on people or exclude people or make it hard for people. Well, I am sure you don't at St Mark's and Putnoe, but sadly we do all too often elsewhere in the church. We still have a lot to learn from Paul's letter to the Romans.
1. God wants to have mercy.
Christians can often be heavily into judgement. We quite like the idea of God punishing people. Think of the medieval visions of hell. The dour side of Presbyterianism. Some of the Southern Baptist preachers you can hear on the television. When you listen to some Christians the Gospel is anything but good news. It is thoroughly bad news. God is the judge, not the merciful one.
2. God accepts all without distinction
Historically we have made distinctions between rich and poor, between men and women, between different races. The God of Paul is the God who does not make distinctions, but who wishes to accept people. This challenges us to work to become an accepting, inclusive church that all people will be happy to come to.
It also reassures us that today we are accepted by God whoever we are, wherever we come from, whatever we have done.
There is though a third message and it is this. Paul set off on his journey. He was not well received in Jerusalem. The Christians did not stand up for him. Indeed he was set up and arrested. He made it to Rome as a prisoner on trial. He died saying he was alone. Believing his vision of a merciful God who accepted all, had been rejected. Eventually, though he won through.
We need Christians willing not to be ashamed. Who have courage. Who are prepared to communicate this good news to people.
Bible Readings and Notes for 18th August 2002