The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r051.htm
s051e02 Lockleys 4/8/02 Sunday 18 a
"I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people ..." Romans 9.3
The text for this sermon is an astonishing statement for St Paul to make. I wonder if we appreciate how astonishing it is. One commentary suggests the construction that St Paul uses, makes it clear that "he recognises that his wish is scarcely capable of fulfilment." (CK Barrett p176) However St Paul's oaths suggest we should not dismiss the seriousness of his words. He actually would prefer for his people to acknowledge Christ and for him to be accursed in their place. "I am speaking the truth ... I am not lying ... my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit ..." We are meant to take some notice of the sentiment he is expressing not to dismiss it so lightly. We need to take very seriously St Paul's profession of faith that his faith had nothing to do with he himself getting into heaven at all. Like the prodigal father pleading with his elder son, St Paul lives and breathes so that others will join the party.
How often do I hear sentiments like "You don't have to go to Church to get into heaven!" - generally expressed by those who don't go to Church. But can we blame those who don't come to Church for thinking incorrectly? The thing that we as the Church need to do is to make sure we express the good news correctly. Whether the Church has expressed the good news clearly or not clearly, many people think we come to Church so that we might "get to heaven". So people suspect that we really our church attendance is all about our personal salvation and little if anything to do with others.
Peter (I.4.8) says that "love covers a multitude of sins" and James (5.20) tells us that bringing back a sinner from wandering ... "will cover a multitude of sins". I wonder if we see that even these expressions betray a good deal of interest in the outcome of one's own existence and little about anyone else's? In the words of an anonymous 17th century poet: "My God I love thee; not because I hope for heaven thereby, nor yet because who love thee not are lost eternally ... not for the sake of winning heaven nor any fear of hell ... not from the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward ... (but because) ... for me didst bear the nails and spear and manifold disgrace ..." (AHB 130, verse 1, 4b, 5a, 2b). One may comment that it may be that "he protesteth too much" - it seems still self centred.
At some stage we may begin to see that the most sacred thing is not the sacraments we administer but the people to whom they are ministered. Each of the sacraments proclaims that Jesus died for this person and for that person, for one and for all. What ever St Paul might mean when he says when we were baptised, we "were baptised into his death" (Rom 6.3) he must at least mean that God regards us (and all people) as so sacred we are worth dying for. In Holy Communion, we partake in the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord. What ever else this might mean, it reaffirms that we (and all people) are God's children, that we (and all people) are worth dying for, that indeed it has already been done - in God's eyes all of humanity are sacred.
When I hear some clergy and lay people talk about baptism (as it seems debates about baptism have raged for centuries) I often compare their conception of baptism to the promises and admission of a person into a service club. So a Cub or Scout promises, when they are admitted into that organisation "On my honour, I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God and to The Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout Law." (I nearly remembered it all before I surfed the internet to get it right - it is a while ago now!) And of course those in the scouting movement consider themselves - once a scout always a scout - in precisely the same way as we talk about baptism. I still occasionally meet an old scouting colleague from my younger and wilder days and he shakes me by the left hand. My Certificate of Confirmation has written on it, I suspect just like all of yours, - the "Rule of Life": "To be present at Divine Worship every Lord's Day, and to pray daily. To receive Holy Communion regularly and frequently. To make humble repentance and confession of sin. To make a devout and regular use of the Bible. To support the Church and Ministry by gifts and service." My Certificate of Appointment as an officer in the Defence Forces states, charges and commands me to faithfully "discharge your duty as an officer and to observe and execute all such orders and instructions as you may receive from your superior officers." I am not in the least being critical of this way of thinking. Our society thinks along these lines.
Except however for the Church. If we make the Church into a society or club with its own rules and regulations for it's members to observe, a certain sort of lifestyle to maintain, a certain ethical conduct to observe, we have failed to see the primary object of the Church is to say Jesus died for you and for me and for one and for all - that we and all people are sacred to God.
I am wont to say: "I am prepared to baptise anything that moves and bury anything that doesn't" :-) This is because people are sacred, and my primary task is to communicate that sacredness to others. That is what the sacraments are about. To suggest that the gospel (for an evangelical) or the sacraments (for the catholic) are more important than the people for whom Jesus died, is essentially no different than the perception in Jesus' time that the sabbath law was far more important than those to whom it was given (Matt 12.9-14 &//'s). A correspondent to "Church Scene" once advocated checking whether people coming for baptism "really do want to die with Christ" and he suggests those who think otherwise are preaching "another gospel". He suggests that Jesus welcomed the little children in Mark 10.1ff because they were circumcised males!!! (Church Scene July 19 1996 The Rev'd David Rathgen) He asks "Are they (those who hold an open policy about baptism) offering a gospel worth dying for? He proclaims a discriminatory Jesus. He is prepared to concede that Jesus "would like to have welcomed many others". Sadly this priest has failed to see that the whole ministry of Jesus was one not of holding back, waiting for (and discriminating between) those who came to him. Rather he spent his life travelling the countryside seeking out, sitting down and eating with sinners - accepting the offerings one and all brought to him. He sat down and ate with Simon the pharisee as well as Simon the leper, and accepted such offerings that each made.
Jesus died not for a doctrine or a theology, but for people, and in dying and rising for one and for all, he declares all sacred.
In the end this is the Jesus I might perhaps consider dying for - not that he would ask me or anyone else to. I would consider dying for people, as indeed Jesus both considered and did. Indeed it was most probably because Jesus was prepared to die for people other than themselves that the religiously orthodox killed him. So St Paul is prepared to say: "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own *people* ..." Not the gospel, not the laws and regulations of the Christian faith, not the injunction to love as I have loved you or so that they might believe. He is prepared to die for other people, simply because they are people, people sacred enough in God's eyes for him to send his Son to die for - that they might realise just how sacred they are.
So even though I am a scout because "once a scout, always a scout" I would not be prepared to die for that organisation, for all the good it did in my life and continues to do in the lives of others. For all I might support the Defence Forces, that is always with the proviso that individual orders are for the betterment of humanity and each and every individual. Even though I am a priest in the Church of God, it is not the church for which I would be prepared to die, but for people's right to hear that God considers all people sacred enough to die for - whoever they are, whatever their lifestyle, or whether they come to Church or not.
One of the wonderful things about Jesus is expressed in some words which I suspect have rarely, if ever, been used as the text of a sermon. In the gospel for today, we are told: "Jesus had compassion for them" - the "great crowd". Jesus had compassion for all people, not just some.
I have, on occasions, attended Mass in a Catholic Church, and one of the things that really impresses me about the Catholic Mass is that they supplement Jesus' words of institution having the priest saying (in rather more forceful words than our Anglican liturgy): "Take this, *all of you*, and eat it: this is my body ..." and "Take this, *all of you*, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood ..."
One of our local journalists wrote a while back that going to Church was "boring" - and I thought, well he hasn't obviously worshipped at St Richard's :-) Yet in another sense, the words of the liturgy are meant to be repetitive to enable what God is really interested in hearing take place. I mean - God has heard the words of the liturgy innumerable times. God isn't interested in what I as the priest, say. No, God is interested in where our thoughts take us. These are the things that God hasn't heard. When we think about the dinner in the oven - this reflects our love for our family and our pride in providing for them. When we turn over in our minds some difficult situation at work, this again reflects our concern to make the right decision, and to allow God to have a gentle influence. It is lovely when I go on holidays. I enjoy going to Church because I can forget the words of the liturgy even more than I do when I preside, and be myself before the Lord.
We are sacred, you and I and all people. This is God's estimation of us - for Jesus died for you, for me and for all - for the atheist, the agnostic, the backslider, those of the Christian faith, those of other faiths and those of no faith at all. He died for sinners, those who express their faith differently, those who express their sexuality differently, and those who find difficulty in expressing their faith or their sexuality. God calls all of us sacred. This is the message of the Church, this is the good news, we are the people for whom Jesus died, and those for whom St Paul was prepared to die also.
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