s153e98 Somerton Park 1/3/98 Lent 1

"The ... Lord ... is generous to all who call on him." Romans 10:12.

I find it difficult to see a connecting theme in today's readings. In the past, on the first Sunday in Lent, I have often concentrated on the gospel story, with the message that it is that which opposes God which calls us to prove we are God's children. I find this voice within myself, insistently calling me to prove to myself I am a child of God. More recently I have found in the Old Testament lesson the affirmation that God creates community, and we are simply called not to destroy what God has created. Often these days we have "community creation" projects, and while I recognise the fine intentions and enormous energy that lie behind such schemes, I suspect that we are trying to do God's work, and failing to see what God has already done. We are called to recognise what God has done and respect those who particularly value their privacy. They well may have good reasons for doing so.

I have thought today, for the first time, to tackle the reading for the epistle, to try to crack the "hard nut" of the rather confusing words of St Paul. I do this with a considerable degree of trepidation, and you can judge for yourselves if the exercise is helpful / successful or not.

The difficulty comes when one reads Paul's words closely, he says: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved." Romans 10:9-10. St Paul seems to be saying that God rewards with salvation those who believe in and proclaim the resurrection. So the opponents of Bishop Spong will see in this verse condemnation for anyone, but particularly a Bishop of the Church, who seems to question the resurrection of Jesus.

This seems at odds with the words St Paul uses before and after. For instance, at the end of the passage, when he says: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Romans 10:13). These words offer salvation to a rather wider group of people than just those who believe and publicly proclaim the resurrection.

When I was on holiday / turned sick leave earlier this year, I went to services in a couple of other denominations. It is always interesting to see how others do things, to appreciate that they do do things differently, and to realise why they do things differently, even though I am neither inclined or at liberty to imitate them.

The reason for saying this is that at one of these services there was a baby baptised, and after the baby was duly baptised, then the parents and godparents made the traditional affirmations: "I turn to Christ", "I repent of my sins" and "I renounce evil". We in the Anglican Church make these affirmations before the child is baptised. In fact prior to this experience I could well imagine that I would have refused to baptise a baby unless and until these affirmations had been made. So it was somewhat startling for me to have seen them done afterwards. Of course they were done afterwards as a response to the graciousness of God in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in baptism. They focused more clearly on what God had done and less on what we do in response.

But of course everything we do is in response to God's graciousness, and in some ways this other denomination expresses this more clearly than we in the Anglican Church do. As I say, I am neither inclined or at liberty to imitate them, but it is helpful to see that others are on the right track even where we do things differently.

As I say, the difficulty with the words of St Paul about salvation is that they can be easily read as if God rewards us for our belief in the unbelievable and our public proclamation - as if these make God notice us - make us acceptable. Indeed it is hard to read it otherwise. "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved." It seems as if St Paul is saying salvation and justification come as a result of our confession and belief. So the more we confess to God and to others that we believe in God, the more we are justified and the more certain we are to be saved.

If we go down this track we find ourselves thinking that those whose faith is too weak to preach on street corners or visit house to house to proclaim their faith will not be saved. Certainly we look with some admiration at the great evangelists and those who visit house to house.

Confession of our faith can become an exercise in the power of positive thinking. Charles Schulz's character, Charlie Brown, at his sister Lucy's urging, says over and over again to himself: "I believe I can fly this kite!" "I believe I can fly this kite!" "I believe I can fly this kite!" "I actually believe I can fly this kite!" To which Lucy responds: "I bet you, ten to one, you're wrong!" (The Gospel according to Peanuts p65).

This theology leads us to think of the God of the Old Testament being the God of the law abiding, whereas the God of the New Testament is the God of the gullible.

But as I have already indicated these words of St Paul are placed within others which speak of the universality of salvation. In verse 4 he says "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes". St Paul goes on: "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (vs 8). And he concludes: "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." (vs11). "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek" "the ... Lord ... is generous to all who call on him". (vs12). and "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (vs13).

We are again in the situation of looking at Jesus either as someone who stands in the way of people trying to come to the Father, making sure that no one who approaches the Father who is not fully forgiven, sure of their faith. The other alternative is that we look at Jesus as someone who making sure that everyone who wants to come to the Father is indeed admitted. I know how I look at Jesus, at least intellectually, despite those voices to which I referred to earlier. I was grateful for the comment made about Satan in our Bible Study a week or so ago - that Satan is the "accuser". Therefore Jesus is the "excuser".

As I got to this particular stage in my sermon, I began to think I might consider doing a series of sermons on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, perhaps as we get more into St Luke's gospel this year. For it is St Luke, in his gospel and history of the early Church, that accounts for 53 of the 91 references to the "Holy Spirit" in the Bible. (58%) It has come to me that the primary purpose of the great outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early Church was to confirm to the Church and to subsequent generations that the actions of the Church in seeing God in people hitherto considered to be outside the possibility of God's grace, were in fact inside. St Paul was himself quick to admit that he was fortunate that the risen Christ had met him along the road, being in the very act of persecuting the Church. Being a persecutor of the Church he would have considered himself to be outside the possibility of mercy.

So the act of being granted mercy brings surprise, relief and an overflowing of emotion. Everything happens at once. In St Paul's case, he realised this Jesus, whom he had been in the process of persecuting, is the Lord. That the Lord had made himself known meant therefore that he is raised from the dead. The act of the Lord Jesus meeting him on the road brought him to believe with his heart and confess with his lips. But the salvation came prior to this, and was in no way dependent on the things that subsequently St Paul did or the words he said. The salvation was that the Lord had touched a person who thought him or herself as beyond redemption, and the Holy Spirit is given to confirm the truth of this.

The classic text showing the Holy Spirit confirming that fact of redemption to those thought beyond it, is the conversion of St Peter in Acts 9.36 - 10.48 (especially 10.34 and 10.44-45). The negative evidence of this, the Holy Spirit forbidding Paul and Timothy only going to those who could be expected to be within the possibility of God's mercy, is found in Acts 16.6-7. They are forced to "cross the rubicon" into hitherto uncharted territory of Europe, a people completely alien to them - people who they thought were beyond redemption.

The emotion of the surprising personal touch of God led St Paul to say things which theologically he himself would disagree with. We build our theology not on recollection of a conversion experience, with it's unsound theology, but on the consistently sound theology in which it is couched.

St Paul would say, far from having done anything to merit the Lord meeting him on that road, he proclaims quite the opposite. He states quite openly: "Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (1 Corinthians 15:8-9).

The surprise is that God considers little old me. Little old me, struggling with life, let alone faith. When we express our surprise, our delight at the Lord noticing us, it is an expression of that profound truth "What, even me?"

As I have been typing this sermon, I am conscious that my words may be viewed as theology putting a dampener on enthusiasm. But St Paul is enthusiastic, but it is enthusiasm for the right thing. It is primarily an enthusiasm for all. He had broken out of the constraints that his former faith had for those outside the covenant with the nation of Israel. Before him, within the nation of Israel, Jesus had broken with the constraints of the conventional religious wisdom, to sit down and eat with sinners.

What is the conventional wisdom of today? Who do we think are beyond redemption? Who are those that we need to look to and see, not people beyond redemption, people who need to be converted - but people in whom to see something of the graciousness of God? Perhaps they are the drug addicts, the sufferers of AIDS, those who graffiti our neighbourhood?

For the pattern is quite clear, and if there is anything unchanging about God it is that he / she sees good in a lot more places than we do.

The Lord Jesus is not the heavenly bouncer keeping all the undesirables out of heaven, and only admitting the gullible and the vocal proclaimers of the resurrection. No, "the ... Lord ... is generous to all who call on him." Romans 10:12.

 

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