Well, who would have thought…

First my apologies…I’ve been away and distracted by other things.   I’ve started and stop more posts than I care to admit, and I really will finish them.  Someday.

But if you followed the earlier entries in my blog, you know that I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching about music and faith and how best to roll these two together into a life of meaning — well, one of the things that I have done is toWooden Pulpit participate in a preaching class offered by my pastor.  And, last night, I preached my first ever sermon.

So, rather than write more about this experience and what it means in the greater scope of things, I thought that I would post my sermon text, just in case anyone would like to read it.

And a little bit later, I’ll have more to say.

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Yes, the Plan is Working (Romans 8:26-39)

I have to start today with a confession:  my choice of this passage from Romans 8 was based purely on the mental image that flashed in my brain when I read v.31b, which says: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”.  I saw the actress Bette Davis, dressed as Queen Elizabeth I, standing on a cliff, facing her followers, reciting the famous Tillsbury speech, calling her men to arms against Spain’s Armada, that had come to conquer England and return it to Catholicism: 

“The enemy perhaps may challenge my sex for that I am a woman, so may I likewise charge their mould for that they are but men, whose breath is in their nostrils, and if God do not charge England with the sins of England, little do I fear their force… Si deus nobiscum quis contra nos? (if God is with us, who can be against us?)”

If God is with us, who can be against us? These words appear as royal and institutional mottos, over medieval doorways in Krakow, even in online discussions about whether or not the Cheetahs deserve to win today’s whatever sports match (courtesy of Supersportsforum.com).  But always it seems that are used to say, see, we are right, and the people we fight, they are wrong.

But as I read and reread our epistle passage for today, these words of the Apostle Paul, written to show first the church at Rome, and now us, how to live a Christian life, I see that what I had always suspected about these words was true:  they were not meant as tools with which to conquer our enemies, they are intended to help us conquer ourselves and our lesser nature and our fears. That is, when we take closer look at Paul’s words and see what they really say to us: the story that they tell us is about prayer, hope, and faith, not about superiority and separation.

Our passage for today is a small portion of a very long, letter written by Paul of Tarsus to the church at Rome, a church formed out of the Jewish community there around 40 CE.

What we know as the book of Romans was written around the year 58 CE, as Paul waited in the city of Corinth, readying himself for what his return to Jerusalem after many years of mission.  And we do know that it was written by Paul: of the 13 books in the New Testament attributed to Paul, 7 were written by the Apostle himself, and the remaining 6 come from the writings of his students.

Paul had spent the previous 14 years of his life, telling the story of Jesus to the Gentiles, or non-Jews, in the lands today know as Turkey and Greece, and working to reconcile the antagonistic cultures of Jew and Gentile within the teachings of Christ. What we know of Paul comes to us through is letters and through the historical accounts of his mission in the Book of Acts.  But it is the Pauline letters that provide the greatest written teaching on the doctrines and practices of early Christianity.

The letter, or epistle, in the Greco-Roman period of early Christianity, was a specific rhetorical form with a dictated structure:  an opening, followed by an offer of thanksgiving, then the body of the message, and a concluding formula. Paul, as a reasonably educated man, followed this form. Our text for today comes from the closing portion of the body section of the letter to the Romans.

I think in many ways we have forgotten the importance of the written letter. Certainly without Paul’s letters, we would not know him as well. Recently ,my favorite radio talk show Diane Rehm interviewed author John Freeman about his new book The Tyranny of Email.  In that interview he talked about the lifetime of letters he had shared with his grandmother and mother, letters still in his possession even though the writers are now gone.  He reminded me what a gift an actual letter is from the sender to the receiver and I immediately thought about Paul and his letters.  Imagine the excitement in the community when the courier arrived with the parchment, the message to come together went out and the members of the church community gathered, perhaps over a meal (dare I say, over a potluck) and then the reader stood  and unrolled the parchment and began to read aloud.

That’s the other thing that we often forget.  We forget that Paul created his letters TO BE READ ALOUD. We read them aloud in community to this very day – but we treat them now as sacred texts rather than as what they were: actual communications between one man and a group of faith pioneers living in a far outpost, people alone, people trying to learn a new way of living, trying to live in a new kind of community, trying to uphold a life of faith when surrounded with the scorn and disdain of those who just didn’t agree with their choices.  (pause)

The last thing about the letter itself is this:  as you read this text from the letter to the Romans or any other Pauline letter, never forget the context of Paul’s mission:  evangelism to the Gentiles and the weaving into community two very culturally different groups, the Jewish Christians, who believed that the practice of the Covenant Law was a necessary part of the road to salvation, and the Gentiles, who came directly to the teachings of Jesus.

I said earlier that really, this section of Romans is a letter to all of us on the topics of prayer, hope and faith.  We’ll go back  to v. 31b, “If God is with us, who can be against us,” in a minute, but before we do, let’s examine another portion of our reading that is also often used to separate and divide rather than to unite: the text on predestination and justification in v. 29-30. 

Let’s look at this text again: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first born within a large family;. (30) And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” I will admit that the more I read this passage, the more my head wants to explode.  And yet these concepts occur throughout Paul’s letters:  predestined, justified, glorified.

Now, please bear with me here – apparently you can take the girl out of the history department, but you can’t take the history department out of the girl – clearly the use and abuse of these words has hidden the meaning of this text for many believers and I’m one of them.

Predestination. Well, there have been in the history of Protestant doctrine two very different interpretations: the logical and the experiential.  The reformation theologian John Calvin offered the logical interpretation:  he taught that predestination is “double-edged”, there are the faithful and there are the damned and only God knows to which group you belong.  No act of faith or merit could change your status. Predestination in the logical interpretation becomes nothing but a tool for exclusion and inequality in human society.

The experiential approach to predestination, as it appears in the works of James Arminius and others, takes on a more neutral meaning.  Predestination simply means that salvation awaits and is constantly present; once we open ourselves to that grace, we realize that our salvation comes not from our own actions, but from God’s.  The only thing that the word “predestination” is meant to exclude is any idea on our part that we as human beings did anything to receive this grace:  our performance or lack thereof has nothing to do with God’s reaching out towards us or God’s love for us.

This latter understanding of “predestination” is more in keeping with the context in which Paul wrote. The concepts of foreknowledge and predestination were common concepts in Jewish theology: these words simply described the pre-creation activity of God.  And Paul echoes this same understanding in his letters to the Philippians and to the Corinthians. But the truly important point here is that predestination is an action of GOD

Okay, so God’s action of foreknowledge and predestination mean that a world of grace and of love is always there, always available to us. How do we get there?  We simply accept the faith that is offered us. And how do we do that?  We access that grace by justification and the result is our glorification.  Two more words:  justification and glorification.  Remember v. 30:  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

Justification refers to the act by which God raises us to righteousness, and that action was the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Paul writes in Romans 4:24-26: “…It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification. “  

Justification occurs through our acceptance of God’s pre-ordained grace when we accept the way of Jesus Christ, and for Paul, most specifically, it comes through the act of baptism (Romans 6:1-4): “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, we too might walk in newness of life.” 

So, the result of God’s actions (predestination and justification):  is our glorification, as we take our place in the family of Jesus Christ, as we share in the life and death of Christ.

Lets breath, stop a minute, and put these words together.  If we take a moment, and listen to the same text from the Biblical translation known as “The Message”, it becomes more clear to the modern listener:  “(29) God knew what he was doing from the very beginning (predestination).  He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son.  The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored.  We see the original (Jesus) and indeed shape our lives there in him.  After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name.  After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself (justification).  And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun (glorification).”

And so we see the structure of God’s eternal plan and God’s promise of action on that plan: foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification.  And all we really have to do is accept our place in the family of Jesus Christ, as his brother or sister, and respond to the love and grace that was always on offer to us through God’s plan.

For me, at least, those words we started with now take on new meaning in light of this knowledge of God’s plan of salvation:  “If God is with us, who can be against us?” no longer rings in my ears as the battle cry of tyrants and dictators, but as the assurance of Grace that completes our reading for today.  Our text asks:  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? Who is to condemn us? Who will separate us from the love of Christ.  No one. And Paul’s own words in v. 38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love god in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Is there a greater statement of faith and security than that?

I started this sermon with a confession, and I guess I will end with one.  When we all met for our first session and talked about why we were in that room at that time, I gave my standard speech that I’ve been using for the last year, that I was in a time of discernment and exploring new things. The truth is, for the last year, I have been in a kind of spiritual turmoil.  My heart could feel the tug of God’s plan described so strongly by Paul, but I just couldn’t move, I couldn’t see and well, I didn’t know what to do.  And then a very wise person said to me, “You know, whatever you decide, whichever direction you go, you just can’t fall off God’s plate.”  And that is for me the lesson of Romans 8:26-39.  Prayer, faith and hope…these are the actions required of us.  The rest is left to God.

We, like those early believers in the City of Rome, hear the words of Paul’s letter in a world in which we exist sometimes as an island in what seems a sea of scornful unbelievers:  a world in which secular triumphs over sacred, in which belief is sometimes explained away as the actions of a single protein in our brains, in which the words of our own faith are used to harm and to exclude.  But if we listen, as those listeners of old, as the reader unrolls the letter parchment,  we can hear the real message of Paul’s letter:  that God knows each of us, individually and collectively, that we were known before the world was created, that we are known when we are too afraid to know Him and that even when do not know how to speak to Him in prayer, if we but stand silently in the grace of salvation, the Holy Spirit will find the words we need and see to it that our prayers are heard.  And, we just simply can’t fall off God’s plate.

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