This weekend the copier ate my sermon right before our Saturday Night service, forcing me to rely on the Holy Spirit (aka: winging it). I couldn’t find it on my computer afterwards either, forcing me to wing it again on Sunday. Apparently, it was auto saved to iCloud. So, the sermon you see below is not the sermon I gave.
You can listen to the actual delivered sermon here, in the iTunes Library under Tamed Cynic or in the Listen widget on this blog. The audio isn’t great because I recorded it on my phone and I was ranging all over the sanctuary while I talked. Sorry.
I can only conclude that by not being able to preach the manuscript you have here, God didn’t think it worth preaching. It’s not a ‘good’ sermon. Too dense, too historical- there’s simply too much I want to say to reform people’s notions of Paul and sermon clarity suffers for it. Homiletical vomit, you could call it.
A couple of years ago I took the Tennleytown train to the National Cathedral for a workshop on preaching. I enrolled in the workshop not because I have any room for improvement (obviously) but because the workshop was being led by Fleming Rutledge, the famed Episcopal preacher.
If you read my blog then you’ve heard me confess this before: that I am susceptible to crushes on older women.
If you don’t know her, Fleming Rutledge has an aristocratic old Virginia accent. She has a Downton Abbey dignity tempered with a twist of Southern irreverence. She likes to wear an old fashioned Geneva collar.
She preaches with sophistication and wit. She loves the theology of Karl Barth, the literature of Cormac McCarthy and the films of Joel and Ethan Coen and she wears her hair in a bun. She is, in other words, the perfect woman.
I mean…. other than my wife.
And so I took the Tennleytown train to the Cathedral not because my preaching needed improvement. Instead, like a teenage boy convinced the swimsuit model is looking right at him from the pages of the magazine, I took the Tennleytown train to be in the presence of my idol.
When I first met her my heart skipped a beat.
When she nodded approvingly as I introduced myself as being from Virginia, I felt flush.
And my infatuation was forever cemented when she began the workshop just as I would’ve begun it: by criticizing her own denomination.
She said that rather than announcing the Gospel, most Episcopal priests preached about Jesus as a compassionate, human teacher. Judging by the collars in the room, I was the only one who wasn’t an Episcopal priest.
To make her point, she asked the dozen of us in the workshop how many of us had ever preached from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
And the only hand that went up was mine.
And Fleming Rutledge smiled at me. And like an awkward Mr Darcy I smiled back.
And Fleming Rutledge asked why I thought Romans was important.
And because I pore over each new Fleming Rutledge book as though it were a Victoria’s Secret catalog, I knew exactly what to say. I knew exactly what she’d say.
“Because the Gospels are narratives. Story. Their meaning isn’t self-evident. It’s Paul’s Letter to the Romans that spells out our message.’
And Fleming Rutledge beamed at me, as though she were about to say: ‘you had me at Pauline Soteriology.’
And I beamed back, thinking to myself: ‘Score.’
Then Fleming Rutledge turned to the others, the reprobates in the class, and she asked them to share ‘Rev Micheli’s high estimation of Romans.’
The responses trickled up from around the room:
‘Because Paul complicated Jesus’ simple message of love.’
‘Because Romans is difficult to understand.’
‘Because Romans comes with baggage on social issues.’
Finally, a middle-aged priest with a gray beard said: ‘I went into ministry because I love Jesus, but Paul…? his voice dribbled off to a question mark.
Fleming Rutledge looked at him, her eyebrows crinkled in distress.
So, like a prince rescuing his damsel, I interjected:
‘It doesn’t sound like you all have ever heard Paul’s BIG MESSAGE.’
And sure, I wasn’t trying to be profound or insightful. I was just trying to mack on my muse.
But it worked.
‘Jason’s right,’ Fleming Rutledge said- I was ‘Jason’ now- ‘I’m afraid you haven’t heard Paul’s BIG MESSAGE’ she said in her Gone with the Wind accent.
‘And if you haven’t heard Paul’s BIG MESSAGE’ she added, ‘you will never have a Gospel that’s big enough.’
Some of think you’ve heard it before. Paul’s big message in Romans.
But what you’ve actually heard is St Augustine. What you’ve heard is what St Augustine heard in Paul.
Augustine was born 3 centuries after Paul. Augustine grew up an unbeliever in North Africa. He was brilliant and popular. Everything came easy to him. Everything except self-control.
Beginning in his adolescence and continuing even after his conversion to Christianity, Augustine battled lust and sexual temptation. He once famously prayed: ‘Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.’
Augustine wrote in his memoir that he was at war within himself. He could never bring himself to live as he knew he should as a Christian.
Then one day Augustine was sitting in a garden, weeping in despair, and he heard a boy in a neighboring yard say: ‘Pick up and read.’
And in a mystical moment, Augustine picked up a New Testament and flipped, at random, to a page and read it. It was Romans 13: ‘Let us live honorably… not in debauchery…Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’
Augustine thought he’d discovered in Paul someone just like himself, someone who constantly did exactly what he willed he would not do.
And so what Augustine heard in Paul’s Letter to the Romans was that the Law- who God wants us to be and how God wants us to behave- always leads to frustration and failure because you and I are sinners.
Sin’s been passed down to us from our original parents, Adam and Eve.
So any hope we have of eternal salvation cannot rely on us.
And that was the Gospel for Augustine- that salvation isn’t ours to earn by our virtue. Salvation comes to us from God’s grace.
Some of you think you’ve heard Paul’s big message before, but you heard is actually what St Augustine heard in Paul.
And you know what? Augustine’s Gospel isn’t big enough.
Some of you think you know Paul’s big picture thesis, but what you’ve actually heard is Martin Luther. What Martin Luther heard in Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Luther lived a 1,000 years after St Augustine and 1500 years after Paul. Martin Luther was a Catholic monk, an Augustinian monk.
And despite being a monk, despite having given his life to God, Martin Luther was terrified of God.
Martin Luther was convinced that, no matter what he did, his devotion to God was never enough to avoid God’s punishment.
He was so plagued by a guilty conscience that he even grew to hate the God.
He became preoccupied with one question: How can I get a gracious God?
And he searched scripture for an answer.
And then one day Martin Luther happened across Paul’s Letter to the Romans: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith…’
And what Luther thought he discovered in Paul was someone just like himself someone who was struggling with how they could ever stand before a God who is holy and righteous.
And what Luther heard Paul saying is that because of our sin we have no righteousness of our own. Instead because of Christ’s sacrifice for our sin God ‘imputes’ Christ’s righteousness to us.
And that became the Gospel for Luther: Christ’s righteousness gets credited as our own and it’s available to us not by anything we need to do but by faith.
Some of you have heard that before, and you assumed it was Paul’s big message. But actually what you heard is what Martin Luther heard.
And you know what? Luther’s Gospel- it isn’t big enough.
Some of you think you don’t like Paul’s big message, but it’s not because you actually heard Paul. It’s because what you heard is what John Calvin heard in Paul.
When Calvin was just a boy his mother died. After she died, Calvin’s father, who was not a kind man, sent him away to live with another family.
When Calvin was a man, his only child died in infancy. And then his wife died, after only 9 years of marriage.
From childhood to adulthood, Calvin’s life was marked by sorrow.
Because he was a lawyer, trained in logic and argument, Calvin wanted to know answers to the big questions. He wanted to know Why.
Why, if God is all-powerful do mothers die? Why children and wives die? Why do bad things happen? And, come to think of it, why do so many people not love the God who made them?
Calvin turned to scripture for answers to his questions, to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 8:
“We know that all things work together for goodfor those who love God…For those whom God foreknew he also predestined… ’
And when Calvin read that he discovered in Paul someone with the same questions as himself, at least that’s what Calvin assumed.
And so what Calvin heard Paul saying in Romans was a message to persevere in the face of sorrow, that God has a plan for each and every life, that from the beginning of the world, God has chosen to save some eternally through Jesus Christ but also to damn others eternally.
And for Calvin that became the Gospel: that God is absolutely sovereign over our lives.
But as big as that sounds, it’s not nearly big enough.
Here’s the problem:
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is actually one, long sustained argument.
It has one single thesis.
It’s like a symphony, made up of motifs and movements and variations that all come together to contribute to one single expression.
And because Romans is like a symphony, whenever you focus on just one part of Romans, the composer’s message gets jumbled and distorted.
Augustine and Luther and Calvin and there are plenty others- they focus on just 1 small motif in Paul.
And as a consequence, they make their Gospel too small.
Because Paul’s not writing about how we’re saved by grace or how Christ’s righteousness gets credited as our own by faith. And he’s not interested in God’s plan for my life.
Even if those things are all true, Paul’s not writing about us.
And the dramatic tension in his writing, the question searching for a resolution, is this:
Has God given up on his promise to Abraham?
Remember, all the way back in the beginning of the bible, in the Book of Genesis, the way God decided to deal with the Adam problem was through Abraham.
The way God decided to deal with the sin in the world was by calling and swearing a covenant with Abraham.
God called Abraham to live in faithfulness to God and by doing so he would be a like a beacon of light that would call others back to faithfulness and obedience to God.
And eventually God promised that through Abraham would come a world-wide family of God’s People, a Jewish and Gentile family that would be the first fruit of God’s new, restored creation.
God promised that to Abraham.
And God promised to be faithful to that promise.
The Jews of Paul’s day saw that promise as up in the air.
They worried that God had broken his end of the promise because Israel had so often broken their end of it. That’s the dramatic tension in Paul’s composition to the Romans. That’s the question he wants to resolve in his symphony.
And like any good symphony, Paul gives you a clue to the resolution in the opening theme.
You heard it read today. Verse 17- that’s Paul’s thesis statement.
That’s his answer to the question, that’s the opening theme to the symphony of Romans and everything else is just a variation on it.
‘For in it…’ Paul says, ‘in the Gospel, in the announcement that Jesus, the crucified Messiah, has been made, through the resurrection, the Lord of creation’ (1.3-4).
‘In the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed…’
The righteousness of God- God’s righteousness- is a very specific, technical term in the Hebrew Bible.
The word ‘righteousness’ in Greek means ‘justice’ or ‘justification’ or ‘setting things to right.’
And in the Hebrew Bible it refers specifically to God’s covenantal fidelity: God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham.
You see what’s so big and powerful about the Gospel for Paul is that it isn’t about how we make ourselves right in God’s eyes.
What’s so big and powerful about the Gospel for Paul is that the Gospel isn’t about us at all.
Before Romans is about our justification by faith it’s about God justifying himself. It’s about God proving himself to us.
It’s the announcement that, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God is keeping his word to Abraham, that in Jesus Christ God has kept his promise to deal with the sin of the world, he’s kept his promise to reconcile what’s wrong in God’s world and he’s kept his promise to create a world-wide people of God who are the sign of God’s restored creation.
And this is unveiled, Paul says, ‘through faith for faith,’ which actually your bibles do a terrible job translating because in the Greek its:
‘from faithfulness through faithfulness.’
As in God’s righteousness is unveiled from God’s faithfulness- from Yahweh not forgetting his promise to his people.
And it’s unveiled through faithfulness- through Jesus doing what Israel could not do, showing an Abraham-like trust in God even unto death.
And then Paul concludes his opening theme with a few notes from the prophet Habakkuk:
‘the one who is righteous by faith will live…’
But again, this is Jewish music he’s writing. He’s not talking about us.
He’s reminding us that God had promised this all along, promised that he would make good on his promise to Abraham, promised that he would send a Messiah, a Righteous One, who would live a life of perfect faithfulness and whom God would vindicate in death by raising him up to life.
And all of that would be the overture of God’s new creation.
When you step back and listen from beginning to end, that’s the music Paul wants you to hear.
On Good Friday, I got a message that someone close to me, someone I care about and love, had been committed.
For threatening to commit suicide.
And so just a couple weeks ago, I found myself riding that same train to Tennleytown I had ridden a couple years ago. This time to go not to the Cathedral but to a psychiatric institute to visit.
Just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean I know what to do in those situations when those situations hit close to home.
Just because I’m a pastor- it doesn’t mean I don’t get overwhelmed with the same questions you do:
Why did this have to happen God?
Where the Hell are you God?
How are we going to get through this God?
What in the world am I supposed to say?
And maybe it’s because the last time I’d ridden that train to Tennleytown I’d been talking about Paul and Romans with Fleming Rutledge, but riding on that train, thinking of who I was going to see, Fleming’s point hit me again:
that if we don’t grasp Paul’s BIG PICTURE then the usual ways we define we the Gospel aren’t Big Enough.
They’re not BIG ENOUGH for someone whose life is upside down and completely out of sorts.
It may be true that we’re saved by God’s grace alone not by our own virtue. It may be true but- take it from me- that’s not a Gospel BIG ENOUGH to take to someone in despair.
It may be true that what makes us right with God, what justifies us before God, isn’t anything we do but is our faith alone. That may be true, but you shouldn’t have to take it from me to know that that’s not a BIG ENOUGH Gospel for someone who is crippled by fear.
It may be true that an all-knowing God has a plan for each one of us and every moment of our lives, but I hope you know- I hope you know- that that is in no way a BIG ENOUGH Gospel to offer someone who’s in agony, someone who’s convinced there’s no way out, someone who’s convinced there’s nothing they can do, someone who’s convinced there’s no one there for them.
The only Gospel BIG ENOUGH is the one Paul gives us here in 1.16-17: that what we discover revealed in Jesus Christ is that God never forgets us, never abandons us, that no matter how dark our life seems God doesn’t turn his back on us, doesn’t break his word to us.
God keeps his promise to be with us.
That’s a Gospel BIG ENOUGH to fit all our other gospels inside.