Here’s my sermon from Ascension Sunday, kicking off a series on Romans.
You probably saw the story in the Washington Post this week. I blogged about it too- as it turned an unwise move that netted me 73 colorful comments from all over the interwebs most of which contained too many four-lettered words to publish.
I didn’t know they had emojis for some of the acts critics suggested I do to myself.
You probably saw the article about how the Alexandria chapter of Washington Sport and Health this week cancelled the gym membership of Richard Spencer, the president of the Alt-Right/White Nationalist ‘National Policy Institute’.
Spencer was pumping iron in safe anonymity, when C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University Professor, recognized him and then confronted him. At first he denied his identity. But she was sure it was him. According to the other patrons, the professor lambasted him, yelling:
“Not only are you a Nazi — you are a cowardly Nazi… I just want to say to you, I’m sick of your crap — that this country belongs [to people like you]. . . . As a woman, I find your statements to be particularly odious; moreover.”
The gym cancelled his membership after the altercation.
I doubt Richard Spencer was surprised at getting the heave-ho. The episode this week was only the latest in a string of ugly confrontations.
He was punched in the face on Inauguration Day by an anti-Trump protestor.
The chocolate shop on King Street near Spencer’s rented town house went bust after boycotters assumed both spaces shared the same owner.
Before he was working out at the gym this week, Spencer was leading a march of demonstrators in Charlottesville, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Perhaps it’s because we’re kicking-off a summer long sermon series in Paul’s Letter to the Romans- the most important book of the New Testament- but reading the article in the Washington Post this week, my first thought was:
“That’s what makes the Church different than the gym.”
I don’t know Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, and I wouldn’t disagree with her characterization of Richard Spencer as a repugnant, cowardly Nazi. I’d even go father than her. I don’t know Dr. Fair but- if she’s a Christian- rather than agitate for his removal from a club her first response to Richard Spencer should have been to invite him to the club we call Church.
Now, hear me out. I’m NOT suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to whatever beliefs he wishes to hold.
I’m a Christian. I don’t believe we’re entitled to whatever beliefs we wish to believe.
After all, today is the holy day we call Ascension, when the creeds shift from the past perfect tense to the present tense. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father who has given Jesus dominion over all the Earth.
Because of Ascension, because Jesus is Lord and King over all the Earth, it now makes no sense whatsoever for us to say “As a Christian, I believe ______ but that’s just my personal belief.” The language of personal beliefs and private faith is unintelligible in light of the Ascension.
Jesus is Lord- that’s a public, all-encompassing claim so, no, we’re not entitled to believe whatever we wish to believe. We’re required not only to believe in Jesus but to believe Jesus, believe what Jesus says and does, and what Richard Spencer believes grossly contradicts much of what Jesus says and does.
I’m not suggesting Richard Spencer is entitled to his noxious views nor am I minimizing the sort of person Richard Spencer appears to be in public.
By all accounts Richard Spencer’s awful hipster side-part comes accompanied by monstrosity.
He’s racist. He’s anti-semitic. He’s xenophobic. He’s an America First nationalist, which- by the way- is idolatry. Given that string, he’s likely homophobic and sexist to boot.
During the campaign he provoked audible revulsion in the NPR reporter who was interviewing him. Atlantic Magazine posted video of him leading a conference room full of disciples in the Sieg Heil salute.
In response to getting booted from Washington Sport and Health, Spencer tweeted: [Does this mean] “we can start kicking Jews and coloreds out of our business establishments?”
He has a knack for inducing revulsion.
I can think of no one who fits the definition better:
Richard Spencer is ungodly.
And that’s my problem- and your problem.
Because the Apostle Paul says it’s exactly someone like Richard Spencer for whom Christ died (Romans 5.6).
Obviously private gyms can do whatever they wish. And if it was a gym to which we all belonged then I’d be the first to say kick him out on his a@#.
But we’re not members of a club.
We’re members of a Body, a Body created by a particular kerygma, a particular proclamation: the Gospel proclamation that on the law-cursed cross God in Jesus Christ died for the ungodly and that that death defeated the Power of Death.
Christ didn’t die to confer blessings upon good people like you. Christ didn’t die to make nice people nicer. Christ died so that ungodly people might become a new humanity. Richard Spencer is precisely the sort of ungodly person we should invite to Church.
Where else could he go?
This is the only place. This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.
I chose that last sentence with care:
This is the only place where the Word of the Cross might vanquish him, delivering him from his bondage to the Power of Sin.
“Bondage to the Power of Sin,” with a capital P and a capital S, is the only way to speak Christianly about Richard Spencer’s racism; in fact, the Power of Sin with a capital P and a capital S is the only way to speak Christian.
Despite what you may think, the letters of Paul are not secondary to the Gospels, they are the means by which we read the Gospels, for the Gospels are not self-interpreting nor is their meaning self-evident.
No matter how your New Testament is ordered, Paul’s Gospel message predates the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1.16-17).
This is Paul’s thesis statement and from it he unwinds a single, long, non-linear argument. The argument itself is odd.
Like Paul’s other letters this one is addressed to a particular people but unlike Paul’s other letters this one continuously shifts focus from the congregation to the cosmic, that what concerns this little house church in Rome somehow also concerns all of creation.
The letter is also odd in that Paul sticks the salutations along with the introduction of the main theme not at the beginning of the letter but at the very end. The introduction of the main theme doesn’t come until the very end of the letter, like a final, it’s-all-been-building-to-this reveal:
“The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet” (16.20).
This whole letter, all 16 chapters of it, all the pretty parts we like to read at funerals and to stick onto Hallmark cards, all of it is driving towards this: “The God of peace will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”
This whole letter is about the defeat of the Power of Satan.
That’s why throughout Romans Paul’s focus keeps shifting from the congregational to the cosmic and why the language he most often uses is martial language, the language of combat and battle and powers and invasion (4.25, 8.32 et al).
The theme of this whole letter is the defeat of the Power of Satan, and Paul’s thesis here in Romans 1 is that the Gospel is the Power by which God defeats that Power: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed…”
Paul’s thesis statement doesn’t much sound like its about the defeat of anything much less the Power of Satan.
That’s because the English language lacks any equivalents to the Greek word Paul uses here, the word that gets translated throughout Romans as either “righteousness” or “justification.”
It’s the same word: dikaiosyne.
When it gets translated as “righteousness” we hear it as an attribute or adjective of God, as God’s holiness or perfection- the arrival of which to us doesn’t sound like it would be good news.
When it gets translated as “justification” we hear it as our acquittal, as God declaring us something we’re not: justified.
Neither is correct, and the problem is with the English translation. In the Greek, dikaiosyne is a noun with the force of a verb; it creates that which it names.
The only word in English that comes close to approximating dikaiosyne is rectify-rectification.
So “righteousness” here in Romans 1 isn’t an attribute or adjective. It’s a Power. It’s a Power to bring salvation to pass. It’s God’s powerful activity to make right- to rectify- what is wrong in the world.
To say that God is righteous is that God is at work to make right.
And the way God is at work in the world, rectifying what is wrong in the world, is the Gospel, the Word of the Cross. Through it, God’s rectifying power is revealed.
That word revealed– in Greek it’s apokaluptetai: Apocalypse. Invasion.
Literally, Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…”
Note the present tense.
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the rectifying power of God is invading…”
You can only invade territory held by an enemy.
The language of invasion is the language of liberation.
For as much as we think Christianity is about forgiveness, the Gospel of John uses the word forgiveness only once and Paul never does- nor does he use the word “repent.”
Repenting is something we do.
Paul’s Letter to the Romans isn’t at all about anything we do. It’s everywhere about what God does.
It makes no sense to forgive slaves for their enslavement. Captives cannot repent their way out of bondage. Prisoners can only be freed. Liberated. Delivered.
You see- if you think of sin as something you do, then you cannot understand what the Son of God came to do.
Only at the end of his long letter does Paul finally reveal the Enemy as Satan.
In chapter 3 he names the enemy Sin with a capital S and calls it an alien, anti-god Power whose power we are all under and from whom whom not one of us is able through our own agency to free ourselves (3.9).
In chapter 5 he make Sin-with-a-capital-S synonymous with Death-with-a-capital-D (5.12).
In chapter 8 he identifies the forms that the Power of Sin and Death take in our world to contend against us (8.35, 38) then he widens the lens to show how it’s not just us but all of creation that is held in captivity to the Power of Sin and Death (8.21).
And in chapter 13 he tells the Christians in Rome that they should put away the works of darkness and put on the “weapons of light” (13.12) which 7 chapters earlier he calls the “weapons of rectification” (6.13).
Then, finally at the end, he reveals the Enemy as the Power of Satan.
Only the faithfulness of Christ unto the cross is able to rectify what the Power of Sin has broken in God’s creation.
And only the power of this Gospel can free us from our bonds to a Power that doesn’t yet know its been defeated.
Outside the Church this weekend it’s Memorial Day when we remember those who’ve fallen in war.
But inside the Church we’ve not remembered.
We’ve forgotten that salvation itself is a battle. We’ve forgotten, such that this all probably sounds strange to you.
We’ve forgotten that God has a real Enemy God’s determined to destroy (1 Cor 15.24-26).
We’ve forgotten that the cross of Jesus Christ is God’s invasion from on high and that our proclamation of his act upon the cross is itself the weapon by which the God of peace is even now rectifying a world where Satan still rules but but his defeat is not in question.
We’ve forgotten that the language of salvation is itself the language of war.
Salvation isn’t about individuals going to heaven when they die.
Salvation is cosmic because all of creation is in captivity to the Power of Sin, the Power of Death, the Power of Satan whom Paul finally names at the end of his letter.
Salvation isn’t our evacuation from earth to God.
Salvation is God’s invasion of earth, in and through the cross of Jesus Christ, the Power that looks like no power.
Only when you understand scripture’s view of Sin as a Power and our sinfulness as bondage to it can you understand why and how Paul can claim something as repugnant as there being no distinction whatsoever between someone like you and someone like Richard Spencer (2.1).
That’s not to say you’re all as awful as Richard Spencer; it’s to say that all of us are captive, because all of creation is captive.
We’re all captives to a Pharaoh called Sin, which is to say, we’re all ungodly (5.10).
And not one of us is safe from God’s rectifying work.
To invite Richard Spencer to Church then isn’t to minimize or dismiss his noxious racism or odious views.
It’s to take them so seriously that you invite him to the only place where he might by assaulted by the only Word with the Power to vanquish him and create him anew.
Or, to put it Paul’s way plainer:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
For in the Gospel the rectifying work of God is invading the world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who was obedient all the way to the cross, a faithfulness which has power to create faith…’”
“[A Power]…that will in due time crush the Power of Satan under your feet.”
During their confrontation at Washington Sport and Health, Dr. Fair, the Georgetown Professor, yelled at Richard Spencer: “I find your presence in this gym to be unacceptable, your presence in this town to be unacceptable.”
The gym later terminated his membership without comment.
In all likelihood inviting him to church would be as bad for our business as the management of the gym judged it to be bad for their business.
But maybe ‘bad for business’ is what Paul means by the scandal of the Gospel.
You haven’t really digested the offense of the Gospel until you’ve swallowed the realization it means someone like Richard Spencer might be sitting in the pew next to you, his hand out to pass the peace of Christ, the weapon which surpasses all understanding.
You haven’t really comprehended the cosmic scope of God’s salvation until you realized it includes both you and Richard Spencer, both of you potential victims of the awful invading power of the Gospel of God’s unconditional grace.
I haven’t actually invited Richard Spencer to this church.
But I did leave a copy of this sermon in the door of his townhouse yesterday.
I don’t know that he’d ever show up.
But I do know- I’m not ashamed of it- I do know that this Gospel is powerful enough to defeat the Powers of the Enemy that enslaves him.