Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for a North Shields Churches Together Service at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, August 11th 2019
I should begin by saying how I find Cor van der Woude from the North Shields Salvation Army inspirational! At least, I found his choice of scripture reading for our Churches Together service last Sunday evening to be inspirational.
Last week, our reading was from Romans chapter one. And Cor introduced that for us with information and reminders about this letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians living in Rome, a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Cor helpfully reminded us that this is the longest letter or ‘epistle’ in the New Testament. Paul wrote it to a church, prior to making a visit.
Paul had not been to Rome before and so he was writing to people most of whom he did not know (if you look at the last chapter of the letter you see he makes sure to send greetings by name to everyone he does know in the church in Rome, to remind them of the links he has with them already).
Paul wrote because he intended to come to pay them a visit, where he would perhaps share with them his take on following Jesus, and the gospel which he says is, ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, for the Jew first and also for the Greek [or gentile]’ (1:16)
Although many saw Rome as the centre of the world, it being the centre of a great empire, Paul’s eyes were on another goal. He was heading West, towards Spain and to the known ends of the earth. Maybe he saw this bringing of the gospel to the West as doing his bit towards God’s plan to bring all things to a proper conclusion for all of creation. Paul spoke Greek as well as Hebrew, for Greek was the shared language of the lands that Rome occupied to its East. To Rome’s West, however, Latin was the living language, along with whatever languages were spoken by the local peoples. I wonder if Paul hoped to recruit from amongst the church members at Rome people ones who could speak the language in Spain, so that he could most effectively share the good news of Jesus Christ there.
If so, Paul needed to be on good terms with the church in Rome. He needed to build trust, and his way to do that was to demonstrate his trustworthiness by sharing with them his beliefs, and how they related to the sort of life situations that the believers in Rome experienced.
That’s all a rather roundabout way of saying that I thought to myself, “if Cor chose a reading from Romans last week, why don’t I do the same this week?” No pressure upon those who lead the evening services on the 18th and 25th, of course! There’s no law that says you have to do this simply because someone do that the week before.
But I thought I’d mention ‘law’ because, of course, faith and law, law and faith, get a good mention in tonight’s reading from Romans; ‘but now, irrespective of the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and prophets,’ is the opening verse in Romans 3:21-31, for example.
In fact, this passage is just full of interesting words. It is jam-packed with words and phrases familiar to church goers but strange to most people, or at least, strange when used in this way; words that inspire, puzzle and unsettle many of us: ‘law’, ‘righteousness’, ‘prophets’, ‘sin’, ‘glory’, ‘justified’ by God’s ‘grace’, ‘redemption’, ‘in Christ Jesus’, ‘atonement by his blood’, ‘divine forbearance’, ‘justified by faith’, ‘works prescribed by the law’. And all this in the space of eleven verses. There’s enough here for me to preach to you all night long, and then some.
Now being church folk – sisters and brothers in Christ, thank God – we have probably heard most or all of these terms more than once. We might think that at least some of them are straightforward, but that’s because we are used to them in our relatively comfortable church setting. Go outside the church and you find that either no one has heard of them or that they carry a somewhat different meaning. Let me give you example of that.
A couple of dozen years ago, I was a newly minted Minister of Word and Sacraments, as the official title goes in the United Reformed Church. I was sitting at my new desk in my only recently occupied study. I was probably basking in the good feeling of getting to put the word ‘Reverend’ in front of my name when the telephone rang – it did so more often in the days before emails. ‘Hello,’ said a woman’s voice at the other end of the line. ‘I wonder if I could ask you something about redemption?’
‘Wow,’ I thought, this ministry business is amazing; people ring you up out of the blue wanting to talk about theology. ‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘Well,’ she continued, ‘my mother died recently.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ (those college lessons in pastoral care were coming in handy). ‘I’ve been clearing out here house and that’s why I called you to ask about redemption.’ ‘Was it something in particular when you were clearing the house out?’ ‘Yes, it was when I found the tickets. That’s when I knew I could not just leave it but had to ask you about redemption.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Well, I know they are past their date, but…’ ‘But?’ Well I thought, if you still had the items in the shop, I could still pay for them to be redeemed!’ ‘Ah, you’ve telephoned 525 6606. You should have dialled 525 6066 to get Milton’s, the pawnbrokers. It’s a different sort of redemption that’s on offer at this address.’
‘For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’ (3:22, 23, 24) As I’ve said, I could preach on these verses all evening, but I’ll show a modicum of self-discipline; leave something to say for those who might come along behind me on another occasion. I’ll just stick to these couple of verses which only cover sin, glory, God, justification, grace, gift, redemption, and Christ Jesus.
Justification and redemption: ‘justified … by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’ There are several images that are used to try to describe that act at the cross by which God reconciled us and the rest of creation to God’s self through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. One of them, ‘justification’ comes the world of law, it’s like the judge, in a moment of mercy, deciding to declare you not guilty and send you out of court without a stain upon your character: justified in the eyes of God and the world.
The redemption image comes from the world of commerce. You’ve got yourself into a bind in life and you can’t get free. In fact, you’ve sold yourself to lifestyle and a life force that delights in your falling short of the mark. You know what’s the right thing to do but forces within you and/or acting upon you make you forever do the wrong the thing – Paul devotes the last twelve verses of Romans chapter seven to that theme, if any other preachers are interested. You are like someone in Paul’s time who has get so deep into debt the only thing you have left to sell to pay your debts is yourself. So off you go to the market and sell yourself as an indentured servant or a slave to the highest bidder.
And your only hope is that some friend – and they will be some friend indeed – will step in and redeem you. They will buy you back out of the slavery you got yourself into in the first place. And you will have nothing with which to pay them back: ‘justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’ Now maybe I have a more pessimistic outlook on human nature than the majority of people. That might have something to do with growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, and seeing how people in that sort of setting think and act. So, although I would acknowledge that there’s something of the ‘image of God’ to be found in any human being, I still see us as caught up in some sort of power or outlook – call it ‘sin’ if you want – in the face of which we are helpless.
We are like self-sold slaves in need of redemption that we cannot make happen, but which God makes happen; and if there’s a price to be paid for that to happen, well it’s God that pays it, not us. Some friend it is indeed, who buys back, and gives us back our very lives, and at no charge; it’s a gift, it’s grace, it’s glorious – God’s glory. We may fall short of the ‘glory of God’ but God, as see God in Jesus Christ, does not. As the hymn says, ‘what a friend we have in Jesus.’
There is redemption. There grace and there is glory, but for whom? It’s all very well hearing about this good news, but is it good news for me? Given the things that I know about myself – wrong thoughts and actions I can’t seem to avoid; right thoughts and actions that I never seem to get around to – am I included? Am I redeemed? Yes, I am, and so are you: ‘for there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’
‘There is no distinction.’ In his letter Paul particularly has in mind the distinction between Jew and Gentile. But what he says there is no distinction. Imagine God taking you outside on a dark night, away from modern light pollution, and saying, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ (15:5) That’s who it’s for; everyone. It’s for all of Abram’s promised descendants. It’s for all the inhabitants of all of the planets that circle all of the stars of the universe: ‘there is no distinction.’ ‘Should even the entire universe need redemption, I will do it’, says God, and, ‘out of grace, out of love, and through love, and I’ll do it for free. And you, whoever ‘you’ are, is included.’
So, ‘thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ,’ (Romans 7:25): ‘there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they [and we] are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’ (3:22, 23, 24) Thank you, God, Amen.