Collect for Trinity IX
ALMIGHTY God, your Son has opened for us a new and living way to your presence,
Give us pure hearts and constant wills to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Genesis, 28, Vv 10 - 19a
Romans 8, Vv 12-25
St Matthew 13, Vv 24 - 30 & 36 - 43
The passage of scripture read this morning as our Epistle came from the eighth chapter of Saint Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome. Of the fourteen letters in the New Testament attributed to Paul only seven are thought by scholars to be from the pen of one man; he was probably Paul of Tarsus. The letter to the Church in Rome, the first recorded in the Bible, although not the first written, was most certainly one of them. It is the only one addressed to a church community that Paul did not found, unlike, for example, those to the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Philippians and his first letter to the Thessalonians. That Paul ultimately went to Rome is made clear from a reading of the Acts of the Apostles. In Jerusalem he had been falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the Jewish Temple. He had been seen in the company of Trophimus, a native of Ephesus, and it was assumed, albeit wrongly, that Paul had taken him into the Temple, a place forbidden to non-Jews. He was seized and dragged out into the street, where a riot ensued. For his own safety he was taken in chains by the Roman Tribune Lysias to the Fortress Antonia, which stood beside the Temple. The centurion in charge of the military detachment was so keen to understand why the Jews had fermented such turmoil because of this one man that he gave instructions that Paul was to be taken into the barracks to be examined by flogging. We know from Pontius Pilate’s desire to have Jesus flogged before he released him, just how arbitrary was the Roman system of justice as meted out to their subordinate peoples; in those times you didn’t need to be guilty of any crime to receive this form of chastisement. Paul calmly asked the centurion if he could legally flog a man who was not only a Roman citizen but moreover had not been found guilty of any offence. It was later learned that the Jews were planning to ambush Paul so he was sent under heavy escort to Caesarea into the custody of Felix the Procurator. Later a Roman named Festus took over as Governor of Caesarea and, wishing to ingratiate himself with the Jews, suggested that Paul should be sent back to Jerusalem to face his accusers. Paul explained that, while he was not trying to escape from justice, or even avoid the death penalty, the Jews had no case against him. He eventually decided to exercise the right of every Roman citizen, to be tried before the Emperor: he said, ‘I appeal to Caesar’.
The problem with an appeal to Caesar was that it couldn’t be revoked or rescinded. Paul couldn’t later say, ‘the threat of capture by the Jews has passed, please release me’. No. To Caesar he had appealed and to Rome he would have to go. A reading of chapters 27 and 28 of Acts give us a wonderful adventure story of the trials and tribulations of his voyage, a journey made almost entirely by sea. After departing from Caesarea the company sailed along the southern coasts of what is now called Turkey, to Crete and across the Mediterranean to Malta where they were shipwrecked, probably in the year AD60. After a long delay, to find another suitable boat, Paul and his companions sailed to Syracuse on Sicily and thence up the western side of what we now call Italy and finally to Rome. In Rome Paul was put under house arrest with a soldier to guard him.
It was two or three years before his arrival in Rome that Paul had written his letter to Christians there. As he had never met any of them his letter contains none of the personal contacts we see in other epistles. There are no domestic matters needing his attention, no doctrinal errors requiring his mediation or threatening dangers demanding his attendance. In its very impersonal nature it becomes more a pure theological treatise. Scholars have applied two very different adjectives to Paul’s letter to the Romans: testamentary and prophylactic. In the former description Paul’s work is seen in the light of his last will and testament. It is almost as if Paul was writing a distillation of his faith and belief; the embodiment of his thinking over the previous twenty and more years. Rome was the supreme city on earth, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever known. When he wrote, Paul had never been there and had no idea if he would ever go there, although he had plans to do so. In writing to Christians in Rome he felt it fitting that he should set down the very focus and core of his belief. The latter adjective, prophylactic, refers to something that protects against infection and guards against disease. In his churches Paul had seen many instances of the harm and trouble caused by wrong ideas, twisted notions and misguided conceptions of Christian faith and understanding. He therefore wished to send to this city at the centre of the world a statement of the true doctrine as a defence against any corruption that might come its way. He felt, writes one commentator, that the best protection against the infection of false teaching was the antiseptic of truth.
While thought by many to be theologically complicated, this letter is carefully structured into four parts, and our reading this morning came at the end of a section, occupying chapters one to eight, which concerned itself with problems concerning righteousness. Paul understood righteousness to be living in a right relationship with God. But, what did he mean by this? Earlier in the letter he compared Jewish and Gentile reactions to knowledge of God. He saw the Gentile world as decadent and corrupt. From his many journeys through it he would have observed some of the excesses of Roman lifestyle in the empire, in its cities, towns and streets. In contrast, he saw in Judaism a righteousness that was based entirely on meticulous obedience to the Mosaic Law. Paul had spent his entire adult life, certainly up to the moment of his meeting with the risen Lord on the Damascus road, in similar studies, and his frustration at the shear impossibility of the task is evident in many of his writings. Paul saw true righteousness, rightness with God, as a total surrender and yielding to the word and will of God. Instead of being a slave, either to Gentile depravity and self-indulgence, or to Jewish conformity and compliance with the Law, Paul tells his readers that there is a third way, a way which enables us to cry ‘Abba! Father!’ Paralleling thoughts he expressed in his powerful letter to the Christian churches in Galatia he explains that God has sent the Spirit of his Son into the hearts of his children, whereby they become sons of God. Slavery to sin and the law are replaced by son-ship of God. So, we read, ‘When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’
Paul necessarily sees in this son-ship of God a degree of suffering – a suffering for the very Christian faith. He explains that spirit and flesh struggle for supremacy in each individual. In a preface to his commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Martin Luther wrote in 1545, ‘The Holy Spirit assures us that we are God’s children no matter how furiously sin may rage within us, so long as we follow the Spirit and struggle against sin in order to kill it.’ Paul comforts those who struggle and tells them that this flesh will not bring them condemnation. The suffering and struggles of the flesh pale into insignificance in comparison with the glory that will be revealed to us.
Paul’s concluding verse in our reading makes reference to creation; ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.’ We learned a few weeks ago when we looked at Noah and the famous Biblical flood that all of creation was affected by Adam’s sin. We read, in the sixth chapter of the book called Genesis, ‘Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.’ Adam’s sin did not just affect humankind; it affected all of God’s wonderful creation. Paul makes it clear that he understands this. The created world, which is in a chaotic state, manifests its cosmic striving towards the same goal as humanity, solidarity in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now,’ writes Paul. In the world of the ancient Greek philosophers comparison was often drawn between the annual, vernal re-birth of nature with the pains of women in childbirth. Paul adopts this imagery to express the tortuous convulsions of the material creation, not just historically in ancient Jewish scriptures but, ‘until now’. But, we must look on the bright side. Not only we but the whole of creation have the first fruits of the Spirit, and while we collectively groan inwardly we wait for adoption, adoption into the very God-head, adoption that Christ himself promised. Saint Matthew quotes Jesus saying, ‘…that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven’.
‘For in hope we are saved,’ concludes Saint Paul. We tend to use the verb ‘hope’ to mean, ‘wish that something would happen,’ but the Greek word elpis used in this context means ‘expect’ or, ‘look forward to’. We look forward to a salvation as yet not fully realised. Paul makes it clear that our salvation is an act of grace on God’s part and that we have done nothing, and can do nothing, to deserve it. This salvation is only apprehended and understood when we have faith and hope. Hope is as necessary as faith since faith without hope is no faith at all. In other words, hope and faith together enable us to receive the salvation that is presented to us by grace. Do not forget that hope is important enough to be joined with faith and love as the three Christian virtues. When Saint Paul tells the church in Corinth that, ‘the greatest of these is love,’ he says nothing to imply that that the least of them is hope.
Do Saint Paul’s words have any relevance to us in our twenty-first century Christian lives? I believe that they do. We know from simple observation that we live in a fractured world, among broken and sinful people. Yet as far back as his dealings with Noah, God has promised in his covenants with mankind to heal the damage done by Adam, a sin that caused all the catastrophe and misery in creation. God’s most recent and perhaps ultimate covenant was made by his incarnate Son who gave his life on the cross in expiation and atonement for that sin. That Son, before he died a criminal’s death, promised to be with his believers for all time, to the end of the age. We can meet with him here this morning at the altar rail of this church if we are prepared to attend upon him in faith and hope and love and receive his Body and Blood in sacramental form. As Saint Paul reminds us, ‘we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience’. By our patient reception of this most holy sacrament we will take one more small step on our respective roads to salvation.
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