Milborne and Dewlish
Sunday 25th June 2017
Matthew 10.34-49; Romans 6.1-11
Over the next few weeks, our sermons will be concentrating on the Epistle readings rather than the Gospel ones.
Many people’s knowledge of these is much less than that of the Gospels but they are just as important a part of our Scriptures. I think they are studied less because of a number of reasons –
the Gospels are first and foremost telling the story of Jesus, albeit in a theological rather than a biographical or historical way. Jesus is the centre of our faith, so it is understandable that for many the Gospels take precedence.
Stories too are much easier to listen to than more formal theological teaching. Since earliest times, people have communicated truths and traditions through story; it’s how our children even today still begin their learning.
Parents read them stories as part of their pre-school experience, and research tells us that there is damage done to the development of children who are not able to have this early experience.
And often in a story there is something to which we feel we can relate, in a way that perhaps we can’t when faced with a document like Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
However, we can’t leave it at that. The Epistles are an important part of our Bible, and we need to know them as well as the stories of Jesus, and as well as the stories of Jesus. We cannot truly understand our faith without wrestling with the theology of Paul and the other letter writers. They add something invaluable.
The stories of Jesus are key, but what did, what does, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus mean for Christian disciples who follow? How does a Christian live his or her life? What difference does Jesus make? What is the Church?
These are some of the issues addressed in the letters.
If you read through the New Testament epistles, you will soon come to realise that Romans is unlike any other of Paul’s letters.
It is written to a church that Paul hadn’t founded so he has to establish his credentials in a way that he doesn’t in the communities where he is known personally.
And unlike many of his letters, which respond to specific questions and issues and conflicts that the early Christians have, Roman is much more general in its approach, except in the final two chapters.
Scholars don’t always agree, as you will know, and there are differing views as to why Paul wrote Romans. Some have called it his manifesto, summing up what for him faith is all about.
Some believe that he needed a base from which to take the Gospel into Spain and that Rome would be a good starting-point, since Latin was spoken in both, so he sent an advance letter to explain what he was about.
Others think he had to have a foothold in Rome, since it was the centre of the Empire at that time, the epicentre from which ideas and people spread.
You might find it hard to believe since people today find Romans a difficult book but many, many Christians have found it to be a life-changing one.
For instance, St Augustine, who was a hard-living young man, put his own conversion from a life of sin to the way of Christ, down to reading some verses from Romans.
Martin Luther, so influential in the Reformation, realised that it isn’t by our own efforts that we attain peace and righteousness but through Christ – it was reading Romans and wrestling with its content that did that for him.
John Wesley talks about how he struggled to receive forgiveness from God until he went unwillingly one night to a meeting where Luther’s work on Romans was being read – from that night on, his faith became a personal one.
So what is it in this book that has such an effect on people? Well there’s only one way to discover that – and that is to read it prayerfully, to grapple with understanding it, to take time to allow its meaning to sink in.
Today’s passage can only really be understood in conjunction with what has come before in chapter five. One of the downsides of a lectionary is that it picks and chooses passages rather than including all the verses, and even if you were in church last week and heard from the previous chapter, it wasn’t actually the bit immediately before today’s reading.
In the bit missed out, Paul ends by saying that when the Law was given to the Israelites, sin increased, because it specified all the transgressions that were possible so people knew what was right and wrong. In the words of the Message version of the Bible: “all that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers.”
But, Paul says, as sin increases, so does God’s grace. Which led to the question with which we start today’s passage: should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound?
If grace is a good thing, then wouldn’t it be good to increase it by sinning more? That sounds like a great idea – if God’s going to forgive us anyway, why not have a good time and not worry?
No way, says Paul.
In baptism something profound happened to us – we shared Christ’s death, which put the power of sin to death, when he rose again and showed God’s victory of evil.
In baptism we become part of that – like moving into a new country.
If, for instance, we were to emigrate, we can’t live our daily lives half in one place and half in another. If someone moves to a new country, they can’t then go back to the old one miles away every time they want to shop or bank or work or go to school and so on. Moving into the new country means our life has changed.
And when we are baptised we are becoming citizens of a different country – no longer belonging to the dominant rule of sin but to God’s kingdom, and as people of God’s kingdom we need to live as such. Our status has changed.
There is a link with the exodus of the slaves from Egypt. While they were there, they were under the domination and unjust power of the Pharaoh and his people. When they escaped, it was the waters of the Red Sea that freed them from the yoke and burden of slavery.
The Red Sea killed the Egyptians and was the crossing from the Israelites’ old life to a new one. They couldn’t go back to slavery. But nor did they reach immediately the Promised Land – that only came 40 years later.
When we are baptised, it is as if we are going through the Red Sea to be freed from slavery – this time to sin. We haven’t reached heaven yet, but we are free. Sin isn’t what rules us any more but Christ.
We do need to hold in mind of course that for Paul baptism was very different from how it is today. Sadly many people these days bring their children to church to be baptised, but see it as a one-off visit to church and faith, not the beginning of a new way of life in which God comes first.
For Paul baptism was only something for believers, so those whom he is talking about have chosen to cross the border into the new country. They have chosen their new status, they have chosen their new life. He is assuming that baptism also means living faith.
So all that has been said so far needs to bear in mind that for Paul and other New Testament writers, faith and baptism are both needed. The cry “Repent and be baptised” literally meant turn away from your old life and be baptised.
When a human being dies, we can’t have the same relationship with them we had previously; when we die to sin through baptism we no longer have the same relationship with sin that we had before.
Another way of looking at it is given in the Message translation: “When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace - a new life in a new land. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus.”
Now this doesn’t mean, sadly, that we will never sin again nor that we are not subject to temptation to sin.
What it does mean though is that when we do sin, God has the last word through forgiveness; no longer does the balance tip in evil’s favour. And that’s pretty good, isn’t it?
The new life God gives us is a gift, a treasure to be cherished, a joy to be embraced, since through our dying in Christ, we are also resurrected with Christ. and as such, we need to grasp that new life and life by the truth of it in all we are and say and do.
And there’s the clif-hanger, before the next episode. You’ll have to tune in again next week to find out what all this means for us as we live as baptised and faithful Christians.