St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 11 (27.08.2017)

Tony Dickinson

St Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome is one of those books that start revolutions. It was after reading words from this letter that Augustine of Hippo finally came to the decision to be baptised. It was Karl Barth’s re-reading of this letter in the light of the First World War that put a bomb under the way that Europeans had thought about God for the previous two centuries. And, five hundred years ago, it was St Paul’s teaching in this letter that freed Martin Luther from his agonising spiritual struggles and set in motion the great religious and political upheaval that we call the Reformation.

St Paul’s letter to Rome is a wonderfully rich letter. It begins with an overview of the human condition. It continues with St Paul unpacking the story of Abraham as the key to humanity’s relationship with God. It goes on to affirm the immensity of God’s love revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus and in the gift of the Spirit. It explores with insight, compassion and wisdom the relationship between Christians and Jews, in the light of God’s love for both. And it ends with greetings to all the people Paul has met in the course of his travels who are now living in the imperial city. It has been a goldmine – and sometimes a minefield – for scholars, Church leaders, and ordinary Christians during nearly two thousand years. It has brought hope in times of darkness, consolation in sorrow, and strength to cope with the daily battle between the good we know we should do and the wrong that we so often do do.

Then, in the passage that we heard this morning, the Letter to the Romans begins to spell out what all those great themes that St Paul has been exploring actually mean in practice. These chapters are, in a sense, the climax of the whole letter. If God is anything like what we have been exploring in the first eleven chapters of this letter, then this is how we have to behave. That is what that little word “therefore” means. If the world is as St Paul has described it, if God, to use Bishop David Jenkins’ famous phrase, “is as he is in Jesus”, then this is what follows.

And what follows is a reminder that the whole of our life is lived in God. We can’t compartmentalise it so that God gets an hour on Sunday and the rest of the week is our own. What follows is a reminder that God’s values are not necessarily the same as the world’s values. The God revealed by Jesus is pretty anti-establishment. God doesn’t line up with the cultural mainstream. He goes out in search of the people on the edge, people who are rejected by that mainstream, people whose bodies, or whose lives, have become misshapen; lepers, tax-collectors, anyone who is, as my parents’ generation used to say, “no better than they should be…” In that sense God is at the heart of the counter-culture – or, perhaps more accurately, the counter-culture is close to the heart of God.

Then St Paul says something that goes completely counter to the spirit of today’s culture, with its emphasis on self-realisation, “because you’re worth it”. St Paul warns his readers not to get carried away with their own importance. As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “your life is not about you”. But at the same time St Paul adds something incredibly affirming. He reminds his readers – he reminds us – that we are part of a community and that we belong together like the limbs and organs of a body, that we are “one body in Christ”. He reminds us that each one of us has particular gifts, to serve a particular function in sustaining that body, and it’s our responsibility to discern those gifts and to put them to work for the good of all.

Sandra and Paul (and Kelly and Alun and Hayley), each of you brings particular gifts to the task of nurturing Beatrice, the responsibility which you share as her parents and godparents. At the heart of that task is the work of enabling her to find her proper place in the body of Christ, as you model for her those gifts of generosity, diligence and cheerful compassion which St Paul commends to the first-generation Christians in Rome.

And now to God the Father who first loved us...