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Here is Paul’s big idea: however bad it looks, God intends salvation.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 19th July 2020 at 11.15 AM
I was born in Lancashire, you might struggle to know it from my rounded southern vowels, but I grew up under the Pennines. Places with muscular sounding names were on my doorstep—Crawshawbooth, Stubbins and glorious Oswaldtwistle. We moved away when I was seven. These places sound unfamiliar and so distant now. There are, though, some names that now come back to me, in the news, Pendle and Blackburn. Places where coronavirus infections have increased. This morning we hear of a record rise in infection across the world. There are places where the story goes backwards, hope is overturned. Then something angry raises its head. The Lancashire Telegraph describes the way a community living in fear, in Blackburn, is quick to blame—the government, the local authority, the public health director, each other, ethnic minorities, the young… Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Mistakes, misfortune, bad choices and then… recrimination
Now, as we think about that, this morning, we have a great drum roll from scripture in front of us—Romans Chapter 8. And this is Paul describing the world as it, our world, where things go wrong, where the story goes widdershins, and things fall apart. We are right at the heart of Paul’s thinking when we read Romans 8. Here is Paul’s big idea, the force the fuelled that extraordinary ministry. He is telling us that the love of God is here, abroad in the world and that it intends nothing less than salvation of all; Jew and gentile, slave and free. This is a love that nothing can stop. However bad it looks, God intends salvation. Paul has an extravagant confidence. Chapter eight ends, remember
neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8: 38–39]
And yet, and yet, Paul looks around and sees a world going wrong. That is what Romans is all about. We have had readings from Romans in the last few weeks. We have heard Paul describe the fact that we fall out, choose badly, get it wrong. Christ has let loose the love of God and we still refuse to believe it. You may remember Lord Melchett, the general, in Blackadder, gazing out over the carnage of the First World War,
If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.
That is what Paul is up against—a wilful refusal to see what he, Paul, sees, that God is at work and salvation has begun. We see something else, we will not be what we can be.
It is an uncomfortable fact that human beings can be really clever and really determined in conspiring against themselves. We can be wilfully wrong. In 1946, C S Lewis published a little book that offers the reader a brief tour of heaven and hell. It is called The Great Divorce. His Hell is not a place of torture and flame, instead it is a place of miserable, relentless isolation, everyone blaming everyone else and moving further and further apart
The trouble is that they’re all so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives, he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over, he's quarrelled so badly that he decides to move.
A little bus then takes residents from hell, to heaven, and they can all stay if they wish. Heaven is hard to bear at first, it is unyielding,
…made of a different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.
The grass is hard to walk on, the flowers are solid, like diamonds. One by one the visitors from hell decide against this rock-solid glory, thank you very much. They argue their way back to Hell. A painter wants to go back for his paints, he wants to make something of it. A ghastly little man will not be loved and forgiven because he wants something more dramatic and a terrible clergyman—who makes me really anxious—will not believe in it because he wants to discuss it, he rushes back to hell to give a paper at a theological society. C. Lewis nails the fact that we push back at the love of God, will not accept what is freely given because we would rather earn, or deserve it. We will not love if it means we must lower our defences.
This is what Romans Eight is trying to tell us. That we resist the God who is already here. It is not just wilful, or anxious, or self-serving. This is the world according to General Melchett it is a refusal to see what is true. So, this is dishonest—and dishonesty is death because we are refusing to be the people we should be. We will not have the kind of life that God would give us. Paul sets that out baldly and boldly
if you live according to the flesh, you will die. (8: 13)
People who read St Paul can come away from his letters believing that he has described a kind of court of law, where God has judged us and in some extraordinary and eternally binding legal process Jesus then satisfies the court. It really is important to pay attention to Romans Eight and notice that Paul is eager to persuade us of a more compelling truth. In Christ, God has entered our messed-up world. God’s love has been lived in a human life, lived alongside our anxious, defended lives, lived amongst our blame and recrimination—suffered that.
God sees what we are and what we can be, God has taken that to himself, he sees us differently, God sees the present and sees a different future. Remember that heaven that C S Lewis described—the place of a greater and more solid reality? That is exactly what Paul and this passage sets before us.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.
The glory about to be revealed. Paul knows the world we live in, this world where the story runs backwards and where things go wrong. He remains utterly convinced that the real direction of travel lies with God whose love will save us from ourselves.
You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.
All creation longs to become what it should be. Paul sets us in the midst of that story, at its turning point, invites us to accept what is offered. Paul asks us to stop fighting one another and still worse ourselves.
It is important to understand what Paul says. This is not an invitation to make a simple decision to choose this instead of that. It is not a commitment to be good, or to learn a lesson, or to turn your life around. This is, rather, an act of surrender. It is giving up on all that dreadful business of choosing and trying to do right. Paul want us to stop trying to be ourselves because he hopes we can accept what we are being offered and be changed. This glorious creation is not ours to make, it is ours to receive. It is the Spirit of God that will do the work for us, God with us can save us from ourselves.
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.
What Paul is saying there is that we become the new creation when we pray, just as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane Abba Father. The new creation dawns as we give ourselves up to God.
I began in Lancashire. Growing up there in the early 1960s they were still in the economic doldrums after the collapse of the slipper trade, empty mills broken windows, poverty. They are a different place now but a different place with fresh challenges, unemployment all over again and rising rates of infection. For the last few minutes, I have been trying to persuade you that Paul sees hope for Lancashire, for Westminster; hope, in fact, for all creation. I may have made it all sound so easy.
Let’s be clear. The Epistle to the Romans sets out this hope and then wrestles with it. We are still the people in whom the story goes wrong, there will still be bad choices. What is asked of us today is whether or not we see and understand what kind of story this is. God’s life has been lived amongst us in Christ, God’s loving purpose is at work, now, in the Church, in you and me. In the Church there is a glimpse, a prospect, of what is to come, our task is to believe in that hope and make it a reality so that others can believe it too. If we cannot see it cannot live it, no one else will ever see it or live it.
So, first we must understand the scale of our hope and it is breathtaking. Then we must live that hope and Paul will tell us that it is daunting. In us, the story can change here in Westminster, and under Pendle hill, because the story has already changed forever on Golgotha. Now we must live it.