And go with sermon...
December 8, 2019
This morning in this season of preparing… preparing to meet the Christ who was born… preparing to meet the Christ who is and preparing to meet the Christ who is to come… this morning we have the privilege of reading again from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Listen for the Word as it speaks to you.
READ the scripture passage...
I can’t remember when I first sat down and gave a title to today’s sermon. It was long before I actually wrote the sermon, I can tell you that. And I know what I did in making up a title… needing to give a title that was open enough to cover whatever the sermon might end up being… I saw the words “joy” and “peace” in verse thirteen and just went with it. Joy and peace… how could I go wrong with those two words especially at this time of year. But after rereading the passage and studying it this week… I need to also add the word hope… because more than joy and peace… hope is the one word that defines this passage.
Hope. That’s a favorite church word isn’t it? We like to throw that one around quite a bit. Hope. We hope for joy. We hope with joy. We hope for peace. Not sure if I want say that we peacefully hope, because I hope our hope can be disruptive at times. Shake things up in a way that brings that hope into the world in real and concrete ways. Christian hope is not supposed to be a passive affection… an exercise in wishful thinking. If we hope for peace, then as disciples of Christ we must work for peace… we must do the things that make for peace among people… starting first with ourselves. We can never forget that “old log in your eye” lesson Jesus taught.
As the class who studied Romans with me a few months ago knows, Paul doesn’t work in soundbites. Romans, especially, is not Twitter friendly… because Paul is making big gospel arguments and this portion of the letter that we read this morning… this portion is referring to Paul’s larger theme about overcoming the divisions between people. Paul’s time was characterized by the division between Jews and Gentiles… divisions that considering the faith that came from God through the grace that is Christ… divisions that were no longer being supported. Even as this old Jew/Gentile division faded into history, Paul’s lessons can be applied to pretty much all the ways people create new divisions. Maybe because Paul incorporates so well that old “log in your own eye” lesson. The hope of peace has to start with yourself.
A new light was being shone on the old ways… but that new light was… as Paul shows us quoting scripture… that new light could already be found in the former things. Paul didn’t have to create anything new. All he had to do was allow the gospel light to shine… and to see the scriptures according to that light… to let that light be the rule of our understanding. When you hope by the gospel light… what happens when your hope asserts itself on reality?
Division between people had long been enforced using scripture. It’s not hard to take portions of scripture to justify our divisions. The Law had long been used to justify such division… had been used to cast the Gentile into darkness… but now… with the light of Christ shining in the present, shining from the future… shining into the past… the light of Christ made old eyes see afresh… revealing the grace… again… that had always been there... even if it had been ignored in favor of maintaining or creating divisions. But now… with the light of Christ shining… brightening hope… there was cause to let go of those ways that sought to cast a shadow on that light… to take away from that light. When the gospel light comes into the world, it convicts our holding onto the darkness… it convicts our love for division over peace between peoples.
It can be hard to let go of the darkness. It can be hard to let go of those things that have given us a sense of grounding… a sense of understanding. It can be hard to let go of those things in which we feel so sure of… and to embrace the gospel light and its grace… the grace that is capable of overcoming divisions because that very grace reveals that all of us are in need of that same grace. The source of our hope… what we hope for… what we hope in… I am willing to bet differs from person to person. For some in our church community right now, hope may be all wrapped up in their wishing for that one special present to appear under the tree on Christmas morning… that one present that sits right up there at the top of their list. Some are hoping in shifting politics… that their daily struggle will somehow be helped in the days ahead through those politicians in whom they have placed their hope… or that the rules of the current social system will soon shift back in their favor. Some are hoping in their own acts of righteous defiance to the shifts they perceive to be happening in the world around us. Some are hoping that the traditions of the season will give them a much needed break from the usual cacophony of life. There is hope expressed every time Bing’s voice starts singing “White Christmas”. I always find hope in the message that comes from my favorite Christmas movie… “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I like to believe in its timeless truth… “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” The community coming together at in the end of the movie to help out old George Bailey.
Paul breathed hope. It was where his experience of faith had led him. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer… that was what he had told this community in Rome… that was one of those central messages Paul had discovered in his own life in Christ. He had been run out of how many towns? He had been beaten and thrown in prison how many times for sharing his hope in Christ? Trying to live by the grace he had found in Christ, Paul connected through his journeys with people he never knew… or would never have known… as he shared the good news of Christ. He was imperfect… but he still tried to wipe away division through the gospel’s grace. Paul had hope. He had hope in something he believed with all his body and soul… hope in something he saw in glimpses here and there as he traveled among these newly forming and struggling Christian communities. In all the darkness he would encounter… the light of God would continually peak through and feed that hope in a way that kept Paul in motion. Paul would disrupt and still disrupts the world through his hope in Christ.
Paul’s theology of hope came from two places… it came from his own personal experience of the risen Lord… and it came from his experiences as he shared this gospel with people. In that way, we should all be like Paul.
Now you all know who Paul was before his experience of grace, right? You know how he was very privileged in his religion and in his place in the world around himself… coming from the right family… having the right connections… someone of some importance in his own community… a Pharisee, well educated in the religion and how it ought to be practiced… a zealous religious persecutor. Paul was a strict follower of the Law… a strict keeper of the rules… a man who made sure to keep the proper barriers in place to ensure that those who were not worthy or not of the right sort would not pollute his world with their unclean being. Before the blinding light of grace hit him, Paul’s hope was in the assurance of his verifiable position… in who he was, in what he had, in where he was going… Paul’s hope was in the success of himself before God. If we’re honest… there’s always a part of us that can also relate to this version of Paul. There’s always a part of this Paul in ourselves as well… a bit of darkness that lies into our ears… telling us that division is good and right and necessary if we are going to maintain our special place before God. Notice how there is no room for grace in that lie.
Then Paul had an experience of Christ… an experience of the radical, blinding light of God’s grace in the risen Christ. And more than just scales fell from his eyes… revealing how he had been blind all those years before… everything in which he could boast fell away from his life. This man who was so religiously clean and perfect… after his experience of grace he was lowered into the filth of debased humanity that he had once decried… they who were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Called to take the gospel light to the Gentiles, those who were full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. He knew all the right words and phrases to say to reveal the Gentiles for what they really were… or rather what he had once thought they were… he had probably used those words and phrases enough himself when in the decent company of God’s faithful… God’s faithful defined by the opposite of every one of those words and phrases… wrapped in the hope of the Law… wrapped in their own sense of self-righteousness… wrapped in the dark understanding of the Law that was quick to judge others.
Paul descended into the Gentiles and there he not only found the presence of God, but he found God’s hope for the first time. Not sent to judge or to rebuke, Paul went with the good news that had come to him… Paul went with the words and the actions of loving one another, of fulfilling the Law of God written on every human heart through the justification that came from Christ’s resurrection… and Paul found God’s hope in the creation of this surprising faith community.
Paul’s theology of hope was born from Jew and Gentile coming together in one beloved Christ lit community. He witnessed the world resurrected… his remade eyes saw the death that comes with sin… from those things… those actions, those thoughts, those words that separate us one from another… he saw the death of sin lose its sting as these new communities were founded upon grace. Rich and poor brought together. Male and female brought together. Slave and free brought together. Jew and Gentile brought together. No one had anything in which to boast but the grace of God. The light of God shown on the circumcised and uncircumcised alike. The light of God shone through the circumcised and the uncircumcised alike. Listen to these words again… this is Paul’s hope… “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The God of hope is in our togetherness… the hope of God is our coming together despite all that would keep us apart. Right now, the factions of tribalism are tearing apart communities… are tearing apart families. Even as we put up all the decorations that cry out joy and peace… even as we go through the motions of our traditions… even as we hear all the unifying messages of this season. The darkness of division does not quit. Does not take a pause.
Peace on earth. Good will towards men. These are words of the season… the Advent season, right? As Presbyterians, we have hope in the future coming of Christ… lighting each candle we believe the light of God is always coming into the world… that the darkness will not overcome it. We don’t fear Christ’s return… but we believe that return to be the final fulfillment of the messages of the God of hope. The kind of hope we witness when people come together… when people come together Christ is always in the middle of that. That’s what Paul saw… that’s the deep truth of God’s grace he was trying to share with the community in Rome through this letter. People together in harmony. People together in peace. That’s real joy. Amen.