Hoping for Better Days
This is the final sermon in our series, Growing in Christ. It has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy.
I read an article the other day in which Pew Research was cited as discovering that nearly 25% of all Americans have stopped believing that college is a good thing for their children. The words that they used, as part of asking the questions for the study, asked whether people thought colleges “are having a negative effect on the way things are going in this country” . I think you and I both can hear that the question is kind of leading, that it assumes a certain response, by the way that it’s asked. It is a question like when you have had house guests for a week and they ask, “I bet you’re ready to get rid of us, huh?” It’s a loaded question and it asks for only a simple answer to a complicated and unfair question. It is a question that automatically divides people. It’s a question that’s divisive.
So, maybe, the results of this study end up a bit skewed, but I think it speaks to something that is happening in our culture that continues to divide us. There is a sense in which some people, on one hand, are feeling like their values are being attacked by an unseen intellectual establishment and the proof is found in their children, as they return home with new ideas, and new ways of being, that they weren’t taught at home. And some other people, on the other hand, are feeling like the values that they were taught, when they were growing up as children, were insufficient for life in this world. As they left home, and they began to live on their own, in new cities, meeting new people, they were confronted with questions that they had no answers for. So we end up with two sets of people, on the far edges of an argument, that we don’t know we’re having with each other, because, really, we aren’t even talking to each other. We’re struggling to remain united and it’s just getting out of hand.
As surprising as it might sound, that’s where we find Paul as we read Romans this morning. As research continues on the Roman church, at the time Paul lived, we’re learning that there were probably a small handful of churches of between twenty and fifty people each. Sometimes we imagine that Rome was one church with hundreds of members, and, maybe even thousands of people, but their churches were a lot like our churches here in San Diego.
They were a lot like us. The people who gathered had a lot of similarities to each other, but they were very different people. Some of these little congregations would have been mostly Jewish Christians. Some would have been mostly gentile. Some would have been deeply tied to eating kosher. Some others would have been Roman citizens who had grown up on a diet that included food sacrificed to Roman gods. Because, understand, that if you went to their version of a restaurant, you can guarantee that, the meat you were eating, was sacrificed to a god that was not YHWH. Some parishioners, like Prisca, were Roman royalty. Others, like her husband, Aquila, would have been from the servant class, or even, like him, former slaves, with nearly no rights, being constantly mistreated by those in power. Some would have believed that being circumcised was essential for someone who wished to follow Christ. Others would have said that was not an option for them. Some believed that aligning with and supporting the Roman government was a sin as bad as murder. Others would have said, “But, hey, that’s my country. These are my people.” If we think we have a diversity of opinions and political beliefs today, or if we look around at all the Christian denominations and wonder how it could get any more separate than it is, we only need to look to Romans to see that we have been down this road before.
Paul has a big job to do. He has diverse Christians, who follow his leadership and cannot get along and cannot agree. Paul has to offer them hope. Paul has to teach them about grace so that they can act graciously to each other.
Sometimes we get a very limited understanding of grace. We think of it as something approximate to pixie dust. It’s nice little stuff that God pours out upon us that does mysterious things in us. And, really, that’s not totally wrong. If we think we understand what’s happening in the grace that is given in baptism or communion, we would be totally wrong. It is utterly mysterious. And Paul is talking about that kind of grace, but he is also asking us to think about grace as an undeserved gift that calls us to respond. It is like Joshua, in Joshua 24, when he tells the Israelite people, “we live in houses we didn’t build and we reap from fields we didn’t plant” . In one manner of speaking, he is saying, “You didn’t build it. Now look around and be grateful.” This is a grace calls us to respond in gratitude. If we remember, Joshua’s response to that grace was that he says, “You might not want to, but as for me, and my house, we will serve the Lord.” We are free because of Christ, and that is grace, and that grace is free, but to live the fullest, freest life is to live it in Christ. And if we are “in Christ,” we are tied to one another. Our only hope is in Christ, and through life together in him. But, in Paul’s Rome, many didn’t want to be tied together and I think we understand their feeling.
I recognize the answers given by those respondents to that Pew Research poll. They remind me a lot of the people from the church I grew up in. As I prepared to go to college, I had a lot of people take me aside, early on, and tell me not to listen to a word those Bible professors taught me. I remembered their words when I first stepped foot into an introductory Bible course at Point Loma. I was eighteen years old and it was my second semester in college. I walked into the class, head held high, thinking, “I grew up going to church every week. I went to Sunday school every week. I am going to own this class.”
I’m sure you can guess what’s next. I failed that course and got a “D” in the next one. But, I had been awakened to the fact that I actually knew very little about the Bible from my time in church and in Sunday school. I probably could have passed a test on how many of each animal went on the ark or whether Jesus liked children or not, but asking me to answer questions about the ancient Israelites and their culture… or asking me to explain the background of the Messianic tradition that led to the way that Jesus was received by his Jewish brothers and sisters, it was well outside of anything I had ever heard before and I failed those tests. I was utterly unprepared to answer the questions that arose. And so, I can see why the people who witnessed what happened next would immediately fault college. I really struggled with my faith for about six years, and I stepped away from my church. And they felt abandoned by me. But, I hadn’t left them because of anything I learned in college, it was because I had not been taught anything like it by my church. And I found myself embarrassed and unable to name my faith in a world of deeper questions.
Romans helps us to answer those deeper questions. It would be easy to make Romans into a list of things to do or things to believe in order to better engage with culture and each other, but Romans really is the story of Christ Jesus. Romans could probably be distilled into a story that says, “For we were once alone and afraid, hungry and thirsty, but the Lord, our God, adopted us into his family in Christ, and now we live in the house of the Lord, healthy and free from now into eternity.” Romans is the story of Jesus Christ. It’s not a story about a God who expects us to agree before we are accepted or a God that requires us to be just like him now. It is a story of a God who accepts us, as we are, and calls us onward in faith. It is a story of a God who gently guides us into life. It is a story that is a model for us in the Church today. We are one family of God under grace and everyone is invited to be adopted. Paul says that the earth is pregnant with the salvation of our Lord, Jesus Christ and that we ache and we wait for its birth in us . This our hope. This is our help. This is how Christ will grow us for his purpose.
So the Roman churches were a lot like us. They were small. They were full of families. They were full of conflict. But they weren’t just full of families, they were family. They had all been adopted by God, into one family, and now they are made for each other.
Today we celebrate Becky’s amazing surgery results. We prayed for healing and health and we have seen the first fruits of that recovery. Becky is always doing fun things. A couple of weeks ago, some of you know, that Becky and Linda’s grandchildren had an adoption ceremony of their own. Avery, Aiden, and Kylie adopted Becky as their great aunt. They said some special words together, acknowledging that they are now a family with the clinking of orange juice in some very-nice wine glasses. As they toasted each other, they made it their vow to be a family together.
This is our call as a church. We, also, have an adoption ceremony. It’s called baptism and, by it, we are united with Christ, and each other, as a family. Paul says that we are heirs together with Christ, himself, heirs of the kingdom of God . When we are baptized and we clink glasses at the communion table together (maybe I should say when we share the one loaf or the one cup)… that grace that we don’t understand, that grace that is mysterious beyond all understanding, that grace shows up and goes along with the humble elements of bread and wine and water. When we are baptized and when we take communion, when we do this we are united together, no matter how different we are. No matter what, we are united, and that is our hope for better days.
And so, as we hear this story of Jesus in Romans for these next nine weeks, when we hear a story of Jesus that has no shepherds or wise men, no fishing or Emmaus, a story that is nothing less than a story of God’s sacrificial love and the unity for all people, everywhere, as we hear Paul’s testimony to Christ, may we have the courage to love,the courage to hope, may we have the courage to be family. Because our hope for better days is found in being in this family of God, in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Recommended reading based on the sermon:
When in Romans by Beverly Gaventa (especially the introduction)