Sunday, 13 August 2017

Choose Life

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
13 August 2017

Romans 10.5-15  
Deuteronomy 30.11-20 

Earlier this year, Danny Boyle celebrated twenty years
            since the release of his wonderfully surreal film Trainspotting,
by releasing T2, the Trainspotting sequel.

Both films begin with a poems,
            known as the ‘choose life’ monologues
which echo our reading this morning from Deuteronomy

Here’s the poem from the second film:

Choose life
Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares
            Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently
            And choose watching history repeat itself
Choose your future
            Choose reality TV
Choose a zero hour contract, a two hour journey to work
            And choose the same for your kids, only worse,
                        and smother the pain with an unknown dose
                        of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen
And then… take a deep breath
            You’re an addict, so be addicted
            Just be addicted to something else
Choose the ones you love
Choose your future
Choose life

And this question of what it means to ‘choose life’
            runs through so much of our wrestling with what it means to be human.

We come up with our answers,
            and we normalise them,
and then we condemn those who choose differently,
            writing off those who don’t fit our, or our society’s definition,
            of what an acceptable life must be.

But who are we to choose,
            and who are we to decide?
And on what basis do we write ourselves as normative,
            and those who differ from us as aberrant.

As Dawn said last week, one of the questions
            on which Christians have expended vast amounts
                        of energy, time, and effort
                        over the last two millennia,
            is this question of ‘who’s in, and who’s out?’

And so we have drawn our theological lines in the sand,
            beyond which we will not cross;
and we have erected our doctrinal boundaries,
            to fence off those who don’t see things as we do;
and we have condemned to the outer darkness
            anyone. not. quite. like. us.

But underlying this question, of who’s in and who’s out,
            is I suspect an insecurity, a fear perhaps,
that if we fail to successfully define ourselves, over and against the other,
            we may ourselves find that we are on the wrong side of the line;
fenced off from God’s eternal truth,
            and left languishing ourselves in the outer darkness.

What if we find that we haven’t ‘chosen life’ after all?

Which is probably why this question has mattered so much,
            to so many, and for so long.
There’s a lot riding on it.

I wonder, can you think of a time when someone has told you
            that, by their understanding of salvation, you were ‘out’?
I know I can.

For me, the feeling that I was being excluded began in my teens,
            when I was spending time with some Christians
            who had had very definite ‘conversion’ experiences.

You know the kind of thing, where someone can name
            the day, hour, and even minute that they were ‘saved’,
                        whatever that means…
Well, for me it was never so straightforward
            – I have no moment of salvation,
                        no time or place on which I can pin my journey from darkness to light.

I have always felt somewhat left out when we sing that verse of my favourite hymn
            which has the words ‘my chains fell off, my heart was free,
                        I rose, went forth, and followed thee’.

In my experience I no more needed converting to the love of God
            than I needed converting to the love of my mother.
I might need reminding of both from time to time,
            but I’ve always known them to be true.

And so one of my friends, who I respected at that time,
            told me that if I had no moment of conversion, I was not yet saved.
I was, by his counting, out.

Similarly with those who told me that unless I spoke in tongues,
            I did not have the Holy Spirit.
Actually, at that point I was using the practice of speaking in tongues
            as part of my devotions, but I wasn’t telling them that!

More recently, I (and others here) have been told
            that we are outside God’s will and kingdom
                        because of our positive views on same sex marriage,
            and that I will be judged harshly by God for leading his people into error.

Mostly, these days, I don’t bother arguing
            – but that doesn’t stop the barbs hitting home sometimes…
I mean, I know I think I’m right, but what if I’m not?
            I’ve been wrong before!
What if God is a God of judgment, and I am displeasing him?

So in my lesser moments I comfort myself
            by reiterating my certainty that God is a God of love,
                        who draws all his dear children to himself,
            and there is nothing I nor anyone else can do
                        to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And then I tell myself that those who are seeking to put me out are wrong,
            and that it is not I but they who have missed the truth,
and before I know it, and without realising it, I start to put them out
            – out of my mind, out of my life, out of my church, out of my faith…
and all too quickly I have become the person I didn’t want to be.

Can you relate to this?
            Does this, or something analogous to it, ring true for you?
Where would you draw the line?
            Who do you think is out, if you’re ‘in’?

Well, all this talk of in, and out,
            takes us right into the heart of our reading this morning
            from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In today’s passage, we encounter Paul
            grappling with a deep and profound problem;
which is this
            – why is it that most of his fellow Jews
            have failed to turn towards Jesus as their long-awaited messiah?

From Paul’s point of view, this is a great conundrum.

Since his own mystical encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road,
            Paul the Jewish Pharisee had been convinced
                        that in the person of Jesus Christ, God had drawn near to humanity
                        to rescue people from the twin powers of sin and death.
            Through forgiveness and resurrection,
                        people had been granted new life in all its fullness,
                        offered as a free gift of grace without cost or condition.

And Paul had devoted himself to the proclamation of this good news,
            not just to his own people the Jews,
but to those from other ethnic groups throughout the Roman empire,
            known collectively as the Gentiles – or the ‘non-Jews’.

The mystery, for Paul, writing to the mostly Gentile church in Rome,
            is why it should be that his fellow Jews
                        were proving harder to convince about Christ
                        than their Gentile neighbours.
Surely, thinks Paul, it should be the other way around
            – after all, the leap from ‘faithful Jew’
                        to ‘faithful Jew who believes Jesus is the messiah’
            is not so great as the leap from ‘Emperor-worshipping Gentile’
                        to ‘faithful Christian’.

‘Can it really be’, wonders Paul,
            ‘that Gentiles are “in”, whilst Jews are now “out”?’

This is the conundrum that lies behind his train of thought here in Romans.
            And so he begins by drawing a distinction
                        between two different kinds of righteousness.

On the one hand, he says,
            there is the righteousness that comes ‘through the Torah’,
            through the Jewish Law.

On the other hand,
            there is righteousness that comes ‘through faithfulness’.

Even as I say this, I can almost feel Martin Luther tapping me on the shoulder,
            and reminding me that 2017 is the 500th anniversary
                        of his decisive actions that led to the European reformation,
            in which he accused the church of his day
                        of having adopted a gospel of righteousness by works,
                        in which people were expected to earn their salvation
                                    by paying priests for indulgences for their sins.

Luther’s point was that forgiveness for sins comes by faith alone,
            not by any action on the part of individuals or the church.
And certainly, in the context of the corruption of the medieval church,
            Luther was on the money, so to speak.

And of course, the most influential text on Luther was,
            you guessed it, Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Luther equated Paul’s language of the righteousness that comes through the Law,
            with the Roman Catholic practice of selling salvation.

Against this, the righteousness that comes through faith
            was understood as being the faithfulness of the reformation churches
            in their teaching of faith alone as the basis of salvation.

In other words, Luther used this passage, and others like it,
            to argue that the Roman Catholic church was excluded from God’s covenant
                        because in their works they were denying the grace of God.

Historically speaking, this is all well and good,
            at least it is if you’re Protestant like we are.

But of course, none of this was what Paul was actually saying.

Paul was writing in the first century, not the sixteenth;
            and he was addressing Judaism and the law of Moses,
            not Roman Catholicism and the infallibility of the Pope.

We are on dangerous ground here,
            if we start to equate Luther’s denunciation of the faith of Rome,
            with Paul’s exploration of the lack of Christian faith of the Jews.
That way lies Europe’s horrific history of anti-Semitism.

Here is the crucial point:
            Paul was not seeking to write the Jews out of the covenant
                        because of their unwillingness to embrace Christ as the messiah,
            and he was not seeking to write them out of God’s grace
                        because of their ongoing adherence to the Torah laws of their ancestor Moses.

If anything, Paul was arguing the exact opposite to this:
            he cannot, and will not, accept
                        that the inclusion of other nations, the Gentiles,
                        into the covenant of God through Christ,
            has resulted in the automatic and wholesale write-off
                        of God’s chosen nation of Israel.

For Paul, the inclusion of the Gentiles expands Israel,
            it does not annihilate it.

Those who live by the Torah, who keep the commands of the covenant,
            can still find life in the doing of it.
The keeping of the Law is not a curse from which release is needed;
            but, it is incomplete.

For Paul, the Law finds its fulfilment in Christ,
            as the doing of faith finds its perfect partner
            in belief in the new life that comes into being in Christ.

All through the passage, there is a kind of dance
            between these two concepts of ‘doing’ and ‘believing’,
            as they move in and out, and round and round each other;
so, ‘confessing with the lips’ is paired with ‘believing in the heart’,
            as the actions of the mouth in proclamation
            find fulfilment in heartfelt faith in Christ.

Doing and believing are not, in Paul’s thought,
            mutually exclusive polar opposites
– they are partners, each pointing to the other.

So, the faithful behaviour of Paul’s fellow Jews,
            originating in obedience to the covenant laws of Moses,
points to faith in the new life
            that comes through resurrection in Christ.

And similarly, faith in Christ points to faithful action
            in the proclamation of the good news that has been received.

This is not, therefore, about the exclusion of the Jews in favour of the Gentiles
            – not at all –
it is rather about Paul’s hope and expectation
            that the faithful response of the Gentiles to the gospel of Christ
            will circle back through their faithful proclamation
                        of the gospel to all people, including the Jews.

As Paul is at pains to say:
            ‘There is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
                        the same Lord is Lord of all.’

The truly faithful response to the gospel
            is to become the one who walks on Mount Zion
                        bringing good news to those who have not yet seen and grasped
                        the universal gospel, of God drawing near to humanity in the person of Jesus.

But Paul has a further problem that he’s addressing here in Romans.

As with most of his letters,
            he’s writing to address a particular problem in a congregation.

I have always taken great comfort from the fact
            that the people Paul’s writing to
            seem to be constantly on the edge of making a total hash of things!
                        It gives me hope!

Anyway, the problem in Rome seems to have been
            that there is someone in the congregation there
trying to persuade the Gentile converts
            that in order to be properly saved, properly ‘in’,
            they needed to adopt the practices and requirements of the Jewish Law.

This person was almost certainly a Jewish convert to following Christ,
            but unlike Paul they thought that Gentiles needed to become,
                        in effect, God-fearing Jews
            if they were to follow Jesus the Jewish messiah.

We know from Paul’s other writings, and from the book of Acts,
            that if ever there was an issue which put Paul’s back up,
                        it was this one.

His conviction that the Spirit of Christ has been poured out on all flesh equally,
            whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free,
led him to a profound conviction
            that whilst there was nothing wrong
            with a Jewish Christian keeping the Torah Law,
it was certainly contrary to God’s gracious reaching-out to humanity in Christ
            for Gentiles to be made to keep it.

Whilst the law may be a blessing to the Jews,
            it is a huge diversion for Gentiles.

In fact, Paul goes further than this.
            The Torah Law becomes a diversion for the Jews too,
                        if they hang their righteousness on it,
                        rather than on faith in Christ.

Good works, whether they be works of the law
            or other faithful responses to God’s calling,
            must follow and spring from a person’s faith;
they do not precede it,
            and are not a condition of faith.

And so Paul is very clear:
            There is no action necessary on the part of humans
                        that can summon up the presence of Christ.
            We do not need to indulge in mystical visions or esoteric practices
                        to ascend to the heavens to bring Christ down to earth
                        – he is already here;
            and we do not need to deny ourselves or mortify our bodies
                        to descend to the depths to raise Christ from the underworld
                        – he is already raised and present with us by his Spirit,
                                    on our lips and in our hearts,
                        stirring us to works of faithful obedience to the calling of his Spirit.

So, where does this leave us?

Where are we in our quest to know who’s in, and who’s out?
            Are we any clearer about where we draw the line
                        and erect the boundary fence around the faithful?
            Do we have a clearer picture of who God would have us exclude?
            Are we any more certain of our own righteousness?

Well, taking the last one first: I hope the answer is yes.
            If you ever have cause to doubt your own place within the love of God,
                        I hope you can hear clearly from Paul’s letter to the Romans
            that your value to God
                        does not depend on your own appreciation
                        or understanding of your eternal worth.
You are loved by God who has come near to us all in Christ
            – as close as the words on our lips
            and the secret stirrings of our hearts.

And with regard to who’s in, and who’s out?
            I think that Paul’s point is clear:
            whoever we might think is out, is actually in.

Wherever we would draw the boundary,
            God re-draws it wider.

And when we seek to impose our favoured, carefully selected,
            beliefs and doctrines on people,
            in order to ensure their acceptability to God,
we fall into the trap of the false teacher in Rome,
            seeking to impose the Jewish law on Gentile converts.

‘But Simon’, I hear you cry,
            ‘surely there must be some limit to the love of God?
                        What about… other faiths?
                        What about… the worst of sinners?
                        What about…?’
                                    Well, you can fill in the next blank.

I think that for Paul, it was of first importance
            that God’s faithfulness to his people did not fail
            – and if God is faithful to even those who have rejected the messiah,
                        then God is faithful to all that he has made.

This, I dare to suggest, is at the heart of the gospel of Christ:
            Jesus died for all, and is raised for all,
                        that all may have new life.

Over the next few days and weeks,
            some very big choices will be made
                        by president Trump, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, and others.

Choices of life and death.

They, like each one of us,
            will have to decide where they will draw the line,
                        who they will condemn, and on what basis.

But their choice on the international stage
            is of course merely an extension
                        of the individual and communal choices
                                    that confront each one of us
                        in our own more parochial circumstances.

In a democracy, we take pride in the fact that we get the leaders we choose,
            but of course that also means that we get the leaders we deserve;
and whether the subject is membership of a union of countries,
            or how we will define and defend our borders,
            or who is welcome in our cities, homes, and churches,
the choice remains the same: who's in, and who's out.

How we respond to that choice,
            in our living, praying, and voting,
            has a direct effect on the world.

The residents of Charlottesville are facing that choice today,
            as they take centre stage in the all-too-literal battle
            between who’s in, and who’s out.

Clashes of ideology can quickly become murderous
            as people choose death as the path to victory.

And as the people of God,
            we have a calling to live into being in our world
            the startling reality that in Christ, there are no outsiders.

So the question before us, then, today,
            is what are we going to do about it?
How will we respond?

And here we need to hear the call of Moses:

            ‘Choose life, so that you may live’ (Deut 11.19)

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