These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
[Introduction to the reading]
While I was home a little over a week ago, cleaning out Dad’s house, my brother, sister and niece and I got caught up in reading some of Dad’s letters. Letters dating back to the war… to college days… letters to his mother… letters to friends… Letters to people we didn’t know. Addressing topics we didn’t know. Telling about his experiences and what he was learning from the war… About his faith. It was like stepping back in time…
I think we sometimes forget that when we open this Bible to the epistles—the letters… we, in a way are doing the same thing… opening up the mail from Paul to friends and family in another time and another place. If you want to know who Paul is writing to, simply turn to chapter 16… and you’ll see who the letter is addressed to:
Phoebe a deaconess in the church, Prisca, Aquila, Epaenetus (first convert in Asia), Mary, Paul’s relatives Adronicus and Junia who served prison time with Paul, Urbanus, Apelles, Tryphaena and Tryphosa (twins?), Rufus and his mother (a mother to me also)… and I could name even more.
Read Romans and you will get an insight into the questions and issues they were facing in their time. You will read a letter to people who are trying to understand what just had happened 25-30 years earlier in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Today, we will open up a part of the letter. Let’s listen in on Paul as he writes to his friends. Listen and see if you can understand the burning questions they are asking.
Paul is writing to a group of people who are struggling…Struggling to understand something very basic: how does one get right with God? How does one know you are right with God and God accepts you?
For years, many in this Christian community—raised in good Jewish homes… were taught a clear answer: you are justified… made righteous… set right with God by following the law… There were laws you had to follow… certain things you had to do or believe in order to make sure God was okay with you and you were okay with God.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I know something about that conversation that still exists in the Christian community….
In fact, we have many answers to the questions about how one gets right with God. Who gets to heaven and who doesn’t? There are fundamentalists with one answer… Baptists… Presbyterians… Methodists, Catholics… Lutherans… with other answers. And for many, the group you decide to associate with is based in some way on the answer of how you are justified—set right with God.
Where I grew up, there were some Christians who didn’t think you were part of the family unless you belonged to their denomination and believed certain things about the pope, the church and sacraments. You couldn’t take communion if you didn’t agree with them. You were an outsider. I also knew other Christians who said you weren’t really a part of the family—you weren’t really set right with God—or saved… unless you could name a born again birthday or say certain creeds.
Right belief, as defined by the group, was required to be a part of the family. Not trust. But right belief.… it was a sort of law… that led you to being saved. Right belief… determined whether you were in or out. If you didn’t believe certain doctrines or practices, you were not saved. I know people who have left the church because they thought if you didn’t believe certain things, you were not welcome. You were not a part of the family.
For the Jewish Christians in Rome the discussion of who was a real Christian and who wasn’t had to be hard. This was a family conversation after all. This led to questions about who is in and out.
For years, the Christians raised in Jewish homes were taught to believe that one is saved by being born in the right family… a Jewish family…following the laws of God—keeping Sabbath, eating the right foods and following the right rules. After all, Jesus was a Jew who said he did not come to eliminate the law but to fulfill the law. Surely you were justified, made right with God, through the law, following the Torah.
But what about those who did not grow up Jewish. Who were not children of Abraham? How in the world could they be saved? If you are saved by the Jewish law alone?
In this letter, Paul leads them to a new understanding of salvation… An understanding that makes it possible for all of us to be here today.
Paul said, we are all set right with God… not based on what laws we follow, or traditions we practice or what family we were born into. For Paul, justification came by grace, through faith. Period. Nothing else. Not law. Not a certain practice… or way you worship… or even a certain creed (they didn’t even exist)… but faith.
Faith. Not to be confused with right belief. Faith. Not certitude (I think many people confuse faith with certitude… faith is about being certain… I’ve even heard it said that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, certainty or certitude is) Faith is what sets us right. Not following the law. Nothing but faith… It all depends on faith.
Faith… which sounds more like trust to me. It all is about trust. Trust in the promise… trust in the grace of god.
That is what I hear Paul telling his friends. It doesn’t matter if you grew up Gentile… or Jewish… none of that matters to God. All God cares about is trust. It is all about faith. It is all about trust.
Which is how Paul says it worked for Abraham… the father of Jewish faith. He wasn’t justified by his works or the law… he was justified by his faith…
“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed (trusted?) God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness…For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void…. For this reason, it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace…”
It all depends on faith. On trust. On trust in God’s grace.
That’s sort of the core of the issue, don’t you think? Do you trust… not in yourself… but in God’s grace? Or do you feel you have to take matters in your own hand… create some additional requirements to make sure people are worthy of God. Trust, but verify.
Do you trust in God’s grace? Not a new set of spiritual laws or requirements we make up for membership in the church… Not in thinking one has to worship a certain way or even follow certain rituals or even agree on certain things in order to be a Christian.. a member of God’s family?
It all depends on faith… says Paul. Nothing else. Faith alone is the means though which we receive the grace of God.
Nothing else is necessary to make God love you more (you can’t!): living the perfect life (as if that were even possible)… belonging to the right denomination (some people in heaven will be surprised to find some of us there)… a certain way to baptize or join or even how we practice communion…
Our standing before God rests on God’s grace. We don’t get right with God. God has already set things right with us in Christ. Simply trust in that grace. Trust in that love.
It all depends on faith… trust in that grace. Trust in what God has already done for us in Christ to set things right. Trust that God is the just judge, that God has taken the step to forgive our sins in Christ… to set things right between us…Trust, simply trust that we really are forgiven. Nothing else needs to be done. It has been done for us! It all depends on faith.
There’s a story I heard that came from the great theologian Paul Tillich that says it well. It is the story of a good and honest judge known for his integrity and fair decisions. He was sitting in the courtroom one night when a policeman brought in a young woman who was charged with prostitution. The judge was crushed when he recognized the woman before him as his daughter who had run away from home months before. She started crying and tried to explain to him that she’d run out of money and this was the only way she could make enough money to live on. But the evidence was clear. She was guilty. Everyone in the courtroom began to wonder what would the judge do? This was his daughter. Would he compromise his principles? Everyone waited for the verdict. The time came and the judge proclaimed: Guilty. And he sentenced her… he fined her. Then, he stood up, took his robe off and set his gavel down and walked down the steps to stand beside his daughter. As her loving father, he went up to the bailiff, took out his wallet and handed the bailiff the money for the fine.
What happened there? First he declared that his daughter was guilty as charged and ordered the fine to be paid. Then he took off his robes, stepped down to her level and paid the fine himself. He didn’t ask her to do anything… he just paid the fine. It was grace. All grace.
Paul Tillich and Paul the Apostle believe that’s how God sets things right with us.
That’s how we, who are sinners are made righteous before God. It’s a gift. A gift to be received in faith. Trust the gift. Trust God’s grace. Nothing else is needed. Just a little faith. Amen.