This morning we've read a snippet of Paul's letter to the Romans, one of the most significant and influential pieces of writing known to the Church. All through its history this letter has caused upheaval, spectacular conversions and brought deep insights to those who delved into it.
Augustine, Martin Luther, Karl Barth and many many others over the course of history have received inspiration and transformation both for themselves and the Church through this letter.
At present Paul isn't very popular in our part of the Church. He has gained himself quite a reputation for being hostile to women and not agreeable to same sex relationships. He is supposed to be obscure, dogmatic and rigid.
I don't agree. Although some of what he has written has had regrettable consequences, Paul is a fascinating figure and a very thorough thinker who does not shrink back from the big issues of faith and tries to address them. He is extremely practical, and does never go into any detail just for the philosophical fun of it. He tries to think things through, because they need thinking through for people to come to a proper understanding of the faith.
I think Paul never saw what he wrote as the last word on anything, even though he was very passionate about some of the things he wrote. He was a Jew. He would most probably have expected an ongoing discussion about his ideas and arguments.
And would have longed for people to come back to him and debate the things that he had written with him to find an even better understanding together than Paul had initially offered.
The issues he writes about, were not exactly ours, and may not, at first sight, seem interesting to us. The eating of sacrificial meat, the relationship between slave and free man, the keeping of Jewish law. They are things that are not, on the face of it directly or even indirectly applicable to our faith and our situation. And yet: I would like to argue that many of the problems Paul had to address are problems we still struggle with in our Christian communities.
Most of the letter to the Romans is devoted to the importance of community. Of harmony and unity in the body of Christ, as a community where each and every member, no matter what their social status, gender or faith background is, is made welcome and appreciated for what they are: God's beloved children.
Paul doesn't know the people in Rome, but he has heard that there are differences of opinion as to what the gospel exactly is and who exactly is "in" or "out" of the community of Christ. Was there a ranking for Christians where some were "further advanced" in faith than others?
These questions can still be asked. Are those who come to Church every Sunday better Christians than those who only come occasionally? Are those who faithfully read their Bible every day and are faithful in their daily devotions of a deeper faith than those who don't? Should those who pay more have more control about the direction the Church is taking? Or should it be those who spend the most time in the Church grounds helping, be the ones who have the largest say?
Should level of education or worldly status dictate who become leaders? Who is important? And why?
In Paul's time there were, like today, different opinions about this. Some regarded Jews who kept the food and ritual laws Jesus and his disciples had lived by as believers of a higher class than those who'd come to faith from a gentile background. Some felt that those who were able to pay more should see that reflected in the seating arrangements and the amount of influence they had on decision making. Could people that had no standing or importance outside the Church be leaders in it? Could slaves who were of no importance outside the Church fulfil roles of importance inside it? Was it wise to allow women to play such an important part in the Church while outside the Church they were no more than life stock at the disposal of the family patriarch? How would Christianity ever have a chance of growing and becoming respectable if it held counter cultural views about class, status and how a community should be organised?
In all this Paul's position is fairly radical and would have been, at least to some, revolutionary. Everybody is in he says, and everybody is part of the community in equal measure, no matter who or what they are, what they do, where they work, what their education has been like, whatever their gender or status in the outside world may be. They are all equal for God and should thus be regarded as equal by us.
The important thing is not who we are, where we came from or even what we do. What is important is that God loves us and how we answer to that love.
What Paul writes in Chapter 12 is all about just that.
"Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" he writes.
In other words: Give yourself, without reserve to God as a living, walking, talking gift to God in answer to God's love. A life worthy and compatible with what is of God. That is worship. Not just fulfilling your religious duties on the Sunday an forget about it on the Monday, but living a life that is in everything an offering to the God who loves you.
"Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." In other words: Who gives themselves completely to God in that way should prepare themselves for change, prepared to view things from a perspective completely differently from the way the world around operates.
"We who are many are the one body of Christ, and individually we are members of each other, we just have different gifts, differing according to the grace given to us."
A community where everybody is recognised as essential and of equal value to God.
We're all part of the body of Christ Paul says, and God has given us each gifts to enable that body to function. We all are an essential part of the bigger picture. We may have different skills, different talents, even different measures of faith, but they are all God given to make Christ come alive in this world.
This is harder than you think it may be. Think about it. People who only come Christmas and Easter as important as those who are here every Sunday? Children as important as adults?
Those who have taken responsibility and work their socks of for the Church equal to those who put in only very little of their time and energy? Isn't that taking things a little bit too far? Surely, there should be some recompense, some acknowledgment? Surely some are closer to God than others? Better Christians? More committed body parts? Well, not really.
What Paul had discovered you see, the biggest mind blowing transformation he'd been through was this: That nothing made one more or less illegible for the grace of God. The grace of God just is, you see, fitting everybody in the picture, hoping for a positive answer, but there before anything else happens. It is not an answer to what we do, it's a given, for free, a first move waiting for an answer. Love that wants to be loved back, but is not dependent on what is, or isn't done by those whom it is directed towards.
No says Paul. After the cross we know that there is nothing that will preclude anybody from God's grace, and that there is nothing one can do to deserve it. Jesus joined those who were furthest from being considered acceptable to God. He died on a cross at the hands of those who were respectable, pious and working hard to earn Godly rewards. He turned the world upside down. Nothing Paul had held sacred and firm applied anymore. Those who'd thought they were doing the "right thing" including himself, had it all wrong. And what had seemed wrong had proven to be right in the eyes of God. The Messiah had chosen the ranks of the outcasts, of those polite society turns its back on. He had joined the ranks of those who are downtrodden and live a life of suffering.
A similar thing happens to Peter. One moment he confesses his faith with a depth and earnestness that moves Jesus to entrust him with leadership in his community and the next moment he is the Satan that is commanded to let off. One moment Peter is top dog in faith and the next he has become the embodiment of temptation because of exactly this issue.
The suffering Jesus, the crucified Messiah Peter nor Paul were eager to accept. It wasn't something that appealed you see, to anybody. And still we struggle with the concept.
It's easy to confess our faith in Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God, moral champion, saviour of the world. It is more difficult to accept that his journey was one of suffering and shame and not of success and high regard. It is even more difficult to accept that we, as a Church are called to follow in his footsteps in a world where success and high regard are so very important. In a world status and education, wealth and connections determine who and what you are and what role you are given to play it is difficult to believe that is of no importance at all when it comes to the living body of Christ and live that concept out as a community. And we've not been very good at it as a Church, today and in ages past.
God loves us, Peter, Paul and anybody else who may get the wrong end of the stick at times or doesn't quite meet the necessary faith requirements. And he calls us to answer to that love by giving ourselves to him, to let Him fit us into the picture of his Kingdom, to make the body of Christ work in this world.
What is required is just an openness, a preparedness to surrender to his love and let ourselves be fit into the place he has in mind for us instead of forever trying to be more or better than we are or anybody else is. An all inclusive view, where the ways of the world fall by the wayside and new laws apply. The laws of love, and justice and peace, of forgiveness and understanding, of self giving and acceptance, open to others, open to God.
I had planned to preach on our up coming multi faith festival and the inclusiveness of God's love for all his people this morning. I intended to draw attention to the up coming planned giving program asking for your support and commitment to the Church. Somehow these topics didn't quite make it into the sermon. Paul would not have been pleased I think. Too much theory, not enough practice.
God loves the world he would have said, and if there is anyway you can get that message across or any opportunity to practice that in Church, through Church or outside the Church, go for it! Isn't it just marvellous that God gives you the opportunity to do so!
Give it what you've got he would have said, God gave you what he got. And don't be stingy. God loves you. Let his love reign your life.