Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
3 May 2015, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
Scripture Readings: Romans 1.1-17 (NIV)
Matthew 9.9-13 (GNB)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
What makes you ashamed? In today’s text, Paul says that he is not ashamed of the Gospel- that is, he’s not ashamed of the message he has about Jesus Christ. Shame is a strong word. But what makes you ashamed?
We often don’t normally talk to others about things we feel ashamed about- it’s too hard. If we do speak to someone about such matters, it needs to be someone we trust deeply. But on the other hand, we might talk about things which are done in our name. I’m rather ashamed our government for withdrawing rescue ships from the Mediterranean when refugees were drowning. I’m ashamed we live in a country which is so quick to blame the poor for their problems.
And at times, I’m ashamed of Christianity. I’m ashamed that Christian people can use their faith as a cover to discriminate against gay people or women. I’m ashamed that we don’t seem to be willing to be much more adventurous about finding ways to take the good news of Christ into our world. I’m ashamed that we allow all kinds of injustices to go on in our communities and our nations, and we don’t speak a word about them from the point of view of our faith. I’m ashamed that we are too often smug and complacent, as if the fire of the Spirit had grown dim among us. I’m ashamed that parts of the Christian church has been complicit in the abuse of children.
But when St Paul was writing, he was writing to a young church, a church in the first few decades of its existence. Most of the failings of the church still lay in the future. So Paul isn’t talking about the church and it’s many faults when he is writing to the Christians of Rome. He’s not saying he’s not ashamed of the church- he’s saying he’s not ashamed of the Gospel. And this letter of St Paul to the Romans is one of the first systematic attempts to think through what the Gospel of Jesus is really about.
The Letter to the Romans is one of the key texts of the New Testament, and, indeed, of the entire `two thousand years of Christian tradition. Paul founded many Christian communities around the Roman Empire in the first few decades after the resurrection of Jesus. His letter to the Romans is unusual in that it is a letter in which Paul wrote to a church which he hadn’t founded or visited- as we heard in the dialogue earlier. Quite often Paul’s letters were written in reply to a set of questions from a church. They tend to be quite specific, dealing with just a few matters. But in the letter to the Romans is a letter St Paul attempts something like a systematic account of the content of the Gospel.
First he introduces himself- for he does not know most of these Christians of Rome. He give his credentials as a preacher and church leader, an ‘apostle’- someone authorised by Christ himself to take his message into the world. He greets them, says he hopes to meet them soon, praises them for their faith, assures them he is praying for them. Already gives some hints about what is going to be in this letter- that he will speak to them about the importance of Jesus, what his life, death and resurrection means for them. And it all builds to a climax in the last few verses, where he offers a very personal confession of faith:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed- a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
So Paul says that this Gospel (the Gospel of which he is no ashamed) is the power of God, and that it brings salvation. But when Paul speaks of power, he doesn’t, of course, mean something like electricity or wind power. He’s means a kind of spiritual power. Power that doesn’t move trains or windmills, but changes people.
Let me explain. As it happens, we are in the middle of a power struggle in our country at the moment. We are having a General Election to decide who gets the political power in our nation. In other parts of the world, such power struggles are raw and violent- Syria, Libya, Yemen are places where there are struggles for power which leave people dead, homeless, disabled. Thank God our power struggles are not like that. We ought not to moan too much that all we have to put up with are a few weeks of TV debates!- at least the politicians are only bombarding us with leaflets, and not bombs!
Yet the same thing is at stake in our election as are causing war and violence in other places- the question of who gets power in the land. Power is about being able to do things, to make thing happen, to be able to mould things as you would want them to. Politicians seek power because it lets them do things. It allows them to legitimately boss people around!
Ancient Rome: The Arch of Titus (Wikipedia Commons)
Paul understood about power. Writing to the Christians of Rome he’d be well aware that they were living at the heart of the most powerful state which had ever existed. Writing to the Romans would be like writing to Washington today.
Roman power was coercive power. For the Roman Empire was created by conquest and relied on slavery. It as an empire held together by the threat of violence. Earlier Paul had described himself as a ‘slave’ of Jesus Christ. This was a powerful metaphor, for the economy of the Roman Empire was largely supported by slaves. Slaves were people with nothing like what we would call human rights. They could be bought and sold, they could be used at their masters’ whim. And, if they rebelled, they could be put to death. Slavery is the ultimate abuse of power, for it can only operate when one group of people has absolute power over another group. The power of Rome was used to keep people in slavery, and conquered nations in subjection.
Munkácsy Mihály: Ecce Homo! 1844-1900 (Wikipedia Commons)
Against the power of Rome, what was the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? After all, Jesus himself was a victim of Roman power. When the Roman governor of Palestine thought that Jesus was a threat to his power, and to Roman power, he had Jesus put to death, as if he had been a runaway slave. Strange, then for Paul to speak of the power of the Gospel of Jesus, who had been put to death by Roman power, to the Christians of Rome, surrounded by magnificent buildings which spoke of the power of Rome.
There is a clue to the nature of the power of Christ in the Gospel story we read. It’s the story of a tax collector named (coincidentally for today’s baptism) Matthew. Tax collectors had power- they could compel you to hand you over money. They were part of the Roman power structure, for the tax collectors of Palestine were collecting taxes from their Jewish compatriots on behalf of the Roman occupiers. They actually worked on something like a franchise, or commission, basis. They got to keep a proportion of what they raised. The more money they could squeeze out of the population, the more they earned. But, as you could imagine, it was an uncomfortable position they held in society. They may have been powerful, but they weren’t exactly popular.
Our Gospel reading speaks of ‘tax collectors and other outcasts’, lumping excise men like Matthew together with others on the edges of society. So I don’t suppose Matthew was a very happy man. Spurned by his neighbours, with a bad conscience that he was a cog in the Roman imperial wheel, perhaps he needed sometime to tell him that God, at any rate, loved him. He’d no doubt heard and Jesus speak already, and he was ready to respond to this man who seemed to have a lot of time for outcasts. How else do we explain the story, which the Gospel writer tells in such terse terms:
Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, he saw a tax collector, named Matthew, sitting in his office. He said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him.
Matthew sounds like a man who was ready for a new life, ready to leave behind even his job in order to follow Jesus. He got up and followed Jesus, found a new direction for his life, and, indeed, ended up as one of ‘the Twelve’, one of his closest disciples.
We often wonder in the Church what message we have for the world. What words should we used to express the Gospel in today’s language? St Paul said the Gospel is God’s power at the work, bringing salvation to everyone who believes. Matthew’s story is an example of what that means in a person’s life. God’s power is salvation to Matthew- he’s saved from being an outcast, he’s saved from his toll booth, he’s saved from his life of contradictions- earning plenty of money, perhaps, but despised by his Roman employers and hated by his Jewish compatriots.
Yet in order for salvation to come to Matthew, he has to respond. Follow me, says Jesus; and Matthew got up and followed him. So I think that ‘Follow me’ is a good way of putting the Gospel challenge. The church’s job is to say to say to people, on behalf of Jesus, ‘Follow me’. Those are powerful words. For if, like Matthew, we get up and follow, then that can be salvation for us.
We may not think ourselves outcasts, but all of us, like Matthew, are a maze of contradictions. Our neighbours may not know that, but we know that within us there are all sorts of things unresolved. We all, in our most honest moments, have a sense that all is not right. We have things we are ashamed of which we can hardly talk to anyone about. We all of us yearn for acceptance, love and grace.
So here is Jesus bringing the power of God to save us- follow me, he says- and that is a demand, and it will need courage to leave our old selves behind. But it also implies a promise. When Jesus says ‘Follow me’, we know that here is a leader who, unlike any political leader who might call on us to follow them, who will never let us down. The power of the Roman has long since fallen to dust. But the Gospel still has power because those who, like Matthew, hear Jesus saying ‘follow me’ and who get up and follow him find salvation. They know themselves forgiven, and they know the power of God in their lives.
Jesus said to a tax collector in ancient Palestine- a despised lackey of the Roman occupiers- follow me. And by some mysterious power, Matthew found the courage to follow, and it transformed his life. For Jesus broke down barriers. He would go to dinner with outcasts like Matthew, and if the prudish religious leader were scandalized, he didn’t care. ‘I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts’, he says. That is the power of God at work- breaking down barriers, giving hope where there was no hope before.
We baptized another Matthew at St Stephen’s today (the baby grandson of Rosemary and Sandy Cumming). And, as in every baptism, we acted out the power of the Gospel. We spoke of death and resurrection, of a spiritual washing which makes us new, of the possibility that the power of God can bring new life, forgiveness, a new start. We spoke of the Gospel of salvation- salvation which is there for anyone- absolutely anyone- who hears Jesus call to ‘follow me’ and gets up and goes with him.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, except for Romans 1 citations from the New International Version (unless otherwise stated)
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo