St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

For I am convinced

 For I am con­vinced

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Eighth Sunday after Pente­cost, July 30, 2017

Read­ings: Romans 8.26–39; Mat­thew 13. 31–33, 44–58

In Septem­ber 1961, the Swedish New Test­a­ment schol­ar Kris­ter Stendahl gave an address on the work and thought of the Apostle Paul. What was unusu­al on this occa­sion was Stendahl’s audi­ence. He was not speak­ing to theo­lo­gians, or Bib­lic­al schol­ars but to a gath­er­ing of psy­cho­lo­gists attend­ing the annu­al meet­ing of the Amer­ic­an Psy­cho­lo­gic­al Asso­ci­ation. His aim in giv­ing this lec­ture was to res­cue Paul from the psychoanalyst’s couch.

Stendahl argued that in the pop­u­lar mind Paul had become “the hero of the intro­spect­ive con­science.” In oth­er words he argued that con­tem­por­ary people ten­ded to think of Paul as a man con­stantly wrest­ling with shame, guilt and sin, pit­ting grace against leg­al­ism and tor­men­ted by his own sense of inner struggle. Paul’s words in Romans ch.7 19, “I do not do the good I want…but the evil I do not do want is what I do”: were often used as evid­ence of this men­tal tur­moil. The prob­lem with this view of the apostle, Stendahl argued was that it arose from read­ing back into St. Paul con­cerns about the self and the indi­vidu­al con­science that date from a later time. The intro­spect­ive inter­pret­a­tion began with Augustine but reached its high point with Luth­er. The res­ult being that Paul’s whole theo­logy and espe­cially his views on jus­ti­fic­a­tion have been read through the lens of Luther’s angst. Luther’s burn­ing ques­tion was “How can I ever please a right­eous God?” That, argued Stendahl was not Paul’s ques­tion.

One won­ders what the psychologist’s made of this paper but Stendahl’s views cer­tainly made waves in the theo­lo­gic­al com­munity. Since the Reform­a­tion the major­ity of prot­est­ant schol­ars had argued that the cent­ral theme of Paul’s let­ter to the Romans is the doc­trine of jus­ti­fic­a­tion by faith. Indi­vidu­als troubled by guilt and bound by sins they can­not over­come, through faith in Christ can find for­give­ness and sal­va­tion. Luth­er him­self had a pas­sion­ate regard for this epistle and wrote: “Romans is really the chief part of the New Test­a­ment and is truly the purest gos­pel. It is worthy not only that every Chris­ti­an should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy him­self with it every day, as the daily bread for the soul.”

Although Stendahl faced a good deal of cri­ti­cism for his thes­is, in the years since then there has been a renewed interest in the let­ter to the Romans and it is become the sub­ject of a huge amount of schol­ar­ship. And while jus­ti­fic­a­tion by faith remains an import­ant theme, Romans is now regarded as cov­er­ing a much broad­er can­vas. So to quote just one recent com­ment­at­or, Kath­er­ine Grieb, “Romans is not a theo­lo­gic­al treat­ise on either faith and works or pre­des­tin­a­tion. Instead it is a sweep­ing defence of the right­eous­ness of God, the cov­en­ant faith­ful­ness of God, ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’.”

That was by way of a long intro­duc­tion to today’s epistle read­ing from Romans 8.26–39. In this pas­sage Paul brings togeth­er some import­ant themes which are rel­ev­ant to every one of us. The pas­sage begins with the state­ment: “Like­wise the Spir­it helps us in our weak­ness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spir­it inter­cedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” We have all had occa­sions when we have been faced with a situ­ation which is so com­plex, or dif­fi­cult or appar­ently unsolv­able that we have been at a loss as to what to do or how to pray. This verse assures us that in those situ­ations we can depend on the Holy Spir­it. We can give the prob­lem to God and believe that his Spir­it will show us the way for­ward. One of the duties of the Holy Spir­it is to ‘inter­cede for the saints’ accord­ing to the will of God.” The Saints’ is not a ref­er­ence to the Saints in stained glass win­dows but Paul’s word for all Chris­ti­ans. Many of his let­ters begin with the expres­sion, ‘to all the saints’ In Cor­inth, or Phil­ippi or Colos­sae. To know that are pray­ers are brought before God by the Holy Spir­it should be a great encour­age­ment to us to keep on pray­ing espe­cially when we are temp­ted to give up or think God has bet­ter things to do than attend to our pray­ers.

Verse 28 is often quoted, some­times unhelp­fully, “All things work togeth­er for good for those who love God, who are called accord­ing to his pur­pose.” How­ever, a bet­ter trans­la­tion is ‘With those who love God, he co-oper­ates in all things for good.’ This is not a ‘get out of gaol free pass’ but a prom­ise that whatever hap­pens in the future, no mat­ter what dif­fi­culties we may face, God will stand with us and not against us. Our con­fid­ence is sure because our future is not in our own hands or depend­ent on our own faith­ful­ness but rather it lies in God’s hands. That is the point of the fol­low­ing verses where Paul uses words like ‘fore­know’ or ‘pre­des­tine’. In this con­text they do not refer to some lim­it­a­tion on our free­dom or to some arbit­rary decision by God that some people will be saved and oth­ers will miss out. They simply point to the fact that God already knows the end to which he will bring his cre­ation, namely redemp­tion. The des­tiny has already been set and that des­tiny is the final trans­form­a­tion of the whole cre­ated order. The expres­sion, the right­eous­ness of God occurs fre­quently in Romans, although not in the pas­sage before us today. How­ever, the theme is always evid­ent. For to say that God is right­eous means that God is going to set things right in all cre­ation. To quote one writer, “In sum, the right­eous­ness of God is noth­ing less than the prom­ise of God’s great future vic­tory in which life over­comes all forms of death and the chil­dren of God, first the Jew and then the Greek, live in the glor­i­ous liberty of God’s chil­dren.” (Thomas Long, Inter­pret­a­tion, July 2004)

So giv­en that the future is in God’s hands, Paul can con­clude this chapter with one of his most elo­quent state­ments of Chris­ti­an com­fort and hope. If God is for us, who is against us? This final para­graph is really a sum­mary of the whole theme of Romans 5–8, presen­ted not now as a logic­al argu­ment but as a mov­ing rhet­or­ic­al state­ment.

Four times a ques­tion is asked:  First; Who is against us? No one because God has giv­en us his son and will give us all things with him.

Second: Who will bring a charge against us? No one, because God him­self has jus­ti­fied us and declared us to be in the right.

Third: Who will con­demn us? No one, because Jesus has died, been raised and exal­ted and inter­cedes for us.

Finally, who will sep­ar­ate us from Christ’s love? This time there are many con­tenders that might try but none are able to come between us and the love of the Saviour. The chapter con­cludes with the great affirm­a­tion: “For I am con­vinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any­thing else in all cre­ation, will be able to sep­ar­ate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” N.T. schol­ar Tom Wright wrote that “the end of Romans 8 deserves to be writ­ten in let­ters of fire on the liv­ing tab­lets of our hearts.” As we mourn the death of five mem­bers of our con­greg­a­tion in the last two months, we take com­fort in these words of hope.

Philip Brad­ford