There’s a lot of theology in Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we’ve been reading for the last few weeks. And because there’s a lot of theology in it, a lot of dense logic, difficult concepts, and complicated reasoning, sometimes I think we kind of zone out a bit when we hear it. But I want you to know that underlying all that theology is a story that is deeply personal, and deeply passionate. It’s the story of someone who experienced the depths of despair, the lowest of the lows, and then just when he thought all was lost, was rescued, set free, and brought back to life. It’s Paul’s story and this is his testimony. And sometimes I think we need to hear Paul’s letter to the Romans as testimony rather than theology in order to realize how much it matters and how much it resonates with our own lives. Maybe, in some way, this is your story too.
Paul, or Saul as he was first known, was a good man with the best of intentions who became an accessory to murder. How could that have happened? He was the model child, the good boy who was destined for great things. He was sent to learn from the best teachers and groomed to be a Pharisee, the most respected of the Jewish leaders. The Pharisees were committed to upholding Torah, the Jewish law given by God to Moses. They believed that the solution to the dilemma that Israel found itself in, occupied and oppressed by the Roman Empire, was to be found in the keeping of the law. For they believed that when the people of Israel returned to God by keeping God’s law, God would act to rescue his people. And so Saul became a Pharisee. He studied Torah and taught it. He kept it and was blameless with respect to the law. And he was zealous, passionate to ensure that others kept it too.
And so when Saul found out about a small number of rebellious Jews who were defying the authorities and propagating lies about how God had raised a blasphemer and law-breaker named Jesus from the dead, he did what he thought was right, what he believed the law required of him. He started rounding them up and handing Jesus’ followers over to the authorities. Some of them were put to death. Saul, the Pharisee, the righteous man of God, the one who was devoted to doing the right thing, Saul became an accessory to murder, responsible for the deaths of many people.
And it took a road to Damascus moment for Saul to realize it. As he was on his way to Damascus to arrest more Christians, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, and he heard a voice say “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? He asked, “Who are you Lord?” The reply came “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” And when Paul encountered Jesus, whom God had indeed raised from the dead, all of a sudden Paul realized what he had been doing. And he was crushed. In his desire to serve God, he had been doing the exact opposite. And last week we heard the anguish of that moment in our reading of the seventh chapter of the letter to the Romans:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?”
Saul lost his sight. And he was led away, and for three days he was blind, and he experienced remorse, and shame and anguish, and a complete loss of worth. For three long days.
After three days, as Saul was praying, he had a vision that God would send someone to him. And God sent Ananias, a follower of Jesus, to the house where Saul had been taken. I don’t know what Saul was expecting when Ananias entered. Did he expect to hear words of judgement, of condemnation? Probably. Maybe he expected to be beaten or stoned. But when Ananias arrived, he laid his hands on Saul, and said “Jesus has sent me here so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. And then Ananias baptized Saul.
And there was no condemnation. In fact, it was just the opposite. Saul felt this incredible sense of liberation, of being set free, of being made alive, in fact such an experience of new life that from that moment on he took a new name and was known as Paul.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
The reason I’m telling you Paul’s story this morning is not so much because I think you need to know about Paul. And even though I think that knowing Paul’s story is helpful in understanding the letter to the Romans, that’s not the reason I’m telling you either.
No the reason I’m telling you this story is because I think that probably all of us here have had experiences of condemnation, or to translate that word more literally, negative judgement. At some point in your life someone has passed negative judgement on you, or perhaps you have been the one condemning yourself. Your worth has been questioned, you’ve been called a failure, you haven’t lived up to your own standards, you’ve been rejected, judged or condemned. Because of who you are, because of what you’ve done or haven’t done, because of a weakness or an illness or an addiction or a compulsion, because you were caught in a bad situation, whatever it was, whatever it is, you have experienced condemnation, negative judgements from yourself or those around you. I know, I’ve been there.
And because of that, and because of the pain and the powerlessness that condemnation causes, I want you to know what Paul experienced that day in Damascus. As far as God is concerned, there is no condemnation. Right now, in this very moment. God does not condemn us, does not judge us negatively, does not reject us, does not question our worth or devalue us in any way. That may be hard to believe, but it’s true, it’s what Paul experienced and it’s what each one of us can experience. God loves us so much, God wants to be with us so much that he has done and continues to do whatever it takes to make us right with him, forgiving us, coming to be with us and reconciling us with him, so that there is no condemnation, no negative judgement. As far as God is concerned there are no failed human beings, no worthless people, there are only beautiful children whom he loves.
Now that’s a lot to take in. It was a lot for Paul to take in. In fact, Paul tells us that after this dramatic experience of liberation, of being set free from condemnation and restored to life, he went away for three years to figure things out, to pray, to think, to read the scriptures, to try to sort out what was going on, how this could be.
Much of that sorting out is contained in Paul’s letter to the Romans, much of it in response to three important questions.
How can it be that there is no condemnation?
Who is this for?
What does Paul mean by “being in Christ Jesus”?
How can it be that there is no condemnation? Everything in our experience, everything in our normal ways of relating leads us to expect to be judged negatively for our failings. But God is different, his ways are not our ways, his grace exceeds anything we can imagine. For Paul that grace is revealed most fully in the death of Jesus. We have been reconciled to God through the death of his son. God acted decisively, sending his own son to personally take on the human condition and set it right once and for all, doing this openly and in human history for us to see, proving his love for us by taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus and dying for us, and then giving us his Spirit to be in us and to bring us alive.
Who is this for? When we hear Paul say “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” it raises the question of just who is in Christ Jesus. Who is this for? Is there some sort of exclusivity going on here? Paul responds to this at various places in the letter to the Romans. Because of Paul’s particular context, in the first few chapters, he makes sure people understand that this is not just for the Jewish people, for a particular ethnic group, but is for all people. But in chapter five he goes a lot further. For whom did Christ die? Who is this for? First he mentions the weak. Then, the ungodly. Then he says it is for sinners. Finally he says that this is for enemies of God. I think you get the point. Anyone you might have thought was excluded is included. This is for all of us.
But what then does Paul mean by “being in Christ Jesus”. That’s what most of today’s reading is trying to sort out. To be in Christ Jesus is to have the Spirit of God in you. God’s Spirit has been sent to be in you, to set you free from whatever oppresses you, to give you peace, to bring you alive. All we have to do is to welcome God’s spirit into our lives. We don’t have to try harder, we don’t have to believe more things, we don’t have to be better people, we don’t have to redouble our efforts. We simply welcome God’s spirit in us, trust what the Spirit is doing in our lives and embrace it. It really is grace, a gift, a free gift from God which we simply need to receive. And if you welcome the Spirit in your life, and if the Spirit of God, the one that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he will give you life.
And this is life: there is no condemnation. You are right with God, loved and valued, right now, just as you are.
Homily: Yr A P15, July 16 2017, St. Albans Church
Readings: Gen 25.19-34; Ps 119.105-112, Romans 8.1-11, Matthew 13.1-9,18-23