08/10/14 Sermon (August 10, 2014)

posted Nov 6, 2014, 12:01 PM by David Hawkins

“Everyone Who Calls”

Scripture Reading: Romans 10:5-15

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.”

But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down)” or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Sermon: "Everyone Who Calls"             Rev. David Hawkins

As I said a couple of weeks ago, we are going to be walking through some tall weeds during this month of August as we plow through chapters 9, 10, and 11 of the letter that Paul wrote to the church in Rome. Paul has some big questions on his mind regarding the Torah (that is, the Law), righteousness, Jews, Gentiles, salvation, faith, and Jesus Christ. In other words, life, the universe, and everything.

As we begin our walk through these theologically tall grasses, it’s important to remember the audience to whom Paul is writing and when he was writing to them. Paul has words for us, naturally, but first he has words for first century congregations.

The Church in Rome is made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians, that is, Jews who have become Christians, as well as gentile converts to Christianity.

Paul himself has never been to Rome, and so he is writing carefully, to a community that is coexisting uneasily . There are some among the Christian community in Rome who still believe that the Torah is necessary to salvation, and there are some in the community who believe that those who observe the Torah are deserving of God’s punishment, that they are living under the law, instead of grace.. Each of these sides distrusts the other. And both are trying to win the hearts and minds of the wider population.

And so Paul is stepping into a landscape littered with theological landmines, working to reconcile the historic understanding of the Torah with the message of grace represented by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is writing to help each of the two groups in Rome find common ground between their traditions and their ways of thinking about God.

Of course, these days, there are no disagreements in the Church about these things, are there? We aren’t fighting about little things like the law of  God and the Grace of God anymore, right? Especially not in the Presbyterian Church. It’s not like we’re in any danger of splitting over these sorts of arguments. It’s really too bad Paul doesn’t have anything useful to tell us about our own situation.

Last week, we wrestled with Paul as he pondered the question of whether or not the Hebrew people were part of God’s plan for salvation. In the end, he comforted himself with the reassurance that it was God who had given the Jews the covenants, the prophets, the promises, and the law. It was God who had given these things, and if God makes promises, if God forms covenants, then God keeps them. We may not know exactly how this is going to work out, but Paul is quite sure that it will.

Paul writes last week’s part of the letter to those people in the Roman Church who have written the Jews off as being un-redeemable. As though God simply can’t save them, even though God might want to. As though God is powerless to save the chosen people.

Paul reminds them that it is God who saves those whom God desires to save, in whatever manner God desires to save them. As Jesus told us in the parables of the kingdom of heaven just a couple of weeks ago, it’s not for us to decide who is in and who is out of the kingdom of heaven. The job of sorting that out is God’s and God’s alone. And God can save whoever God wants to.

In this weeks’ scripture passage, Paul wrestles with an opposite problem. The Church in Rome has many Jews who have become Christians, and for many of these Christian Jews, the law is still part of their tradition. It’s still an important part of their lives. Everything they’ve ever been taught about God involves the law. Everything they know about righteousness, about shalom, about salvation involves the law.

And they can’t just throw all that away. If they do, that means throwing everything they’ve learned in their sacred scriptures away, throwing away everything in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, the Prophets, tossing it like last week’s coffee grounds. Throwing the Law away means throwing God away.

For the Jewish Christians in Rome, the law is required for righteousness. And if adherence to the law was required for righteousness, how can non-Jews, who do not follow the law, especially in terms of dietary restrictions and circumcision, be saved? If God gave the law, who are we to ignore it?

These are the questions Paul is trying to sort through.

On one hand, there are Christians who believe that the law no longer has any effect, that all that stuff about sin, about righteousness, about the moral expectations of the law are null and void. There is only grace.

On the other hand are Christians who believe that following the law is a critical part of what it means to be Christian, that without the law, there can be no righteousness.

Like I said before, it’s too bad that Paul has nothing to say to us Christians in the 21st century. It would be nice if this passage had some sort of relevance to our own time.

These questions of law and grace have not gone away, have they? There is still a tension between our understanding of righteous behavior, and our full dependence on the grace of God. We still are fighting about what it means to be a Christian, about who holds the keys to the correct way of thinking about salvation.

Is salvation a matter of doing the right things, saying the right things, believing the right things? In other words, is it about following some sort of standard, some sort of law?

Or, is salvation something that is given to us, without our help, without our participation, without even our permission? Is salvation something that demands nothing from us, something that expects nothing from us, something that has no effect on our behavior, makes no changes in the way we live our everyday lives? Is is law, or is it grace?

Who is in charge of salvation, anyway? Is it God, or is it us? Is salvation given or earned? Is salvation demanded or received? And the answers, Paul says, are, in no particular order, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, and no, no, no, no, no, and no.

The problem, as Paul sees it, is that the Church in Rome has forgotten that the whole point of Jesus Christ was to open up the gift of salvation for the whole world, rather than to shut it down. In Jesus Christ, we are all reconciled to God. That in Jesus Christ, we all are given the gift of grace, that we all can know that our debt is paid, that our sin is forgiven that we all are welcomed into God’s family with open arms.

And this gift is not just for one particular group over another. The problem that Paul has with both of the groups arguing in Rome is that both groups seem to think that they have some sort of exclusive claim on the goodness of God, that they alone are recipients of God’s love. That through their own efforts, whether it be through satisfaction of the requirements of the law, or the correct set of beliefs, they alone are able to boast in their salvation.  

But Paul is arguing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of good news for everyone. That rather than limiting the covenant, God has expanded it. Rather that closing the doors and locking the windows, God has blown the roof off of the Church, and is welcoming in all kinds of people into the kingdom of heaven.

No longer is the love of God limited to one set of laws, or customs, or beliefs. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s love is unfolding before our very eyes, opening up and leafing out, reaching out and bringing in anyone who calls on the name of the Lord.

And Paul means it. Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Anyone. Everyone. You, and me, and them. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Regardless of creed, or confession, or ethnic background. Everyone.

This is the promise. And when we try to limit the promise, when we try to choke off God’s love, try to limit God’s love to just a fortunate few, we are rejecting that promise. When we try to stuff God’s love back into a nice, tidy little box that we feel safe carrying around with us, we are walking away from that promise.

But God doesn’t let us do that. Whenever the Church has tried to limit the promise of God’s welcome for all people, God has found a way to work around it. When the Dutch reformed church in South Africa preached a theology of Apartheid, and supported the policy of separating the races, God found a way to work around that. When the Southern Churches in pre-civil war America preached a theology of white privilege, and supported the institution of slavery, God found  way to work around that. When the Church around the world insisted that women have no place in leadership in the Church, God found a way to work around that.

We, as a church, have not really changed all that much from Paul’s time. We still have a tendency to want to limit God’s love to a select group of individuals, which, of course, will alway include ourselves, and not those people over there. But God has always, and will always, find ways to work around us.

And that’s good news.

Because there are times in our own lives when we don’t feel particularly savable. We know deep in our hearts that a covenant based on our own faithfulness is not the best foundation for our salvation. There are times in our lives that we have wandered away from God, or taken him for granted. In the words of our confession, we have done what we know is wrong, and we have not done what we know to be right. We are not worthy of God’s grace.

But God’s grace is not something we earn. It’s not something that we claim for ourselves. God’s grace is given. Freely. By God.

And this is so hard to accept. We want to do something, anything, so that we can somehow feel like we deserve this kind of love. But the truth is this: we can’t save ourselves. We can’t save the world. In Jesus Christ, God has already done that. All we can do is live as though we actually believe it.

Our faith is not in our creeds, or our doctrines, or our confessions. It’s not in our political systems or the work of our best efforts. Our faith is not even in our faith. Our faith is only in God and in his son, Jesus Christ, in whom we are given the full assurance of God’s love and enduring faithfulness for the whole world.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Everyone.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.