July 21st, 2013

“Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel….”  (Paul)

Romans 16:17-27

July 21, 2013

Your Lucky Day

Yesterday as I was preparing to write this sermon, a movie quote kept coming to mind from one of my all-time favorite films, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Gus Portocalos is proud to the point of being obnoxious about his family’s Greek heritage:  “There are two kinds of people: Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek.”  Gus has insisted that his daughter will only marry in the Greek Orthodox church.  His prospective son-in-law, an Xeno (foreigner/stranger) has agreed to convert.  Gus says to Ian Miller, “This is your lucky day….to be baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church.”

I don’t believe in “luck,” but that’s another subject.  This is your lucky day to come to church.  Why?  Because I’m tired of being long-winded.  On several occasions recently, I have become aware of excessive verbosity.  I’ve been asking myself:  “Are you no longer capable of being concise?”  Today is your lucky day because I will be.

All I have to do today is summarize 100 devotionals I have sent out by e-mail and 20 sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans in less than 20 minutes.  Today is “The End” of that series, and I have to tell you that I am feeling withdrawal symptoms.

At the same time, I’m excited about what comes next.  Beginning next Sunday, we will preach a series of six sermons titled, “Things We Don’t Talk About in Church.”  The topics include alcohol, sex and pornography, divorce, abortion, and politics.

To stablish you

Part of how I want to make this concise is to focus on just one phrase of Romans 16:25, “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel.”  The word “establish” Paul uses in Romans 16:25 is a combination of two thoughts. The first one is “to cause to stand,” and it is normally used of people – you cause someone to stand before a judge, you cause a political ruler to stay in office, you help someone escape with his life.  If you don’t cause them to stand, they lose power, they lose status, they may even lose life.

The second idea is “to strengthen,” and it’s normally used of things that are solid, secure, and immovable.  A rock is all three.  Like in English, though, the idea of being hard and immovable can be either negative (brittle, stubborn, even cruel) or positive (steady, firm, steadfast).

Whatever Bible you are reading has likely made a choice between one or the other.  NIV and NASB: “able to establish you.”  NLT and The Message: “able to make you strong.”  The King James used “stablish,” a 17th century word.  The 20th century equivalent is “stabilize.”  We use this word for beaches, boats, knees, and chemicals.

Paul wants his readers in Rome to be stabilized.  He has never visited the city, but he has heard the message of Jesus has preceded him there.  He wants them to understand that what he preaches is the same as what they’ve heard – only he definitely has a unique way of presenting it.  His way of expressing what Christians believe and do in Romans became what academics call “the standard work” – the plumb line by which everyone else’s Gospel was measured, during his generation and even to the present.  If you veer very far off the course from what Paul says in Romans, you’re no longer presenting the Christian message.

But Paul’s concern is not a dry theological treatise.  His concern is pastoral.  He wants the Christians in Rome to be reinforced, to be fortified, to be strengthened, to be established, to be stabilized.  I understand his pastoral heart.  It is my pastoral heart.

There’s so much in life that has the potential to destabilize you in life.  Two days ago in this sanctuary I preached a funeral for a 44-year-old woman who loved life and had so much to give – but cancer got her.  She had so much support, and so many prayers were offered up for her.  The hardest thing for me was looking at pictures of how alive and vital she looked just a few weeks ago.  How is she gone?  Such a death has the potential to destabilize us – unless we grasp the gospel.

But that’s just one example.  Every day in my pastoral life I’m touching people who are getting older, struggling with their marriages, dealing with addictions, trying to find a job, moving to this community or away from it, reading books or finding web sites that challenge what they always believed, dealing with conflict at work, trying to make a decision, starting a family, adopting a child, juggling priorities, deciding what to do with their money, realizing the effect of bad choices, raising children, battling low self-esteem, becoming aware of arrogance, fighting mental illness.  I’m convinced, as Paul is, that the best way to stabilize life in uncertain times is to reclaim the gospel.

Stabilizing themes

So what are the stabilizing themes in the Gospel according to Paul in Romans?

  1. GOD: My Creator and Father is in charge.  Leon Morris writes, “Romans is a book about God.  No topic is treated with anything like the frequency of God.”  He’s in charge of history, of nations, of people, or ultimate justice.  Paul speaks of God’s wrath, of his purposes, of election, of creation, of his peace.  It’s all about God’s glory. When he touches a subject we find it difficult to grasp – that God can predetermine anything he wants to – the purpose is to remind us that he, our Creator and loving Father, is in charge.

How does this stabilize us?  I don’t have to be in charge.  I don’t have to understand.  I don’t have to change people or convince them.  It’s not up to me.  I can live my life, grow old (or die young), and be at peace because my little contribution to the world is being lovingly woven by the fabricator of all history into his purposes.  I can let go of results and work the process.  I can release my need to get everything done and everyone fixed – today, this week, or in my lifetime.  I’m not in charge.

2. SIN:  Every person has the same problem.  Paul brilliantly uses pronouns in his first three chapters.  “They” (the pagans) are under God’s wrath.  “You” are too if you judge “them.”  “We” Jews are not any better.  Every human being has the same problem – we miss the mark and deserve the judgment of God.

How does this stabilize us?  I can let go of that incessant and destructive human tendency to compare myself to others.  I don’t need to prove I am better than they are, and I am free to admit that I might be worse.  Really, what difference does it make if I score a 50 on the moral scale and you score a 90 and they score a 10 if when all is said and done every mouth is silenced and held accountable for falling short?

3. JUSTIFICATION:  In Christ there is no condemnation.  If we grasp and accept Paul’s basic premise that we are accountable for our sins and deserving of the eternal death sentence, then his next theme is liberating indeed. God has presented Jesus as a substitute, a means by which those who are guilty can be declared not guilty.  Jesus died for us, and he rose again – and never forget that his death is not good news without the resurrection – so that we who were dead to sin can be alive in Christ.  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus, and nothing can separate us from God’s love.

How does this stabilize us?  Sin has lost its power over me.  The prison door that kept me confined and chained with no option other than slavery to my old nature has been flung open. To be sure, I can remain in the cell.  But now I have a choice – to walk in the freedom of doing the right thing.  I have been adopted into God’s family. I am a son, with all the status and privileges of sonship.  All the resources of the family are available to me.  I don’t have to live that old way anymore.

4. GRATITUDE:  My body is a living sacrifice.  That old system of blood sacrifice is forever rendered unnecessary.  But Paul uses the same language to say that what I do in my body matters.  This life, this every day, common life of sleeping, eating, sex, money, priorities – in view of God’s mercies to me becomes an ongoing, breathing, joyful act of self-sacrifice.  It becomes a moment by moment opportunity to give thanks to God by using my gifts for his service, by participating actively in a church body, by sharing with those in need, by forgiving those who hurt me, by doing all I can to keep the peace, by loving my enemies, by submitting to others in the church and in the state, by not allowing non-essential differences to divide me from other believers.

How does this stabilize us?  Doesn’t this destabilize us with a whole new level of guilt and shame because my sacrifice is never enough?  Not in Paul’s gospel. There’s an oceanic gap between obedience to the law to earn God’s favor and what Paul calls “the obedience of faith” in Romans 16:26 (“believe and obey” in the NIV).  I am passionate about doing what pleases God not out of the fear of punishment but out of the freedom and joy of knowing that I am loved and forgiven.  This obedience stabilizes me because I know what my purpose is in life – to do God’s will.  I know what my guidebook is – God’s law and my conscience.  I’m so free that I am even free from my freedoms – meaning that I will limit my behavior for the sake of another.

5.  HOLY SPIRIT:  He assures me and prays for me.  One of the ways I see Paul’s Gospel in contrast to some teaching about the Holy Spirit – both in charismatic churches and otherwise – is that in Romans there’s almost a passivity on my part in reference to the Spirit.  I don’t have to seek the Spirit, invite the Spirit, get baptized in the Spirit, drum up the Spirit, ask the Spirit to help me or pray for me.  If I have Christ, I have the Spirit.  If I’m not sure who I am, he’s testifying with my spirit that I am a child of God.  If I’m struggling in prayer, he prays for me without my asking him to.  His power is always right there.

How does this stabilize us?  We know we are not alone.  We don’t have to drum up the will power.  We don’t need a séance or a prayer to the “saints” to get some help from the dead.  We don’t need to wait for Sunday at church to tap into Spirit power.  Even when we feel God is most distant, he is not.  He is in me, around me, and praying for me.  You might say “automatically” if I am in Christ.  My part is only awareness and openness and thankfulness.

In all of this, Paul wants to make clear that God no longer has a “chosen people” in the sense that he favors Jews over everyone else.  Paul uses the word “Gentiles” 23 times in Romans – from chapter 1:5 to 16:26.  Nobody is xeno by race or ethnicity.  Your whole life is your “lucky day,” because you who were on the outside looking in are now insiders.  That is Paul’s motivation to get this message to the whole world.  Who would not want to hear and share this good news?

And that’s it for Romans, except for the reminder that I would love to hear from you how Paul’s gospel has touched and changed your life.  The end.

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