Sermon for August 13

Sermon for August 13

A sermon for August 13 on Romans 10:4-15

 

This is the second of three Sundays in which we’re going to deal with texts from a three-chapter section of Epistle to the Romans in which Paul tries to wrestle through what was for him—and for the early church—a matter of enormous theological and spiritual consequence. As I summarized it last week, this is essentially what Paul is facing:

 

  • He believes powerfully that Jesus is the Christ; the messiah of Israel
  • He is also the apostle who saw most clearly that the messiah of Israel is also the messiah for the world; that through Christ the ancient promise that that all the families of the earth shall be blessed had been fulfilled.
  • Yet he can see so clearly that while the movement was spreading throughout the Gentile world, the majority of Jews who heard this message did not embrace it.

 

 

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The passage we read last week was the opening of chapter 9, and was essentially a kind of lament that named this reality and accented just how heartbreaking this was for Paul. Now tonight the lectionary has bumped us ahead a full chapter—it does that, you know—and so it might not be altogether clear what it is Paul is trying to do here in this section.

 

The key is the verse with which we opened; a verse sadly missed by the lectionary, but that’s never stopped me… “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Christ is the end of the law—in Greek the telos, the culmination or the end goal. The meaning here is two-edged: Christ marks the end of the need to scrupulously follow the law, because he’s what the law has pointing to all along. From that opening assertion, Paul then goes on to do a midrash on a passage from the law, from Deuteronomy 30. Midrash is a very Jewish mode of engaging scripture, and you can think of it as being akin to what an improvisational musician does with a familiar melody. The tune is never totally lost or obscured, but in the act of improvisation—in the act of midrash—something new and fresh can be heard.

 

So, from Deuteronomy 30:

 

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (30:11-14)

 

In Paul’s midrash, that near word is Christ himself but also the strong confessing word that “Jesus is Lord and… that God raised him from the dead.” As Paul continues to improvise, he brings to the surface his core assertion, namely that this word—as close to you as the very beating of your heart—is a now word for all; “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

 

Yet lingering in the background is the question that he finds so agonizing. Why is it that so few of his Jewish brothers and sisters will embrace this word, this improvisational act that Christ has done in their very midst? Why is it that is that the proclamation that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” has such currency with the gentiles, yet falls flat for so many Jews?  

 

As Paul Achtemeier comments, “What Paul is dealing with here is two contrasting ways of viewing the law: seeing it as a summons to uphold our relationship to God with our good works [which is the way that much of Judaism would see things] and seeing it as a summons to trust in God to uphold that relationship as an act of sheer grace [which is in line with Paul’s theological understanding].” As a follower of Jesus, Paul had come to believe that the law had always been a summons to trust God, not a vehicle for righteousness and merited grace. In Achtemeier’s view, Paul had come to believe that while God had very much chosen Israel, in response the people had come to a place where they would seek to “prove that the choice was a good one by becoming a very religious people, deserving by their own religious goodness what God has given them by grace. In setting out to merit God’s grace, they ignored that grace and shifted the area of trust from God’s goodness to their own goodness.”

 

Now listen to that key verse again: “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Not for everyone who has scrupulously observed the law, demonstrated their righteousness, remained pure and unstained from prohibited things, offered the appointed sacrifices, tithed… No. For, “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” So trust.

 

Funny thing, though, is that in so many ways people really are inclined to think that there must be so much more to it than that. Give them a solid black and white rulebook of things they need to do to be put right with God, and they’re off to the races. I mean, seriously, there’s got to be more to it than trust. And what if that low life loser trusts—or that gentile or that prodigal son or that tax collector, or, or, or… No, lets raise the bar at least a little bit.

 

But “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” I’m reminded of a lecture I hosted back in 1997, when I was chaplain at St John’s College. Our feature speaker was none other than Robert Farrar Capon, and the title of his lecture was “Why Jesus marks the end of religion.” We held the lecture in the afternoon in the college café, after the lunch traffic had all cleared, and we pretty much packed the place. As he started into his lecture, Capon said that he was going to demonstrate that we were all rather hopelessly religious, but that he first wanted to share with us his recipe for pork chops. Puzzled looks and furrowed brows all around.

 

You need to start with two good thick chops, and don’t even think about trimming off the fat. You’ll need to get a decent cast iron pan good and hot, so that you can sear both sides of your chops. A little olive oil in the pan will keep the chops from sticking, and once you’ve seared them turn down the heat, chop an onion in half and place it on top of the chops, season with salt and fresh cracked pepper, pour in a full cup of heavy cream—at this point the room gasped, Capon said, “see, I told you that you are all hopelessly religious,” and then went right back to his cooking instructions—cover the pan with a tight fitting lid, and simmer on low for an hour. Voila; the richest, most tender chops you’ll ever eat, but you won’t even try them because you’re too religious. You’ve bought the religion of diet and health, that says you need to cut out the fat, the cream, the oil, the butter. You deprive yourself of a wonderful meal—one you should only eat a couple of times a year, of course—because you’re trying to appease the gods of diet and health. Your temple is the gym or the health food store, your sacrifices are all of those wonderful tastes and smells, your offering is whatever the latest diet happens to be, or the latest exercise craze, or whatever. And it is all bound to fail, because you will grow older and you will die. These gods cannot deliver, no matter how much you seek to serve them.

 

Capon went on to talk about all of the other religiosities we so easily fall in to; of money, success, sex, romance, consumerism, and on and on. His point? Jesus represents freedom from having to pursue those kinds of happinesses, because he can and does deliver, and he does it by grace. So sure, mind what you eat, take care of your physical health, go for a run in the mornings, be a good steward of your finances, fall in love and do all you can to sustain that, treat yourself to a lovely lamb’s wool sweater, go see a part of the world you’ve always dreamed about; just know that of their own none of these things can deliver life, and each of them can become a part of a blind alley religious quest for fulfillment, meaning, security, whatever.

 

Because Christ is the end of the law and the end of religious striving that hinges on what we do. Trust that. Because it is accomplished.

 

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