Sermon, August 13, 2017 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
When I read today’s passage from Romans, I thought that it would have been a very appropriate reading to have heard when our missionaries from China came to speak to us in early July. Paul tells us very succinctly how important it is to spread the Gospel to others. This includes not only missionaries to China but also each one of us here today as we interact with our neighbors, families, work colleagues, and those in our communities that we might not ever think about interacting with.
Telling others the good news of Jesus Christ is important. If you are like me, now is about the time that you think to yourself “Evangelism? Not for me.” And I’ll grant you, evangelism has a received a pretty bad rap over the years. I remember once when I was visiting a high school friend who had moved to New Jersey, we were riding the PATH train into New York City when a man came up and asked me if I was saved. I told him I was, but he didn’t seem to want to take “yes” for an answer. Now, I often quicken my pace and avoid eye contact if I spot someone who looks like a street corner evangelist.
But to be fair, sometimes my fears are unfounded. One time a few months ago, I was wearing a t-shirt with a Christian message in a public place and a man came up and asked me if I was a follower of Jesus. Nervously I told him that I was, and he then wanted to shake my hand and tell me he was too and he was glad to meet a brother in Christ.
Today’s passage tells us some important things about evangelism, but to be fair, in our reading, we are joining Paul in the middle of his argument. In order to really understand it, we need to see the context in which Paul placed it.
First of all, let’s do a 30 second overview of God’s plan of salvation. God chose the nation of Israel as his chosen people, and we read about this in the Old Testament. But God chose Israel to be the vessel by which the whole world would be saved. Israel wasn’t chosen by God to be the only people that would ever be saved. Rather, Israel was chosen to be the nation in which Jesus was born, and so to bring salvation to the whole world.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the church had made important inroads in communities around the Roman Empire. While the early Church did count many Jews amongst its numbers, the great majority of Jews rejected the gospel of Jesus. This rejection greatly troubled Paul and other early Christian leaders. They saw the message of Jesus Christ as flowing from a right understanding of God’s revelation in the Old Testament, and so they were anxious to ensure correct teaching in the churches, so that people would hear the true Gospel.
There is a slogan popular in some quarters that says “doctrine divides, but love unites.” While the intent behind this slogan may not always be bad, it is nevertheless very dangerous. Bad doctrine can prevent people from hearing the real gospel. In the 1990s, an Episcopal bishop published a book titled The Cruelty of Heresy, in which he demonstrated the many harms and injuries that develop when false doctrine is allowed to take seed in the church. Sometimes heresy might seem loving at first glance, but heresy is always revealed as a cruel deception in the end. The New Testament includes many instructions from the apostles to guard sound doctrine and reject anything that strays from it.
In his letter to Titus, Paul writes that a church leader “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” As we join Paul in mid-argument in today’s lectionary reading, we see him in the midst of refuting false doctrine while laying out the gospel. Paul is pointing out that the reason Israel has rejected the Gospel is because they held on to false doctrine.
At the end of the chapter that comes just before today’s passage, Paul writes “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” Paul is arguing that the correct understanding of the Gospel is that we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. By his death, the righteousness of Jesus was given to us, since Jesus took our sins upon himself. And so, if we have faith in Jesus and acknowledge him as our Savior, we can gain righteousness. Not by our own merit, or our works, but purely by the grace of Jesus.
In contrast, the people of Israel, sought to achieve righteousness on their own by following the law. But because we are all sinners, we cannot hope to justify ourselves before God through our own good works. And so, those Jews who rejected the Gospel of Christ, had not attained their goal of righteousness, since only Jesus Christ can impart that to us.
Paul expounds on this theme in the first part of our passage. In verse 5, he says that Moses taught that those who live by the law will be judged by the law. “The person who does these things will live by them” Paul quotes Moses as saying, and Paul interprets this to mean that if you seek to justify yourself by the law, then you will be judged accordingly.
He then turns to what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. Paul writes the person with faith will not ask “who will ascend into heaven” or “who will descend into the deep” to fetch Jesus from these places. If we have to go fetch Jesus, then our salvation would depend on us. Paul is being rhetorical here, because he, his readers, including us, all know that Jesus came to us on earth to die for our sins. We don’t need to go get Jesus because he has already come for us.
Instead, Paul says, the only thing that a person of faith needs do is actually believe that Jesus died for their sins and that God raised him from the dead. We need not do anything else. God has done it all for us. All we need to do is trust in God and believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. We need to believe because the good news of Jesus can only be applied in our lives if we allow God in.
And so, now that Paul has made the critically important clarification on what the true Gospel is, he draws a few conclusions. First, if salvation is only by the grace of Jesus Christ, and if there is nothing about us that merits salvation, then it puts everyone in the world on the same footing. Nobody has any greater claim to the love of God than anyone else. Paul makes this crystal clear when he writes “As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.””
Many Jews believed that, as God’s chosen people, God owed them a place in his kingdom. They believed that they had been given God’s law uniquely and that only they could obey God’s law and so earn for themselves salvation. Paul makes clear that this is entirely wrong. The coming of Jesus Christ fulfilled Israel’s role in the salvation history of the world. Salvation is now open to everyone – Jew and Gentile alike – who believes in Jesus Christ.
And so we come to Paul’s final point in our passage. He has just told us that we do not earn salvation by our own acts. Salvation is not a method to be taught or a path to be followed. Rather, the Gospel is good news to be told. People need to hear that God loves them, and loves them so much that Jesus Christ came to die for them. And not only this, but that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, thereby assuring us that death has been defeated. The resurrection of Jesus looks forward to the day when all of creation is renewed and the dead are resurrected and live with God in the new heaven and new earth. This is news, but news needs to be communicated.
And so Paul asks “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Indeed, how can we wonder that Christianity is fading in America if we won’t tell others about Jesus? Our nation is desperate for the good news of the Gospel, and if we don’t tell this good news, who will?
Paul concludes our passage by quoting from Isaiah when he writes “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” The full passage is from Isaiah chapter 52, verse 7. In this passage God is reassuring Israel that He will restore them after freeing them from exile and captivity. Isaiah writes the following passage about the heralds who will bring this news of freedom to the people. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!””
Our job as evangelists is not to pester people repeatedly about whether or not they are born again. Nor are we called to tell people that they must repent or burn in hell. No, Paul tells us that we have good news: news of freedom from captivity to sin; news of peace, good tidings and salvation; news we should want to share.
I’ll admit, evangelism still can feel a bit intimidating. Many prefer to wallow in sin, sickness and captivity and reject the good news of Jesus. In fact, if we kept reading past today’s passage, we would hear Paul say “But not all the Israelites accepted the good news.” Paul acknowledges that not everyone will be receptive to the gospel. But we are called to at least give everyone the chance to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. I know it can be difficult but won’t you pray for courage and grace and be prepared to share the reason for your joy and confidence in Jesus whenever an opportunity arises?
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” I am telling you now – we are all called by God to be evangelists, and all of us are sent to tell others. Let each one of us embrace our calling, even if we feel understandable fear from such a calling. There is a saying that says “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.” May God grant us all courage to be his heralds of his good news. For the good news of Jesus Christ is surely more important than fear.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, who called your Church to bear witness that, in Christ, you are reconciling the world to yourself: help us to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may be drawn to you; through him who was lifted up on the cross, and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.