The texts for this sermon come from Romans 1:8-13 and Romans 15: 23-29.
Apart from the Gospels, the Epistle to the Romans is the “pearl of great price” in Scripture. It was Martin Luther’s study of this book that fired the Reformation. Luther contended that, “the Epistle to the Romans is the masterpiece of the New Testament and the very purist gospel…it can never be too much or too well read or studied, and the more it is handled the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”
One of the greatest fathers of the church, Chrysostom, had it read to him twice a week. The poet Coleridge said it was, “the most profound writing that exists.” I hope you know your Methodist history well enough to know that when, in his deep soul searching, John Wesley went to a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, the leader was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans; and Wesley testified that while the leader read, “I felt my heart strangely warmed; I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
There is no possible way to express the monumental role this Epistle has played in the history of the Christian movement. In all of Christian history, Romans has been pivotal.
In a few verses from the first chapter of the Epistle, Paul expressed his desire to go to Rome. Only recently did I note that Paul expressed his same longing as he was closing his letter. In between those expressions of deep desire in Chapter 1 and Chapter 15, Paul spells out in the most deliberate and studied way his understanding of the gospel, and the core of the gospel message, justification by grace through faith. And after using all his genius to write this brilliant argument for the Christian faith, Paul expresses again his passion to share that faith with the Romans, in verse 29 of Chapter 15: “know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.”
I can’t imagine that my longing and passion for sharing the Gospel comes anywhere near that of Paul, but my passion is great, and my age and years of ministry have not diminished that passion. In fact, the passion is greater because I don’t know how much longer I have, and I don’t know how many occasions I will have to share it. Paul’s confession is mine: Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel.
I want to do it now by simply outlining what the full measure of the blessing of Christ is.
First of all, Christ comes to free us. Let that sink in. Let it permeate every fiber of our awareness. Christ comes to free us.
Among Christians in one section of Africa, the New Testament word for redemption means “God took our heads out.” It’s a rather strange phrase, but when you trace it back to the 19th century when slave trading was practiced, the meaning becomes powerful. White men invaded African villages and carried men, women and children off into slavery. Each slave had an iron collar buckled around his neck. To that iron collar was attached a chain which was attached to the iron collar around the neck of another, and on and on, until a long chain of people where marched off to the sea shore where a ship waited to take them to England and America to be sold into slavery.
From time to time, as the chain of slaves would make their way to the coast, a relative, loved one, or friend would recognize someone who had been taken captive and would pay a ransom to the captor for the collar to be removed and the person to be freed. Thus the word for redemption: God took our heads out.
However we state it, whatever image we use out of our own culture, redemption means that God’s action in Jesus Christ sets us free from the bondage of sin, guilt and death. Christ comes to free us.
So, where are you? Do you feel pain in your heart, a heaviness of spirit because there is a broken relationship? Parents, do you have children you are separated from? Is your marriage in trouble? You and your spouse have drifted apart…or the relationship is severed because of infidelity? Christ comes to free us.
Do you feel helpless because you or a family member is bound in the tenacious grip of alcohol, drugs, gambling or some other destructive habit? Christ comes to free us.
Is you energy drained because you have been living too close to moral compromise? Christ comes to free us.
Are you preoccupied with sexual lust? Christ comes to free us.
Are you addicted to pornography? Christ comes to free us.
Could the blessing be greater? Christ comes to free us.
The blessing may not be be greater, but it is fuller. Not only does Christ come to free us, he comes to fit us; Christ come to fit us, to transform us for Kingdom living.
Go to another section of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Have you ever noticed the dramatic difference between Chapter 7 and the first verse of Chapter 8? In the last part of Chapter 7, he describes the anguishing war that is going on inside him. He feels that he is being brought under the captivity of sin. He moans,”For the good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.” Then he groans, “O wretched man that I am…who will deliver me from this body doomed to death?”
That‘s the way Chapter 7 closes. Then the very first verse of chapter 8 is this glorious word: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.”
Do you see the tremendous difference between Paul’s condition, which he expresses so dramatically in chapter 7 — “O wretched man that I am” — and the beginning of chapter 8 – “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus”?
What a huge divide! How do we leap over it?
People may tell you that you simply need to give your sins Jesus; and they say it so glibly: just give your sins to Jesus. That’s impossible. We can’t give our sins to Jesus; if we could, we’d all be saints.
We can’t give our sins to Jesus. We give ourselves to Jesus and He takes our sin. He transforms us and fits us for Kingdom living.
There’s a story about a man who was tired and weak all the time, drained of energy. Finally he decided to visit his doctor. “Doctor,” he said, “I feel drained and exhausted. I don’t seem to have any energy. I have a chronic headache. I feel worn out all the time. What’s the best thing I could do?” The doctor knew something about the man’s wild and fast-paced lifestyle. “What’s the best thing you can do? You can go home after work, eat a nutritious meal, get a good night’s rest, and stop running around and carousing all night — that’s the best thing you can do.” The man pondered for a moment, then asked, “What’s the next best thing I can do?”
Too often we decide for the next best thing because we are not willing to be who God called us to be. We are not willing for God to transform and fit us for Kingdom living.
Listen! Holiness is not an option for God’s people. God says, “Be holy as I am holy.” We can’t leave that word back in the Old Testament, as though it had no relevance to us. Over and over again in the New Testament, we’re called to be “new creatures in Christ Jesus.” Holiness is not an option for us as Christians.
We are where we are as a nation today because we have become a people and a place where “everything goes” –
Where as many Christians as non-Christians are divorced yearly,
Where our city is full of children without fathers,
Where some government leader is caught lying and cheating almost every week,
Where the Supreme Court has made a decision that completely disregards God design and Christ’s understanding of marriage –
We are where we are because we have ignored God’s call, “be holy as I am holy.”
There ought to be about us Christians something that distinguishes us, that sets us apart in our ethical understanding, in our moral life, in the way we walk, in the way we talk, in how we live together in our family, in how we raise our children, in how we treat our wives, in how we treat our husbands, in the way we think about issues like abortion, same sex marriage, sexual brokenness, gambling, extravagant consumption, in how we treat the environment, in how we treat prisoners and the attention we pay to the poor, in how we order both our private and our public life.
In Ezekiel God says to Israel, “The nations shall know that I am the Lord, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.” Listen friends, the world is not paying attention to the church today, and will not pay attention to the Church in the future until those of us who call ourselves Christian vindicate God’s holiness before their eyes.
Again, holiness is not an option for God’s people. God calls us to be holy as he is holy. Now listen — only Christ can make us holy. He fits us for Kingdom living.
And that leads to this final word. Christ comes to free us; he comes to fit us for Kingdom living, and he comes to fill us, to fill us with his Holy Spirit. And that’s our need, friends, the power of the Holy Spirit.
How we need the Holy Spirit. I believe the reason most of us are impotent in our discipleship, the reason being a Christian is a debilitating struggle for too many of us is that we do not claim Jesus’ promise, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you.”
We don’t spend enough time on our knees. We trust Jesus with some things some of the time when we need to trust him with all things all the time.
We have all been troubled by what happened in Charleston, South Carolina a few weeks ago. Nine persons in church, in a Bible Study, were shot down by a man possessed with the demon of hatred. What moved me most, and challenged me to the depth of my soul, was the response of some family members of those who had been killed. They attended the session when the judge was setting the bond for the young killer. The judge allowed some persons to speak to the man who had killed their family member. I couldn’t believe it. Person after person not only expressed their grief, but they told the young man they forgave him.
Could you have done that? I can’t imagine I could. Where did that kind of power come from? Those folks would be quick to tell you. It comes from Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. I want the kind of power those folks had.
So I have come to you in the full measure of the blessing of Christ. Christ who comes to free us, to fit us for kingdom living, and to fill us with his presence and power. That’s the fullness of the blessing of the Gospel. I don’t want to miss any of that, and I don’t want you to miss it.
Thank you Maxie for reminding me of the beauty of Romans!
A view from the pew.
Stunning sermon. Thank you. This statement particularly caught my attention:
“Listen friends, the world is not paying attention to the church today, and will not pay attention to the Church in the future until those of us who call ourselves Christian vindicate God’s holiness before their eyes.”
Recently, I was sorting through the plethora of books about Christianity and the church I have accumulated over the past five years; deciding which to keep and which to jettison. I was on the fence about “Divine Intention” by Larry Shallenberger because I remembered its roots were in his decision to stick with a church even though it felt like the wheels were coming off. It was one of the first books I read when the wheels came off for me re. church. I happened to flip it open to the epilogue and found this paragraph:
“…Much has been written about how the
church has become unintelligible to the surrounding world. The church has
responded by changing its liturgy, music, and preaching styles. The church has
adopted marketing models and business models in an attempt to reinvent itself.
These efforts are necessary and frequently positive, but ultimately inadequate.
The church is unintelligible to the
world because, in the final analysis, it has become unintelligible to its own
members. We’ve envisioned the church as everything that it’s not: as a
program, a building, an institution, the source of fire insurance, a curriculum
dispenser, a moral watchdog, a guardian of heritage, or a self-help group. A
self-destructive instinct leads us to conceptualize the church, and ultimately
Christianity, as anything other than a
relationship with God and his people…”
It resonated with me because I realized that describing the church as unintelligible even to its members described my experience with the United Methodist Church. When the church became a source of lostness, brokenness and confusion I did the one thing I never thought I would do–distance myself from all things church. It was only then, through a massive amount of reading and searching that I came to understand what all I did not know about basic orthodox Christianity. With the help of the Heidelberg Catechism, a Presbyterian pastor and a Reformed Church pastor, who became my favorite young Calvinist, as well as John Wesley, I discovered the existence of a God worth worshiping! The whole experience left me wondering why nobody had never told me these things before because all of a sudden I found myself in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace and the Bible started making sense! My experience with church now feels like an exercise of constantly being left to ramble around between something and nothing. The something was that through church I developed a strong sense of God. The nothing was that I never had a clear understanding of who God truly is and who I truly am and what it means to live a life centered in God.
Shallenberger is right that the church is no more or less than individuals being in a relationship with God and with each other. I have spent enough time delving into Wesley to know that, at its core, early Methodism was about connecting individuals to God and then each other. That was Priority #1 and Wesley never lost sight of it. I have also read enough about early Methodism to know that neither John nor Charles was perfect and that they did not always “get it right”. The secret to their success was they never lost sight of Priority #1: connecting individuals to God and then each other. That was why God was then able to transform imperfect human actions into divine intervention.
In many ways and for a long time, “being Methodist” was a positive influence in my l life and in many ways was my salvation; I want to believe that my experience with church is an anomaly– but it is hard to because in all my reading, I came across three different books by two different authors who are not in the UMC that met me exactly where I was in regards to church and then proceeded to tell me what I had experienced. If Christianity has lost ground in America, it is because churches in America, particularly the mainline denominations, are a long way from realizing what their Priority #1 truly is: connecting individuals to God and then to each other so that God can then enable them to live a holy life regardless of their circumstances.