Romans 1:1-17; Matthew 9:10-13
“For I am Not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. For it is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone that believeth.” Romans 1:16 (sing it!)
If you learn something set to music as a child, it’s very hard to forget it! I’m glad I was asked to memorize that verse as a child. I’m glad, because right now, in our own time, people are claiming the name of Christ for the most unChristlike of actions and decisions. A gunman attacks a mosque or a synagogue or a club or a restaurant, killing innocent people, in the name of Christ. A group of legislators allows people to discriminate against LGBTQ+ members of their society, in the name of Christ. Another group of legislators enacts the most draconian anti-abortion legislation in North America, meaning victims of rape, incest, or women who cannot safely carry babies to term will be forced to do so – all in the name of Christ. Priests and pastors abuse children, hiding behind their authority as ministers of Christ. Politicians speak hate and enact unjust laws, tearing families apart, causing the poor to suffer greater hardship and discrimination, making life harder for the ones Christ called his brothers and sisters, all the while attending prayer breakfasts and receiving the blessing of prominent Christian leaders. If there were a time to be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, now would be the time.
But I am not ashamed – and I’m glad that little song is there to remind me. Because the Gospel of Christ is in direct opposition to all of these acts and decisions made by so-called Christians. The Gospel of Christ is freedom for the captive, recovery for the ailing, forgiveness and release for the bound and burdened – it is salvation from whatever it is we most need to be changed and transformed in our lives.
For Paul, it was captivity to the laws of Moses as well as the oppression of the Roman Empire. For him, the Gospel was a direct challenge to both systems of oppression he had experienced in his life. Paul is an interesting case, because he both recognized and acknowledged the good in the systems in which he lived, but he was not afraid to challenge and name the bad. For example, he spoke of the covenantal relationship between God and the people of Israel as a blessing on which all other blessings were built – but at the same time opposed imposing the hundreds of law of Judaism onto those new to Christian faith. He was not afraid to work the Roman system for his benefit – claiming his citizenship when he was arrested so that his trial would take place in Rome rather than in any of the cities where his enemies had colluded against him. But he repeatedly condemned the practices brought to his land and the surrounding nations by the Greek and Roman Empires – idol worship and emperor worship, sacrifice, temple prostitution and religiously-sanctioned sexual immorality. He condemned the Emperor for claiming the worship that is due only to the One God, and he emphasized Jesus as LORD in direct opposition to the Ceasar who called himself Lord.
Paul felt the people around him, both Jews and Greeks, needed to be saved from those influences that bound them, hurt them, and caused them to hurt others – made them less than they could be as followers of Jesus. The good news of Jesus is that in him we encounter the power of God for salvation – healing and transformation of the powers that be and the powers in us that keep us shackled to values and choices that do not honour God.
I spent a good part of last week listening to preachers and lectures at the Festival of Homiletics – a fancy word for preaching! – in Minneapolis. The way they had set up the online feed, I could only see half of the presenters, and most of the people I heard were African-American preachers of various denominations, mostly from the Southern United States. Each sermon was anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour long – and let me tell you, there’s no falling asleep in those sermons! The topic was “Preaching as Moral Imagination” and there was lots to say about morality and the Gospel in the light of what’s happening in North America and elsewhere right now – a lot of which I named for you in broad terms at the beginning of my sermon.
Like me, those preachers find themselves frequently embarrassed, ashamed, angered and outraged by the behaviour of some who claim to follow Jesus. Like me, they find themselves having to defend Christianity because so many Christians are making such a mess of it! But here’s the thing: Paul and the Gospel reading today confirm that Jesus came to redeem “sinners” – not perfect righteous people, but people who mess up. Jesus came to redeem you and I and everyone else who speaks the name of Christ and says they are following him. But the caveat is this: they have to believe! They – we! – have to believe in the power of God to change not just us but the world itself – and we have to want it to happen! We have to believe that God is not powerless, that God is at work, that despite the world being on fire (as the young climate activist Greta Thunberg puts it) God can and will bring relief! And you and I, if we believe God can do what seems to us impossible, well our job is to get onside with God – to love what God loves, to hope for what God sees is good, to work alongside God for the redemption of the world – and I mean its physical redemption as much as a spiritual redemption – truly a new heaven and a new earth and a new humanity.
Did you know that the word “righteousness” and “justice” are the same word in Biblical Greek? But for some reason, in the English translations, the word is consistently translated “righteousness” which implies an inner, individual morality, rather than “justice”, which is a larger, societal morality in which people are treated equitably and with respect and dignity. Other translations don’t have this bias, apparently – just the English ones! So when we hear of a righteous God, we are talking about a God of justice – and when we talk about a righteous people, we mean a just people. That’s who we’re supposed to be. The gift of faith, given freely to us by God, works itself out in righteous living – in the pursuit of a just society.
I’m not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ – because there is nothing to be ashamed about! It is a powerful and redemptive message that counteracts the urge to privatize religion and keep it in the closet. It is a message that our societies need to hear, and it’s up to us to get it out there. More than that, it’s up to us to live it out!
If I am ashamed of anything, it is the smallness of my own ways of living this Gospel. Thank goodness God calls, not those who are already righteous/just, but those who still have a ways to go! You and I, I think, need to live the Gospel a whole lot bigger in this season of the world’s turning. We need to go beyond food and shelter and clothing, as good as that is, and reach for justice. We need to go beyond just our own tiny little corners, and start thinking about neighourhoods, cities, nations. We need to try for more than writing a cheque or dropping a bit of money in a collection box, and ask “where do my feet hit the road and my hands get dirty in the cause of justice?” I’m on a personal quest to figure out my own answer to that question. I’m also praying about where God is calling this congregation to stand up and be counted.
I believe one of the paths God is opening up before us is providing a safe spiritual home for our friends in the LGBTQ+ community – and we’re taking some steps in that direction, which you’ll hear more about as time goes on. We’re also keeping that question in mind as we consider the use of our building and property. But I wonder what you think? Where is God calling Gordon United to step out boldly, to speak unashamedly the Good News of Christ’s transforming power and to bring that power to bear among the systems and powers of Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, North America, this beautiful planet Earth? I cannot think of anything we need more right now than the news that God is at work, the powers of empire and domination are not going to win, and true righteousness, true justice is possible for this crazy, mixed-up planet and these crazy, mixed-up creatures who inhabit it.
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. For it is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone that believeth.”