Sermon: Holy and Perfect

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
2nd of July, 2017

Romans 6:12-23

Today and for the next eleven weeks the liturgy takes us through the second part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is the single most important letter in the New Testament, and it’s quite complex and controversial, so to make all our lives easier I’m going to start with a video from the University of Nottingham, in which Professor Richard Bell introduces us to Romans.

Bibledex Video

Paul is writing to the Christian community in Rome, one that he didn’t establish. One of the reasons that this letter is so long and so complete, as Professor Bell said it contains everything, is because Paul is presenting the gospel as he understands it in order to persuade the Christians in Rome that he and they share the same faith before he comes to visit them. In his other letters Paul is writing to communities that he founded to deal with issues that have arisen or to answer particular questions; the subject of this letter is much broader – it’s the entire gospel.

As I said, this liturgical year we’re hearing primarily from the second part of the letter. In the first part Paul argued that Gentiles would be included within the covenant community, would be made ‘righteous’, able to live in right relationship with God, through faith, not through the Law, the Torah. The Basis of Union includes a paragraph on the ‘Reformation Witnesses’ which says that ministers must study the various confessions that came out of the Reformation ‘so that the congregation of Christ’s people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith’. That was one of the great ‘alones’ of the Reformation: sola fide, by faith alone, together with sola scriptura, by Scripture alone, and sola gratia, by grace alone.

Incidentally, many scholars today agree that the faith that saves us is not our faith. It’s not faith in Christ but the faith of Christ, Christ’s faithfulness. If this is right, then it parallels the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures which emphasises the faithfulness of God in establishing the covenant with God’s people, Israel. All that follows, Jewish obedience to the Law, or doing good works, or making personal expressions of faith, is simply our response to the faithfulness that God shows first. We’re saved through Christ’s faith; as the Basis of Union puts it: ‘[Jesus] himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain.’ We have his righteousness credited to us; what is his becomes ours. This is what it means to be ‘in Christ’.

That was the first part of the Letter; Gentiles are included in the covenant community through faith. In this second part of the letter Paul then goes into detail about what that righteousness, being in right relationship with God, means for Christians. And so we have today’s extract, which can sound quite confusing without all that background. As Professor Bell puts it, Paul doesn’t talk about ‘sins’ so much as ‘Sin’ with a capital ‘S’. We used to be slaves to Sin; but now we are slaves to God. We used to be under the Law; but now we are under grace. Because we’re no longer enslaved to Sin, we can now live righteous lives. We can offer ourselves in our current lives, described by Paul as our bodies or our members, to God. We don’t need to wait until after death to be able to live resurrection lives. We can do that here and now, because we’ve been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness. This was an important emphasis for the Wesleys and for Methodism; because we are no longer slaves to sin we’re able to be perfect or holy, free from what John Wesley referred to as ‘evil thoughts and evil tempers’.[1] In his sermon on Christian perfection Wesley wrote that those who are ‘strong in the Lord’ are purified from pride, self-will and anger; anger ‘in the common sense of the word’ because Wesley reminds his hearers and readers that ‘all anger is not evil’.[2] I come from a Presbyterian background, rather than a Methodist one, so the idea of attaining ‘Christian perfection’ in this life makes me nervous. I felt extremely nervous when I vowed at my ordination to live a ‘holy and disciplined life’ but the words in which I vowed that were ‘with God’s help’ and Wesley is clear that Christians can only live holy lives because Christ lives in us. In the reading from next week Paul reminds his readers of what happens when we try to lead sinless lives by ourselves, so I’ll leave further discussion of that until then.

John Wesley

John Wesley

We live under grace, not under the law. We don’t have to earn our salvation through doing good; our salvation is a free gift of God. But just in case we think that means we can happily sin without consequences, ‘Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?,’ Paul reminds us that to sin voluntarily would be to throw ourselves back into slavery to Sin – capital ‘S’. We have been given the possibility of living holy lives in relationship with the God who loves us. It would be rather ridiculous of us to throw that possibility away. ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Amen.

[1] Sermon XXXV, ‘Christian Perfection’, section 21.

[2] Section 26.

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