Sunday, July 30, 2017

Destined for what?

A Sermon preached on Sunday July 30, Pentecost VIII, at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Florence
Genesis 29:15-28, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Apostle Paul has spent much of his Letter to the Romans so far writing about sin, about sin’s consequences, and about how we can be liberated from sin. So, I do hope that Father Mark has been preaching all about sin over the last few weeks, because I know that is something he understands very well. I mean preaching about it, not doing it. 

Thankfully, Paul has for now finished with the topic of sin, but only to introduce the no less difficult topic of predestination. “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30) Only those he predestined will be justified and glorified? That sounds good if you’re sure that you have been chosen, but what about the rest … perhaps even you or me? Predestination is no longer mainstream Anglican theology, but it was at the time of the Reformation. Cranmer wrote about it, the 17th of the 39 Articles of Religion is entitled “Of Predestination and Election,” and Church of England delegates attended the early 17th century Synod of Dort in Holland at which the definitive Reformed doctrine about predestination was settled, a doctrine often known by the abbreviation TULIP. This stands for:

1.      Total Depravity: everyone is born sinful and depraved (aka original sin).
2.      Unconditional Election: God arbitrarily chose only some be saved.
3.      Limited Atonement: Christ's atoning work was intended only for the elect and not for the rest of the world.  Remember, in all our BCP Eucharistic Prayers we say “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins,” not for all.
4.      Irresistible Grace: those God elected cannot resist salvation.
5.      Perseverance of the Saints: the elected will persevere to the end.

Today’s passage from Romans is one source for the doctrine. Parables like the parable of the dragnet we heard this morning would also seem to indicate that good and bad; evil and righteous are already fixed categories. Well it is not a concept I am happy with. Not liking a doctrine is in itself not a reason for denying it, although it happens more often than it should. But I think the text is being misread. This section of Romans is not about God arbitrarily choosing only a select few to be saved. It is a passage about assurance, about how we can all be sure of God’s love. 

In the second verse, verse 27 we read “And God, who searches the hearts.” Actually in the Greek Paul does not use the word for God, he just refers to “the one searching the hearts,” which is another beautiful name for God. Why would God need to search the hearts if all was fixed and predestined? What would God be looking for there? Our desires, our desperate needs, our response to God’s love … even if we do not and cannot articulate it without the Spirit’s help. The image Paul want us to hear is of God constantly in communion with us through the Spirit in our hearts. 

The next verse, 28, is not easy to translate. From the NRSV you heard “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” An equally valid alternative would be “in everything God works for good with those who love him.” In both cases, our response is crucial. God loves us, do we love God back, God chooses us, do we choose God in return, God wants to work with us, do we want to work with God?  In his book “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis also addresses the topic of choice: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done.” And those to whom God says in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there would be no Hell.” 

But how do we explain the “chain of calling” in the following verses (29 – 30)? Who are those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified? Let us start with foreknowing. To know in a biblical sense is to be in an intimate fellowship or relationship. When two people “know” each other in the Bible, a child is often the result. God knows us intimately because, as Paul told us last week, we are God’s children. The “fore” refers to the fact that this relationship exists even before our birth. Paul wants us to recall Jeremiah’s calling when God says: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jerermiah 1:5, NIV) God knows us so well and so intimately, that God has an individual purpose for us all …. However, like Jeremiah we may not always be happy with that choice!
We are all predestined – destined for a particular end or purpose and our common purpose, as Paul goes on to make clear, is to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, who is both the perfect human and true image of God. All human beings are made in the image of God. God gives us the opportunity to live up to this image by being shaped into the model of Christ. 

Paul is not describing some sort of funnel through which an ever-smaller group of people is selected. God calls us all out by name to our final destiny of sharing in Christ’s glory, Christ’s mission, and Christ’s rule. What Paul is describing is an invitation and a promise. If we respond, out of our own free will, to the Good News of the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, by putting our faith in Christ, by loving God, then neither anything we do, nor anything that is done to us can separate us from God and from God’s love. The hymn at the end of our reading from Romans, is such a wonderful and a beautiful summary of the unshakeable basis of Christian life and hope, that I think it is worth having the words of verses 38 and 39 written on a slip of paper, and carrying it with you in your purse or wallet, to read whenever you feel that one of the things mentioned is getting in the way.

How do we react? We do not just sit back and relax. Firstly, this “blessed assurance” is a reason for joy. If we look at two of the parables from today’s Gospel, and I am not going to look at all of them as that would be a second sermon, and I only promised Father Mark one sermon. But look at the landowner and the merchant, how they react: “In his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” in which the treasure, God’s kingdom, is hidden. (Matthew 13:44) and “on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (13:46) The message is priceless, the message is worth getting rid of many other things to dedicate oneself to, and the message is glorious. 

That is not all. We need to pass it on. We need to let everyone know about this great promise, we need to show in our lives and in our behavior how we are working together with God to be conformed and transformed to the image of God’s Son – even if we incur hardship or distress or something worse. God’s assurance of God’s love is not a call to passivity, but to action. That is the consequence of accepting God’s invitation, and our destiny.

So coming back to that abbreviation “TULIP” again, I do believe that we all have the capacity and the tendency to sin. I once read that the doctrine of Original Sin is the only doctrine that can be proven empirically. But I also believe that with God’s help we can grow and change into what we are supposed to be. I also believe that God elects unconditionally, but not that God arbitrarily choses only some be saved. Not the God I know and who is revealed in Jesus Christ. I certainly do not believe that Christ's atoning work was limited and intended only for an elect few. He was incarnated and died for the whole world, and as Paul told us last week, even for all of creation.  God’s grace should be irresistible, but cannot be because God endowed us with free will. As for the perseverance of the saints. As followers of Christ and servants of God, we are all saints. And we will persevere, because “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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