Sunday, July 23, 2017

Patient waiting

A Sermon preached on July 23, Pentecost VII, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

Isaiah 44:6-8 Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

I think I may be getting an overdose of Martin Luther. Because of the 500th anniversarty of the Reformation, we have been hearing, seeing, and reading a lot about him … Then just over a week ago I took a group on a pilgrimage to Eisleben, where he was born and died, to Erfurt, where he studied and was ordained a priest, to Wittenberg, where he taught and where the Reformation began, and to the Wartburg, where he was kept safe and translated the New Testament into German. In every place and site there was a museum, or two, with lots of information and exhibits … that was a lot of Luther! 

And then for some time now we have been and will continue to read from Martin Luther’s favorite book of the Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In his preface to Romans, Luther wrote:  “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”

I am not sure about daily ….. but I do agree with him that Romans is very important, and not just for the doctrine of justification by faith that Luther, following St. Augustine, found there. When we read just a segment of a letter week by week, we can easily lose sight of the overall structure and meaning, especially as Paul fills each section with so many thoughts and ideas, not all of them consecutive. But it is important to keep an eye on the big picture, and, even with all the mentions of sin, guilt, and death, the big picture of Romans is a good one. Luther is right: The Letter to the Romans is purest Gospel, purest Good News.

We are about half way through the Letter, which is a good point to look back from. What has happened? First of all Paul has established that we, humanity, need help. Sin and death still reign. On our own, without God, we cannot escape from our selfish and self-destructive behavior, and without a genuine transformation, all our good works will not help either. The Good News is that God is determined to save us. Paul describes successively how the whole Trinity has acted and still acts to save us, to rescue us from sin and death, to make us righteous in God’s eyes. God created us, God gave the Law, God established a covenant first with the Jewish people. When this was not enough, God sent God’s Son to expand the Covenant to include all humanity. Jesus died to save us all – in Paul’s words “One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” (Romans 5:18) By joining Christ in Baptism, by choosing to serve Christ, we share both in his sacrificial death and in his resurrection and are freed from, or as Paul puts it, dead to Sin. Death too no longer has power over us.

So why hasn’t Paul stopped writing, what more is there to say? Well for one thing, the action of the third Person of the Trinity is still missing. We have heard about the Father and the Son, but what does the Spirit do? For another, Paul wants to tell us what we can expect, what God has in store for us, but also what is expected from us. 

This week and last week, we heard how the Spirit of God dwelling in us begins our transformation. Working in our hearts, she generates faith, enables us to fulfill the just requirement of the law (12:4) i.e. to live righteously, and finally gives new life beyond death. “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (8:13) But that is not all. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. (8:14) Paul uses the legal language of adoption to explain how we have become not only children, but also heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (12:17) We are called to share in Christ’s ministry of redemption, which as it turns out is not restricted to humans, but is intended for and longed by all of creation:  “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God …. in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.” (12:19, 21) 

Coming back to the big picture again, in Romans, Paul describes an expanding circle of salvation and liberation: First Israel through the First Covenant, then all peoples through the New Covenant, and now all of creation through us, the children of God.

Fantastic … except it is not where we are now. Right now, we are still in the middle of the “sufferings of this present time,” still “groaning inwardly” while we wait for the adoption to take effect. Or if we look to Matthew’s Gospel and to Jesus’ parable, we see weeds growing everywhere – and if scholars are right not just weeds – or tares to use the traditional name, but a poisonous grass called darnel. Where, we wonder, do the weeds come from, why we might ask does God allow evil to grow in God’s kingdom? Why aren’t things better already? What can we do about it? In their different ways, and for their different audiences, Paul, and Jesus are addressing the same issue and giving the same answer. 

That answer, not always satisfying, is to be patient. Why? Because the time is not yet ripe. In his explanation of the parable, Jesus tells the disciples that if we try and remove the weeds too early, we will only end up destroying the good with the bad. And as we are not dealing with weeds but with humans, that means taking away people’s chance to change, to become children of the kingdom. Nor is waiting just passive. The householders’ servants still have to tend to the whole field, to ensure that the conditions for growth are right. We have plenty of work to do as followers of Jesus, as his laborers in the field. But until the final sorting comes, and all the causes of evil are removed by God, we must also be patient and faithful just as God is patient with and faithful to us.
Paul too tells his readers that for now we have to live with the tension between God’s glorious promise and the present less glorious reality. The Spirit is even now at work in us and through us in the world. In his own harvesting image, Paul talks of us having the first fruits of the Spirit. God’s Spirit within us is already changing us. But our renewal is not yet complete. The world is not yet as it should be. It is still suffering, often from actions for which humanity is responsible as we do not take our role as stewards as we should. While we, and the world, wait for the final renewal and restoration, we already live as the children of God, as Paul calls us or the children of the kingdom, to use Jesus’ phrase. This is an active and eager waiting from those who know they have already inherited the promised Kingdom, even though it is not yet fully revealed and realized. 

In his first Letter to the Corinthians (13:13), Paul identifies faith, hope, and love as the three abiding qualities. And it is these three qualities that we need in our waiting. Love is the standard for our behavior while we wait. Faith means trusting in God’s promise of redemption, of glorification: in Jesus’ poetic phrase that we “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father,” as we reflect the love and glory of God. (Matthew 13:43) 

Last but not least, hope and being hopeful is a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian. Just because we have chosen to follow Jesus does not in itself put the world to rights, but it does put us right. “In hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24) Paul says. We hope for what we have been told will happen, we hope for what we were given a glimpse of in Jesus’ life, witness, death, and resurrection. We hope with the help of God’s Spirit within us. In that sense, we hope for what we do not see, and we wait for it with patience.

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