Matthew 7: 21-29
As a methodist minister seeking temporary refuge in a United Reformed Church I suppose I should refer to May 24th – a major Methodist festival Day, for it was then in 1738 that John Wesley in the company of Christian friends meeting in ,London, had what has often been called, his evangelical conversion and as he wrote in his diary, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed’.
Unlike some of the new-wave Christian movements that were around at that time with the then novel idea that even poor people could be God’s friends, the Methodist movement that began to rapidly evolve was strong in its emphasis on the improvement of human life and the principle of social justice. There’s a delicious bit of local history when Wesley and Beau Nash met each other in Bath, both deeply hostile to each other before they ever met!
That warmed heart of this otherwise serious and rather prim Anglican cleric in a meeting room in Aldersgate Street, London, was kindled as someone was reading the preface to Luther’s notes on Paul’s letter to the Romans
A fascinating conjunction of three very strong-minded men and if they all ended up in heaven I should love to be present at their first meeting. other. I guess Paul would be in the chair and the other two would be working very hard to set the agenda.
Four significant one might say Protestant words in our reading from the letter to the young Roman church.
1. I am not ashamed
of the gospel. Many years ago I read a book by the Presbyterian minister James S. Stewart. It was called ‘Heralds of God’ and was like many such books I read in my relative youth, about evangelism.
The trumpet sound of faith! There is this gospel imperative clear from the New Testament and always strong in the reformed tradition, that the good news is for everyone and everyone should have a chance to hear it. But what is one to do with the embarrassment and shyness that can make us if not ashamed, certainly cautious – the strength of the secular society the world has become that pours scorn on all faith statements and – quite properly – often warns us against the sort of blind-folded faith that ends up as bigotry and bone-headness.
But it was the simplicity of the gospel that was Paul’s embarrassment and may be our’s too. This story of a good man loving the poor into believing in a benign and present God – God of all things; and my God! King of the hidden but profoundly real kingdom that is in the air we breathe, in the flesh that need not imprison us, in the humanness that we share, in the ever living spirit of Jesus abroad in the world and sacramentally known in the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine. The gospel is about a gift – the gift of a life lived fully and freely with God who is the giver of it. Nothing to be ashamed of there. The human spirit’s yearning for love, life and freedom keeps on bubbling up, challenging the hard secularism and the religious fundamentalism abroad in the 21st. century. And though we find it difficult to use the right words, there is a listening ear in every part of the world for what we call new life in Christ. Be critical, observant, gracious and humble about our Christian truth, but don’t ever be ashamed.
2. And then the Jews first. Paul – the converted but still as he believed it, faithful Jew– makes room in his idea of the kingdom for his fellow believers to come home first. Let’s think for a moment about this ancient, abused, nomadic, perceptive, arrogant, proud people. Jesus was a Jew, and if he moved away from the faith of his fathers, his beliefs were still founded on them. It has become a fashionable field of new testament theology, to emphasise his Jewishness and to set him almost entirely in the messianic tradition. I resist that – on the basis of hunch rather than scholarship. It’s his uniqueness and his freedom of spirit that fascinates me and draws me to him. But- he –was- a -Jew, that astonishing tradition of faith, surviving against all the odds, is the bedrock of Christianity. I don’t know about firsts and lasts, but we owe it to our history and to the ways in which the Jewish people through the years have been marginalized and misjudged, to be very careful not to slip into the abyss of anti-Semitism or contrarily, the bunkers of uncritical Zionism.
But that doesn’t mean that we should be immune from some of the qquestionable consequences of Jewishness, the most significant of which is the state of Israel – notionally a secular state, but inspired by the passion and nostalgia of a nomadic people searching for land and identity. The practical wish to ‘come’ home; indeed o have a home. Christians like all libertarians are right to condemn the way the present government of Israel views its Palestine neighbours and indeed anybody else who disagrees with them. So we have this delicate task of honouring our spiritual forbears but dissenting from the excluding politics of the first Jewish nation in more than 2000 years.
3.Then what becomes of boasting? asks Paul? There are a few Christians around who have no sense of irony and believe and behave as if they were the sole interest of God. I have heard many testimonies of faith intended I am sure to bring glory to the converting power of the gospel, but they have been so much about me, so full of how awful it was to have been a sinner and how wonderful not to be one now, that its felt more ego-centric than Christ-centred. This is an abiding question for many religious people – ‘who’s in and who’s out’? There are better questions, like ‘who is God’. Paul says. ‘yes Jews and Gentiles on the same terms are in and there are no favourites. Dynamite for the Jews but also a disturbing thought perhaps for many non-Jews. ‘There’s no ritual you have to perform and no tribe you have to belong to : God takes the lot of us on equal terms. So, no room for boasting.
Historically it has been the triumphalists – Christian, Muslim and Jew – who have endangered the delicate plant of true religion. Such people were around for Jesus. We think he was probably less dismissive of the pharisees than the gospels suggest – the evangelists wrote-up the tension between the two, many scholars suggest. But they were a problem – they were boasters rather than seekers. It’s a great challenge in our Age – to believe firmly but gently; to have your own convictions and at the same time to be open to those of others.
4. Since God is one. This is the belief that each of the Abrahamic religions have in common. There are other things too and we should look for areas of agreement rather than mapping out battlegrounds of dissent, but this unity of God, his aloneness, answering to no other powers, responsible for all that is, before, during and after the creation of the universes, is a vital one. God not lost in our theologies, not imprisoned in the words of scripture, not confined by the creeds and statements of faith by which we try to describe him – but God, free and absolute. More than we shall ever know, and yet so much that we do know, and which delights our hearts and inspires our minds.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit enriching our sense of God, but never detracting from his singularity. The great foundation of our faith, a faith for which many have struggled in the face of doubt and disaster. Martin Luther – we see him as the strong man of faith – in fact he spent nights fighting doubt, and one morning the family saw, after he had prayed through the night hours he had scratched across his table, the words ‘I have been baptised.’ Not only the unity but as well the nature of God was Luther’s struggle. The God he said he had once hated had been a God of vengeance. The God he came to love and serve, turning western Europe into a cauldron of controversy, was the God his ’dear’ Paul taught him to love as he himself he came to believe, was also loved.
And so this verse of his hymn as he faced the political and ecclesiastical opposition which marked his life –
That word they never can dismay
However much they batter
For God himself is in the fray
And nothing else can matter.
Then let them take our life,
Goods, honour, children ,wife.
We will let all go,
They shall not conquer so
For God will win the battle.
‘Let God be God’ is the title of one of many books written about Luther. When we say our prayers there is only one who hears us, from whatever faith-system we speak. ‘Since God is one’ as Paul says.