31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
So we heard from the Roman’s passage Paul’s big message – you can be righteous, or right with God through faith.
I looked back to when I preached on this passage six years ago and at that time I was actually studying theology, indeed I was studying Paul, so that was quite helpful because I clearly seemed to know what Paul was on about at the time!
Although there was a line in the sermon that said that we skipped Romans 4 because our lecturer said it was too difficult for us to understand!
Anyway, the thing that Paul was so fabulously excited about was that we could be right with God through faith… this was his conversion experience…. He had been a Pharisee, and not just any Pharisee, but one that had zealously been persecuting Christians and having them stoned…. And the reason for that was that he thought that everyone, every Jew, had to be obeying the Law perfectly in order for them to be right with God. In order for God to bless Israel, in order for God to release Israel from captivity to the Romans, everyone had to follow every law in the utmost detail. And they weren’t doing it. Especially the Christians, they were being heretical proclaiming a man, this man Jesus to be God.
So you can imagine the migraine this gave poor old Saul as he was, trying to control EVERYONE. It is hard enough to control ourselves…. I have certainly caved in on some of my Lenten disciplines already and they are truly piffling compared the Jewish Laws.
And then Paul realised, and then Paul found the penny dropping, that we could be made right though FAITH. And what a relief that was.
So what is faith? For Paul it meant surrender to God. Giving in to God. Stopping trying to control, stopping trying to have things our way, stopping trying to understand, and falling into the loving arms of God. Stepping out perhaps
(Indiana Jones video)
Sometimes, in Bibles it is translated as “to believe” because we can’t say “to faith” in English like you can say it in Greek, but to believe is such a poor translation. It suggests intellectual assent rather than giving your whole body and soul to God. And anyway, I think sometimes we surrender to God even though in our mind we can’t believe, we “faith” anyway.
Hence, central to our faith is the image of Baptism – trusting others as they dunk you under the water, giving in, surrendering, submitting to God. And for Paul, he felt we had to die to the old ways, die to the Law and be resurrected as new people, people who surrendered to God.
In the Gospel we also hear of a similar idea – Jesus says we have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is a sort of surrender, but I don’t think it necessarily means that our lives will be nasty and painful… not at all. I think that the cross is a symbol of release of burdens.
Like the bit in the Pilgrim’s progress where Christian loses his burden:
Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run; but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart,
“He hath given me rest by his sorrow,
And life by his death.”
My gran had a big, beautiful, illustrated version of the Pilgrim’s Progress, and I did once try to read it because my Gran told me to. Now I look at it again it is no wonder that I couldn’t – the language was so alien to me, but so was the content – I had no understanding of faith.
However, years later, I too had an experience similar to that of Christian. I was at Uni when I heard an evangelistic talk where the preacher was thinking about the words Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished”. I was convinced it wasn’t for me and so I let my guard down, and was enthusiastically agreeing with the speaker in my heart hoping that it would enable others to understand the truth of God’s love for them. The speaker was saying…
‘..when Jesus died on the cross he said the words ‘it is finished’. These words were often used on grocery bills when people paid their tab. In other words Jesus said ‘it is paid for in full’. Now, imagine all of your sins listed like a grocery bill. All your sins, the ones that you feel are forgivable and the ones that you are so ashamed of, all of them.’
I was so absorbed in what the speaker was saying that I did as I was told and listed all the things I was ashamed of, even the unmentionable, unforgivable ones.
The speaker continued..
‘..now, imagine Jesus stamping the bill with a seal and on the seal are the words ‘paid for in full’.
I could see all my sins listed, and a big red wax seal… paid for in full. I was amazed and tearful; I suddenly felt that Jesus’ death had mysteriously paid for all my sins. I had become crippled by shame and in those moments I felt able to walk again.
Of course, it needed surrender, it needed faith, but somehow, by doing so I gained a new life, I gained a sense of being right with God. The clouds cleared and I felt like I was dancing in the sunshine.
I pray that this Lent all of us might experience this realisation that Paul was so excited about, that surrendering to God mysteriously brings us close to God. Amen