Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: The priority of grace

02 July 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Third Sunday after Trinity
Canon Simon Cowling
Romans 6. 12-end; Matthew 10.40 – end

I am made all things to all men –
Hebrew, Roman, and Greek –
In each one’s tongue I speak,
Suiting to each my word,
That some may be drawn to the Lord!

Rudyard Kipling was not a poet of the stature of John Donne or John Milton, but in those lines from his poem ‘At his Execution’ Kipling does offer a succinct insight into how St Paul might have felt in the unrecorded moments before his death in first century Rome. Paul was a Greek-speaking devoutly Jewish convert to Christianity in a Mediterranean world dominated by the Roman Empire. Set all that alongside his letters as recorded in the New Testament and we see a man who is the very embodiment of complexity – social, cultural, psychological, emotional, and of course religious. In Paul’s first letter to the fledgling church at Corinth we can hear the apostle struggling, wrestling, with some of this inner complexity, and it’s this struggle that Kipling is referring to in his poem. For Jews, Paul tells the Corinthians, he has remained a Jew; for non-Jews he has become a non-Jew; for those who are weak in faith he has become as one who is weak himself. He has, he goes on to say, become all things to all people, so that by any means I might save some.

This urgency that St Paul felt to communicate the Gospel, the Good News of God’s saving grace, was what led one Victorian theologian to describe him as ‘the fifth evangelist’, someone with an honoured place alongside Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. At the moment in our Sunday Eucharists we are listening to parts of St Paul’s Letter to the church at Rome. In this letter’s sixteen chapters the urgency of Paul’s need to communicate the Good News is again combined with an outworking of the apostle’s inner religious turmoil in all its unremitting complexity. It is no coincidence that virtually every significant argument within the Christian tradition, in the western Church at least, has drawn up battle lines that run directly through the Letter to the Romans. It is as though Paul’s own inner religious turmoil has engendered in his successors in the faith a spiritual restlessness, a relentless seeking after a truth that will bear no contradiction. The consequences have often been baleful, as we especially recall in this five hundredth anniversary year of the European Reformation.

But we cannot lay the blame at St Paul’s feet for such consequences. His arguments use only words as weapons, and in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, which follows directly on from the one we heard last week, we join one particular argument in mid-flow. Let’s recap this argument for a moment. Those of you who heard Jonathan preach last Sunday will have heard him refer to Paul’s understanding of baptism as ‘freedom to serve and please God in newness of life’. This is the freedom that Paul has been reflecting on in the verses immediately before today’s reading. One of the consequences of this freedom, Paul concludes, is that those who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ are no longer subject to the requirements of the Jewish Law, which has after all been fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Instead, as Paul asserts in the opening verses of today’s reading, they live in a wholly new context in which they are fully alive to God. Their lives have been utterly transformed by God’s giving of himself in total and unconditional love. It is this love, and our human response to it, that best sums up what Paul describes as ‘grace’. In other words, we should think of grace in all its fullness not as some kind of abstract theological concept but as a relationship with God based on love that is freely offered by him, and accepted and reciprocated by us.

Yet as a Jew who was steeped in the faith of his forebears, Paul knew all the points of weakness in the arguments he was now putting forward as one who had committed himself to Christ. Using a neat rhetorical device he comes back with what seems like an obvious objection by asking himself a question: What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? In other words, if we are no longer in any danger of divine sanction or punishment because the Jewish Law no longer applies to us, why don’t we just behave as we wish? God’s grace will surely override our moral lapses, whether accidental or conscious.

Paul responds to this objection with a counter argument based on a comparison with the institution of slavery. It’s a comparison that treats righteousness as a kind of slave-owner whom we will naturally obey as our new master now that we have been set free from our old slave-owner called sin.  Though the comparison is not necessarily helpful for a contemporary western reader, for others – African-Americans, for example, and those subject to human trafficking or other forms of modern slavery – the comparison will have a powerful resonance. But helpful or not, the comparison is designed to reinforce what seems to me to be the nub of Paul’s argument: that to live under grace is to be in a relationship with God based on love that is freely offered, accepted and reciprocated. One would no more want consciously and actively to undermine or betray such a relationship through doing wrong than one would want to undermine or betray a loving human relationship. God’s grace does not cut the nerve of our moral impulse, it strengthens it.

Tempting though it might be, Paul’s exposition of these great themes of law and grace is not one that we should pigeonhole under the heading ‘difficult’ or ‘irrelevant to me’ or ‘for the attention of clergy only’. Paul’s titanic inner struggle surely mirrors similar struggles in all of us. We might not think of ourselves as hidebound by law, but how often, not least in our attitude to what goes on in church, do we jettison grace  by resorting to a set of often unspoken laws –  rules or conventions that have the effect of alienating those who don’t know what the rules are, making them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome? How often does our own fear of moral or behavioural chaos cause us rigidly to apply rules, real or imagined, in our institutions – or indeed in our personal interactions with others? To end with I offer a short exposition about the priority of grace in the form of a story from the Egyptian desert in the early Christian centuries: A brother came to a hermit. As he was taking his leave he said, ‘Forgive me, Father, for preventing you from keeping your hermit’s rule’. The hermit answered, ‘My rule is to welcome you with hospitality, and to send you on your way in peace’. No moral chaos there as a result of rules being broken. Simply, an abundance of grace.