Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mouth and Heart: Sermon on Romans 10:6-13

A man kneels, trembling, tears streaking his cheeks, on the dirty and fragmented stone tiles at the edges of the forum. All around him is silence. Other than torches in the hands of public slaves who stand watch nearby, the world is empty to his eyes – a black abyss. Quivering, he clenches his sword in white-knuckled fists. The fire of the torches glints and gleams off the sharpened tip as it hovers inches from his thundering heart. Would you take a moment to picture the scene? Would you indulge me just a minute or two and imagine with me what's going through this man's mind?

His grandfather, perhaps, was a veteran, who served in one of the legions. As a reward for his service, he was given land here, one of the earlier waves of thusly rewarded military settlers. But the grandson had squandered that all away. Still, he'd gotten married. His father-in-law, too, perhaps, was a veteran. But the son-in-law, the man in the dirt with the sword, wasn't. He'd never been found fit – he could never be good enough, never be man enough. So for years now, he'd pushed himself, asserted himself, overcompensated.

He had become a brutal man. Brutal enough to get into the corrections business. Brutal enough to be good at it, to make his living off torture and confinement and extortion. He made good money off of it all – not like his lost patrimony, but enough to support his family. Financially, at least. He knew he wasn't much for supporting his family emotionally. Brutality is a hard thing to leave on the doorstep. He carried the weight of his work home with him. He knew how often he treated his wife and kids like the hardened criminals he was assigned to guard, like that pair of bleeding charlatans committed the prior morn. He hated seeing his wife flinch whenever he drew close. But in everything, he hardened himself to what he felt had to be done.

At some level, he knew he was no good man. He tried to make a virtue out of his vices, justifying himself to his tattered conscience. But he was lost in life. The daily grind was a storm to erode even the roughest rock. The fictions of law were often all that separated him from the criminals he guarded; what he saw when he glimpsed his reflection in pools and what he saw when he looked at his prisoners – it all blended together. He had no peace in the day, no peace in the night, and labored to convince himself peace was overrated. Now a lifetime of bad choices had caught up with him. He'd been awakened, called back to the job site from a nightmare-troubled slumber. There'd been a disaster. A well-timed tremor had left the roof on the prison, but knocked out every security feature. All on the inside was silent, vacant. He'd surely be found negligent for letting every prisoner get loose. For even one, he could be killed. With a trial, he'd be evicted from his housing, have all assets confiscated, and then die in disgrace. His wife and children would starve in the streets after he was gone.

What could the earthquake be but the wrath of some god? Some obscure deity was vengeful and out for his ruin – and fearsomely efficient. Perhaps the god announced by the most recent arrivals, maybe not charlatans after all, but everything the pint-sized pythoness said, and more. That strange god would now take everything from him, displaying him in public as the failure he always knew he was. That god would cast him into a darker prison than he'd ever overseen. He couldn't bear the shame, couldn't stomach the consequences. But what was left for him to do? Where could he turn for rescue from piercing justice, punishing bosses, and wrathful gods? Where could he run to? What option was left? Everything was too little, too late. He couldn't 'ascend,' couldn't rise out of his situation, couldn't run off and find some last-ditch turnaround. There was only one dignified way he could see now. If not to 'ascend,' then to 'descend' – to the grave, with his sword, and at least spare himself the public humiliation and his family the consequences (Acts 16:27).

Few of us have been in his exact situation. But haven't we, at some time or other, had to admit we were out of ideas and at the end of our rope? That's where all the human condition is lived – at the end of our rope. The only difference is that, every now and then, some disaster piles on, or some awareness clicks in our heads, and makes us admit it for a change. But we come to realize that we're in trouble, that some prison and some wrath are at the door, that we stand at the end of a string of bad choices, that we're on the wrong side of something big, that some radical decision or solution is required.

But where do we go? What do we do? In truth, these days, it's an almost endless buffet of options. People will turn anywhere. A lot of people try the route of descent – going 'down' to look for answers. Maybe we descend into ourselves, turning to deep introspection, to psychological tinkering, to a meditative inner journey to try to ferret out an explanation for why we are who we are. Maybe we pursue the route of materialistic resignation or nihilistic bacchanal – we look for answers, or at least comforting pleasures, in the everyday things of this life and close our minds to any awareness that anything's wrong; we anesthetize ourselves to the wrath to come. Or we try to anesthetize ourselves more literally with drink and drugs, to cloud our minds from the painful reality we're in. Or we try to manage our lives through earthy commonsense wisdom, just like grandpappy used to tell. The avenue of descent. But “who will descend into the abyss” to fetch an answer there (Romans 10:7)?

And then some try the route of ascent – going 'up' or 'around' to look for answers. Maybe we ascend a literal mountain, searching out some great guru whose proverbs can crack open the puzzle that puzzles us. Maybe we go on a spiritual trek, relocate, shake up our lives in hopes that enough disturbance will help things settle into a stable place somehow. Maybe we come up with some pattern, some program, some political agitation that has the offer of a 'heaven on earth' that we can bring down right here: If only we do this, everything will work out fine, we say. Or we invent a self-help program to raise ourselves up by our own bootstraps all the way to heaven's height. But “who will ascend into heaven” to fetch an answer from up there (Romans 10:6)? All these schemes of descent or ascent – in our rare honest hours, doesn't history showcase them all as empty efforts?

As that man knelt long ago, sword in hand, ready to 'descend' to the grave as a last-ditch attempt to escape his problem in a way that's clearly no solution at all – in the moment of distress, as his fingers twitched sweatily on the hilt in the witching hour, he heard a voice from inside the prison he thought vacant, assuring him that there was another way. He doesn't have to ascend to come up with a solution from somewhere 'out there.' He doesn't have to descend to fetch a solution from death. 'Ascending' and 'descending' – those were Israel's questions of old, which they muttered in their deepest selves, in thinking they earned the promised land through their own great triumphs (Deuteronomy 9:4; 30:12-13). No, the real answer, this voice says, is in fact “near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8; cf. Deuteronomy 30:14). Already near. Already open. Already wide. And so the man with the sword dropped it. Let it clang in the dead of night. Ran in and fell down to beg with a burning thirst to know – just as we should – “What must I do to be saved?” – What way is this that's so near, so accessible, so available to even me, even here, even now (Acts 16:30)?

It starts with the heart. Your heart is the center of your self – everything that makes you you. We think today of the heart as where the emotions are, where you feel. Not so much back then when these words were written. It had some of that, but mainly the heart was where you did your deciding, where you committed to what kind of person you would be, where you managed the attachments that define your life. It can soften or harden, turn this way or that, be guarded or forsaken; everything that matters is what comes out of the heart (cf. Mark 7:20-21). Your heart is where you're attached to what matters most to you, and where you decide accordingly; and the rest of your life, so far as it depends on you, is downstream of your heart.

And so the answer we're given is that the first step involves “believing with your heart.” It's just the verb form of having faith. And another way of saying 'faith' is 'trust,' and still another way of saying 'faith' is 'loyalty.' It's about a whole-life disposition – a reliance on and attachment to someone or something, the sort where we anchor the center of our self in it. This is deciding the direction your heart will gush in, the channels its outflow will flow through; and more than that, it gets to what the wellspring is pumping up at the source. To believe in something with your heart begins with deciding that it's the most important thing, your core attachment; it means trusting in it, relying on it, being glued to it at the very control center of you.

So what are we supposed to believe in with our hearts? One word says it above all, here: “Jesus.” Believe in Jesus. Have faith in Jesus. Trust in Jesus, rely on Jesus. Be attached to Jesus, united to Jesus, loyal to Jesus. “Believe in God; believe also in me,” he says (John 14:1). To believe in him changes the heart's output, and he himself said it: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:38).

So what should we believe about Jesus, if we're to believe in him? Well, the key thing is this: “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9b). Of course, that implies that he was dead. It implies the message of the cross. It implies the story we know: that Jesus was charged, convicted, put to death like a common criminal; that he bore shame and disgrace, that he endured pain and agony, that he suffered and gasped and ultimately his synapses stopped firing, his muscle fibers stopped twitching, his blood drained away through the puncture in his side. And he claimed to do it to carry the weight of all our failure and strain and evil away from us. But then that wasn't the final chapter.

To believe “that God raised him from the dead” is a whole new episode. It implies that after his execution at the hands of the authorized powers of the land, God singled him out as somebody worth keeping. A whole host of teachers, philosophers, prophets, you name it, had come on the earth and gone under the earth – like Shakespeare said, “All the world's a stage, / and all the men and women merely players; / they have their exits and their entrances.” But God refused to budge the spotlight, refused to have Jesus surrender the stage without an encore eternal. He lifted him up, raised him back on, restored him to life. Which implies that God's identity is now fully fleshed-out: he is the 'Jesus-Raiser.' To know who the real God is, to pick him out of a lineup, that's all you need. 'Jesus-Raiser' is a unique and sufficient description, it's all you need to look for on God's ID. God is the sort of God whose defining act is resurrection and who thinks Jesus deserves the spotlight.

So to “believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,” here, means that the center of your self can't be anchored in what you do, what you like, where you come from, where you're going – that's not what anchors, what holds, what glues to your heart. It means that the center of who you are will be anchored in the Jesus who gives God definition as the God of Resurrection, a God to whom crosses are no disqualifier but a qualification.

So what then? What after you believe in your heart? The next organ you'll need is your mouth – your organ of expression, of speech – literally the mouth for most of us, but whatever does the function the mouth signifies, be it hands making signs or fingers clenching pen or hitting keys, or indeed the mouth forming syllables to string together. And what does the mouth have to do? “Confess with your mouth.” It means to align yourself with, to endorse, to declare publicly, to commit yourself publicly, to announce in a binding way.

A lot comes out of our mouths, don't we know it. What are they for, though? What should they be confessing? What should we announce in public, what should we commit ourselves to? Once again: “Jesus.” What about Jesus? We're told elsewhere that “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). Here, we're given the same truth in other words: “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9a). But what are we really saying when that confession comes out of our mouth?

A 'lord' has authority to command. A 'lord' has authority to lead, to guide and direct. A 'lord' cannot be traded or amended. A servant can't just swap lords – it doesn't work like that. A servant has no right to just walk away from one lord's service, scot-free, and go to another one. A servant is bound to his or her lord – bound, committed, owned. Nor can a servant ignore with impunity the directions that his or her lord gives, or the way his or her lord wants things done. That's what it means to have a lord: the lord runs the show.

In Roman society, within an extended household of a man and his wife and his children and their servants and their hired help and their animals, it wasn't uncommon for the paterfamilias, the man of the house, to be spoken of as the family's 'lord.' Legally, if not always in practice, he had absolute power there, even over life and death. The family lord runs the house, takes charge, determines the direction of the family business, decides the overall commitments that the household is to have, and enforces their cooperation in the goals he's chosen. And to confess that Jesus is Lord is to yield that role to Jesus – to admit him as the real faultline of all business and all family – to see Jesus as the one who runs our house and determines its direction; Jesus as the one deciding our commitments, both as the overall household of God and as our households at home; to admit that Jesus will enforce our families' cooperation with his goals; to see that our family life, our business life, is centered on him and subject to his jurisdiction.

But in Roman society, there was another big use for the word 'lord.' And it was royal, it was imperial. “Caesar is Lord” was the imperial slogan. The emperor Caligula insisted on being called dominus, 'Lord,' even by Romans, and he tortured and whipped nobles and made senators kiss his feet and ordered even free Romans to act as his slaves. And while most emperors didn't go so far, many were called 'Lord' in common speech; one inscription calls Nero “the Lord of all the world.” The emperor, standing at the political and societal head of the empire, played a role for the empire not unlike a man in his own household. A 'Lord' like the emperor was the defining political figure, and the key member of society. To Roman eyes, society and politics had their center in the emperor, the 'lord,' the first citizen. And to that, we say, in confessing that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus – not Trump, not Clinton, not the donkey or the elephant, not Putin or Kim or Assad or any world leader, not any judge or any senator or any president or potentate – no, Jesus is the real faultline of all politics and all society. Any political discussion that doesn't turn around Jesus, is provincial and irrelevant. Any society not organized around this Lord Jesus must be converted or be consigned to history's wastebin. Any agenda, any nationhood, any activism is judged in light of the Lord Jesus and his methods and his ideals and his Spirit – and all else falls. To confess Jesus is Lord is to put all our political opinions at his feet, to put all of society at his feet, to turn our ballots over to him, to see him as the President and Governor and Judge to whom we must answer above all.

And then, in Roman society, there was still another big use for words like 'lord.' And it was divine. Religious celebrants in the Greek and Roman world could call Zeus “the lord of all” (Pindar, Isthmian Odes 5.53). For one of their gods to be 'lord' meant a mastery and ownership of their whole cosmic domain; it was a claim to be deserving of the devotion and sacrifices of the people. To call a divine figure a 'lord' is to claim them as the proper object of devotion, whom it would be wrong not to worship, give sacrifice, render loyalty and trust for blessings in this world and beyond. Paul dismisses the pantheon of the Greeks and Romans as merely “so-called 'gods' and so-called 'lords'” (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:5), but he insists on announcing that “Jesus is Lord.” In confessing that, we say that Jesus is the real faultline of all religion and all culture. The worth of any religious idea, any religious act, any religious practice, any religious tradition, is how Jesus sees it and how it submits to him. Any religious opinion that doesn't mesh with the Lordship of Jesus is mere profanity. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to put all our religious opinions at his feet, to see all religion and all culture in light of him, to dethrone all celebrities and the other gods of this age in his presence, to render him devoted worship.

And more than that, 'Lord' was the word Greek-speaking Jews used to gloss God's name in the Old Testament. Where Moses and Isaiah and Joel and all the rest had written the mysterious consonants of Yahweh, Hellenized scribes wrote Kurios, 'LORD' – we see it in all-caps in our Old Testament texts. And in context, that's exactly what Paul is applying to Jesus. He ain't just 'Lord' in little letters; he deserves the all-caps treatment. He is the LORD God we meet from Genesis on – not divorced from the Father, but one LORD God with him. To really confess that Jesus is LORD is to reject every theology that carves the Old Testament away or demotes Jesus too low. He is the God of creation, the God who thundered from the mount, the God Isaiah saw encircled by six-winged angels, the God Ezekiel glimpsed on the blazing chariot. That's what we admit when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord: he's the unmasked face of God's eternal self. And to say all this about a man with crucifixion scars, to say that an executed death-row inmate is not only alive again but is the Lord in all these ways, is to say that the world works nothing like we ever thought it did before.

When did an early believer first start calling on Jesus as Lord, confessing him as Lord in all these ways? In the early church, this was the confession people made at their baptism, and that's what Paul has an eye on here. To be baptized was how believers received the touch and presence of Jesus into their lives – how they were united with him in a death like his, down in the abyss, so that they could rise into a life like his, reserved in the heavens for us, all through a word already near (cf. Romans 6:4). Baptism was no private affair, in the main; it was how believers publicly became part of Jesus' body, publicly became part of his fellowship – by publicly confessing Jesus as Lord and joining him through the water. Baptism is, we're told, a wet and embodied prayer, “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). In baptism is where we who believe get to “call on the name of the Lord” for the new life we could never get on our own.

And Paul writes that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). He says that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart, one believes and is justified, and with the mouth, one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10). And accordingly, when the man who dropped the sword – the Philippian jailer – heard the voice of Paul and Silas from inside the inner cell of his prison, and when he asked them what he had to do to find the way of salvation they said was near, together they answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31) – and so he believed and, to confess, “was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:33).

He surely wondered if it could be that simple – if it could be for the likes of a hardened warden like him, for a foreigner like him, for a pagan and an abuser and torturer and killer like him. But Paul says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). He says that everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). He says that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same one is the Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). For “God is one, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:30). There is here a “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe; for there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25). Equal terms – to Gandhi and to Dahmer, to Mr. Manson and Mr. Rogers, to Clinton and to Trump, to me and to you, the same terms are open and equidistant, take them or not. This faithful word, this message, this salvation, is “near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8).

Believing, confessing, calling on his name – you can do that as a Jew, and you can do that as a Greek; you can do that on a mountain high, or you can do that in a valley low. The only cure for wrath, the only cure for disgrace, the only cure for missing out and falling short, the only avenue to rescue, is to trust in the Risen One and confess this same Jesus as Lord and to call on him – wherever you are in the world, wherever you are in life, wherever or whoever you've been. And he makes all the saving difference for all what ails you.

If you're here this morning, and you've heard this word, and you realize you haven't believed in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, or you haven't confessed with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, or you haven't offered up that baptismal prayer and so called on the name of this Lord – if you realize you're still missing out – then let's talk it through and get things straightened out. Don't leave, don't balk, don't hesitate. There's rescue for you. And if you're here this morning, and you've heard this word, and you've believed and confessed and called, but you're coming to see what that means in a new light now, then I'd invite you to really explore that – to find out how to believe in the resurrection more fully, how to confess Jesus as Lord more fully, how to call on his name with greater gusto. Be made righteous, and live righteous; be saved, and live saved. “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Thanks be to the God of Salvation, the Jesus-Raiser, with his Son and his Spirit – one God, one Lord, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Inseparable Love: Sermon on Romans 8:35-39

It was a cold night on the sea. A storm was approaching from a distance, but hadn't yet overtaken the shivering sailors of Sparta as they sat and stood around the deck. They were on their way, under the command of Lysander, to wage war on the allies of Athens. But this storm this night, in this cold and this dark, had a few of the younger sailors unsettled, in spite of all their vaunted Spartan bravery, heirs of Leonidas and the three hundred. One asked doubtfully, through chattering teeth, “What hope have we in the storm to come?”

An elder pointed above, to two stars overhead, and asked, “Do ye remember the story of them gods of our city? Men tell of a queen of Sparta, Leda her name, and her husband King Tyndareus – though unbeknownst to her king and husband, Leda was visited by the king of the gods, Zeus, one day in disguise, sating his sovereign lusts. Leda gave birth to children, among them these twin boys, Castor and Polydeuces. Oh, the adventures they had together, thick as thieves! Side by side, they chased the Caledonian Boar. Side by side, they sailed on Jason's Argo. Side by side, they rescued their sister Helen from Theseus' grasp. Not a thing did one do that the other didn't. Theirs had no rivalry, no contest, no variance of path; only unbridled friendship and untainted brotherhood. Wild on horseback and fierce athletes, the two of them, and never the one without the other.

Oh, over a pair of twin sisters they began a feud with their twin cousins – twins against twins, Castor and Polydeuces against Lynceus and Idas. Castor and Polydeuces stole the latter's cattle, but Lynceus and Idas saw them in the act, caught them in the act, and Idas in his fury thrust a spear through Castor. Polydeuces gave chase, killed Lynceus, was in danger of retaliation – until a thunderbolt consumed Idas. Polydeuces ran back to his brother, his dearest friend, dying, death rattling in his throat. Polydeuces wept hot tears, cried out to Zeus, begging to die at his brother's side, 'for glory is departed from a man robbed of his friends,' said he. Zeus came to him, told him the secret truth: Leda had lain with Zeus and the Spartan king in such quick succession that the twins were, in a fashion, sons of both – but Polydeuces heir to Zeus and immortality, and Castor heir to the king and the inevitable pains of death. Nonetheless, Zeus offered Polydeuces a choice: 'If freed from death and the harsh years of age, it is thy will to dwell beside my throne upon Olympus, companion to Athena and to Ares, god of the shadowing spear, this choice is thine to take; but if, in thy heart's travail for thy brother, thou art in mind to share all things alike with him, then half thy days shalt thou beneath the earth draw breath, and half within the golden citadels of heaven.' And Polydeuces had no need to think twice: he gladly bartered half his divine heritage away to his brother. Oh, you may hear from some that they trade off, passing as ships in the night, but believe them not. One day, the two together are among the heavens; the next day, the two together make their home in the darkest valleys of gloom; but together always. And in the sky Zeus placed their stars, to watch over ships, but surely those of their kinsmen and fellow-citizens of Sparta on the sea.”

And so the Spartan sailor might well have consoled his shipmates with the old myth – a moving myth, of the exalted heroes who share and share alike, half-immortal each. Castor and Polydeuces were, through love, made inseparable. Polydeuces – or Pollux, as the Romans would later call him – refused to let anything, not even a mortal wound, not even death itself, separate Castor from him. Just a myth – but a myth with beauty to tell. Their popularity spread far and wide, vastly beyond Sparta. Paul passed by the Anakeion, their temple in Athens. He surely passed by their statues in Corinth, day by day, as he wrote his letter to the Roman churches. The early Roman Christians, as they went about their business and passed through the forum, walked beneath the gaze of statues of Castor and Pollux set in front of their temple there. And when Paul finally left Malta where he'd been shipwrecked so that he could journey and be with the men and women who'd read his letter, the ship that took him there, Luke tells us, had carvings of Castor and Pollux on its prow (Acts 28:11).

Paul and the Roman Christians alike rejected their temples and statues and observances, but maybe, just maybe, they could appreciate the sentiments of the story. Things in the Roman churches – and note the plural – had not been great. The spread of the gospel had met reception and opposition there in the Jewish community – and it had gotten heated. Fed up at the strife, the emperor Claudius had given an order expelling Jews from Rome. It was this that sent Priscilla and Aquila to Corinth where they met Paul. In their absence, the Gentile converts had taken the lead in Roman church life, crafting an approach all their own. And then the Jews, including many Jewish Christians, returned. Now nobody saw quite eye to eye; we'll find out more about that in the months to come. But there were many churches – some more Gentile, some more Jewish, some with one position, some with another. And there were some Gentile-heavy churches that evidently got the idea, from treatment like this, that God had chosen them to replace the Jews as God's chosen people, even to replace Jewish believers – that the Jews as a whole, even the believing remnant, had been rejected, separated from God's electing love. After all, look at how they had suffered in their exile from the city! And didn't everyone know that disaster was a sign of rejection? Didn't even Jewish wisdom say that “seven kinds of punishment come to the world for seven categories of sin” (Pirqe Avot 5:8), with famine, distress, and the sword among them? Didn't Jewish writings themselves identify God's wrath with “evil diseases, famine, thirst, pestilence, and the sword” (4Q504, frg. 2)? If the expelled believers were suffering all these things, when the Gentile believers were building the church fine on their own, how could the afflicted exiles under God's wrath not be separated from the love of Christ?

We might consider it an odd way to think. Or do we? Rome, when Paul wrote, was full of churches judging each other, full of believers judging each other, full of churches and believers reading love and wrath into the big events of their communities and the littler events of their lives. The emperor's order comes down, and you know some Gentile believer mad at the Jewish guy in the other pew thought to himself, “Ha, serves him right.” You know that, even after the Jews were readmitted to the city, Roman churches at odds would start to look for every twist and turn of fortune as signs of God's favor or disfavor. You know there were surely at least a couple believers in exile who came back, heard what the others were thinking and how they were judging, and started internalizing it, thinking, “Maybe I am rejected. Maybe all this was punishment. Maybe God isn't for me any more. Maybe I'm outside the love of Christ.”

And is it all so different today? Aren't we tempted to think like that? To worry that we'll be rejected, turned out, turned away, cut off? To wonder what we've done wrong when things go wrong? To see God's favor or God's disfavor, God's love or God's wrath, in the numerical growth and decline of churches and denominations, or in the circumstances of our lives, or the health of our bodies? “Tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” – the seven classic woes that Paul and the Jewish Christians expelled from Rome were actually suffering or close to suffering, and some of which will enter our lives, too – well, aren't we tempted to think they offer evidence that God isn't with us, that God isn't for us, that we've been “separated … from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35)?

Paul has three things he wants to say to that. The first one is pretty simple: “No” (Romans 8:37). The answer to his question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35), is none of those things. Such things like that cannot be used as evidence that God has divorced his people, or a segment of his people – that they, or we, stand now under God's wrath instead of God's love. Tribulation doesn't prove that. Distress doesn't prove that. Famine or drought don't prove that. A radical collapse into poverty to the point of nakedness and destitution doesn't even prove that. Not even being attacked or executed proves that. All of these are real, live possibilities for faithful Christians. The story may have had Zeus protect Polydeuces by dropping a thunderbolt to make Idas crispy, but seldom does fire fall from heaven to immediately smite those who want to hassle us. God, the real God, may not intervene to keep you out of tribulation or distress. God may not fill your table in the time of famine. He offers no guarantees against poverty and homelessness. God may well allow distressing things to cross your path – allow cancer and car crashes, danger and dementia, exclusion and ejection, falls and famines. Is it evidence God loves you any less? Evidence God is punishing or rejecting you?

The Roman Christians needed proof, so Paul opens up Psalm 44 for them. It's one of those psalms that starts the right way – praising God for his ancient deeds, when he expelled the Gentiles from the promised land and planted the Jews there as a free people (Psalm 44:1-2). For that, the chosen people could always say, “Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us” (Psalm 44:5). But after a moment's thought, the psalmist sees something confusing in his day: “You have made us like sheep for the slaughter and have scattered us among the nations” (Psalm 44:11). They became a “laughingstock,” tarred by “disgrace” and “shame” (Psalm 44:14-15). 'Scattered among the nations,' 'sheep for the slaughter' – just like what happened to the Jewish Christians again under Claudius and in their wanderings.

Was it evidence they did something wrong? The psalmist says no: “All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way” (Psalm 44:17-18). The psalmist's people were suffering, and it had no relation to whether they were right with God; there was no just punishment involved here. And so the psalmist cries out to God to “rise up; come to our help; redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (Psalm 44:26). But first he summarizes the situation: “For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:22).

And that's the verse Paul quotes for the situation in his day (Romans 8:36). All those seven woes – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword – they came against the psalmist's people, and the word of God itself says that it didn't mean they'd done something wrong. Their heart hadn't turned back that time. Their steps hadn't departed from God's way. They hadn't forgotten God or been false to his covenant. They were still chosen. Their sufferings were no proof they'd been separated from his love. It was for his sake that they were suffering in their exile. It was godly suffering that God chose to allow, but it was no sign of God's disfavor. God was still with them. God was still for them. You can suffer all these things without it being a sign that God has stopped being for you. You can go hungry, and it doesn't mean God's abandoned you. You can be in poverty, bankrupt, homeless, and it doesn't mean God's forgotten you. You can be in harm's way, you can even be facing down death, and it doesn't mean you're separated from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35).

There's a second thing Paul wants to tell all the Roman Christians, and us too. Remember, Rome is full of these churches busy judging each other. The Jewish-heavy churches especially were all but wiped out by Claudius' decree; they're persecuted, they're embattled, they're still struggling to hang on. Plenty of the members of the churches in Rome, some more than others, are populated by immigrants and the poor, even though there are some fairly rich and well-placed Christians, too. Some, fresh from exile, having been starved and deprived, are struggling to rebuild a life in Rome – struggling to keep a roof over their heads, struggling to stretch their food from one day to the next, struggling to cover all the bills, struggling with new forms of sickness and disease picked up on the way. They're weak – in fact, we know that plenty of Roman churches divided people into 'the strong' and 'the weak,' in more ways than one (cf. Romans 15:1).

Some of us know what that's like. Here in the United States, we're fond of mentally dividing the world into 'the strong' and 'the weak,' 'the deserving' and 'the undeserving,' 'the worthy' and 'the unworthy,' 'the haves' and 'the have-nots.' The strong think, “Why can't the rest just get their act together?” We divide the world into winners and losers. Major figures in American public life speak openly today about how those who are with them are “winners,” those who are against them are “losers and haters.” From our school days onward, we learn to think of some as being the 'winners' at life, and others as being the 'losers' at life. And what makes the difference? The folks who have it all together are, to the American eye, winners – clean bills of health, good clothes, good diet, in keeping with our upper- or middle-class ethos and our cultural values of production and consumption. The folks who struggle are, to the American eye, losers – maybe compromised in health, maybe malnourished or out of shape, maybe dressed poorly, maybe at variance with our cultural values, maybe in jeopardy of losing a home or defaulting on a loan, maybe unable to keep a job, maybe cultural outsiders. Subject to things like what Paul listed.

And here's Paul's second message: Poor and broken believers are not losers. Depressed and wounded believers are not losers. Homeless and destitute believers are not losers. Exiled and aimless believers are not losers. Sick and disabled believers are not losers. Immigrant and foreign believers are not losers. Fatigued and worn-out believers are not losers. Unemployed and unemployable believers are not losers. Awkward and ill-at-ease believers are not losers. Persecuted churches are not losers. Underresourced churches are not losers. Small and shrinking and struggling churches are not losers. Confused and troubled and distressed churches are not losers. None of the faithful are losers. Poor believers, depressed believers, disabled believers, worn-out believers, sick believers, afflicted believers – not losers, but winners, and more than winners! For “in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37)!

That's right, and it means underresourced churches are winners! Small churches, even shrinking churches, can be winners! Confused and troubled and distressed churches can be winners. Persecuted churches – winners! Churches in exile, churches out of place in society, churches that see nowhere to go – winners! And not just winners, not just conquerors; “more than conquerors,” super-winners! The kind of winners who do more than just put up a good fight, but who have the promise of one day seeing all their past tribulation, all their past distress, all their past persecution, all their past famine, all their past nakedness, all their past danger, all their past execution, all that knocked them down and beat them up, one day carried off the field of battle in body bags – that's being a super-winner. And depressed believers are super-winners, disabled believers are super-winners, destitute believers are super-winners; disadvantaged churches are super-winners, distressed churches are super-winners, declining churches are super-winners. Not through anything they themselves bring to the table, but “through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

And so we have that promise, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:17) – not when the day is done. Because you, if you have faith – you, if you endure – are a super-winner. Through the name of Jesus, we have that promise that we will indeed “tread down those who rise up against us” (Psalm 44:5). It's not because we trust in what we bring to the table – whether the psalmist's bow and sword, or our own talents and health and easy living – but a continual glorying in God in spite of all that has us down (Psalm 44:6-8). That is being a super-winner. And that is for the persecuted and exiled church, that is for the struggling church, that is for the churches of Rome, and that is for us, and that is for you. Through the love of Christ, you are more than a conqueror; you are a super-winner.

And you don't have to worry about anything coming in and getting between you and the love of Christ. It's like Castor and Polydeuces – the love of Christ gives itself for you over and over again; it never leaves your side; it never succumbs to circumstances; it's with you in the highest highs and the lowest lows, never forsaking you, never allowing the slightest distance from you. The divine love that chose you will never stop choosing you, never stop choosing to be for you, never stop choosing to be with you. Nothing can divorce you. Nothing can obstruct you. Nothing can separate you.

That's why Paul is so totally “convinced,” he says, “that 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” (Romans 8:38-39). Death can't do it – not the sum total of every form of weakness, every form of sickness, every disability and depression and distress and disadvantage. It can't come between us and God's love. Life can't do it – not the sum total of every form of strength, every form of prosperity, all health and happiness and comfort and privilege. It can't come between us and God's love either. No otherworldly power, no thisworldly power, no underworldly power can separate us from God's love. If Michael and Gabriel and every archangel tried standing in the way, God's love would be unbreakable all the same. If Satan and Belial and Beelzebub and every demon legion marched across our path, God's love would shine through unobstructed. If every government, every corporation, every bank, every court, every media conglomerate were to propagandize you and bully you and knock you flat every day for a billion years, it would not hinder your access to God's love in the slightest – not so long as you find God's love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not the highest highs nor the lowest lows can separate you from God's love. All the fate the Romans feared, all the astrological signs they watched the sky for, all the heavenly power reserved in stars and planets to dictate the course of events of life on earth, or so they thought – even if it were true, not all the powers of destiny and star could steer God's love away from you. Not a one, not the whole bunch, could dictate to God how long he loves you, or dictate to you whether he's yours forever. There is not a thing on earth or above earth or under the earth, nor will the limitless halls of eternity future ever evolve or reveal or develop or cobble together, any force that can deflect the tiniest spark of God's love from you; not a thing that can change his mind about you. Not all heaven and not all hell can separate you from God's love in Christ. There is nothing in all creation, not a one, that can get in our path, obstruct our access, fence off God's love from you or you from God's love.

That's good news for all the churches in Rome. For the weak churches and the strong churches, for the Jewish churches and the Gentile churches, for the little churches and the big churches, for the poor churches and the rich churches. Nothing can come between the poorest, weakest, tiniest church or believer, and the all-powerful love of God that chooses them or him or her for boundless hope in Christ. Nor can anything come between the wealthiest, strongest, biggest church or believer and the very same love of God, unextended and unmitigated. And the love of God is more than all victory; through this love, a prize greater than all conquest is all ours, no matter what the world sees, no matter what others see, no matter what we ourselves see.

Castor and Polydeuces are but a pale pointer to the inseparable love of God, with us in the highest highs and lowest lows the same, self-sacrificing to the full but victorious forever. The brothers of Greek and Roman myth have nothing on God's love as displayed in the nail-pierced but living and lively body of Jesus our Lord. He may well allow all sorts of affliction, even when we've done nothing wrong. But not all the weapons of this world or the next can prosper finally if formed against us. For “I am convinced that 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” (Romans 8:38-39). To him be the glory forever. With confidence we pray to the God of Inseparable Love:

Rise up;
    come to our help;
       redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Psalm 44:26). Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

God for Us: Sermon on Romans 8:31-34

As the Congressman stepped out of his vacation home and into his fishing boat Adam's Fancy, he had to admit – the last twenty-four hours had been good ones. As he zipped across the narrow gap between South and North Bimini, journalists gathered on the docks near Brown's Hotel and Marina beneath the sweltering June sun to await him. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., tall and suave and self-assured, disembarked beneath the blue Bahama sky, joined his attorneys, and held a news conference extolling the court's decision.

A Congressman from Harlem, Powell was proud of the news report that once called him “arrogant, but with style.” A preacher and politician devoted to fast living and beauty queens, he'd been dogged by assorted scandals – contempt of court charges in his home state of New York, accusations of misuse of congressional funds, the usual. Though duly elected again and again, the Ninetieth Congress had been fed up – they'd refused to even seat him, excluded him from taking the oath of office. But Powell fought back. The US Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, was clear on the qualifications for Congressmen – age, citizenship, residency – and, Powell reasoned, he met them all.

It had been a long fight, for most of which Adam Clayton Powell had stayed holed up in his property in South Bimini, “Adam's Eden,” and the local bars. But now he was vindicated. Just over two weeks since Powell attended his son's wedding in Washington DC, and a mere day before Powell's sunny press conference, June 16, 1969, Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, in his last act before retirement, had handed down an overwhelming majority opinion on Powell v. McCormack. Congress couldn't make up their own qualification requirements for seating duly elected representatives.

A lot could seemingly be said about Powell's fitness for office, though his friend Martin Luther King considered his exclusion a “terrible injustice” on racial grounds. But as far as the Supreme Court was concerned, the qualifications were cut and dry. And in spite of Congressional protest, it ultimately didn't matter what they said or did; the Constitution was clear. Adam Clayton Powell was, in this, at least, justified. And once the highest court in the land weighed in, it didn't matter how much his enemies in the House fussed and moaned about all the things they thought made him unqualified to even take the oath of office. If the Supreme Court was for him, who could be against him?

Powell's office in the United States House of Representatives is one thing. But Paul is of the view that there's an office for you, too. He says that “those who receive the abundance of grace” will “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). He mentions that enduring believers will “reign with” Jesus (2 Timothy 2:12; cf. Revelation 5:10). We are “predestined to be conformed to the image of [God's] Son” (Romans 8:29), called to a “glorious liberty” as God's children (Romans 8:21), given “the first-fruits of the Spirit” so that we can “groan” a priestly groan on behalf of creation (Romans 8:23), appointed as “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Paul even says that God is determined to “grace us with all things” alongside Jesus (Romans 8:32). Co-ownership of the universe – that's what Paul is talking about, and he has you in mind, us in mind. We are each appointed to the office of a royal priest over creation. In this empire of grace, you fill a post in King Jesus' administration.

And that is so much more than we're used to seeing ourselves. That is so much more than a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Can you really believe that God means for you – yes, you, you individually – to be an official in his administration? Can you really believe that God intends to give you a role in running the entire universe? Can you really believe that you, and the person sitting next to you in your pew this morning, are priest-kings or priest-queens to the entire created order – given a solemn priestly calling on behalf of every murky deep and every fruited plain and every far-flung galaxy? It's a stretch of the imagination! And with an office that weighty, that magnificent, that cosmic, it is so hard to see ourselves – or our neighbors – as qualified.

There are countless objections I'm sure you could bring up why you – or your neighbor – couldn't possibly exercise that office; why you or they aren't the man or woman for the job. And whenever believers withhold fellowship from each other, whenever we separate, whenever we feud, whenever we complain and criticize, we're at heart impeaching one another's qualifications for office – filing an affidavit for the devil's collection, giving testimony against each other. And gleefully, gleefully does the devil dance at the thought of using our own testimony against us as he files suit to block us from taking office in the universe-wide empire of grace.  And how often we willingly collaborate with the devil's project, filing affidavits against one another and against ourselves!

But here's Paul's great message for you today. Sure, accusations can be brought, charges can be filed to block you from taking this high office – but for it to even be considered in court, the petitioner has to have standing. And who has standing any longer? The Trinity, seated on the bench, have already issued a unanimous ruling in your favor! The complaints against you, those accusations, those charges, have all been dismissed for a lack of standing! Or as Paul says it, “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33). You are God's elect – God's choice for a post in the administration of the whole universe – and God is the Judge who has already ruled in your favor.

What's more, who's going to argue the case against you? Satan isn't admitted to the bar in this court. The only eligible prosecutor in the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of God is the Eternal Word, Jesus Christ. But Jesus, in his ascension, approached the bench and informed the Judge that he was taking on your case, not as a prosecutor, but as your defense attorney – and if the only prosecutor eligible in court is already occupied as your defense counsel, what can stand in your way? Or as Paul says it, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ has approached the bench, indeed gone into the Judge's chambers. And there, with a “great cloud of witnesses” thronging the courtroom gallery to cheer their support for your cause, Christ is not there to litigate against you; he's there to argue your case. And “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There can be no exclusion from the office to which his Father has elected you – not when you're in him.

See, with a set-up like that, it's irrelevant who tries to stand in your way, isn't it? It doesn't matter who tries to bog you down in red tape! Satan can file motion after motion, all your critics can file motion after motion, you yourself can file motion after motion against yourself – but they sit in a heap, unnoted and unread, so far as the court of God is concerned. When it comes to your qualifications for office, those motions just don't matter. The case is a sure thing. The only eligible prosecutor is your defender. The complaints are dismissed for lack of standing. The judge has ruled in your favor. And “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

It's such a mind-blowing thought – that things could really be that sure, things could really be that certain. And with so much at stake! Can you really believe it, once you get your head around it? Can you really see yourself and your neighbor in the pew serving in the administration of the universe, seated in the government of Jesus' kingdom? Can you really accept that none of the motions filed against you have any weight? How can we be so sure? How can we really be certain that “God is for us” (Romans 8:31)?

Just this: that God is clearly for us in Christ – for God “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). God's Son is the “one who died” for you, the one “who was raised” for you (Romans 8:34). Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). “Christ died for our sins” and “was raised” to life again (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

For you, God handed him over. For you, God surrendered him to the cross. For you, God watched as his Son hung there, stripped bare and bloody, with the weight of all the accusations and charges against you on his shoulders. And if God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him grace us with all things?” (Romans 8:32). That is the guarantee, the ultimate assurance. The constitutional qualifications for office in God's kingdom are clear. And the blood of Jesus and the breath of his Spirit fulfill every last one in you. No motion filed against you can deny it, so all motions against you are beside the point. All the affidavits the devil's been collecting to use against you? I say this quite literally – to hell with them!

But words are sometimes weak to convince us. So God has given us more than words. He offers us physical proof. He offers us physical proof that he gave his Son up for you, delivered him up for your trespasses. He offers us physical proof that his ruling is in your favor. He offers us physical proof that the prosecution table in the Supreme Court of the Kingdom is empty – because another table is all too full. Today, in just a few minutes, you will hold the physical proof of these things in your hands. You will touch the physical proof to your lips. You – yes, you – will clench the physical proof between your tongue and your palate. Proof that God's Son died and was raised for you. Physical proof of the Jesus who said, “This is my body, which is given for you (Luke 22:19). Physical proof of the Jesus who identified “the new covenant in my blood” with “this cup that is poured out for you (Luke 22:20). Physical proof that God is for you – for all of us.

And “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). God is so for us, he insists on being in us. Mind no red tape; pay heed to no procedural quibbles. God has elected you to office; you took your oath of office at baptism; and while your open reign has not yet begun, your invite to the state dinner affords you physical proof that no accusation, no charge, no motion, no complaint, no red tape, no self-doubt can stand in your – in our – way! Not when God is for us. And here, with our own eyes and our own hands and our own mouths, we can tangibly experience that he is. God is for you. He aims to grace you with all things. God is for you. God is for you. Come and see. Come and touch. Come and taste. Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Called to Freedom: A Sermon for Fourth-of-July Weekend

British America is already become considerable among the European nations for its numbers, and their easiness of living, and is continually rising in greater importance. I will not undertake to decipher the signs of the times, or to say from what quarter we are most likely to be molested. But from the course of human affairs, we have the utmost reason to expect that the time will come, when we must either submit to slavery or defend our liberties by our own sword. And this perhaps may be the case sooner than some imagine.”

By no means was he wrong. On Monday, June 7, 1773, the day he spoke the words, Rev. Simeon Howard was the forty-year-old pastor of Boston's West Church. His was a dignified congregation, prominent in the Boston community and in British America overall. Two and a half years into his pastorate, Rev. Howard had baptized John Hancock's little brother Ebenezer. And now, six months out from a dinner with John Adams, Simeon had been asked to rouse the local artillery company with the word of God. Like a fierce-eyed and bare-toothed prophet of old, he warned the soldiers that the time would surely come when the liberties of America would fall under attack. So he preached on liberty and tyranny, freedom and oppression – hot topics all, in the 1770s. Fortunately, Simeon found a verse in his Bible to suit the occasion: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

Rev. Howard was hardly the first colonial preacher to preach on that line from Galatians 5:1. Nor would he be the last. A year to the day after Simeon's dinner with John Adams, an organization calling themselves 'Sons of Liberty' set off a raucous and destructive protest in Boston's harbor. Less than three months later, elsewhere in Massachusetts, an elderly but energetic preacher named Jonathan Parsons took up the same verse in a sermon dedicated to John Hancock – only Rev. Parsons, as a Separatist, used it to plead against tax-funded church establishments, urging that Paul's words demanded that the colonists respect each other's religious liberty if they wished the British Parliament to respect their civil liberty. Twenty-six days after his sermon, that Parliament passed the first of what the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. Later that year, the First Continental Congress convened and petitioned King George III to fix a series of grievances they had. They urged him that their “Creator” had not “been pleased to give us existence in a land of slavery,” but rather that they “were born the heirs of freedom.”

With no answer forthcoming, militias began to train; the British standing army made moves to seize their supply of weaponry; shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. Less than a month later, the Second Continental Congress convened. Nearly two months into their meetings, on Wednesday, July 5, they adopted one last Olive Branch Petition; but the next day, they adopted a Declaration of Causes justifying their armed revolt against the government of the empire; and the day after that, Friday, July 7, 1775, at the Continental Congress' own request, a Philadelphia pastor named Jacob Duché welcomed the First Battalion into his church and preached to them from, you guessed it, Galatians 5:1. “Liberty, traced to her true source, is of heavenly extraction,” he told them.

Battalions like Duché's hearers were put to good use in the months ahead. Delegates to the Congress urged their home legislatures to authorize them to move toward declaring independence. It was one such legislature in the colony of Connecticut that invited Rev. Judah Champion to preach to their situation. On May 9, 1776, he gave them his special sermon. He warned them: “Gloomy and threatening indeed is the cloud impending our land and nation. Our privileges, civil and sacred, are imminently endangered. Under these alarming circumstances, the admonitory language of divine providence and revelation is this, Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” Less than two months after Judah's fiery call, the Second Continental Congress, its delegates now authorized to make their move, declared that “the Laws of Nature and Nature's God” had entitled them to assert self-evident truths “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” The rest is, quite simply, history.

Where did the popular support for all this come from? The vast majority of Americans weren't reading the sorts of political pamphlets that kept elites occupied. No, political pamphlets were vastly outsold by another kind of popular literature with far more influence: sermons. By 1776, printed sermons were published at four times the rate of political pamphlets. More sermons were being preached that year than ever before. People were hungry for pastors to bring the word of God to bear on the major questions of their day. The words of thousands of preachers gave shape to popular opinion. And the third most commonly preached-on verse in the colonies was: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” One historian, looking back on the late colonial period, called this verse “an American motto.” It was these words of Paul, filtered through the sermons of Simeon, Jonathan, Jacob, Judah, and others like them, that shaped this “course of human events.”

Many of us have forefathers after the flesh who were here at the time – who may well have read their sermons, or heard others like them from one or another pulpit. What was it they heard in this passage? What did they see in Galatians 5 that inspired their passion, enlightened their vision, urged them to fight and resist and overthrow? It's worth saying, first of all, that for all the fascinating directions they took it, colonial preachers from Simeon to Judah didn't deny Paul's context. Paul was tangling with the Judaizers, who were preying on his Galatian converts and deluding them into thinking they couldn't be full members of God's people without accepting what was popularly called the 'yoke' of the Law. But it was, in the words of one colonial pastor, “a tribute which they were not bound to pay.” Paul “could not brook the narrow spirit of those Judaizing Christians,” who aimed to lead the Gentile Christians' “free-born spirits” to “tamely submit to slavish, carnal ordinances, which the Gospel of Jesus had entirely exploded and abolished.”

The colonial preachers got the gist, even if they didn't yet know some of the details. As we read it in our Bibles today, Paul urges the Galatians that the Judaizers, who offer a way to be included in Abraham's family, are only begetting children for the slave-branch of Abraham's line through Ishmael; that is the path of Mount Sinai and the old covenant, which are merely “bearing children for slavery” (Galatians 4:24). Paul's gospel aims to beget “children of promise” like Isaac, who are “born according to the Spirit” by simple and glad-hearted faith that embraces the freedom God so generously offers (Galatians 4:28-29). “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 4:31—5:1).

In Paul's world, there was a special way for slaves to become free: with money paid into a temple treasury, a temple would then use that sanctified fund to pay the redemption-price of a slave, thereby making the person a slave only of the temple's god, but free as regarded any human law. In surviving inscriptions commemorating temple manumission ceremonies, the slogan they use to describe it is: “For Freedom.” Paul's saying that Christ is the god who has bought us out of slavery, and we must remain firm, stand firm, be confident in the birthright of freedom Christ has given us. The old law may not be used to burden us, to add extra hoops and steps on our way to God; we are not bound by all the busybody demands of law this and law that; we walk by wisdom, in the promise, according to the Spirit. We are free to soar in more dimensions than the thin pages of the old law; we are “called to freedom,” Paul tells us, summoned to run straight to God, summoned to explore his wild life, to feel his liberty on our skin, to pursue the happiness that's found only in him.

But when colonial preachers read Paul, they thought his words meant more than how Paul used them. When the pastors of eighteenth-century America saw the phrase, “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,” they thought broader than the age of the gospel; they looked back to the creation. They knew that Jesus was really no latecomer to the human scene; they realized that Christ was the Creator. Judah Champion said it outright: “All things were originally created by Christ.” They knew it was Christ who built the mountains and dug the valleys; it was Christ who planted Eden and walked between its vines in the cool of the day; it was Christ who lovingly designed Adam and gently crafted Eve. And so, from the beginning, Christ made us in the image of God – endowed us with dignity, with sacredness, with basic rights and privileges inborn into every human life. In forming societies, we contracted limits, but our limits are themselves limited – some rights are unalienable, and God would never recognize our efforts to barter them away. As Simeon Howard put it, “There are some natural liberties or rights which no person can divest himself of, without transgressing the law of nature.” The Second Continental Congress would add, “and of Nature's God.”

This liberty bestowed in creation – colonial preachers saw it as a divine gift from Jesus – hindered by law, hampered by sin, but now freshly renewed and reinvigorated in the bright day of the gospel. Judah Champion saw here a “liberty and freedom belonging to us, not merely as men originally created in God's image..., but also as Christians, redeemed by the blood of Christ.” So Judah included those inborn human liberties when he said, “Every blessing is therefore to be considered as flowing to us through the blood of Jesus. Civil government is his institution.” Jacob Duché agreed that civil liberty was “as much the gift of God in Christ Jesus” as spiritual liberty is, “and consequently, that we are bound to stand fast in our civil as well as our spiritual freedom.”

There's that phrase again: 'stand fast.' Taking Paul's exhortation to their own ends, colonial pastors urged their fellow-citizens to assert these rights that Christ had given them. “For men to stand fast in their liberty means, in general, resisting the attempts that are made against it, in the best and most effectual manner they can,” Simeon said. He said that not defending one's God-given liberty would be like the servant who buried his talent during the Master's absence and let it go to waste; not only an act of cowardice, but also an act of ingratitude, and more than that, of cruelty, since to relinquish one's liberty, he thought, is to doom the next generation to slavery. Judah said that “we must assert [our rights]; highly esteem, and conscientiously improve them; zealously, and with utmost vigor, exert ourselves to maintain and defend them.” He urged the people not to “wantonly throw them away,” or else risk the curse of the Lord who gave us our “inestimable privileges civil and sacred.” And Jonathan Parsons added, “Whether success attends our endeavors or not, it becomes us, as men and Christians, to assert our natural and constitutional privileges – never to give them up,” since “they are a legacy left us by Christ, the purchase of his blood.” He declared that “we may not give up those rights and privileges that Christ has purchased for and bestowed upon us; for giving them up would not only reflect great dishonour upon Christ, but would be inconsistent with the peace and welfare of the people, and therefore be quite intolerable.”

Not everything the colonial preachers said stands the test of time, much less the test of the gospel. Still, surely they have some points. Christ is the Creator – the Bible leaves us no room for doubt about that. When we were created, all the blessings we received, all the blessings he packaged into what it means to be human, what it's supposed to mean to be human – those are all from his nail-scarred hand. We were stamped with divine dignity, the image of God, made to receive his life, run in his liberty, and pursue his joy and holiness. It was Jesus who gave us life and declared us his. So long as we're made in God's image, an attack on any human life is an attack on God – hence why the God-hating devil became “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

It was Jesus who called us to serve him in cheerful love – to do which is to exercise the freedom of religion and conscience. It was Jesus who called us to listen and hear others, and to then speak words of gentle truth in his name – to do which is to exercise the freedom of speech and press. It was Jesus who called us to share our lives with each other, to convene as a holy community and to bring his presence with us into the midst of every other community – to do which is to exercise the freedom of assembly. It was Jesus who gave us these gifts, and gave us the option of using them well or poorly. It was Jesus, speaking by his prophet, who bade us do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God, by whose image all others share a common and equal authority with us. All these things are gifts of Jesus – so it's easy to see and appreciate why colonial preachers saw them as being incorporated in “the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Galatians 5:1).

So we should absolutely stand fast, speak up, resist like good soldiers against encroachments that would steal the gifts of Christ from us in practice – stand fast in every way consistent with the holy walk to which Jesus himself called us. As we look at the life of the apostle who wrote these words, we see that Paul surely exercised freedom of religion (in following Christ rather than the dictates of the Sanhedrin, Caesar, or any pagan priest), freedom of speech (in his preaching the gospel), freedom of press (in writing his letters), freedom of association (in meeting with other believers, even where banned by illegitimate laws), and so on. Nor was Paul shy about invoking his rights as a Roman citizen whenever it was useful. He did, however, forsake his rights – though gifts of Christ – on occasion for Christ's purposes. He did accept limitations, aggressions, slave-like treatment, whenever it would create an opportunity for the gospel. He had plenty of rights, he stood firm, but on occasion he could honestly say, “I have made no use of any of these rights” (1 Corinthians 9:15), wherever he found he could worship and witness and work better without invoking them. Paul would surely invite us to do the same.

Paul would also be the first one to tell us that far more important than any civil liberty is our spiritual liberty – our freedom in Christ from the power of sin, our freedom in Christ from the demands of the old law, our freedom in Christ from every burdensome load that obstructs us from God's liberating embrace. We are called to this freedom; it is what we were made for, and we cannot, dare not sacrifice it. To turn away from our spiritual liberty in Christ, to burden ourselves with a bevy of rules and systems and old childish ways, is to trap ourselves in a man-made maze; it is slavery, it is prison, it is death. On this point, Paul's words are absolute: “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Don't play the Judaizers' game, or any game like it; don't give an inch to those who make up defunct rules, who call you to jump through their hoops, who want you to base your Christian life anywhere but in the wide open expanses of God's mercy. Accept no abridgment of the freedom you have to live as God's child, a child of promise, a child born through the Spirit. Accept nothing that would hinder you from running with the Spirit when Jesus takes off running.

And the colonial preachers admitted that was even more important. Levi Hart, another of their number, asked, “What is English liberty, what is American freedom, when compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God?” Far more important than civil liberty, he said, was “that we are subjects of that spiritual liberty, which unites us to and interests us in the good of the whole kingdom of God our Saviour..., which shall last forever!” Simeon Howard called it “another and more valuable kind of liberty..., a liberty which consists in being free from the power and dominion of sin … Whatever our outward circumstances may be, if we are destitute of this spiritual liberty, we are in reality slaves, how much soever we may hate the name; if we possess it, we are free indeed.” On that score, Levi and Simeon are absolutely right. American rights, First Amendment rights, human rights – all great blessings, but nothing compared with the gospel liberty Paul has in mind.

The colonial preachers made much of Galatians 5:1. Less frequently did they venture onward to verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Not that they disagreed with the sentiment. Simeon Howard noted that liberty was no shapeless thing, moldable however we want it: “The law of nature which bounds this liberty, forbids all injustice and wickedness; allows no man to injure another in his person or property; or to destroy his own life.” Liberty, he said, is bounded by God's vision for human flourishing; 'injustice' and 'wickedness' have no place in a proper use of it. We may not use our freedom as an excuse to indulge our worst desires. That isn't real freedom; that's venturing off liberty's map and falling headlong into new slavery.

Simeon added that every community was bound to use its liberty “for the honor of God” and “to be an example of virtue to neighboring communities, and afford them relief when they are in distress.” And the same, I'd say, is true of us all: the proper way to use our liberty is to honor God, individually and as a church; and for each of us individually and us together as a church community to model a Spirit-led life of virtue to others; and for each of us individually and us together as a church to afford others relief when they are in distress. That is not slavery. That is real freedom. That is the right meaning of freedom: serving others in love, which is all the law was ever truly trying to get at anyway, “for the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).

All our rights – this is what they're for. This is why God gave them to us; this is the end for which Christ hath made us free. We are to serve others in love, to show them what the good life looks like, to help them in their times of distress, to do all this in every way that honors God. Freedom is for that. Paul and his interpreters in the American colonies, at their best, could agree on that. That purpose is what makes liberty worth standing firm over. And it implies so much about how we should live, about what our celebrated rights are ultimately about. The first step in standing fast for them is using them rightly in the first place.

This week, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, I'd encourage you to think about some of the rights you have – rights and privileges and liberties given to you by God, some of which are enumerated in our founding documents and supposed to be secured by good governance. Think of those liberties – freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom to have a voice in representative government, property rights, and so on – and ask yourself, “How am I standing firm on this? How am I using it to honor God? How am I using it to model the virtue of Jesus? How am I using it to afford relief to those in distress? How am I serving others through love with it?” But most of all, more importantly than all the rest, think of the spiritual liberty Jesus really died to win for you – and don't lapse back into the old routines that get you addicted and tie you down when Jesus is calling you up to action.

Stand fast, stand firm in every freeing gift of God in Christ, whereby your faith can use that freedom to serve others in love – love, service, and true worship are what your freedom is for. Having started this morning with a message by Rev. Simeon Howard, I'd like to close by turning things over to Rev. Jacob Duché. Hear his words for the First Battalion and for you:

Stand fast, then. Stand fast by a strong faith and dependence upon Jesus Christ, the great Captain of your Salvation. Enlist under the banner of his cross. … Stand fast by a virtuous and unshaken unanimity. … Stand fast by an undaunted courage and magnanimity. … Lastly, stand fast by a steady constancy and perseverance. Difficulties unlooked for may yet arise, and trials present themselves, sufficient to shake the utmost firmness of human fortitude. Be prepared, therefore, for the worst. … Coolly and deliberately wait for those events which are in the hands of Providence, and depend upon him alone for strength and expedients suited to your necessities. … In a word, my brethren, though the worst should come..., let us, nevertheless, stand fast as the Guardians of Liberty...

Even so, grant, thou great and glorious God, that to thee only may we look, and from thee experience that deliverance, which we ask, not for any merits of our own, but for the sake and through the merits of the dear Son of thy love, Christ Jesus our Lord! To whom, with thee, O Father, and thee, O Blessed Spirit! three persons in one eternal God, be ascribed all honour, praise, and dominion now, henceforth and forever!