Romans

“The Living Body of Christ: Can We Hear the Groans of Our World”

The Living Body of Christ

“Can We Hear the Groans of Our World?”

First Baptist Richmond, May 19, 2024

Romans 8:22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

It’s the Day of Pentecost.

The sermon today should be all about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the church. But I can’t seem to stop thinking about last Sunday’s sermon, which began with a story about Lynn Turner knocking on doors when she was in seminary, asking perfect strangers the question: “If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to Heaven?” It was a requirement for the evangelism class she was taking in seminary, and she told me later that it came from something called “Evangelism Explosion.” I looked it up and found that Evangelism Explosion was started by D. James Kennedy in 1962, and that the question Lynn asked was one of two “diagnostic questions” that were meant to prompt evangelistic conversations. The first one was this: “Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you can say you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?” And the second one was this: “Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?”i The thing I notice about both of those questions is that they are about going to heaven, as if that’s what the gospel was all about, but I don’t think that is what the gospel is all about.

I used to. As a young preacher I think I said once from the pulpit that on the

eternal scale your entire life is lived in about the time it takes to snap your fingers. “Only enough time,” I said, “to make one very important decision.” But in the years since I’ve tried to look at things from God’s perspective and not only from my own. From my perspective it makes an enormous amount of difference whether I end up in Heaven or in Hell, but what about from God’s perspective? Lately I’ve pictured God dropping pennies into two big jars: one labeled “Heaven” and the other labeled “Hell.” God looks at a penny, makes a decision about whether it’s a good one or a bad one, and then drops it into one of those jars. And he keeps doing this, day after day, because every day an angel brings him 150,000 new pennies (which is about how many people die each day). How long do you think God would have to do that before he got tired of it? How long do you think he would have to do that before he wondered, “What’s the point?”

A few years ago I told you about a video I had seen where a young theologian named Tim Mackie shared his version of what many people think we Christians believe.ii He used a big marker on a white board and wrote the word “Earth” on one side. And then, next to it, he wrote the word “Me.” He said, “A lot of people seem to think about it like this, that here you are, living your life, going along from day to day (and here he drew a horizontal line about halfway across the board), getting it right sometimes and other times getting it wrong but mostly, you know, doing OK. But at the end of the game God’s going to close the curtain on history and then, based on how good you’ve been or how bad you’ve been, or on whether you happen to hold correct beliefs about who Jesus is, your destiny is one of two places.” He drew a line slanting upward at a 45 degree angle and wrote the word “Heaven” beside it, and another line slanting downward with the word “Hell” beside it. And then he said, “Heaven is this place with clouds and harps and

singing and hell is basically this subterranean torture chamber.” He turned to his audience and said, “Are you guys with me? I mean this is what some people think the followers of Jesus believe. The vast majority of people in the west think that this is what you believe.” And then he laughed nervously and said, “Actually, some of you might be thinking, ‘Well, yeah. That is what I believe!’”

And then he said, “Look, I love you, and I care about you, but this is wrong. The main problem with this story is the Bible, and the other main problem with this story is the actual life and teachings of Jesus.” And then he challenged people to actually read the Bible, and to actually look at the life and teachings of Jesus. Because Jesus had plenty of opportunities to ask people if they knew for sure they were going to heaven, but he didn’t do it. Instead he helped them and healed them. He told them parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. He asked his followers to pray that it would come on earth. Jesus’ message wasn’t about us going to heaven; it was about heaven coming here. And when it was time to leave his mission in the hands of his disciples he gave them some very specific instructions, which you can find in the four canonical Gospels and in the Book of Acts:

1. In Acts 1:8 (the passage that I preached last week) Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

2. In Luke 24:46-47 he says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

3. In John 20:21-23 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

4. In the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, which is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts, Jesus says, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (this is the same passage that insists believers will be able to pick up poisonous snakes in their hands, which may be the main reason we don’t pay much attention to it).

5. And then there’s Matthew 28:18-20, often called the Great Commission (although, just to be clear, Jesus didn’t call it that). It says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Please notice that in none of these five commissions does Jesus mention the words heaven or hell, and yet we sometimes behave as if that’s what the gospel is all about, as if that’s what Jesus wanted us to do—go around knocking on doors and asking people where they plan to spend eternity. In one of these commissions he says, “You shall be my witnesses” (I talked about that last week), in another he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (I’d love for us to think more about that), and in another he says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”

Let me spend a few minutes talking about that because I think there’s been

some confusion about the Great Commission through the years. Some people seem to think Jesus was asking us to make converts rather than disciples; that if you could get someone to say the Sinners’ Prayer you had done your job; you could carve a notch in the spine of your Bible and move on. But the Greek word for disciple is mathētēs: it means “learner,” and it suggests that there are some things to learn. Jesus, after all, didn’t simply make converts out of those first followers; he spent three years teaching them all the things he wanted them to know. And then he told them to go and make disciples on their own, teaching them to obey everything he had commanded them. So, if we are only making converts, and not teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded, we’re not really making disciples, are we?

The word I prefer is apprentice, because I think that’s the way Jesus learned the trade of carpentry. Can you picture him as a boy, sitting in Joseph’s shop, watching him work? At some point he might have asked his abba to teach him how to do what he was doing. Joseph would have started with something simple, would have shown Jesus how to measure twice and cut once, but then he would have watched him while he did it and eventually let him try it on his own. I think that’s what Jesus was doing with his disciples. I think he called them into an apprenticeship. But instead of teaching them the work of carpentry he was teaching them the work of the Kingdom. They got to watch him help and heal. They got to listen to him teach and preach. At one point he sent them out to try it on their own, getting them ready for the day when it would all be up to them. He needed them to learn his trade because bringing heaven to earth is too big a job for any one person to do by himself, even Jesus.

And maybe that’s what I’ve been working toward from the beginning of this

sermon, toward the question of how we fit into all of this. Because I remember that when I came to First Baptist our mission was to “make disciples,” and I started asking, “OK, let’s say we do that. Let’s say fully formed, fully functioning disciples are rolling off the assembly line and out the door of First Baptist Church every day. What do they do?” And nobody seemed to have a good answer to that. The closest they came was to make more disciples. I wrote a blog post about that a few years later where I talked about my coffeemaker. I said, “What I don’t want my coffeemaker to do is make more coffeemakers. I already have a coffeemaker. No, what I want my coffeemaker to do is make coffee. That’s what I really need.” And I wondered if disciples weren’t supposed to be making some Kingdom coffee. I’m not even sure what that might be, but it was a provocative question. How do we learn to make not only more coffeemakers, but also some actual coffee?

There’s a movement that’s been gaining ground over the past few decades centered on the mission of God rather than the mission of the church. It’s called the missio Dei, and missiologist David Bosch describes it like this: “During the past half a century or so there has been a subtle but nevertheless decisive shift toward understanding mission as God’s mission. During preceding centuries mission was understood in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms: as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from the East and South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination). But in recent times the classical understanding of missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit, has been expanded to include yet another ‘movement’: The Father, Son and

the Holy Spirit sending the church into the world…. Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission (or, as Alan Hirsch puts it, the church is the tool of God’s mission, not the goal). To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.”iii Darrell Guder adds: “We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.”iv

And that’s the line that captures my imagination—“God’s purposes to restore and heal creation”—because it sounds so much more like the God I know and love than the one who would sit there dropping pennies into jars. For years now I have believed that what God wants, and what God is working toward, is “the redemption of all creation.” I believe that’s the missio Dei. It suggests that God created a perfectly beautiful world, but then humankind, in its God-given freedom, behaved in ways that made of the world a perfect mess. Ever since God has been working to redeem his creation and invites those of us who will to help him do it. This seems to be what Paul has in mind when he says, in today’s passage from Romans 8, “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” but now things are changing. Now we can see that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and that the only Son so loved the church that he sent the Holy Spirit. Now we have a chance to work together toward the redemption of all creation. On this Pentecost Sunday my friend Don Flowers asks, “We often listen for the rush of a mighty wind, but can we hear the groans of our world?” Can we roll up our sleeves and join Father, Son, and Spirit in working for its full redemption?

At staff retreat we were talking about how this congregation sings the Lord’s Prayer on the first Sunday of every month, how they love it and lean into it, with some people closing their eyes and others raising their hands. I said, “Maybe we love it so much because it so beautifully expresses our mission. ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we sing. ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Maybe when we sing that prayer with our eyes closed and our hands raised we are saying to God, “This! This is what we want. We want to see the redemption of all creation. We want to see your will be done, and your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. And as the living body of Christ this is what we want to be:

“An answer to the Lord’s Prayer.”

—Jim Somerville © 2024

When in Romans: Welcoming the Weak

When in Romans: Welcoming the Weak First Baptist Richmond, September 17, 2023 The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.

This is the final sermon in a series called, “When in Romans.” Next week I will start a new series that looks at the Old Testament reading and the Gospel lesson side by side. It’s called, “Jesus taught what Jesus learned,” and I think you’re going to love it. I hope you’ve loved this series from Romans. I hope you’ve learned something from it. I know I have.

I skipped over last week’s reading from Romans 13 so I could focus on the unity and diversity of the Body of Christ, but some scholars insist that you can’t really understand Romans 14 without reading Romans 13.i So, maybe we should back up just a bit and have a look.

I have appreciated this chapter for years, mostly because it’s one of the few places where Paul sounds almost exactly like Jesus. In Matthew 22 Jesus says that the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind is the greatest and first commandment, and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus claims. While in Romans 13 Paul says, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up

in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

I remember appreciating Romans 13 even more after reading a book called Torn, by Justin Lee. Lee was the sweetest, most conservative Christian kid you would ever want to meet until he discovered, to his horror, that he was attracted to boys. He dated girls desperately, trying to see if he could feel something, but it didn’t work. There was no attraction. When he finally, tearfully told his parents about it they took him to a program that promised to make him straight, but it was based on the premise that he must have had a distant father, or an overbearing mother, or that he had been abused as a child. None of those things was true for Justin. He had wonderful parents, and had never been abused. He was simply attracted to boys, not girls, and there didn’t seem to be anything he could do about it. After years of trying to understand why he was the way he was he prayed, “Dear God, show me what you want for my life and help me do it, even if that means remaining celibate for the rest of my life.”

I listened to Justin Lee read his book while I was on a long road trip a few years ago. He’s got a funny way of pronouncing the word God. It sounds sort of like Gawd. But he pronounced it constantly through the book. He was always trying to do what Gawd wanted. At one point he decided to study all the passages in the Bible that refer to homosexuality, about five of them, but he was determined not to let his same-sex attraction influence the outcome. “I wanted to obey Gawd,” he said. So, he looked at those passages under a microscope. He got someone to help him with the Greek and Hebrew. When he got to the end of his investigation he could not deny the fact that some of those passages explicitly condemn homosexual behavior. But then he read Romans 13, where Paul says,

“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Justin thought, “Really? Any other commandment? Even Leviticus 18:22, the one about a man not lying with a man as with a woman?”

I’ve tried to think about how Paul might answer that question. You may recall that he says some things in Romans 1 about men giving up natural intercourse with women and being consumed with passion for one another. It sounds like he’s against it. But I also know that he lived in a time and place where male prostitutes openly plied their trade in pagan temples, where the lusty young Emperor Caligula is said to have “worn out” his male partners, and where wealthy older men regularly forced themselves on the young boys they kept as household servants.ii All of that may have been winked at in the decadent Roman Empire, but it wasn’t okay even then, and it certainly wasn’t loving. As Paul might say, “It did wrong to a neighbor,” and therefore it was not the fulfilling of the law, it was the breaking of the law. “For this reason,” Paul writes, “[such men] received the due penalty for their error.”

But in our own time and place there are men (and women) living in committed, monogamous same-sex relationships that are unlike anything that existed in the Roman Empire of the first century, and certainly unlike anything Paul would have ever known. These people love each other. They do no wrong to their neighbors. And in that sense some Christians would argue that they are fulfilling the law. But there are other Christians who would argue that they are breaking the law, and they would point to verses like Leviticus 18:22 as evidence. So, what do you do with that? What do you do when committed Christians have

differing opinions on the same issue?

You turn to Romans 14.

In our reading for today Paul writes: “Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” And what he’s talking about, at least initially, is those who are weak in the faith when it comes to eating meat that has been offered to idols. In those days and in that culture people would often set choice cuts of meat in front of idols in a pagan temple. Afterward the priests would come by to collect the offerings, and they would cook and eat whatever they wanted. But some of the meat might be sold back to the butcher, who might then sell it to an unsuspecting Christian who wanted to bring a nice rack of lamb to the monthly potluck luncheon at church. And that’s when the question would come up: “Has this meat been offered to idols?” The person who brought it may not have known or cared. “What difference does it make? Idols aren’t real. They’re just statues made of wood and stone. Setting a piece of meat in front of an idol is no different from setting it in front of a display case window at the butcher shop.”

That was Paul’s opinion, and apparently that’s what he thought it meant to be “strong in the faith.” But other people weren’t so strong. They believed that putting meat in front of an idol contaminated it in some way. They were disgusted by the very idea of eating “idol meat,” and so they wouldn’t eat meat at all. Here’s the way Paul puts it in verse 2: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” He doesn’t mean that vegetarians are weak; he only means that some people’s consciences would be troubled by eating a piece of meat that had been offered to idols. The example Paul uses may not be familiar to us, but the principle still applies. He writes: “Those who eat must not despise those who

abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.”

I’m guessing that through the years that principle has been applied to any number of church conflicts, including some of the more recent ones (contemporary worship or traditional? Gluten-free communion wafers or glutinous?). Thanks to my brother Scott (who is both a Harvard-trained lawyer and, by his own admission, a conservative Christian), I have come to believe it can be applied to the conflict surrounding the issue of human sexuality, which has divided not only churches, but also entire denominations. With that in mind I wrote a paraphrase of Romans 14 that went something like this: “Welcome those who have differing opinions on human sexuality, but not for the purpose of quarreling. Some advocate for the church’s full inclusion of the LGBTQ community (meaning those people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer), while others hold to a more traditional view. Those who wish to include must not despise those who don’t, and those who don’t must not pass judgment on those who do; for God has welcomed them.” Hear that again: “Some advocate for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Some hold to a more traditional view.”

And some change their minds.

I started my own journey on this issue when I was in fourth grade. On the first day of school a little girl walked into the room who made me think, “That. That’s what I want.” Even though I didn’t have the language for it at the time that’s when I discovered that I was heterosexual. If I had felt those same feelings for the little boy on the other side of the room I would have had a much different journey. But as the years went by I began to hear about some boys who liked

boys, and my response was probably just as homophobic as the rest of my West Virginia peers. We fear what we don’t understand. I remember the uncomfortable feeling I got in college when a close friend asked me what I thought about homosexuality. I think he was trying to find out if it was safe to share his secret with me.

But then in seminary I began to study human sexuality along with all the other classes I was taking, thinking that one day the question might be something more than academic. And then, a few years into my second pastorate, it was. I remember sitting in my study with a young man who had grown up in the church and since moved to New York City. He had come home to visit his parents but first he wanted to talk to me. He said, “I’m getting ready to tell my parents that I’m gay, and they’re not going to like it. They’ll need someone to talk to afterward and I’m wondering if you could be the one.” I said I could, and that’s how I ended up sitting on his parents’ couch that same afternoon. For some reason I ended up sitting between them, but I remember reaching out on both sides, taking their hands, and saying, “None of us has ever been through this before, but let’s go through it together.”

In the years that followed I went through it many more times, especially when I was a pastor in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, DC. I heard confessions from people who had been keeping secrets most of their lives, afraid that if they told the truth they would no longer be welcome in their own families, much less the church. I listened to their stories, I read the books, I watched the documentaries, I studied Scripture, I said my prayers. Little by little I came to believe that this was not something they were choosing, it was something they were discovering, just as I had discovered my own sexuality. And then, a few years

ago, in this church, a mother came to me and told me that her daughter had just “come out” to her. She said, “I need to know if my daughter will still be welcome here, because if she’s not, we will need to find another church.” I knew this girl. I loved this girl. I had done both her baby dedication and her baptism. I think it was in that moment that I became an advocate for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community because I thought, “If this little girl is not welcome in this church, then I’m not welcome in this church.”

But this is not a sermon about the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community. This is a sermon about the full inclusion of people who have differing opinions. So, while I have strong feelings about making everybody welcome here there may be others (in fact, I’m fairly certain there are others) who feel that this is a matter of biblical integrity. They cannot disregard those passages that condemn homosexual behavior. Well, neither can I. But even more than that I cannot disregard those people who have different opinions than I do, and I certainly can’t “despise” them. Instead I want to say, “Come, let us reason together.iii You tell me your opinion and I’ll tell you mine. But let’s do it in a way that makes it clear we are Christian brothers and sisters, who love and respect each other, and that when we have these conversations we are not trying to win, but rather trying to learn.” Paul says, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. [Therefore] let all be fully convinced in their own minds, [because] each of us will be accountable to God.”

Could we think about it like that, whether the issue is eating meat that has been offered to idols or the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community? Could we realize that in the end it won’t be a debate between us and those people who have differing opinions? It will just be us—each of us—on our own, standing

before God. That’s why we need to be fully convinced in our own minds. That’s why we need to be able to say, “Lord, I did the very best I could. I read all the books, I had all the conversations, I worked my way through the entire Bible, I prayed for your divine guidance. I wanted to base my convictions not on what someone else had told me, but on what I, myself, had discovered. And I may have been wrong about all of it. It’s possible. But, Lord, my heart was in it. I was trying to do what you would want. Forgive me if I’ve failed you.” That’s the kind of humility that will keep you from thinking you are right and everyone else is wrong. That’s the kind of humility that will make it possible for us to be members of the same church, even if we have differing opinions.

So may it be,

And so may we pray.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

i John Piper, for one, according to my brother Scott. ii See Sarah Ruden, Paul among the People: the Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Pantheon, 2010), especially Chapter 3. iii Isaiah 1:18

When in Romans: Living Like Christians

First Baptist Richmond, September 3, 2023
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:9-21

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

            In a book called unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons conclude that “Christianity has an image problem.”[i] They came to that conclusion after spending three years talking to young, unchurched Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 and asking them what they thought about Christianity. What those young people thought is that Christians are hypocritical, too political, too focused on getting converts, too sheltered, too judgmental, and antihomosexual. One outsider put it this way: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”[ii] Now obviously that description doesn’t fit the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, but people out there don’t know that.

And so, a few years ago I asked our deacons to give some thought to how we might change people’s perceptions and they spent the better part of one of their regular meetings brainstorming solutions and suggesting strategies. I believe we have seen some of the fruit of that exercise in the way this church is perceived. I was approached by a woman last week who confessed that she was an Episcopalian, but also that she watches our worship service on television every week. “I love it!” she gushed. “Your congregation is so inclusive!” But for every person who tunes in and watches, for everyone who finds the courage to actually walk through the doors, there are thousands more who walk on by, who say, “You couldn’t get me in that place if you tried; that place is full of Christians.”

            How did that happen? When did the word Christian become so offensive to young people? Kinnaman and Lyons suggest that some of it started back in the eighties, when Christians began to get involved in politics, believing they could sway the vote through sheer numbers and political power (remember the Moral Majority?). But I believe the problem goes back further than that. I believe it goes back to last week’s reading from Romans 12, where Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world,” because I believe the Christians young people have trouble with are those who have been conformed to this world. Look at that list again: hypocritical, too political, too concerned with getting converts, too sheltered, too judgmental, and antihomosexual. Does that sound to you like people who have been transformed by the renewing of their minds, or people whose lives have been shaped by all the fears, prejudices, and suspicions of this world?

In the Book of Acts we learn that it was in Antioch of Syria that the believers were first called Christians.[iii] That was Paul’s home church. That’s where he and Barnabas were when they were sent out as missionaries. But in Antioch the word Christian was used in a derogatory way. It meant “little Christ,” and I can almost hear someone saying, “Oh, look! Here comes one of those ‘little Christs,’ one of those ‘Christians!’” Apparently they called them that because they behaved like Christ, because they were, literally, Christlike. But between that time and the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans some Christians had stopped behaving in a Christlike way. They were being conformed to this world, so that Paul had to bring it up in his letter. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

And I don’t think he only wanted them to discern it, I think he wanted them to do it. I think he wants us to do it. If we did, I can’t imagine that we would have an image problem. I can’t imagine anyone saying, “Those Christians! All they do is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. It’s driving me crazy!” So, what keeps us from doing that? Conformity. We look at the way the world does things and think we should do them that way too. We find ourselves driven by the love of success and the fear of failure. “Think again,” Paul says. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” And in today’s reading from Romans 12 he gives us a pretty good idea of what that would look like.

Beginning with verse 9 he writes: “Let love be genuine.” And that’s so important. Have you ever had an experience of love that wasn’t genuine? That’s the worst. I don’t know if it applies but I remember going into the Kentucky Baptist Convention building when I was a seminary student and being greeted by someone who was so “nice,” so syrupy sweet, that when I came out later I felt like I needed a bath. Genuine love is not like that. It’s not a matter of being nice. It’s a matter of laying down your life for others even if, personally, you can’t stand them.[iv]

“Hate what is evil,” Paul writes, and I need to point out that he doesn’t say hate who is evil, but only what, and there are some evil things in this world. Frederick Buechner says he used to think evil was relative until one day, standing at a newsstand in Manhattan, he looked down at the front page of the New York Post and saw a picture of a victim of child abuse. The picture was so graphic that Buechner remembers thinking, “That. That is what absolute evil looks like.” “Hate that,” Paul says.

“But hold fast to what is good,” and that reminds me of the Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi, which means, literally, “to let go.” “Yes,” Paul might say. “Let go of all those hateful and horrible things people have said about you or done to you through the years, but hold fast to what is good. Don’t let it go. It will sustain you in the darkest times.” And then he turns his attention to the church:

“Love one another with mutual affection,” he writes, and unlike that other kind of love, the kind that requires laying down our lives for each other, this one is simply about liking each other, about looking forward to the fellowship of Sunday school classes and Wednesday night suppers. The word in Greek is philadelphia, which as you probably know, means not only brotherly, but also sisterly, love.

“Outdo one another in showing honor,” Paul writes, which makes me think that we could look around for ways to honor each other. One of the ways we could do that is by believing only the best about our fellow church members and if we have anything to say, saying only the best. Try to find that one thing in another person that you can praise, and then praise that.

“Do not lag in zeal,” Paul writes, “be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” To me that means that we serve the Lord in an eager, enthusiastic way, maybe even when we don’t feel like it. Instead of showing up to volunteer as if we had been dragged out of our beds, we show up smiling, ready to serve (“like those wonderful young people at Chick Fil-A”).

“Rejoice in hope,” Paul writes, “be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer,” and if you’ve ever been really sick you know what he’s talking about. You’ve got to hold on to the hope that you can get better. It’s often what brings you though those times of intense suffering, and the suffering is what inspires those persevering prayers. “Please God,” you say through gritted teeth, “hear my prayer.” And God does, even when the answer is not what you hoped for.

“Contribute to the needs of the saints,” Paul writes; “extend hospitality to strangers,” which simply means that we see it as part of our Christian duty to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. We make sure they have enough to eat, and clothes to wear, and a place to sleep at night. It’s not always easy but extending to others the basic necessities of life makes our own lives richer and more rewarding.

“Bless those who persecute you,” Paul writes; “bless and do not curse them.” Oh boy! This is where you can really tell the difference between those Christians who have been conformed to this world and those who have been transformed by the renewing of their minds. Because the conformed Christian will curse his persecutors without a second thought, but the transformed Christian will think of Jesus, who said, even as he was dying on the cross, “Father forgive them.”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Paul writes, “and weep with those who weep.” This may be a call for the kind of sensitivity that knows the difference, and it may create the kind of community where, when someone asks, “How are you, really?” the other person feels free to tell the truth, even if it means stopping to weep a while, together.

“Live in harmony with one another,” Paul writes; “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” And all of that would go a long way toward harmony. Have you ever tried to get along with people who are haughty, who think they know everything, who say, “In my humble opinion” when it’s really not humble at all? Bring yourself down a notch, Paul might say, before someone does it for you. Associate with the lowly and learn from them that what you are, just as you are, is enough.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” Paul writes, “but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Do you know that when someone does evil to you and you do the same to them, to get even with them, it doesn’t look good at all? “Well, he started it!” you say, after slinging mud at the person who slung mud at you, but in the end you’re both covered with mud. It isn’t attractive, and it isn’t noble.

“If it is possible,” Paul writes, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” and I love the nuance of that. Sometimes it isn’t possible to live peaceably with all. Sometimes other people make it impossible. But if it is possible, Paul writes, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. At the very least don’t start anything.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves,” he writes, “but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” All you need to know about that is that vengeance is not yours. I remember reading this verse when I was a teenager and writing my brother’s name in the margin of my Bible. I think I was telling myself that it wasn’t my job to get even with him for whatever he had done.

“No,” Paul writes, “‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’” That is, you will make them ashamed. And that sounded good to me. I remember bringing my brother a sandwich and a glass of milk just because I wanted to heap burning coals on his head. But what did I really do? I did something kind for him. And what did it inspire him to do? Something kind for me. Our feud was quickly forgotten. To this day I can’t remember why I wrote his name in my Bible.

And maybe that’s why Paul writes, finally, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

I’ve mentioned this before, but when the church I served in North Carolina began a ministry to the children of a nearby trailer park we had to decide what kind of ministry it would be. We could have chosen to root out all the sources of evil in that place—to chase down the drug dealers and the deadbeat dads, to confiscate handguns and round up child abusers. Instead we decided to put up a basketball hoop, sing songs about Jesus, tell stories from the Bible, serve cookies and Kool-Aid.  Most of all we decided to love children who didn’t seem to have a lot of love in their lives. And two years after we started that ministry, two years of going out there Saturday after Saturday to do those things, I got a note in my mailbox with five words on it:  “Adrian wants to be baptized.”

Adrian. The terror of the trailer park. The one person who had made our work most difficult during the previous two years. She was probably sixteen years old at the time. She would have been one of those young people David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons wrote about a decade later, who look at the way Christians behave in the world and decide they want no part of it.

But she did want a part of it.

Something about the way we lived out our faith in front of her made her think she wanted some of that for her own, and so she told one of our volunteers who put a note in my box. A few weeks later it was my privilege to do Adrian’s baptism. We stood there waist-deep in the water in the sanctuary of a Baptist church, and when it was time to dip her under the water I asked her to confess her faith. She looked around at that room full of Christians, smiling at her, nodding their heads, offering their encouragement. But she didn’t say she wanted to be a Christian. She said what new believers have been saying even before they were called Christians. She said, “Jesus is Lord.”

I haven’t heard from Adrian in years, but if Jesus is still her Lord I would hope that she hasn’t been conformed to this world (she never was before). I would hope that she has been transformed by the renewing of her mind so that she might discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect—and then do it in such a way that her life would show it, and others who looked at her life might say, “I want some of that. I don’t even know what that is, but whatever it is,

“I want some.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity…and why it matters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), p. 11.

[ii] Ibid., p. 26.

[iii] Acts 11:26

[iv] Frederick Buechner says that’s what it means to love your neighbor: “it means acting in their best interests even if, personally, you can’t stand them.”

When in Romans: With Minds Transformed

First Baptist Richmond, August 27, 2023
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

            What did you bring with you today?

            No, seriously. You came to worship. What did you bring? Because if this were ancient Israel, and you were a faithful Jew, you wouldn’t have come to the temple without an offering, and probably not without some animal to offer as a sacrifice. Old Testament scholar Lawrence Boadt explains that when it came to worship: “Sacrifices were central. A sacrifice in Israel’s thinking primarily rendered our service back to God,” he writes. “In the case of animal sacrifice, humans returned as a gift the life that God gave as a gift. Thus the death of the animal itself was not as important as the sprinkling of its life-carrying blood on the altar and the taking of the animal out of everyday service to give it back to God alone. The occasion was normally a time of joy, signaling praise, reverence, and thanksgiving to God. But sacrifices could also be offered as petitions or as sin offerings for guilt. Even if the occasion was the hope of forgiveness or relief from disease or other calamity, the note of trust and hope always played a major role in the spirit of offering.”[i]

            Boadt goes on to clarify that, “Sacrifices were well known throughout the ancient world, but in Israel, unlike in some Canaanite cults, the sacrifice was never considered a magical ritual that brought God to act in a certain way. The spirit of adoration and silence and the obedience of the people before Yahweh always stand out.”[ii] So, let me ask again: what did you bring to worship today? In Old Testament times you might have brought:

  1.  A holocaust offering: in which an animal would be completely burned up on the altar after the priest had laid his hands on its head and its blood had been sprinkled on the altar.
  2.  A grain offering: in which you would present a number of small cakes baked with unleavened flour together with a small portion of oil and incense.
  3.  A peace offering: in which an animal would be offered up for thanksgiving to God or to fulfill a vow that had been made. In this case the entire animal would not be burned, but only a few inner organs and the best fatty parts. The rest would be shared as a meal with family or guests. 
  4.  A sin offering: in case you had become unclean by touching a dead body or through disease or other causes listed in the law, or by doing something forbidden by the law, you could make atonement by offering an animal to God. In this case only the fat would be burned and the blood sprinkled on the altar. The rest would be burned outside the temple area.
  5.  And finally, for more serious offenses like cheating or stealing, you might bring a guilt offering. This sacrifice would be a male ram brought to the priest, which would be slaughtered like the sin offering, its fatty parts offered on the altar, and the rest burned outside the camp. There would also be the expectation that you would return whatever you had stolen or cheated someone out of.[iii]

So, let me ask you again: what did you bring to worship?

            We’ve been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans over the past few weeks. We’ve looked at the first chapter, where he describes in vivid detail the depravity of the Roman Empire in which he lived and worked; chapter two, where he claims that devout Jews are really no better than their pagan neighbors when it comes to pleasing God; chapters three through seven, where he spells out the remedy for sin—the grace of God, made available to us through our faith in Jesus Christ; chapter eight where he touches on the problem of suffering and insists that if we let it, it can bring us closer to Christ; and finally, chapters 9-11, where he considers the plight of his fellow Israelites who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah: what will become of them? Paul cannot imagine that God will break the promises he made to his people so long ago. At the end of chapter eleven he pictures them, sinners that they are, knocking on the door of heaven, and God throwing it wide open to let them in. With that thought in mind Paul bursts into doxology: He writes, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! …For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33, 36).

            And so it is with Israel very much in mind that Paul begins chapter 12, our text for today, where he writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Back in chapter 9 he had said about Israel that theirs was, “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises,” and when he said worship he was talking about the worship described in Leviticus 1-7, the one I’ve reminded you of this morning, where people actually brought animals to the temple and offered them as sacrifices. It was a physical form of worship. In Romans 12 Paul writes about a spiritual form of worship, in which he invites us to bring our own bodies to church and offer them as living sacrifices. Which is a relief, right? He doesn’t want us to lay ourselves on the altar, but instead every spiritual gift we have been given, every good thing our bodies are capable of doing, every small thing that would build up the church.

            And that’s different.

            Paul calls us to do this “by the mercies of God,” and he does it just after he has said that God intends to be merciful to all (Rom. 11:32). That is, all of us are sinners, both Jew and Gentile. We all deserve death. But God is going to be merciful to us. God is not going to give us what we deserve. Instead God is going to give us life. And with that life we have the opportunity to give something back to God. And so, Paul writes, “by the mercies of God…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Some translations say, “which is your reasonable worship.” And it is reasonable. If God has spared your life then you owe it to him. You ought to find some good way to give it back to him. And there are lots of good ways. We’ll talk about some of those in a minute, but for now let’s take a look at verse 2, where Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

            I was talking with someone last week who said he loves this verse; his whole life has been shaped by it. I had been looking at the Greek text earlier that day and I was able to tell him that the word conformed, in English, comes from the same Greek root as the word schematic, as if to say, “Don’t pattern your life after the schematic diagram of this world,” and especially the world Paul was living in: the corrupt Roman Empire. But instead be transformed (from the same Greek root as metamorphosis), be metamorphosed by the renewing of your mind. Because this can happen: if you begin to think differently you will begin to live differently. For example: if you begin to think that your salvation is not up to you, that it’s up to Jesus, and he has already done everything necessary to save you, it will lead to a different way of life. Instead of anxiously striving to earn your own salvation you will begin to live in a state of gratitude. You will come to church with an offering of thanksgiving, and that offering will be you. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And then Paul stops preaching and goes to meddling. He says:

  1.  Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. And why would you? If you’ve been following Paul’s argument at all you know that you are a sinner saved by grace. It wasn’t anything you did that saved you; it was what Christ did. So why should you think of yourself highly at all? You are one more sinner, standing in a long line, holding out your empty hands, begging for the gift of grace (think of that the next time you see someone standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign).
  2.  Instead of thinking too much of yourself, think of yourself as part of Christ’s body with a particular function, for just as your body has many different parts (each with its own function), so does the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about the value of each part, but here in Romans 12 he seems more concerned with the function. It’s not so much that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” but that the eye is for seeing, and the hand is for grasping. “So what about you?” Paul might ask. “What is your function in the body? How do you help the body of Christ do what it needs to do?”
  3.  And then he begins to give examples: “If your gift is prophecy,” he says (we might say preaching), “then prophesy in proportion to your faith; if it’s ministry (or service), then minister! If it’s teaching, teach! Let the one who is gifted in exhortation exhort,” he says, “and the one who is generous, give. Let the leader lead with diligence and the compassionate care with cheerfulness.” In other words, whatever gift God has given you, use it for the good of the body of Christ.

Some of you may remember that when I was a pastor in Washington, DC, we began to have a problem with homeless people sleeping in the doorway of our building. A police officer told us, “If you don’t do anything about this, then you are essentially running a homeless shelter, only not a very good one.” So, I decided to get to the bottom of the problem.  I decided I would spend the night out there and see what was going on. I liked to camp; I had all the right gear. I asked some of our young adults at church if they wanted to join me and one of them said he would. 

So, we showed up one Friday night in October, with our backpacker’s mattresses and fancy sleeping bags. We didn’t bring a tent but while we were staking out our campsite somebody came around the corner to see what we were up to. His name was Harry, and he was from Sumter, South Carolina. He had come to DC for a job, but it hadn’t worked out and now he found himself on the streets. We talked for a while and then he said, “Hey, aren’t you the pastor?” I admitted that I was and he disappeared around the corner. I thought I had seen the last of him. But five minutes later he came back with ten or twelve of his homeless friends in tow.

We ended up sitting on the front lawn in a circle and after sharing their needs one of the women asked, “Can we pray?” So we joined hands and prayed, and when we finished she said, “Oh, now we’ve got to sing ‘Amazing Grace!’” And we did. It was the most ragged, tuneless, and yet somehow beautiful version of that song I had ever heard. It was the kind of grace Paul is talking about in the Book of Romans, the kind that saved a wretch like me.

Harry ended up joining the church; he came down the aisle the next Sunday. And when we started talking about going on a mission trip to New Orleans to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina, Harry wanted to go. Can I just tell you?  That was the oddest assortment of missionaries that have ever come together. When we got to New Orleans the Red Cross asked us to help them organize a warehouse full of donations that had come in, many of them in boxes that looked really heavy. The woman in charge told us there was a forklift, but we couldn’t use it without a certified forklift operator. I looked at my team and wondered if any of us were fit to move those boxes—the eighty-year-old woman, the guy in the wheelchair, the high school student who weighed over 300 pounds. But then I thought, “Wait a minute: where’s Harry?” And that’s when I heard the beep of a horn and saw Harry coming around the corner driving a forklift with a huge grin on his face. Turns out he was a certified forklift operator.

I shared that story with you seven years ago, in a sermon from Philemon, about how Onesimus, a runaway slave, became part of the family. But I thought of it again a few weeks ago when I got the news that Harry had died. He had become a part of that church family in Washington. Week after week he had shown up for worship ready to offer himself as a living sacrifice, to do whatever he could do to make the body of Christ in that place stronger. His funeral was at 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t able to make it. But I hear the entire church showed up.

“Whatever it is you can do,” Paul says, “whatever your gift is, whatever you’re good at, use that for building up the body of Christ.” In just a moment I’m going to ask those of you who are members to do the same. I want you to take that 3X5 card someone handed you earlier, and while the choir is singing the anthem I want you to think about what you’re good at, what your gifts are, what you love to do—anything, really, that might build up the body of Christ in this place—and then write that down on the card so that, during the closing hymn, you can bring it forward and lay it on the altar. What did you bring to worship today? You brought you.

And it turns out that’s what God wants most of all.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: an Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), p. 272.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 272-273.

[iii] All of this is from Leviticus 1-7 as described by Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, pp. 273-274.

When in Romans: Merciful to All

When in Romans: Merciful to All
First Baptist Richmond, August 20, 2023
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! 

            I got email on Monday.

That happens sometimes when I say something on Sunday that sounds controversial. I wasn’t trying to be controversial. I was talking about believing that God raised Jesus from the dead, and saying that there are some people who have trouble doing that, and the next day I got email from someone who asked, “Are you saying you don’t have to believe in the Resurrection? Because that seems pretty central to the whole Christian enterprise.”

So, let me say to you what I said to him. I said, “First of all, let me reassure you that I believe God raised Jesus from the dead, physically, bodily. I’ve never had any trouble believing that. My mother used to say that I had the gift of faith. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good reminder that faith is a gift, not a choice. I know people who don’t believe that God raised Jesus from the dead physically, bodily, but it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. They have tried and failed. It’s as if there’s this ‘rational filter’ between them and the Bible and that filter won’t let the Resurrection through. So, when Paul says, ‘If you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead you will be saved,’ they begin to worry that they won’t be saved, and I begin to look a little more closely at Romans 10:9.”

I notice that this verse is in the middle of a chapter where Paul is talking about the futility of trying to save yourself by what you do. His fellow Israelites won’t be saved by keeping the law, he says, and you, likewise, won’t be saved by what you do. It’s not a matter of works; it’s a matter of faith. And for Paul faith doesn’t mean trying to believe things that, for you, are impossible to believe; it means giving up the impossible task of trying to save yourself; it means turning that job over to Jesus, and trusting that what he has done for you is enough. If you are one of those people who has a hard time believing in the physical, bodily resurrection I want you to hear that, because I want you to know that you still have a place in the church.

At the end of last week’s service I talked about what it would be like if I asked my three-year-old grandson to lift a hundred pounds over his head. He would try, and he would try hard, but he wouldn’t be able to do it. There may come a time when he can, but at three years old it’s impossible. Now imagine that I divided the congregation into those who could lift a hundred pounds over their head and those who couldn’t, and began to say that only those people in the hundred-pound club could serve in leadership positions, or teach Sunday school, or take communion. You would say, “That’s not fair! It leaves out children and old people!” And in the church we don’t want to leave out children and old people. We don’t want to leave out anyone, do we? I find that’s one of my constant concerns as a pastor. Even though I am a straight, white, cisgendered, American man, who has rarely been excluded from anything, I want to make sure we don’t exclude anyone else. I want to make sure that everyone has a place at the Lord’s Table. And that’s what today’s reading from Romans is all about.

Paul is wondering what will become of his fellow Israelites, those who have not accepted Jesus. At the beginning of chapter 9 he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart, but by the time he gets to chapter 11 he is beginning to feel a little more hopeful, a little more confident. He asks: “Has God rejected his people?” And then he answers his own question: “Absolutely not!” Paul cannot accept the idea that God’s chosen people will somehow now be accursed and cut off. “They are Israelites,” he says in chapter 9, “and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever” (Rom. 9:4-5).

And so he begins to look for reasons to include rather than exclude, just as I was looking for reasons to include those who have a hard time believing in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.

  1.  He begins with the argument that he himself is an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. If Israelites are not part of God’s family then Paul is not part of God’s family, and that seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
  2.  He moves on to a story from 1 Kings, where Elijah thought he was the only Israelite left who hadn’t worshiped Baal, the god of the Canaanites. But God told him, “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (I Kings 19:18). “So, too, at the present time, there is a remnant,” Paul says, Israelites who have received the gift of God’s grace, and we have no idea how many that might be.
  3.  As for the rest, he says, “They have been given a sluggish spirit.” They haven’t embraced the new thing God is doing. They have rejected his Messiah. But all of this, Paul insists, is so that the Gentiles can be brought into the family, and once they are there the Israelites will become jealous, and will want to come back into the full embrace of the Heavenly Father.

I’ve got to say that, for me, this is where Paul’s argument begins to break down. Trying to make people jealous doesn’t sound like something God would do, but it does sound like something my mother might do.

When I was about thirteen years old she decided to take in some foster children. There were lots of reasons she might have done such a thing. With six boys of her own she might have thought two or three more wouldn’t make a difference. It’s likely that she appreciated the extra income she earned by being a foster parent. But on some level I wouldn’t be surprised if she were trying to teach her own sons a lesson about gratitude. She was waiting for those foster children to say, “Wow, you guys really have it good!” But that’s not what those foster children said. In many ways they were just as ungrateful as we were. Still, their presence made an impact; it made us wonder about our own place in the family.

It was around that time I read a book called The Walkabout, the story of an indigenous Australian boy about my age who spent several weeks on his own in the outback as a test of his manhood. I admired the way he lived off the land in that story. I admired his independence and self-sufficiency.  And, because I was a Boy Scout, I thought I could do it, too.

So, one Friday afternoon that fall I made a loincloth out of a long, wide strip of fabric, tucking it into a leather belt around my waist. Like the boy in the book I decorated my face with tribal markings, using my mother’s red lipstick to make two big circles around my eyes.  When I came down to the kitchen she was cutting up the ingredients for a stew she was making for supper—potatoes, carrots, beef.  She looked up from the cutting board and saw me standing there in a loincloth, big red circles around my eyes, but to her credit she showed no surprise.

“Going somewhere?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.  “I’m going on my walkabout. I’m going to spend the night in the woods and live off the land. So, whatever I do, no matter how hard I knock, don’t let me in that door tonight.”

“All right,” she said.  “Have a good time.”

And with that I was off, moving stealthily up the path toward the woods, past our neighbor’s house where I stopped long enough to glean a couple of gourds left over from their summer garden. I made my way to the top of the mountain behind our house, stepping over old strands of barbed wire in my bare feet, trying to avoid briars, roots, rocks, and stinging nettles. But when I got to the top it was wonderful. I stepped out onto a ledge and watched the sun sink toward the horizon.

I was king of the hill.

I found a big, flat rock that was covered in thick, springy moss, and when I lay down on it I knew I had found my bed for the night. To stay warm I gathered up a big pile of dry leaves and put them next to the rock thinking that when I was ready to go to bed I would just pile them up on top of me. And then I squatted down on that ledge, looking out over the valley, to crack open those gourds and scoop out the pulpy flesh. I felt like the boy in the book up there on that mountain, hunkered down in my loincloth, the fading light of day on my face, a big handful of gourd pulp in my mouth. But it tasted awful. I spit it out and decided I wasn’t quite that hungry. I thought about that big pot of stew simmering on the stovetop at home. I thought about how good it would be to sit down with my family and eat it, but then I chased the thought from my mind. I had told my mother I would be out all night and that’s just what I intended to do. And then, because it was getting dark, I bedded down for the night.

That moss was incredibly comfortable, and the rock under it was so smooth and flat it felt almost like being in my bed at home.  I piled those dry leaves up and over me and breathed out a sigh of contentment. I closed my eyes and waited to drift off to sleep as the moon began to come up over the horizon, and that’s when I felt the first bite.

It was a hard, fiery bite, like someone had poked me with a burning stick. And then there was another, and then another. Apparently that moss was not only a comfortable bed, but home to a million or more small, biting bugs. All they needed was the smell of my warm flesh to draw them out of the depths and into a feeding frenzy.  I leaped up off my bed and tried to brush any remaining bugs off my back and legs. But it was too late. I must have been bitten a hundred times. 

I stood there in the moonlight wondering what to do next. I couldn’t really lie back down; those bug bites were itching like crazy. I finally decided to go down to the river, scoop some cool, black mud from the riverbank, and smear it on those bites. It took a long time to make my way down the mountain in the moonlight, trying to avoid roots and rocks, old strands of barbed wire and stinging nettle. I wasn’t entirely successful. I limped past the house bruised and bleeding, and when I looked in through the windows I could see my family sitting around the table, talking and laughing, and those foster brothers eating big bowls of beef stew and thick slices of homemade bread, spread with freshly churned butter. Was I jealous? Yes, I was. But I made my way down to the river and slathered myself from head to toe with cool, black mud. It felt wonderful.

Can you see that picture in your mind? A thirteen-year-old boy sitting on the riverbank in the dark, covered in mud? That’s when the thrill of the adventure began to wear off. That’s when I began to think about how good it would feel to just go home. But I had told my mother I would be out all night and not to let me in. What if she didn’t? I thought maybe I could sleep in the barn, or in the back seat of the car, but I didn’t want to. I was itchy and achy, bruised and bleeding. I wanted to go home. I sat there until the cool air began to drift in off the water and make me shiver, and then I waded out into the river, washed the mud off my body, and started back up the hill toward home.

When I got to the back yard I could see that supper was over—the table had been cleared and Mom was in the kitchen washing up. I swallowed hard and climbed the back steps, knocked on the door, and waited to see what would happen.

“Who is it?” Mom called.

“It’s me,” I said, in a small voice.

And then the door swung open, light and warmth came pouring out, the smell of fresh-baked bread and homemade stew came rushing toward me, and my mom stood there in her apron, looking at this skinny, shivering, bug-bitten boy in a loincloth, a little bit of mud still smeared behind one ear. 

“Would you care for some supper?” she asked.

“Well, yes, but . . . I told you not to let me in.”

“Aw, that’s all right.  I think I’ve got enough stew for you.”

And then she pulled me into the house, and into her warm embrace, and the love flowed all around me, and the tears welled up in my eyes.  I stayed right there for a long time.  And then Mom pushed me down the hall toward the bathroom where I washed up and put on some warm, dry clothes. When I got back to the table there was a steaming bowl of stew, and a thick slice of buttered bread, and a tall glass of milk waiting for me, and Mom sitting there ready to hear about my adventures. I don’t think anything had ever tasted so good to me as that stew, and I don’t think anything had ever sounded so sweet to me as my mother saying,

“Welcome home.”

Paul reminds us that in the heart of the Heavenly Father there is a deep desire to have all his children at home, sitting down together around the same table. He knows not all of them will come. Not all of them will want to. They still have freedom of choice. But for his part, like a loving mother, God intends to be merciful to all.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

_______________

Just one more thing: The last verse in today’s reading says that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All that really means is that people are people. They’re going to go their own way and do their own thing. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And yet God can’t stop loving those sinners. He feels his heart breaking, the tears trickling down his cheeks. If they knock on his door he’s going to let them in.

When in Romans: Wholehearted Belief

First Baptist Richmond, August 13, 2023
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 10:5-15

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

            In last Sunday’s sermon Lynn Turner made a confession. She said the hardest class she took in seminary was not systematic theology or biblical hermeneutics: it was Romans. She couldn’t follow Paul’s logic, his sentences ran on endlessly, she couldn’t grasp his theology. And so she said she wasn’t going to try to explain all of that. Instead she was going to let our pastor, who is a New Testament scholar, do it when he got back. And you laughed as if to say, “Well played, Lynn!” But I was driving home from my uncle’s memorial service in North Carolina, listening to the sermon in my car. I didn’t laugh. I thought, “I’m not sure I understand Paul any better than Lynn does!” But I’ve thought about it since then and I think I have an explanation that may be helpful. Are you ready? Here it is:

Paul didn’t actually write Romans.

            Stay with me. He dictated it, but he didn’t write it. That job fell to someone named Tertius, who says in Romans 16:22, “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” But who is Tertius? I did some research and learned that he was no mere scribe. Tertius was a theologian in his own right: numbered among the Seventy Disciples in a list compiled by Hippolytus, and the successor of Sosipater (who is mentioned in Romans 16:21) as the Bishop of Iconium.[i] So, what you have in Romans is the great Apostle Paul and the soon-to-be Bishop of Iconium working on a letter together. It may have been a much more collaborative process than we have imagined.

            I picture it like this: Paul, pacing back and forth, one hand behind his back while he strokes his beard with the other and dictates the letter of Romans as Tertius sits at a desk and writes out a rough draft, maybe with a piece of charcoal on a sheet of papyrus. Every once in a while Paul would stop and say, “Read that back to me,” and Tertius would, and Paul might decide to change something. But it’s possible that Tertius had his own suggestions. For example: when Paul begins by saying, “I, Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ,” Tertius might have said, “Are you sure you want to say slave?  That sounds so demeaning.  Wouldn’t servant be a better word?”  “Oh, all right then,” Paul says, “a servant of Jesus Christ.”  And so it would go, with occasional interruptions and helpful suggestions, until Paul gets to the end of chapter 8, where, in a moment of divine inspiration, he closes his eyes and says, “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!”[ii]  Tertius is writing as fast as he can.  Paul stops to take a breath.  And that’s when Tertius asks,

“But what about the Jews?”

            There’s a long pause.  Paul wasn’t thinking about the Jews, he was thinking about those Gentiles who had trusted Jesus for their salvation.  But now that Tertius has asked him, he can’t stop thinking about them, about his fellow Israelites who are trying, as he once did, to save themselves by keeping the law.  His heart breaks.  When he can speak again he swallows the lump in his throat and says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”[iii]  For three full chapters Paul focuses on the Jews and what will become of them in this new age God is about to usher in, until finally he begins to feel hopeful again and says, “Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of [the Jews] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy….”[iv] And when the truth of it hits him, that his fellow Israelites will also receive the mercy of God, he bursts into doxology: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!,” he says,  “For from him and through him and to him are all things, and to him be the glory forever.  Amen.”[v] That’s when Paul can move on to chapter 12. That’s when he can say, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice….”[vi]

            As Lynn mentioned last week, many scholars believe that Romans would read better without chapters 9-11, that if you skipped from the end of chapter 8 to the beginning of chapter 12 the letter would flow seamlessly, from a paragraph about how nothing can separate us from the love of God to a paragraph about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul knew that. When he asked Tertius to read the entire letter back to him he may have said, “You know, I’m not really sure we need chapters 9-11. Maybe I can use them in a separate letter to the Jews.” And it may have been Tertius who said, “No, Paul! I think you need to leave them in. There’s truth in here that applies to everyone!” And Paul might have said, “Well, OK. If you say so.” If there’s any truth in that, if there’s any possibility that that’s the way it actually happened, then we may have Tertius to thank—or to blame—not only for the awkward transitions, the interrupted thoughts, and the run-on sentences, but also for our access to this beautiful, complicated, and confusing section of Romans. It might have been left on the cutting room floor, and if it had, I think we would all be poorer for it. If nothing else it proves that Paul had a heart, and that his heart was breaking for his people, perhaps even for all people who have not been able to confess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, or to believe that God raised him from the dead.

            And we all know some people like that.

            Two weeks ago I preached from the final section of Romans 8. I was talking about how Paul spends the better part of seven chapters talking about sin. For him it is the biggest problem we humans face; it’s what separates us from God. But in Romans 8 he starts talking about suffering, and without giving it too much thought I said, “Maybe it’s because that’s the other big problem we humans face.” I’ve given it more thought since then but it still rings true. We don’t understand suffering.  We don’t know why we have to go through it.  We sometimes ask the question, “If God is all loving and all powerful then why do such terrible things happen?” It’s a reasonable question, but for Paul the answer is clear: suffering brings him closer to Jesus, and he wants to get as close to Jesus as he can. In Philippians 3:10 he writes: “All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death.”  Maybe you could keep that in mind the next time you’re suffering. 

            But then I turned to this week’s passage and discovered that three times in eleven verses Paul uses the word salvation. I thought, “Maybe that’s the third big problem we humans face. Maybe there’s sin, suffering, and salvation.” And that’s when this sermon began to sound like one of those old-fashioned revival sermons, with three points that all start with the same letter of the alphabet, and maybe that’s what led me to choose “Just as I Am” as our closing hymn. I joked about it with our worship planning team on Monday just after I learned that we would be singing “Sweet Hour of Prayer” in the service and that the Cumbia girls would be singing “Blessed Assurance.” I said, “If we throw in ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ revival could break out.”

And maybe it will. Maybe what all of us need more than we realize is salvation, but for me that begs the question of what we need to be saved from. The old-fashioned evangelist would say we need to be saved from hell, but as I told you a few weeks ago, Paul never mentions the word hell in this letter. What he thinks his fellow Israelites need to be saved from is their anxious and ceaseless striving to save themselves. Maybe you know something about that. Paul knows. He’s been there himself. He says in Philippians 3 that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless, but still he didn’t have peace with God. Not until he met Jesus. That’s when things changed for him. That’s when he could let out a sigh of relief. And it wasn’t because of anything he did. It was because of what Jesus did. Whatever the price of salvation was, it had been paid in full, and this is where I think some evangelists get it wrong. 

            They focus on Romans 10:9, where Paul says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  “That’s what you’ve got to do,” they say.  “You’ve got to confess.  You’ve got to believe.” They don’t seem to understand that this verse is in the middle of a passage where Paul is saying that you cannot be saved by what you do. We haven’t really talked about it in this sermon but people were talking about it on my Facebook page yesterday. I had mentioned that some people have a hard time believing that God raised Jesus from the dead. Their scientific minds can’t seem to make room for the concept of resurrection. Some people in that conversation were saying you just have to believe anyway. Others were saying, “But what if you can’t? What if you’ve tried and failed?” I just want to say that the good news Paul was trying to share with his fellow Israelites—who may have been more legalistic than scientific—is that our salvation does not depend on what we do, it depends on what Jesus has done, and if we come away from this passage thinking we have to do something, we may have gotten it wrong.

I sometimes think about it like this.  I think about a river winding around the base of a cliff.  On the cliff are rock climbers, with helmets and harnesses, ropes and pitons, going up that cliff one precarious handhold at a time, while in the river below are people floating by on inner tubes, staring up at the cliff and saying, “Would you look at that?” They admire those rock climbers. They know they don’t have the skill to do that. But they can float down the river, and they can trust those tubes to hold them up.

            If you can understand that illustration as a kind of a parable, you can see that I’m talking about two different approaches to salvation: one where you trust your skill as a rock climber, and the other where you trust the principle of buoyancy. Paul had been climbing his whole life before he met Jesus. He was good at it. He may have been the best climber of his time. But the cliff was high. It reached into the clouds. He had never been completely sure that he would make it to the top. Now he was trusting Jesus for his salvation—floating down the river of life, supported by grace, surrounded by love—and in no danger of sinking. “Well, but wasn’t he doing something?” someone might ask. “Wasn’t he trusting Jesus?” Well, yes. Yes he was.  But he was doing it in the same way you trust water to hold you up when you’re floating in an inner tube. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to float. And here’s the good news: not everyone can climb the face of a cliff, and some people have trouble believing in the resurrection, but everyone—everyone—can float in an inner tube.   

            I think about Buzz Ingalls, one of our members, who was baptized in the James River a few years ago. Buzz had polio when he was a kid and it affected his ability to walk. Everything else worked perfectly—his mind, his heart, his soul—but his legs couldn’t carry him. He had to use crutches. So, things that would have been easy for some of us as kids would have been impossible for him, things like playing basketball or jumping hurdles. But when we said we were going to be baptizing people in the James River Buzz wanted to try. He had been a Christian for years but he had never been baptized. When we talked about it he said, “I think I could make it down to the water on my crutches with a little help.”

So, that’s what we did. We got him as close to the water as we could in a wheelchair, and then he struggled up out of the chair and onto those crutches and began to make his way down to the water, with someone watching closely on each side. As I recall he took the crutches with him, right out into the water, but at some point the principle of buoyancy took over, and he felt himself lifted up by the water. He handed his crutches off to the person beside him and took the last few steps on his own, feeling weightless and free. I asked him to profess his faith and he said, “Jesus is Lord!” He probably believed in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, but I didn’t ask him that. I just dipped him down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he came up looking like he’d been born again.

            The difference between those struggling steps Buzz took to get down to the water, and those weightless steps he took once he was there, may be the difference between trying to save yourself, and trusting Jesus for your salvation. And maybe that’s why I can invite you to come down the aisle this morning,

            Just as you are.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Yes, I got this from Wikipedia. I am not ashamed.

[ii] Romans 8:38-39

[iii] Romans 9:2-4

[iv] Romans 11:30-31

[v] Romans 11:33a, 36

[vi] Romans 12:1

First Baptist Richmond, August 13, 2023
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 10:5-15

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

            In last Sunday’s sermon Lynn Turner made a confession. She said the hardest class she took in seminary was not systematic theology or biblical hermeneutics: it was Romans. She couldn’t follow Paul’s logic, his sentences ran on endlessly, she couldn’t grasp his theology. And so she said she wasn’t going to try to explain all of that. Instead she was going to let our pastor, who is a New Testament scholar, do it when he got back. And you laughed as if to say, “Well played, Lynn!” But I was driving home from my uncle’s memorial service in North Carolina, listening to the sermon in my car. I didn’t laugh. I thought, “I’m not sure I understand Paul any better than Lynn does!” But I’ve thought about it since then and I think I have an explanation that may be helpful. Are you ready? Here it is:

Paul didn’t actually write Romans.

            Stay with me. He dictated it, but he didn’t write it. That job fell to someone named Tertius, who says in Romans 16:22, “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” But who is Tertius? I did some research and learned that he was no mere scribe. Tertius was a theologian in his own right: numbered among the Seventy Disciples in a list compiled by Hippolytus, and the successor of Sosipater (who is mentioned in Romans 16:21) as the Bishop of Iconium.[i] So, what you have in Romans is the great Apostle Paul and the soon-to-be Bishop of Iconium working on a letter together. It may have been a much more collaborative process than we have imagined.

            I picture it like this: Paul, pacing back and forth, one hand behind his back while he strokes his beard with the other and dictates the letter of Romans as Tertius sits at a desk and writes out a rough draft, maybe with a piece of charcoal on a sheet of papyrus. Every once in a while Paul would stop and say, “Read that back to me,” and Tertius would, and Paul might decide to change something. But it’s possible that Tertius had his own suggestions. For example: when Paul begins by saying, “I, Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ,” Tertius might have said, “Are you sure you want to say slave?  That sounds so demeaning.  Wouldn’t servant be a better word?”  “Oh, all right then,” Paul says, “a servant of Jesus Christ.”  And so it would go, with occasional interruptions and helpful suggestions, until Paul gets to the end of chapter 8, where, in a moment of divine inspiration, he closes his eyes and says, “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!”[ii]  Tertius is writing as fast as he can.  Paul stops to take a breath.  And that’s when Tertius asks,

“But what about the Jews?”

            There’s a long pause.  Paul wasn’t thinking about the Jews, he was thinking about those Gentiles who had trusted Jesus for their salvation.  But now that Tertius has asked him, he can’t stop thinking about them, about his fellow Israelites who are trying, as he once did, to save themselves by keeping the law.  His heart breaks.  When he can speak again he swallows the lump in his throat and says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”[iii]  For three full chapters Paul focuses on the Jews and what will become of them in this new age God is about to usher in, until finally he begins to feel hopeful again and says, “Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of [the Jews] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy….”[iv] And when the truth of it hits him, that his fellow Israelites will also receive the mercy of God, he bursts into doxology: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!,” he says,  “For from him and through him and to him are all things, and to him be the glory forever.  Amen.”[v] That’s when Paul can move on to chapter 12. That’s when he can say, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice….”[vi]

            As Lynn mentioned last week, many scholars believe that Romans would read better without chapters 9-11, that if you skipped from the end of chapter 8 to the beginning of chapter 12 the letter would flow seamlessly, from a paragraph about how nothing can separate us from the love of God to a paragraph about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul knew that. When he asked Tertius to read the entire letter back to him he may have said, “You know, I’m not really sure we need chapters 9-11. Maybe I can use them in a separate letter to the Jews.” And it may have been Tertius who said, “No, Paul! I think you need to leave them in. There’s truth in here that applies to everyone!” And Paul might have said, “Well, OK. If you say so.” If there’s any truth in that, if there’s any possibility that that’s the way it actually happened, then we may have Tertius to thank—or to blame—not only for the awkward transitions, the interrupted thoughts, and the run-on sentences, but also for our access to this beautiful, complicated, and confusing section of Romans. It might have been left on the cutting room floor, and if it had, I think we would all be poorer for it. If nothing else it proves that Paul had a heart, and that his heart was breaking for his people, perhaps even for all people who have not been able to confess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, or to believe that God raised him from the dead.

            And we all know some people like that.

            Two weeks ago I preached from the final section of Romans 8. I was talking about how Paul spends the better part of seven chapters talking about sin. For him it is the biggest problem we humans face; it’s what separates us from God. But in Romans 8 he starts talking about suffering, and without giving it too much thought I said, “Maybe it’s because that’s the other big problem we humans face.” I’ve given it more thought since then but it still rings true. We don’t understand suffering.  We don’t know why we have to go through it.  We sometimes ask the question, “If God is all loving and all powerful then why do such terrible things happen?” It’s a reasonable question, but for Paul the answer is clear: suffering brings him closer to Jesus, and he wants to get as close to Jesus as he can. In Philippians 3:10 he writes: “All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death.”  Maybe you could keep that in mind the next time you’re suffering. 

            But then I turned to this week’s passage and discovered that three times in eleven verses Paul uses the word salvation. I thought, “Maybe that’s the third big problem we humans face. Maybe there’s sin, suffering, and salvation.” And that’s when this sermon began to sound like one of those old-fashioned revival sermons, with three points that all start with the same letter of the alphabet, and maybe that’s what led me to choose “Just as I Am” as our closing hymn. I joked about it with our worship planning team on Monday just after I learned that we would be singing “Sweet Hour of Prayer” in the service and that the Cumbia girls would be singing “Blessed Assurance.” I said, “If we throw in ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ revival could break out.”

And maybe it will. Maybe what all of us need more than we realize is salvation, but for me that begs the question of what we need to be saved from. The old-fashioned evangelist would say we need to be saved from hell, but as I told you a few weeks ago, Paul never mentions the word hell in this letter. What he thinks his fellow Israelites need to be saved from is their anxious and ceaseless striving to save themselves. Maybe you know something about that. Paul knows. He’s been there himself. He says in Philippians 3 that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless, but still he didn’t have peace with God. Not until he met Jesus. That’s when things changed for him. That’s when he could let out a sigh of relief. And it wasn’t because of anything he did. It was because of what Jesus did. Whatever the price of salvation was, it had been paid in full, and this is where I think some evangelists get it wrong. 

            They focus on Romans 10:9, where Paul says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  “That’s what you’ve got to do,” they say.  “You’ve got to confess.  You’ve got to believe.” They don’t seem to understand that this verse is in the middle of a passage where Paul is saying that you cannot be saved by what you do. We haven’t really talked about it in this sermon but people were talking about it on my Facebook page yesterday. I had mentioned that some people have a hard time believing that God raised Jesus from the dead. Their scientific minds can’t seem to make room for the concept of resurrection. Some people in that conversation were saying you just have to believe anyway. Others were saying, “But what if you can’t? What if you’ve tried and failed?” I just want to say that the good news Paul was trying to share with his fellow Israelites—who may have been more legalistic than scientific—is that our salvation does not depend on what we do, it depends on what Jesus has done, and if we come away from this passage thinking we have to do something, we may have gotten it wrong.

I sometimes think about it like this.  I think about a river winding around the base of a cliff.  On the cliff are rock climbers, with helmets and harnesses, ropes and pitons, going up that cliff one precarious handhold at a time, while in the river below are people floating by on inner tubes, staring up at the cliff and saying, “Would you look at that?” They admire those rock climbers. They know they don’t have the skill to do that. But they can float down the river, and they can trust those tubes to hold them up.

            If you can understand that illustration as a kind of a parable, you can see that I’m talking about two different approaches to salvation: one where you trust your skill as a rock climber, and the other where you trust the principle of buoyancy. Paul had been climbing his whole life before he met Jesus. He was good at it. He may have been the best climber of his time. But the cliff was high. It reached into the clouds. He had never been completely sure that he would make it to the top. Now he was trusting Jesus for his salvation—floating down the river of life, supported by grace, surrounded by love—and in no danger of sinking. “Well, but wasn’t he doing something?” someone might ask. “Wasn’t he trusting Jesus?” Well, yes. Yes he was.  But he was doing it in the same way you trust water to hold you up when you’re floating in an inner tube. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to float. And here’s the good news: not everyone can climb the face of a cliff, and some people have trouble believing in the resurrection, but everyone—everyone—can float in an inner tube.   

            I think about Buzz Ingalls, one of our members, who was baptized in the James River a few years ago. Buzz had polio when he was a kid and it affected his ability to walk. Everything else worked perfectly—his mind, his heart, his soul—but his legs couldn’t carry him. He had to use crutches. So, things that would have been easy for some of us as kids would have been impossible for him, things like playing basketball or jumping hurdles. But when we said we were going to be baptizing people in the James River Buzz wanted to try. He had been a Christian for years but he had never been baptized. When we talked about it he said, “I think I could make it down to the water on my crutches with a little help.”

So, that’s what we did. We got him as close to the water as we could in a wheelchair, and then he struggled up out of the chair and onto those crutches and began to make his way down to the water, with someone watching closely on each side. As I recall he took the crutches with him, right out into the water, but at some point the principle of buoyancy took over, and he felt himself lifted up by the water. He handed his crutches off to the person beside him and took the last few steps on his own, feeling weightless and free. I asked him to profess his faith and he said, “Jesus is Lord!” He probably believed in his heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, but I didn’t ask him that. I just dipped him down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and he came up looking like he’d been born again.

            The difference between those struggling steps Buzz took to get down to the water, and those weightless steps he took once he was there, may be the difference between trying to save yourself, and trusting Jesus for your salvation. And maybe that’s why I can invite you to come down the aisle this morning,

            Just as you are.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Yes, I got this from Wikipedia. I am not ashamed.

[ii] Romans 8:38-39

[iii] Romans 9:2-4

[iv] Romans 11:30-31

[v] Romans 11:33a, 36

[vi] Romans 12:1

The Divine Family

Romans 9:1-5 

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend that had you excited about the future as you talked, only to turn into negativity and despair? 

That’s the way I felt about moving into this passage today….. After all…..last week in Chapter 8 of Romans we came away on a high didn’t we? 

Nothing can separate us from the Love of God” 

To these words today: at the beginning of Chapter 9 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 

What happened between vs 39 of chapter 8 verse 1 of Chapter 9? 

What is going on here in Paul?  Some scholars believe that Paul would have been much better off going from Romans 8, skipping chapters 9-11 straight to Romans 12 for a much better flow of his message to the church in Rome. 

From: Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord….to… I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. 

2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  

I have a confession to make……Romans was one of the hardest classes for me in seminary.  You might have thought it might be systematic theology of hermeneutics….but it was Romans…. I could not understand the flow of Paul’s theology…..his consistent run on sentences that would drive an English teacher crazy…and his lack of flow of thought that would somehow make logical sense. 

So rather than try to explain this which puzzles most scholars in the commentaries I have read, 

As a good fill in preacher this morning knowing that our pastor, a New Testament scholar, who chose this series in Romans, I’m going to leave that explanation up to him next week as he continues in Chapter 9 of Romans. 

But I wonder this morning if this verse of Paul, My heart is full of anguish and sorrow  describes you in your life this morning? 

Life is full of heartbreak isn’t it?  

For Paul, in verse 3 he describes what that heartbreak is….he has been abandoned by his family…..his spiritual family..after all, He a jew, transformed on the road to Damascus by a blinding light…. a man who was changed by Jesus and his life giving truth of love and grace. And called to share that good news with first  the jews and then the gentiles…a Gospel for all……being rejected. It was breaking his heart. To the point in vs 3 that he was willing to give up his life with Christ….. 

What or who is breaking your heart today? 

For us it might be all about the big and small….things within your own family from daily disappointments to  life altering change… 

Death, divorce, conflict, job loss, financial woes, wayward children, elderly parents who are struggling, illnesses……many things that cause us heartbreak and anguish. 

It is true isn’t it that none of us is free from heartbreak? 

I must confess this morning that this past month has been heartbreaking for me as I have felt abandoned by my Baptist family and the exclusion and acceptance of women in ministry. 

But I have never felt so affirmed by you my church family and your support has meant more than words can express this morning… 

Lets face it…..the past few years have been very hard on our church family. And the church at large. But we believe that God is ultimately in charge of the Church ? Don’t we?  For Christ is the bride of the church. 

So I want us to focus on this idea of what Divine family means…..for ultimately Paul comes back around with a positive message today…. 

verse 4:  

4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever.[a] Amen.  

It is absolutely true and without doubt that Paul asserts that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

But it is also true that people with every advantage have thrown away God’s goodness and love. God never left them, but they abandoned him. 

In the very next verse after today’s lesson Paul says: “This does not mean that God’s word has failed” (Romans 9:6, EHV).  

God’s people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai when thunder crashed and lightning lit up the mountain. Moses was permitted to go up and speak with God and receive the law from his hand there. God made promises to the patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that pointed ahead to the Savior. 

This was THE  INTENDED  Divine Family of God…. God opened the door of Jesus Christ to anyone who would open their own heart and receive Him as Lord. 

So what does this mean for us this morning? 

What IS the purpose of the church?   His chosen ones called out to Disciple the world? Are you a part of that Divine Family?…. 

NT Wright describes it this way… 

“The church is the single multiethnic family promised by God to Abraham.   It was brought into being through Israel’s Messiah, Jesus;  it was energized and empowered by God’s Spirit; it was called to bring transformative news of God’s rescuing justice [and love] to the whole of creation.  

The church exists for 3 primary purposes:  1.To worship God , 2.to work for His Kingdom in the world,  and 3.to encourage and build one another up in the faith.  “ 

So Divine family, adopted children of God….how are we doing?  Covid certainly threw us in a tailspin, didn’t it?  We are in the process of rebuilding. Getting our bearings of what it means to still be the church that God has called us to be. 

How are we doing?  

  • In our worship?   
  • In working alongside the Lord Jesus Christ with the help of the Holy Spirit to bring  God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven?  
  • In encouraging and building one another up in the faith? 

We are called to proclaim Jesus as the one through whom we are forgiven of our sin by God’s love and grace and through faith we are called to live our lives under the Lordship of Christ, live this life transformed to love God and express that love as we encourage and build each other up in our faith. 

Quite simply….God is still here and we need each other…we are strongest when we are together in our mission…in our worship… together and in building one another in the faith. God is the source and giver of life. And calls us as church family to not be anxious. 

It begins with each of us individually….here are some honest questions that might help: 

  • A relationship with the church begins with a personal with personal relationship with Christ? Have you made that decision? Are you as excited as you first were in that part of your  journey? 
  • Has worship become only a chore you attend to on Sunday morning and not something that excites you as a part of your daily existence?  
  • Do your physical blessings of this life determine your evaluation of God’s love for you? Have you begun to set your sights more to the things of this world rather more than spiritual things?  
  • Do you really believe that Nothing can separate you from the love of God?  
  • Do you feel in anyway that that you have walked away from Jesus  being the Lord of your life? And thus your hunger and thirst for God has waned? 
  • What was the last thing you have actually sacrificed in your life for the love you have for Christ?   Tough questions but important ones

If we went from the claim of Chapter 8 of Romans that Nothing can separate us from the Love of God to  “Present your bodies a living sacrifice Holy and Acceptable to God which is your “reasonable” service to God….what does that mean?  How do I get there? How do you return to making Jesus Lord of your life? And why is that important? 

Racheal Held, a young Christian women in her 30’s set out on an adventure to find the Holy again in church and her own walk with Christ….what was she looking for? 

In her book Searching for Sunday, she writes, speaking on behalf of her generation, 

“I’m tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. 

My generation wants to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against.  

We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable.  

We want to talk about the tough stuff but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. 

We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind. 

“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.? 

 Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create a true sanctuary.” Or using Paul’s word…That which is Holy and acceptable to God….”  

I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching myself recently…..have you? You can’t help but fall on your knees and ask God, God what is going on this the world that you Love so much and have created? What is going on in my church?..my family? 

My heart is in anguish and broken? 

I don’t know about you….but I am a “fixer”….that is my nature…..I see a problem and I want to fix it.  I long for peace….I long for healing….I long for people to love one another….in our own families and in our church family…… 

I think most of us long for those things… I want to fix it!. 

But guess what? The reality is that we were not created to fix all things….in the church we were created to love and worship and trust in a God who only can do those things…. 

Even God could not turn the hearts of His own People….so He became a Man through Jesus Christ is SON…he became one of us to show us the way of love, mercy and grace…..that is the story my friends of why we are gathered as the church… 

The truth is I nor you can change anyone’s heart….it is only when we bow before God and present our own hearts before him as a sacrifice that God can then begin His redeeming work. 

Rachel Held came to the conclusion that she needed to get out of her head and into her heart and she needed the church to help her do that. 

What if that is true? What if the world out there is needing our help to find Jesus? What needs to change in your heart today? 

Imagine if you were to walk through these doors each week knowing that whatever you bring in that is heavy on your heart…..you do not have to carry it alone? Friends….we need each other! 

Rachel re-discovered her faith in God through the Sacraments of the church. As Baptist…we don’t have sacraments….., we have several ways we express that which represents best the heart and mercy of God’s Grace and Love….Baptism and Communion. These we call our Holy Ordinances….a way of remembering the grace and mercy of God. 

It is a Holy time. 

It was in Communion that Rachel’s eyes were opened again to the love of Jesus. 

I love the way Rachel describes this time together. 

“The elements in the meal can be identified in different ways, depending on your tradition: 

the body of Christ, broken, the blood of Christ, shed, the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, the mystery of faith, the supper of the lamb,.  

But in every tradition, I know someone at some point says remember. 

When we are in a rough place in our lives….there is something about going back to a place or remembering the Love of God. Sometimes that might be an early memory of church…or it might be a relationship with a grandparent and the faith they shared with you. 

I imagine that is true of those first disciples…. 

“Remember how Jesus became one of us, remember how Jesus ate with us, and drank with us, laughed with us, and cried with us.  

Remember how Jesus suffered for us, and died for us, and gave his life for the life of the world? Remember? Remember? 

Perhaps this morning you can take a journey back in time with me…..a time of remembering your very first communion…..a time of remembering the joy of communion Sunday with your church family… 

There is something about communion that triggers our memory, and helps us to see things as they really are. There is something about communion that opens our eyes to see Jesus in clearer vision at the table. 

Christians recognize this act as Holy.  

Christians believe bread can satisfy not only physical hunger, but spiritual and emotional hunger, too.  

And when collective memory brings Jesus back to life, every breaking of the bread and pouring of the cup…  all the taste, smells, and sounds,  is a holy moment for a Holy people… God is present. God is loving us once again…God is drawing us once again to himself and to each other as family. 

Any one here who claims Jesus as Lord  is a part of this family today…..as we come to this open table of our Lord Jesus Christ, we come with open hearts and minds releasing today anything that is bringing us heartbreak or sorrow…..we confess to Christ that which has kept us from following Him fully and we present ourselves as a living sacrifice this morning…Holy and acceptable to Him….trusting in the love of Jesus and his sacrifice for us……Let us prayerfully come to the Lord’s Table…. And as we do…..let us in the time the choir comes to sing…..offer this time as Holy Time….whatever may be on your heart this morning…whatever is breaking your heart and causing sorrow…..present it to God. 

Whatever you might need to ask forgiveness for,,,,confess it it to God. 

Christ is present in this very moment. 

When in Romans: More than Conquerors

First Baptist Richmond, July 30, 2023
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 8:26-39

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.

            Welcome back to this summer sermon series called “When in Romans,” where we are looking at what happens when a Jewish rabbi tries to preach the Christian gospel in a pagan culture. Maybe it’s because we’re looking at it through that lens, but I’m seeing things in Romans that I didn’t see the last time around. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever read a passage of Scripture and thought you knew exactly what it meant, but then came back to it a few years later and saw something else completely? People say to me sometimes, “God’s word doesn’t change,” and that’s true, but we change, the world changes. The last time I preached through Romans was in 2011. Has anything changed since then? Has anything not changed? So, we look at these old familiar passages and see things we hadn’t seen before.

            I think of that as a good thing: it means the Word of God is dynamic, able to speak to a changing world in fresh and meaningful ways. When I looked at the sermon I preached on today’s passage back in 2011 I was impressed. It was good. In fact, it was so good I was tempted to blow the dust off it and preach it again. But as I looked more closely I realized that the message of that sermon may not be the message we need to hear today. The world has changed in the past twelve years. We’ve changed. So, all last week I was looking at today’s reading from Romans and wondering, “What is the Word of God for the People of God in Richmond, Virginia, in the Summer of 2023?”

Let me invite you to look at that passage with me. If you brought your Bible or if you can find one in the pew rack or on your smartphone, turn with me to Romans 8:26-39. For the better part of seven chapters now Paul has been talking about sin and how it separates us from God, using all sorts of analogies and examples. But once that problem is solved, once we learn that we can be justified by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus, we can move on to other, better things. Like our adoption as God’s children, who stand to inherit every good thing God has to give. But then Paul introduces the topic of suffering, and you have to wonder why. Maybe it’s because this is the other big problem we humans face. There is sin, which separates us from God, but there is also suffering, which threatens to do the same. In fact some people refuse to believe in God because of the amount of suffering they see in the world. “If there were a good and loving God,” they argue, “he certainly wouldn’t allow that!” But Paul doesn’t see it that way. He reminds us that even Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, had to suffer. If he did then we shouldn’t be surprised that we have to. But suffering is not the end of the story, and today’s reading from Romans 8:26-39, might be Paul’s answer to the problem.

It’s a wonderful passage, one that I’ve broken down into four distinct segments (I’d rather break it down into three segments and have every segment start with the same letter of the alphabet, because I’m a preacher and that’s how we work, but in this case it looks like it’s going to be four). The first is the one that includes verse 26, about the Spirit interceding for us, “with sighs too deep for words.” I love that verse. I need that verse. Because we’ve all had those days when we were so heartbroken or frustrated or exhausted that we couldn’t even put our prayers into words, when all we could do was let out a heavy sigh. That’s the Spirit, Paul would say, praying for us, carrying all our deepest needs and emotions to the bosom of the Heavenly Father.

The second segment includes verse 28, about all things working together for good “for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” That one is often misunderstood. People seem to assume that if you love God, if you are called according to his purpose, then everything will work out “good” for you. I don’t think that’s what Paul meant, but we can talk about that more in a minute.

And then there is the third segment, the one that has gotten the theologians so worked up through the years, with verses about predestination, and glorification, and justification, and election that often cause them to wonder, “Who’s in and who’s out? Who is predestined and who are the elect?” which may be only another way of asking, “Who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t?” because, let’s be honest, that’s the thing we care about most, isn’t it? And we tend to believe that those who are most like us, who believe the things we believe, are the ones who will make it. I’ve heard that John Calvin, for instance, the Father of Calvinism, thought that only about 1 in 5 people were among the elect, and not surprisingly those were the people who believed what he believed. In America today only about 1 in 5 people go to church. And, as churchgoers, it’s easy for us to look around and say, “Well, that’s about right. Those are the ones who will get to go to heaven.” Is that true? I don’t know. I’m not the one who gets to decide. But if you’re worried about that you might come to church just to be on the safe side. Still, I don’t think making distinctions between who’s in and who’s out is Paul’s point, because when you ask him in segment four, “What then are we to say about these things?” he says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” as if he assumed that everyone who was reading or hearing his letter was among the elect. In fact, from this point on in Romans 8 there is no longer “us” or “them”: there is only “us.” Listen:

Verse 32: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

Verses 33 and 34: Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

Verses 35-37: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

And then come those verses that are often read at funerals, 38 and 39, which may be our favorite verses of all. “For I am convinced,” writes Paul, “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.”

Which brings me back to that earlier verse, the one that is so often misunderstood, Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” When I look at that verse in the light of Romans 8:38, it becomes clear that our love for God is exceeded only by God’s love for us, and when you stir those two things together only good can come out of it. It’s like stirring chocolate chips into cookie dough.

“But what about the bad?” you ask. “What about that moment when the doctor tells you that you have cancer? How does good come out of that?” Well, that’s a good question, but I think it begins with the assumption that death is the worst thing that can happen to us, and for Paul, that’s just not true. Do you remember that place where he wrote, “For me living is Christ and dying is gain?” (Phil. 1:21). Paul had suffered. He had been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked. There may have been plenty of times when he thought he would be better off dead. I’ve heard people say similar things myself: “Well, at least she isn’t suffering anymore.” Right? Death is not always the worst thing that can happen to us. But maybe suffering is, and maybe that’s why Paul tackles it head on.

Back in verse 17, when he was still celebrating what it means to be the children of God, he wrote, “If children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we also may be glorified with him.” It seems a little twisted, but Paul seemed to believe that every time he suffered he got a little closer to Christ, or became a little more Christlike. Maybe he was right about that. In 2 Corinthians 11 he confesses that he has suffered countless floggings and that he was often near death. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one,” he writes, “three times I was beaten with rods, once I received a stoning.” But I can imagine Paul saying as the blows fell, “They did this to Jesus, and now I am being counted worthy to suffer as he did.” Earlier in Romans he wrote, “We rejoice in our sufferings!” Really? For Paul suffering was simply part of it: it was what it meant to live for Christ in this world. But it wasn’t the end of it: the end was glory. “We suffer with him so that we also may be glorified with him,” Paul writes (Romans 8:17). And then, in one of his most memorable statements, he writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed.”

He writes about all of creation groaning with labor pains as this new thing—the glory of God—comes into the world. Yes, there is suffering, but it’s temporary, it’s not the worst thing that can happen to us. I think Paul might say that the worst thing that can happen to us is not death, it’s not even suffering: it’s being separated from God. Maybe that’s why he spends so much time talking about sin in this letter, because sin separates us from God, at least temporarily. But suppose there wasn’t a remedy for sin, suppose Christ hadn’t come? Then you would be separated from God forever and for Paul that truly is a fate worse than death. So, thanks be to God that now, in Christ Jesus, our sins can be forgiven, relationship can be restored. Yes, we may suffer in this life. And yes, it will eventually come to an end, but nothing, nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So, back to that troublesome verse: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Paul might say that when we love God and God loves us, it’s all good. We can focus on the purpose to which he has called us without worrying about suffering and death. Those things can’t separate us from the love of God. In truth, they can only bring us closer.

I saw an obituary just a few days ago about someone who had lost her battle with cancer. That’s what we say sometimes, isn’t it? That after fighting bravely for many years someone “lost their battle” with cancer. But I remember what the pastor said at my Uncle Bill’s funeral. My Uncle Bill had a particularly sinister form of cancer called Cordoma, a many-tentacled thing that wrapped itself around his spine and tried to kill him. He fought it bravely for years, but in the end it did kill him. I loved my Uncle Bill. I went to his funeral and wiped away tears as the minister read words of Scripture from passages like this one in Romans 8. But when he finished he took off his glasses, looked out at us, and said, “For twelve years now Bill Somerville has been battling Cordoma, doing everything in his power and in the power of medical technology to kill it.  I want you to know that at 8:37 last Monday morning the Cordoma died, but Bill Somerville is alive and free.” 

And that’s what Paul was talking about. I think he would say, “You can hurt me, you can kill me, you can cause me to suffer, but you cannot separate me from the love of God. ‘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.’”

And that is the ultimate good.

To be healed from cancer is a good thing. We should hope for that. We should pray for that. We should even fight for that. But as good as life is in this world it is not the ultimate good. The love of God is the ultimate good. And when we stir our love for God together with his love for us, it’s good, no matter what happens to these earthly bodies, no matter what happens to our earthly lives. To know that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God—that’s what makes us more than conquerors.

I test this sometimes at funerals. I ask people to think about the person who has died and then ask themselves, “Do I love that person more or less now than I did three days ago?” I can see them responding. I can see them mouthing the word more. They love that person more. Because even though the body has died love hasn’t died. Love is immortal. Paul would say, “They can cut me down, they can kill me, but they cannot kill the love of God—not mine for him or his for me. That love is immortal,

“And it will not let me go.”

Jim Somerville © 2023

When in Romans: Children of God

First Baptist Richmond, July 23, 2023
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 8:12-25

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

            Next Sunday morning I’m teaching a combined adult Sunday school class called “What’s in a Name? A Look at our Baptist Identity,” partly because the recent brouhaha about Southern Baptists and female pastors left people wondering: are we that kind of Baptists, and if not, then what kind of Baptists are we? I’ve been pondering that question and some of my thoughts have focused on the word Baptist itself.  It’s a transliteration of the Greek verb baptizo, which means “I baptize,” and carries the idea of plunging a dirty dish rag under water to rinse it clean. But we don’t baptize dish rags; we baptize people.  And somehow that unusual practice has become the way we identify ourselves.

I was talking to a Lutheran pastor last week and said, “Your denominational identity comes from an actual person: Martin Luther, the great reformer.” And then I turned to an Episcopal priest and said, “And your identity comes from your church structure, where the head of the church is the bishop, or in Greek, the episcopos. But my denominational identity comes from the practice of plunging people under water, which must mean more to us than almost anything else that we do.”

            And it does.

            When I try to explain baptism to young people I begin by saying, “It’s like a bath, you know? When you come in from playing in the back yard on a rainy day and you’re covered in mud your mother might say, ‘You’re going straight to the bathtub!’ Well, that’s kind of what it’s like to be baptized. You get into the baptistery covered in sin. I dip you down under the water and (with the Lord’s help) you come up clean. But it’s not only like a bath,” I say. “It’s also like a death. Remember how Jesus died, and was buried, and then rose again on the third day? Well, when you are baptized you identify with Jesus so closely that it’s like dying with him, and being buried with him, and rising with him. I lower you into a watery ‘grave’ and then bring you up to a whole new life.” They usually wrinkle their noses at that one, but then I say, “And it’s also like a birth. When you were born you came into the world and took your first breath. When you are baptized there will be a moment (but only a moment) when you are under water and can’t breathe, but when you come up you will take your first breath of your new life in Christ. It’s like being born again.”

            Bath. Death. Birth. That’s how I try to infuse this unusual practice with meaning, so that when that young person is standing waist-deep in the water she will be thinking about all those things. But for the Apostle Paul, baptism may have meant even more. In Romans 6 he talks about it as a kind of death and resurrection, but in today’s reading from Romans 8 he makes a reference to baptism that you might not even catch if you weren’t paying attention, or if you didn’t know how people baptized in Paul’s day. I had to look it up in one of my old seminary textbooks, The First Urban Christians, by Wayne Meeks.[i]

When Meeks describes first-century baptism he talks about it as an initiation ritual and includes a drawing that looks like stair steps going down and then coming up again. He writes about those converts to Christianity stepping down into the waters of baptism by giving up their old way of life, swearing off their old vices, giving up their old loyalties, leaving their old, dirty clothes on the riverbank, and entering the waters of baptism naked as the day they were born (this may be a good time to remind you that men and women were baptized separately, and that women were baptized by female deacons as a practical necessity). At any rate, it was then, when they were standing waist-deep in the waters of baptism, that they were asked to confess their faith, and when they did they said, “Jesus is Lord!” which was not only a way of swearing allegiance to their new master but giving up any allegiance to the old one. Saying “Jesus is Lord” was another way of saying “Caesar is not”; it was a radical, counter-cultural confession, and the complete opposite of the love affair some Christians seem to have with Caesar these days.

And then they would be dipped down under the water, washed, perhaps even “buried” before coming up to a whole new life. They would rise from the river like Jesus coming up out of the grave, and put on a new white robe as a symbol of their new life in Christ. And then (Meeks wasn’t sure about this) the congregation may have begun to sing and celebrate, and the newly baptized Christians may have been lifted up like the bride and groom at a Jewish wedding, which would have been the perfect opportunity for them to shout out the word Abba! meaning “Father!” as a sign of their adoption into the family of God.

            If you can picture that scene in your mind you can see what a meaningful ritual it might have been, and how Baptists might have been inspired to name themselves after it. When I was talking to that Episcopal priest last week I said, “For you it might be communion, the Holy Eucharist, and if you had to come up with a new name for yourselves it might be Eucharisteans.” But for Paul it might have been baptism. It was the initiation ritual of the early church. It was how those pagans to whom he was preaching, and those Gentiles he used to refer to as “dogs,” became his brothers and sisters in Christ. And that’s what you may have missed in today’s Epistle reading.

Paul doesn’t say he’s talking about baptism, but if you were familiar with that ritual and the way it was practiced in the first century you might know exactly what he meant when he wrote: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” He meant, “When you were baptized you did not receive a spirit of slavery.” No, he might have said, “When you were baptized you received the Holy Spirit, and when we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

            And that opens up a whole new topic.

            If you’ve been following this series you know that Paul spends the better part of seven chapters in Romans talking about sin, and how it separates us from God, and how we need to be justified by the grace of God, through our faith in Christ Jesus, in order to have peace with God. But once that happens there is “no longer any condemnation” for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. We don’t have to worry about that anymore. We can turn our attention to other, better, things. And what Paul turns his attention to is the fact that when we are baptized—whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—we are baptized into the family of God, and when we cry out, “Abba! Father!” it is the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children. Which is an incredible thing for Paul to say!

He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He was circumcised on the eighth day as a sign that he was one of God’s chosen people. For Paul to say that anyone could now be a member of God’s family simply by trusting Jesus was incredible, but for him the Holy Spirit was proof.

You may remember that story from Acts, chapter 10, where Peter is preaching to Cornelius and his family when the Holy Spirit falls on them and they begin to praise God. Peter, who had just reminded Cornelius that Jews and Gentiles have nothing to do with each other, now turns to his colleagues and says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Paul seems to believe that these two things go together: baptism and the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12 he writes, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ without the help of the Holy Spirit.” And in Romans 8 he writes, “When we say ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

The Spirit knows; the Spirit has arranged our adoption; the Spirit has brought us into the family.  And that’s why, as Paul says at the beginning of today’s passage, we are indebted to the Spirit. But then he says something even more incredible: he says that if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Which means that along with Jesus, his beloved Son, we Christians stand to inherit every good thing God has to give.

In this series I’ve been saying that peace with God may have been what Paul was looking for his entire life. In many ways it is the good news of his gospel. But this is pretty good news too, isn’t it? It’s like Paul is holding up a picture of the universe and saying to the church, “Someday all this will be yours.”

Last Tuesday afternoon I bumped into Donna Earley in the hallway. Donna is our Director of Stewardship and Development. She showed me a check she had just received for $126,000. It was because one of our members had decided to write the church into her will years ago, and when she died there was more money there than she had probably ever imagined. The ten percent that she had promised to First Baptist Church turned out to be $126,000 and Donna was very grateful. That check was good news indeed!

Can you imagine Paul saying to you, “Oh, by the way…in addition to having your sins forgiven, and in addition to having peace with God, and in addition to having the prospect of eternal life, you also stand to inherit every good thing God has to give? That’s good news! But it reminds me of that thing people sometimes say: “If you’re so smart, then why aren’t you rich?” I can imagine someone looking at Paul when he was locked up in the Philippian jail, beaten and bloody, and wondering, “If you’re a child of God, why should you have to suffer?” But Paul knows: the beloved Son of God had to suffer! That’s just how it is now. The whole creation is groaning now. But one of these days all that will be behind us, and just as the broken body of Christ was raised on Easter Sunday, so, too, will all creation be redeemed.

I think of this as the mission of God—the missio Dei. In fact I often say it this way, that “the mission of God is the redemption of all creation.” And if that’s true, then it is very good news indeed. Because we live in a broken world, don’t we? As I speak wildfires are raging in Canada. Plastic debris is swirling in the North Pacific Ocean. The Colorado River is drying up. New England has been swamped by floods. And that’s not to mention the famines and earthquakes in other parts of the world, the conflicts and wars. It’s not to mention the trauma experienced by plants and animals, fish and fowl, around the globe. The whole of creation is groaning, Paul writes. Suffering. And if we are sensitive to that suffering at all we feel it. We feel it for the world. We feel it for ourselves. What we want—what the world wants—is redemption. We want God to put us back together again, to help us, to heal us, to make us whole.

Well, it’s coming, Paul says, but it’s not here yet. We have to hope for it, we have to pray for it, we have to work for it. And maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about the old, medieval cathedrals. It started last Saturday when I was having breakfast with Daniel Hocutt, our Deacon Chair, but I’ve talked to a number of other people since. I’ve been thinking about how the citizens of a French village might have gotten together during the Middle Ages and decided to build a cathedral, but how they must have known that such things take time. It could take a hundred years to build a cathedral. The people who drew up the plans and laid the foundations would die before they ever saw it finished. Another generation would come along to put up the buttresses and walls. Another generation would come along to put up the rafters and the roof. And maybe another generation would come along to install the stained glass windows. Meaning that most of the people who worked on that cathedral would never see the finished product, but I’m guessing that all the people who worked on it saw that vision in their heads.

The vision of the completed cathedral was what kept them working in the same way the vision of a redeemed creation is what will keep us hoping. We have to hold it right here in our heads—that image of clean oceans and lush prairies, and happy well-fed people living at peace in every part of the world. It’s one of the reasons I love the song, “America the Beautiful.” It’s aspirational. It doesn’t so much describe the reality that exists as the one we hope for:

O, beautiful,

For spacious skies

For amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain.

America, America,

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea.

And what about the verse that says:

O, beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam

Undimmed by human tears

America, America

God mend thine every flaw

Confirm thy soul in self control

Thy liberty in law.

Maybe it’s that sort of vision that will keep us working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. We know it’s not here yet. We can see that God’s kingdom hasn’t come. But here in our heads we can see what our city would look like if God’s will were done on earth, as it is in heaven, and so we keep on working toward that, hoping for that, believing that someday all this will be ours and wanting it to be, O, beautiful!

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1983), pp. 150-157.

When in Romans: Life and Peace

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

            It’s good to be back!

            I’ve been to two big Baptist meetings while I was away and visited three different countries. I hiked to the top of Pulpit Rock in Norway, went swimming in a lake in Sweden, and flew through the streets of Copenhagen on a bicycle. I came home sunburned, blistered, and bug bit, which for me only means that I’ve had a great vacation. But it’s good to be back and especially good to be back with you. I’ve said it before, but there is no place I would rather be on a Sunday morning than right here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.

It’s good to see you.

I’m grateful to Steve Blanchard and Allison Collier for filling the pulpit so capably while I was away. Steve preached from the Old Testament and Allison preached from the Gospel, but I’m going to continue this series called, “When in Romans,” based on the epistle of the same name. We’ve already worked our way through the first few chapters, looking at how Paul understands the human condition: despairing over the depravity of the pagan world in chapter 1, but recognizing in chapter 2 that those who claim to be religious are not much better. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” he writes in chapter 3, and for Paul, sin is a problem. In fact, it may be the problem. He uses the word 59 times in the Book of Romans and when he does he makes it clear that sin is what separates us from God. It’s what makes it impossible for us to have a relationship with him that is both life-giving and life-changing. “What we need is to be justified,” Paul says, that is, made right with God, and in chapter 4 he explains that we do that through faith. In the same way Abraham trusted God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness, we can trust Jesus to do whatever it takes to make us right with God. And Jesus has. Now, Paul writes in chapter 5, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And as I said, that may have been what Paul had been looking for his entire life. 

            “What then,” he asks, at the beginning of chapter 6: “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Absolutely not! The old you was buried in the waters of baptism. What came up was a whole new you, ready to live a whole new life. Sin shouldn’t have any part of that life. You should be done with sin forever!”

            Should be.

But the way Paul talks about sin in chapter 7 makes me think that even he wasn’t completely done with it. “I want to do what is right,” he says, “but I can’t.  There seems to be some lower nature in me, at war with my better self, that makes me want to do the things I know I shouldn’t do. When I want to do what is right I end up doing wrong, and when I try to stay away from what is wrong I still can’t seem to do what is right. What’s the matter with me? Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And then he answers his own question. “Thanks be to God,” he says, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And that leads him to a whole new line of reasoning.

            At the beginning of chapter 8 he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and when I read those words this time around I remembered a Time magazine cover from 2011 that asked the question, “What if there’s no hell?” It was a reference to a book called Love Wins, by Rob Bell, in which he argued that it isn’t God’s will that anyone should perish.[i] When I read that article in 2011 I thought, “Well, that’s true; it isn’t God’s will that anyone should perish.” But I also wondered: “Does that mean there isn’t a hell, and if that’s true, then what becomes of Christianity?”     New Testament scholar Marcus Borg once observed that for many Christians, “the afterlife is central.” He said that in the Lutheran church of his boyhood the promise of heaven and the specter of hell loomed large. “Indeed,” he wrote, “if you had been able to convince me at age twelve that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be a Christian.”[ii] So if there’s no hell Christianity crumbles, right? Or wrong?

            When I read that verse at the beginning of Romans 8, and remembered that Time magazine article from 2011, it struck me that Paul would answer the question of whether or not there is a hell by saying there isn’t. Not for those who are in Christ Jesus. They might be judged but they won’t be condemned. Christ has already taken their condemnation for them. He has literally gone to hell for them. So they can stop worrying about that, and for some people that would be a tremendous relief.

Because there are still churches where the afterlife is central, where the promise of heaven and the specter of hell loom large. When I started preaching nearly forty years ago there were a few members of that rural Kentucky church who seemed disappointed that I wasn’t more of a fire and brimstone preacher. “That’s what brings them down the aisle!” they would say, suggesting that it was my job to scare the hell out of people. Some preachers still try to do that. But according to the latest surveys sixty percent of Americans don’t even believe in hell anymore. Another thirty percent would say that when it comes to religion they don’t believe much of anything at all. And I suspect there is a relationship between those two numbers: that if you don’t believe in hell then, like 12-year-old Marcus Borg, you may wonder why you should be a Christian at all.

            But please notice that Paul didn’t say there is no hell. He only said that, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He might say that hell is as real as it’s ever been but those who are in Christ Jesus don’t have to worry about it anymore, they don’t have to be afraid. They are free at last to live the life God has given them. So I’m wondering: what does that even mean? What does it mean to be in Christ Jesus? I’ve been thinking about it for weeks and I think I’ve come up with an analogy that even Paul would approve.

Have you ever taken a sponge that is dry and hard and dropped it into a sink full of warm, soapy water? Something happens to that sponge: it begins to soak up that warm, soapy water until it is completely saturated, soft, and pliable. You can pick it up, squeeze it, and warm, soapy water will trickle down your forearm. I think Paul might say that’s what happens to us in baptism. We are baptized into Christ Jesus, he says, like a dry, hard sponge dipped into a sink full of liquid divinity. We soak up the nature of Christ, the spirit of Christ, until it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. But here’s the problem: if you put that soaking wet sponge on a windowsill in the sunshine and leave it there for a few days, it will get dry and hard again. And what about us? In the hours after our baptism we were radiant. We had been baptized into Christ Jesus and it showed. Our faces shone like the sun. But then weeks went by, months, and that holy glow began to dim. And if your baptism was it—if that was your first and last experience of the divine—then your soul may have eventually become as dry and hard as that sponge on the windowsill.

            So, what’s the remedy? Do you get baptized again, and again, and again? Do you come down the aisle every time you begin to feel a little dry, spiritually, and ask the preacher to put you under the water one more time? No, I don’t think so. I think you immerse yourself in worship, in fellowship, in Bible study and in prayer. I think that whatever else you might say about these ancient spiritual practices they are meant to keep the sponge of your soul saturated with the divine. They are how you remain “in Christ Jesus.” And it may sound too simple, but all of these things are available to you simply by going to church.

            As I was working on this sermon I tried to remember a time when I didn’t go to church, and there has only been one. It was when I went off to prep school at the age of fifteen. I started as a sophomore, having tried and failed to get into that school the first two times. The first Sunday I was there the force of habit got me out of bed and carried me to the church closest to my dormitory: a Baptist church. I’d like to say that I went back the next week, and the week after that, but I didn’t. When my parents asked I said I’d found a good church close by, but I didn’t tell them I’d stopped going. It wasn’t that I meant to; it was almost like I had to. That school was hard, and for someone who had never had to study much before it was a big adjustment. We had classes on Saturday up until noon, and then everyone took the rest of the day off to play, and play hard. Check in on Saturday wasn’t until midnight, and when Sunday morning rolled around everybody slept in, and then went to the dining hall for brunch before settling in to do homework the rest of the day. There was so much homework! It felt almost necessary to fall into the same pattern as everyone else, just to take the break I needed so desperately on Saturday afternoon, and then to get my work done before Monday morning. 

            For two years that’s what I did, but when my mother suggested I apply to college early, I did, and when I got in (to everyone’s surprise, including mine), I went. I was glad to get away from the never-ending workload and the cutthroat competition of prep school. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I went. I learned a lot at that school. I gained a sense of confidence that I might not have found elsewhere. I came away with this feeling that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere.

But I barely made it.

I had this cheap electric alarm clock that would click before it buzzed in the morning—the tiniest click, and then a half-second delay, and then that buzzer telling me it was time to get up and get going again, from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. I hated that buzzer so much that I developed a new reflex. When I heard that click in the morning, before the buzzer could sound, my hand would shoot out from under the covers and turn off that alarm. 95 percent of the time my hand got to it before the buzzer sounded. 

            That’s how tired of that school I was. And although I made some good friends there and had some good times, my mother knew me well enough to know I wasn’t thriving. That’s why she suggested I apply to college a year early—to a tiny college in a southern state where my uncle was on the faculty. I did, and as I said, I got in and went. And I did well there. I thrived. But it wasn’t until I was working on this sermon last week that I realized the only time in my life I didn’t go to church was when I was in prep school. That changed when I went to college. My older brother, Ed, transferred to my new school and went with me. He was a good role model. He got me up early on Sunday mornings to go to church with him. On Monday nights we went to an on-campus Bible study. As I said, I thrived there, but was it because of that? Was it because I got myself grounded again in the things of God? Did it help me realize that it wasn’t all up to me, that I was part of something bigger than myself? At prep school I was lonelier than I’d ever been before. I suffered from a kind of stress I’d never known. A good psychologist may have said I was clinically depressed. Was some of it, or all of it, because I’d given up going to church? 

            I don’t know, and I don’t really know if that’s what Paul is talking about in this passage, but in verse 5 he tells his readers to set their minds not on the things of the flesh, but on the things of the Spirit, and going to church is a good way to do that. I mean, look at you this morning, both you who are in the room and you who are watching from home. Instead of dreaming up new ways to indulge the flesh you are listening to a sermon. Good for you! I tell people sometimes that to sit in church for an hour on Sunday morning and listen for a word from outside yourself, a word from the Lord, is a wonderful, weekly discipline. It’s a way to unplug from the world around you and re-boot your life.

I wish someone had told me that while I was in prep school. Can you imagine, if I’d gone back to that Baptist church the following Sunday, and the one after that, and the one after that? Can you imagine how that congregation might have looked at that fifteen-year-old boy sitting all by himself on a church pew and taken some pity on him? How they might have loved him, and encouraged him, and occasionally taken him home for Sunday dinner? I mean, it’s what you would do, right? If that had happened for me I think I might be telling you a different story today. I think I might be telling you the story of how, even in that stressful situation, I was able to remain in Christ Jesus by keeping the sponge of my soul soaked in the Spirit of God, and how even then, even there, I was able to find life and peace.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] Jon Meacham, “Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?” Time, April 14, 2011 (https://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2065289,00.html).

[ii] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity.(Kindle edition, location 266-270).