outside view

From Now to Eternity

From now to Eternity.
Psalm 130; Romans 8: 1 – 11;  John 3: 1 – 8
Could a letter written to a church change the course of history?
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. [Romans 8: 12]
The Spirit dwelt in the hand that wrote the letter to the Roman Church and gave life to the church in Rome. The Spirit dwelt in the text of the letter to the Romans and changed the course of history giving life to the church universal.
You may say that is a bold claim; indeed it is, but look to the facts of history.  A learned doctor, monk and professor of theology at Wittenberg University in 1517 wrote to the Pope providing 95 reasons why the Roman Catholic Church was wrong. He was Martin Luther. Luther’s reading of Romans, Galatians and the Psalms convinced him that salvation was through faith alone in Christ Jesus, that Scripture was the final authority of the Church and that the selling of forgiveness was entirely wrong. In Luther’s time the Pope had authority over all, salvation was by works and the sale of indulgences offering forgiveness was promoted. Luther refused to retract his 95 theses. He was excommunicated and exiled in Wartburg Castle near Eisenach in Germany. Luther’s action along with other historical currents led to what we know as the Reformation. The Reformation spawned a number of new Churches and independent states. The Roman Catholic Church and the European empire were broken up.  The Reformation played a major part in forming the modern world, as we know it. It spawned Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Methodism and such notions as democracy and the separation of Church and State. 
Paul’s letter to the Romans led the way.  Paul expresses the kernel of the Gospel in chapter 1 verse 16 and 17:  I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe, first the Jews and also the Gentiles. For the gospel reveals how God put people right with himself: it is through faith from the beginning to end … . ‘The person who is put right with God through faith shall live.’ [Goodnews]   When Luther pondered these verses and read Paul’s presentation of the Gospel of Christ Jesus he knew that our salvation, our relationship with God, is solely dependent on our trusting God. Humanity cannot earn its way to God’s presence.  Paul reiterates succinctly this truth in Romans chapter 5:1
We are justified by faith … through Jesus we have obtained access to grace … .
Re-claiming the Gospel truth fractured forever our dependence upon the priest as the conduit to God and set the individual’s faith as the key factor in experiencing God’s free and undeserved gift of love.  All these things we take for granted to day. This theology also nurtured individualism.
Paul’s explanation in Romans is the standard belief of Christendom today, for both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. It is universally recognised that we are saved by faith in Christ Jesus, who is God with us, and that the Holy Spirit nurtures our faith.
You may wonder whether Paul’s thinking is in line with Jesus’ teaching?  In the Gospel according to John Jesus says to Nicodemus that unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the Kingdom of God [Jn 3: 3].  The four accounts of the Gospel consistently present Jesus accepting us as we are. He calls his disciples, welcomes tax collectors, accepts the Samaritan woman at the well, forgives the woman caught in adultery and heals the sick. There is no indication that any of these people deserved or earned Jesus’ attention. All they did and all they could do was to trust Jesus. Nicodemus was presented with only the choice of trusting God. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus John summarises Jesus’ teaching and practice in that famous text in chapter 3 verse 16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  This is exactly what Paul is saying in his theological explanation. He shows that from Abraham’s time our relationship with God has always been based on trust.
Now some said to Paul that if God simply accepts us and treats humanity as good, when they are not, surely this makes God unfair?  Is God immoral for not administering justice to humanity for their wrongdoing? Paul responds to this question in two ways.
Firstly, Jesus’ obedience in doing the Father’s will and his sacrifice both act as atonement for us. Paul mentions this, but that is not where his emphasis falls. The weight of his writing falls on the obligation of humanity to respond to God’s unconditional gift of acceptance.  We are in debt to God [Rom 8:12].  Paul understands that believers should not behave as if they can receive God’s gift of forgiveness and acceptance, but continue their old pattern of living. There was in Paul’s time and in ours the danger of accepting God’s mercy then going on in our normal way and coming back to receive God’s mercy again.  There is a potential danger in setting up practices in our liturgy and pastoral care for forgiveness. It is not acceptable to hear each Sunday the declaration of forgiveness and then carry on for the rest of week as before and then return to receive again the declaration of forgiveness the following Sunday. This is why I am not keen on having a regular declaration. It runs the risk of relying on God’s forgiveness when our reliance should be on the Spirit guiding us into truth and maturing our faith. If we treat God as an eternal fountain of forgiveness we run the risk of cheapening God’s graciousness towards us.  It also implies God is not holding us accountable. Paul, following Jesus, makes it clear that one day we will stand before God and be held accountable for our life as a Christian. Paul says in Romans 14: 10, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. And again in chapter 2; “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds:  to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life;  while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath “ [2:6-8]
Paul explains to his readers that to accept God’s free gift of love to us in Christ puts us in a different space. He says that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. [5:5]  Paul says what Jesus and others have said, that if we walk in darkness we will die for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord [6:23] 
If God treats us as right then he also puts us on a pathway to rightness and it is our responsibility to take that road seriously.  So God the Father ordains that we will be accepted as we are, Christ Jesus leads the way and the Holy Spirit guides and grows us.
What I find so beautiful in all this is that in the profanity of this world’s ways, in the abounding ugliness of our behaviour, in the despair of an uncertain future there is a plan – a gracious plan for our restoration and the world’s. Without God we would be hopeless.
Finally a little story that may help us understand the wonder of God forgiveness. My research indicates that this story is based on such an event.
There is the story about the Duke of Wellington who was about to pronounce the death sentence on a confirmed deserter. Deeply moved, the great General said, ‘I am extremely sorry to pass this severe sentence, but we have tried everything, and all the discipline and penalties have failed to improve this man who is otherwise a brave and a good soldier.’
Then he gave the man’s comrades an opportunity to speak for him. ‘Please, your Excellency,’ said one of the men, ‘ there is one thing you have never tried. You have not tried to forgive him.’ The General forgave him and it worked; the soldier never again deserted and ever after showed his gratitude to the Iron Duke. [Quotes &Anecdotes, AP Castle C14]
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  02/04/2017
 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org.au