A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity
Second Sunday after Trinity, 18th June 2023
A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.8)
St Paul’s letter to the Romans, our first reading. A key passage in one of the key texts in the Christian scriptures. This morning we heard from Chapter 5. For me personally that has special resonances.
40 years ago I was just beginning training for ordination, and launching into a degree in theology. It was an old-fashioned course, almost entirely Christian in focus, with 4 out of its 9 papers on the Bible, and the rest heavily weighted towards doctrine. For some reason, our first term of study was focussed on the New Testament, for which the course required us to read most of the texts in the original Greek. I had studied several modern languages, but my school didn’t offer even Latin, let alone ancient Greek – so as you can imagine I was, at best, just about getting by during a bewildering first term, which happened to come hard on the heels of our honeymoon and in a place completely new to us.
18 months later, looking forward to imminent final exams, I was staring down the barrel of disaster: among papers which required candidates to know great chunks of the New Testament in Greek, I had a reasonable prospect of getting away with the gospels and some other narrative texts; but I had absolutely no chance of making anything of a randomly presented paragraph from somewhere in the first 8, complex and densely argued, chapters of St Paul to the Romans. So I did what any serious scholar probably would not do: I went and dug out every single example I could find of past exam papers, and I sat down and laboriously worked out from where in the letter the examiners had taken these impenetrable gobbets of Greek text. Having tabulated them, I realised that I didn’t need to know all 8 chapters, and that by knowing chapters 4, 5, and 8, I would always have been able to cover the questions.
The rest, as they say, is history. I ditched 60% of the required work, and focussed laser-like on those three chapters. I’m a kind person, so I communicated this discovery to my fellow students, only one of whom was confident – or desperate – enough to follow suit. And he and I got away with the exam.
I mention this for two reasons. On a practical level, I have managed to speak from this pulpit for several minutes now without yet embarking on any kind of exposition of Paul’s theology in this letter. PHEW!
But there is also a somewhat more serious element to this. Romans is a text of enormous consequence in Christianity; the first half – chapters 1-8 – contains the bulk of the writer’s argument; and chapters 4,5, and 8 are at the very heart of that argument. It’s not an accident that the examiners focussed on these. I may have found that out by the wrong route, but at least I found it out.
I direct you to the first sentence of chapter 5:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
One sentence among very many of densely worded theological argument; but one which contains ideas which are at the core of his message. To pick out some key words and phrases:
‘we are justified by faith’; grace; ‘our hope of sharing the glory of God’. And just a few lines further on: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’.
Paul knew his own life had been irrevocably transformed by an encounter with Christ, and it was by these ideas that he understood the new order of things. The great power of his teaching was borne out in his very fruitful missionary journeys, which went far beyond the injunction we heard in today’s gospel, where Jesus sent his disciples out exclusively among their own Jewish community; Paul’s focus instead was very largely on gentiles.
Don’t let the extent and the obscurity of the message of Paul distract you from the importance of his message. That message isn’t for a recherche niche, suitable to be confined to the dusty realms of academia and to experts: it grows out of, it expresses, and it has helped achieve, the transformation of lives by encounter with the grace of God.
Many people to whom Paul spoke this message found their lives transformed; in later centuries great and powerful thinkers like St Augustine and Martin Luther were turned around by it; I have known people transformed by his message of grace. It’s there in the extraordinary reassurance of this sentence:
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
I commend to your attention this short passage from Romans. It contains the stuff of life.