A sermon on Romans 6:1b-11 & Matthew 10:24-39 by Nathan Nettleton
One hundred and fifty four years ago this week, Joseph and Caroline Wilson and Jas Drewe founded the South Yarra Baptist Church. And while it would be valuable for us sometime to learn more of their stories, we’re not going to do it today. In each generation of the church, there are some questions we will have to ask all over again, because the answers will be different. One of those questions is about how the way we live as Christians relates to the way we have lived and the way those around us live. And the answer for us will not be the same as it was for our forebears because the situations from which Christ has called us are are unlike anything Jas Drewe or Joseph and Caroline Wilson could have imagined.
The Apostle Paul addresses the issue, in the reading we heard from his letter to the church at Rome, with what sounds like an extreme rhetorical question: Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Should we draw attention to God’s grace by living in such a way that grace will be all the more necessary?
Now it’s easy for us to say “Of course not.” It sounds like a question that no one would seriously entertain. But I wonder. I wonder if there is not more to this question than first meets the eye. You see it doesn’t actually say “should we continue to sin, to do evil things,” it says “should we continue in sin?” And I think that that might be quite a different question – a question that Mr Drewe and the Wilsons would have had to struggle with in their day and a question that we find quite difficult again in our day.
You see, our lives are not just the things we say and do, our lives are also how we relate to what we live in – to the families and countries and communities and institutions that we find ourselves immersed in. And most of our families, communities, countries and institutions are not shaped by the values of the gospel. For most of us, in our day, they are shaped by the values of a major competing faith system. It is a faith system that says that the goal towards which we are moving is unlimited economic growth, that the value of each person is measured by their productivity, that the worth of any organisation is measured by its efficiency, and that true meaning and happiness is found in earning and spending. It is a faith system that goes by various names, perhaps most often “economic rationalism”, although the word “aspirationalism” seems to be becoming more common. You would be hard pressed to find any major institution in our society, government, business or even welfare and the church, where the people in power do not bend the knee at the altar of this religion.
Christianity has always called such religions idolatry. It doesn’t mean that everything it says and does is wrong, but it does mean that if it is the governing principle around which a person or group or organisation structures their life, then it is idolatrous. It is sin. And thus those who would follow Jesus have always been called to make a choice – will you live in that or will you live in opposition to that?
So how should we live? Should we just accept that those around us offer daily sacrifices to this idol and quietly get on with our lives, co-operating with the idolatry, not offending anyone or rocking the boat, and thanking God that his grace is big enough to save us anyway? Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound?
Well Paul is in no doubt about the answer. No Way! We have been baptised into Jesus Christ. It’s all or nothing. In baptism we have died with him, died to the life in which we have lived – the life enslaved to the ways of sin and every idolatrous rival faith with its dehumanising creeds. And having died with Christ we have been raised with him to resurrection life, to walk in radical newness of life, a totally different way of living free from the slaveries of sin.
That doesn’t answer the questions of how we should live it. We have to work those answers out together. And Jesus never promised that it would be easy – in fact he said that you have to take up a cross and follow and that if you do your foes will just as likely be members of your own household. But he also didn’t promise that you could just ignore the need to decide and assume that if you sing Amazing Grace on Sundays that grace will bring you home even though your life is shaped by another faith for six and a half days a week.
We have to work those answers out together day by day and year by year. In a few minutes we will be putting in place some commitments regarding what we think this means for us for this year. As we do on this day each year, we will form our church for the year to come around a covenant, a set of agreements which we prayerfully make with one another to be church together in a particular way. The covenant expresses some of the particulars that we believe Christ is calling us to live out in our time and place. Because the act of covenanting is part of the constituting of the church, that act is only for those who are already members of this congregation, but if you intend to participate in the life, prayer and ministry of this congregation, then this covenant is your covenant too, because it is about deciding what sort of congregation we will be. And the principle that underpins this is what Paul and Jesus were talking about in these readings. We can no longer live in the systems and patterns we once lived in. We can no longer live at peace with those who will only accept a peace that is grounded in allegiance to their values and their idolatries. We need to know what we are going to stand for and we need to be very intentional about the way we set out to live it.
In a few minutes, the members of this congregation will be invited to stand to commit our congregation to live in faithful response to the call expressed in the covenant for the coming year, and then everyone else who intends to participate in that covenant life with us will be invited to stand and identify themselves as intending to join in that with us. This is a very counter-cultural act. It is a stand for love and justice in the face of fear and oppression. It is a stand for communion in the face of rampant individualism and divisiveness. It is a stand for self-offering in the face of selfishness and exploitation. It is a stand for listening for the voice of God in the face of the cacophony of voices that would drown out truth. It is a stand for welcome and hospitality in the face of pious exclusivity and border protection. It is a stand for non-conformity in the face of nationalisms and the homogenising forces of the mass market consumerism. It is a stand for courageously doing as Jesus would do in the face of the forces of death. It is a stand for the gentle nurturing of faith in the face of cynicism and despair. It is a stand for thankfulness in the face of bitterness and greed. It may not get you arrested — although actions arising from it could — but it is likely to arouse suspicion and anger and tension from those around you, and perhaps even from those closest to you.
No one who lives in the real world can deny the vice-like grip that that rival faith has over the systems and structures and communities in which we live our lives. And so no one who knows can underestimate the challenge involved in breaking free from that and living differently. I can’t know exactly how its done — I am just another pilgrim on the road with you searching for the pathways of truth and integrity. I’m pretty sure that none of us will ever manage to do it alone. What I am increasingly convinced of, and why I’m here with you worshipping the God who raised Jesus from the dead, is that the grace of God revealed in Jesus and lived by his Spirit is powerful enough to break that grip. God has destined us for freedom and new life and the power of God’s Spirit given to us in our baptism is able to lead us there. All we’ve got to do to start that journey is to make sure that the vice-like grip is not ours, and to turn our faces into the wind of the Spirit and be blown wherever she carries us.