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Sermon Series

 

April 3, 2016 A.D. Sermon by Pastor Ben Willis

INTRODUCTION

Pastor Ben has invited us all to read the New Testament together across 2016, and he’s committed that he would preach every Sunday from a passage we’ve read the week before. So, this past week – if you’ve been following the Reading Plan on our website, in our Worship Bulletins, or as a part of the Closer Walk devotional – you know that we finished reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, and have begun reading his letter First Corinthians.

Romans ended with St. Paul encouraging us to live our lives for Christ and to not let the differences we have with our fellow Christians make us proud. That is, if we worship God one way and others worship God another way, we shouldn’t spend all of our time trying to get everyone to worship the way we do. No, Paul writes, we should honor the differences between us and strive not to hurt other’s faith by the things we do. It’s about Christians living in relationship with God through Christ that matters, Paul proclaims, it’s not about all Christians living out their relationship with Christ the same ways I do (or you do, or we do). We should spend more time making sure we are faithful as we follow Christ, and less time judging whether or not everyone else is faithful as they follow Christ. We should spend more time making sure the church is reaching out to and serving the needs of others and those who are new to Christ, and less time making sure the church is the way we want it and serving our own needs.

And after a rather lengthy goodbye, Paul ends his letter to the Romans reminding us all of the goal of his efforts and all of our efforts in preaching and carrying out the work and service of the gospel: The goal is to have God’s people living in obedient-relationship with God the Father through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit!

We also read the first two chapters of First Corinthians, and that’s where Ben’s going to be preaching from this morning:

1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31 [NLTse]

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”

20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in His wisdom saw to it that the world would never know Him through human wisdom, He has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from Heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. 23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

26 Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.

30 God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made Him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; He made us pure and holy, and He freed us from sin. 31 Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.”

SERMON

Doug has finished up our reading and study through Romans, so let me introduce our reading and study through First Corinthians. The apostle Paul first established a fellowship of Christians in Corinth during what’s called his u “Second Missionary Journey,” a mission trip Paul went on to check on the Christian fellowships he had planted during his “First Missionary Journey.” And during that second trip he traveled farther and planted more.

After traveling through what was then called “Asia” but is now called “Turkey” (where his existing church-plants were located), Paul traveled to Greece and began for the first time preaching and ministering there. Northern Greece in Paul’s day was called Macedonia, and Paul established two Christian fellowships there: One in Philippi and the other in Thessalonica. But some of the Jews whom Paul was preaching to in Thessalonica were so offended by the gospel that they ran Paul out of town and stoned him nearly to death.

After only a brief time to recover, Paul fled from Thessalonica to another Macedonian city called Berea, before having to flee again to the southern part of Greece called Achaia. In Achaia, Paul traveled through and preached in famous Athens, before finally arriving in Corinth. But Paul was not well when he arrived in Corinth. He was still recovering and badly shaken by his near-death in Thessalonica. And in chapter 2 of First Corinthians, Paul reminds them how, “I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling.” His proclamation of the gospel didn’t come to the Corinthians through boldness or cleverness because he was injured and beaten-down at the time. But the Holy Spirit used his simple preaching about the cross. And as Paul trusted in and obeyed God, the Holy Spirit empowered Paul – even with his injuries and frailty – to work miracles and to do wonders that validated his message.

First Corinthians is actually Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian Christians, and he writes because of the many troubles the Corinthian church was facing: Church splits, sexual immorality among the members, forbidding women to lead in the church, different spiritual gifts making different groups proud, and some denying the resurrection of the dead while others teaching that the resurrection had already occurred. The Corinthian fellowship was a pretty messed up church. (And we thought these kinds of headlines only happened in our modern day!)

With that as an introduction, let me take us back to the opening words of this letter. As he does in most of his letters, in verse 3 Paul prays for the Corinthian believers, “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.” He follows-up that blessing in verse 4, saying, “I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts He has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus.” To which, a couple verses later in 7, he adds, “Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I draw our attention to these verses because of the picture they paint about God’s grace: We need God’s grace, and so Paul asks God to bless them with His grace; and yet, we’ve been given God’s grace, even as Paul thanks God for the grace that has already been given them; and, we have and exist in a state of God’s grace, in which we live as we wait for Jesus’ return in the future, empowered with every gift from God we need to accomplish His work here in the world.

So, what is grace? Like the picture before us has been showing: u Grace is God’s great big gift to us of salvation, taking away our sins and giving us Jesus’ Own righteous. And grace is also the little gifts God gives us, the ways the Holy Spirit makes us more and more like Jesus in our Christian character and moral qualities over time, and the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit empowers us with to speak the words of God and do the works of God when He calls and needs us to. And grace is also the state of these things: Us “resurrection people” live in God’s grace; it’s like our air to us, just like we don’t think about breathing nor our lungs taking the needed nutrients out of the oxygen we breathe in, likewise we Christians don’t tend to think about applying to our moral defects the grace that is ours in Christ, nor do we tend to think about reaching out to Him for the grace required in our moments of need. No, we live in grace, and so we, Christians, find that we grow in Christian character without trying. The Holy Spirit does the work in us as we live for and enjoy our relationship with Him. And we don’t have to try and stir-up the special abilities we need to accomplish what God calls us to do in a given situation. The abilities are just “there” when we need them, the Holy Spirit empowering us at all the right moments, even when we don’t realize He’s at work.

You might be wondering, “If our salvation is by the grace of God, then how can He judge those who don’t believe in Christ? They can’t believe in Him apart from His grace, right?” You might be wondering, “If our faithfulness in any given situation is by the grace of God, then how can He blame us when we deny Him or don’t do what He wants? Isn’t it His fault for not granting us the grace we needed in that moment?” You might be wondering, “If this state of grace we live in is a gift of God’s grace and something we do not deserve and something we can-not ever deserve, then isn’t it God’s responsibility and not ours to bring people to this state of grace? Can’t we just mind our own business, keep Christ to ourselves, and let the Holy Spirit bring people to Jesus Himself?”

We didn’t look at this while we were reading through Romans together because we were celebrating Palm Sunday the week we read it, but St. Paul addresses these very questions in Romans chapter 9 when he’s acknowledging and mourning for the many Jews who were going to be damned because they had not trusted Jesus as their Savior. By the Holy Spirit, Paul writes, “Why does God blame people for not responding [to Christ]? Haven’t they simply done what He makes them do?” (It’s Paul’s version of the same questions we’ve been asking.) And Paul answers these logical questions with this logical argument. He responds,

“When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show His anger and His power, He is very patient with those on whom His anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of His glory shine even brighter on those to whom He shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory.” (9:21-23)

The Word of God is telling us that God has created some human beings who will go to Hell in order to show those human beings who will go to Heaven just how glorious and merciful and wonder-filled He is! And, although that makes me sad to think of it, haven’t we all experienced the truth of it? Isn’t it when we look at those around us who have no hope that we realize how glorious and merciful and wonder-filled is the hope we have in Christ? Isn’t it when we look at those around us who have no peace that we realize how glorious and merciful and wonder-filled is the peace we have in Christ? Isn’t it when we look at those around us who have no joy that we realize how glorious and merciful and wonder-filled is the joy we have in Christ?

And so, the question might come into your head, “That means that God is choosing people around us to send to Hell?” All I can tell you is that before you let yourself start thinking about that and letting the thought of it pollute your soul, remember that God is good, that God is love. We are speaking of great mysteries here since we also read in the Scriptures that God desires not even one human being to perish and go to eternal death! You and I do not and can-not fully understand these things, so we must not let our hearts and minds be polluted with the confusion and malice that such thoughts can inspire, or we will stop sharing God’s goodness with those around us. And then how will they hear the good news? And then how will they believe and trust in Christ? And then how will God’s grace be shown in them when they are saved?

No, such questions and temptations to think ill of our Father is all the devil trying to tempt us back in the Garden of Eden again. We human beings always want to be in control: Making our own choices, controlling our own destinies. But the Scripture makes clear that God alone is in sovereign-control, even over the lives and salvation of human beings! “It is by grace we have been saved,” Paul writes to the Ephesian-Christians. We’ve had nothing to do with our salvation, so we cannot “boast” about it because we’ve had no part to play in it!

No, the great news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that you and I can rest in our salvation knowing that it’s not up to us! God is the One Who began the work in us. He called us to Himself! So, whether we’re having a good, obedient day or a bad, selfish day, we can be at peace knowing that u God is the One, not you or me, Who will bring this work in us (and in our friends and in our loved ones and in those we’ve been given compassion for) to completion! Your and my part is to seek Him earnestly, to love Him wholeheartedly, to cooperate with Him fully, and to surrender our will and plans over to Him daily. And yet even then, trusting that it is His Spirit energizing us to want to work for and to do the work for all that pleases Him.

As Doug read at the beginning, it was God Who had united the Corinthian believers to Christ. The only boasting they could do about their salvation, and about the abilities and giftedness God gave them, and about the life of hope, peace, and joy they were living was to boast in the Lord! The Lord can and does call us to live with Him and live for Him is because all we have is the result of God’s grace. All we are is the result of God’s grace.

The Lord calls us to tithe – giving 10% of our income to His work through the church – so that He can keep doing through the church for others what He first used the church to do for us. He calls us to give even more than the 10%-tithe sometimes when He has especially blessed us or when He is doing an extra-special work requiring our special support. We can do that because all we have and all we are is on account of His grace.

He calls us to be serving – using our abilities and expertise – in and around the church to bless the people of the congregation as a whole and, again, to enable the church to do for still others what it has already been doing for us. And we can do that because all we have and all we are is on account of His grace.

Of course, He calls us to love Him and enjoy Him and to share Him with our family members and friends. He calls us to live for Him and to draw near to Him and to cry out to Him and to let Him comfort and guide us and encourage and direct us, not because He’s so demanding of what is ours, but because He’s been so generous in sharing with us what is His by His grace!

My brothers and sisters in Christ: It is God Himself Who has united us with Christ Jesus. Jesus Christ made us right with God; He made us pure and holy, and He freed us from sin. None of it has been our doing. From start to finish, it’s all been God’s gift; it’s all been grace.



March 13, 2016 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

To the Romans 3:21-31 [NLTse]

21 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with Him without keeping the requirements of the Law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in His grace, freely makes us right in His sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when He freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed His life, shedding His blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when He held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for He was looking ahead and including them in what He would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate His righteousness, for He himself is fair and just, and He makes sinners right in His sight when they believe in Jesus.

27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the Law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the Law.

29 After all, is God the God of the Jews only? Isn’t He also the God of the Gentiles? Of course He is. 30 There is only one God, and He makes people right with Himself only by faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. 31 Well then, if we emphasize faith, does this mean that we can forget about the Law? Of course not! In fact, only when we have faith do we truly fulfill the Law.

According to Luke 15:11-32

11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both Heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’

20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both Heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’

22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’

28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’

31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’”

Sermon

Many of us have been reading the New Testament together here in 2016. The daily reading plan is listed in our weekly Bulletins and on the church’s website. We’re currently reading through Paul’s letter To the Romans.

As a part of this past Monday’s readings, Paul wrote that God has shown us a way to be made right with Him that doesn’t involve keeping all of His commandments. Paul writes that we are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ.

He says that although every human being has sinned, although we all deserve condemnation and death in our perfect God’s eyes, that God, in His grace, freely makes us right in His sight. That God freed us from the penalty for our sins when He presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin on the cross. God makes sinners right in His sight when they believe in Jesus Christ.

If the Apostle Paul is right (and we believe he is, that the Holy Spirit of God used Paul to speak God’s very Word) then you and I no longer need to be forgiven our sins. We have been forgiven. We need to keep telling God and others we’re sorry when we continue to fall short, when we continue to realize that we’ve sinned. We strive to show God our love for Him by not sinning any more, but when the Holy Spirit shows us that we have, yes, we need to admit it and tell God we’re sorry, but our sins are forgiven. Jesus did the work. “It is finished!” He said from the cross. When our Abba-Father looks at you and me, when we’re trusting in Christ, He sees us absolutely flawless!

And yet you can often see many Christians wearing a starving sort of look: The face of those who’ve spent a lifetime striving to be the person they think they should be, chasing the approval of God and others, but never really feeling like they measure up. You can see those expressions on people who follow the rules, do everything leaders ask them to do, are seldom acknowledged for all their efforts, and who feel guilty when they slack on a diligent devotional life. The look betrays the deep recesses of their hearts: They can’t seem to outrun the gnawing ache that they aren’t good enough. When honest, such folks will admit the lie that drives so much of their life: God is disappointed with their performance, just like everyone else is, just like their parents, their teachers, their spouse, and their bosses were and are.

In working with people for a number of years, I’ve heard a lot of stories… and secrets. I’ve come to believe that behind the fronts and facades, that most people live with a sense of self-disdain. Of course, the details of the stories are different.

For some it’s what they’ve done or not done, for others it’s who they have or haven’t become, but the self-condemnation is almost always there. I don’t think most people really like what they see in those honest, vulnerable moments when they look at themselves in the mirror.

It makes sense. We live in a culture that defines our value by what we accomplish, what we own, and how we look. I’m struck with the awareness that for the first time in the history of human existence, the majority of our social contact comes in the form of someone telling us we are in need and so trying to sell us something. Is it just a coincidence that the basic message of the most dominant voice in our society is that we are in some way lacking?

I believe this self-disdain drives the many of addictions that affect almost everyone. Whether it’s drugs, food, porn, video games, or our phones, we are obsessed with finding new ways to disconnect from life.

O, to be significant!

O, to be loved!

I have similar wounds. I know all about the not-good-enough speech. With the Prodigal Son parable in mind, anybody here ever wonder what the father’s response might have been had his son gone “prodigal” again, and again, and again? Anybody here ever wondered what the rest of the kid’s life was like? Anybody here think that, because his father had been so reckless in his forgiveness, that the kid likely spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was now responsible and worthy of his dad’s crazy decision to lavish him with love despite his rebellion? Anybody here ever thought that, if the son ever chose to return to his life of excess that he would likely never be welcomed back home again.

Or would he?

For many Christians, forgiveness of sins means they have to immediately begin doing spiritual and moral activities. For many Christians, God’s gift of grace has to be repaid with their works. (I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do spiritual activities and direct our movements to pleasing God, but many Christians assume that God’s continued love is contingent upon their behavior, and they don’t want to risk doing something to make Him stop loving them.)

But God’s love for you is unconditional. God’s love for me is unconditional. Right here. Right now. He is not waiting for us to become as we should be. He loves you, He loves me, just as we are.

My friends: God is not mad at you! Jesus has paid for your sins. The Father aches for you to come home and crawl up into His arms of total acceptance and unconditional love and peaceful rest. Neither you nor I can wear out God’s love. There is nothing we can do to keep Him God from loving us.

In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, I tell you that if the prodigal son had left again that he would have been welcomed back again, and again, and again. Of course, I tell you, if the prodigal son could receive the grace, love, and acceptance of his father, he would never want to leave!

Every advertisement, website, and infomercial these days seems to have a singular, simple solution to life’s problems, but I have continually found that a clear and deep knowing of God’s love for me has been the key remedy I needed to untangle many of the problems I faced. Whether it was resentments, guilt, relational conflict, obsessive or controlling behaviors, people pleasing, greed, lust, withdrawing, negative self-talk, anger, or trying to find my identity in what I did or in other people, these were all at least in part rooted in my desire and striving to be significant – to be loved.

Through the years since I have begun trusting God’s love for me, when I felt my actions didn’t measure up or I struggled with sin, I found myself greeting my failures with a gentle smile. I didn’t have to achieve or be perfect. I am loved. And contrary to what I have heard many others argue, the Father’s reckless grace has not made me complacent. Being accepted – just as I am – has motivated me to give and to love. The more and more I realize that I don’t have to strive, the more and more I find I want to.

God’s love is the central message of Christianity. Living the Kingdom life can only truly be born out of an active response to a deep knowing of one’s place as a much-loved daughter or son of the Author of Life. In Jesus Christ, you are accepted. In Jesus Christ, you are loved. In Jesus Christ, you are free to achieve and to fail. Jesus Christ has shown us that we do not have to prove that we are worthy of love and forgiveness: In Jesus Christ, we are worthy of love and forgiveness.

Justified, redeemed, atoned for: In the cross of Jesus Christ we have been made flawless.

So, come… If you are ready to accept the love of God today, I invite you to come up here, light a candle, and stand or kneel here at the steps, as you choose. If you are ready to lay down your strivings and your performing to prove yourself worthy, and are ready to receive that acceptance and worthiness that comes by faith, come…

We live in a culture that badgers us to keep our faith private, personal, “Keep it to yourself!” But the Lord Jesus calls us to make Him and our faith and trust in Him known to all those around us. “Whoever acknowledges Me publicly here on earth,” Jesus said, “I will also acknowledge before My Father in Heaven.” So, come: Personally and publicly. Come.

Come with the big or little bit love you have for Him. Come with your faith – great or small. Come with your questions not yet answered. (We all have them.) But come…

Of course, if your faith has been on cruise control and you’ve just been going through the motions of faith for a time, come: Recommit; re-consecrate; renew your vows, your promises to love Him, to follow Him, that wherever He leads you’ll go…

But, come…

The Praise Team is going to lead us in hymn #504, “He Touched Me”. And as they lead us, come: Come light a candle; and, whether standing or kneeling, come give your life a-fresh, a-new to Jesus Christ. Commit yourself to accept His label of “beloved”, of “precious”, of “son” or “daughter”, of “flawless” by claiming Him as your savior… Commit  yourself to follow Him obediently, lovingly, joyfully, always as your lord…



March 6, 2016 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Introduction

As our reading begins, the apostle has been talking about the ways that human rebellion against God has led people-groups and nations to make up all sorts of different ideas about what God is like and all sorts of different ideas about what the life He has for us looks like, as well…

To the Romans 2:1-16 [NLTse]

You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. 2 And we know that God, in His justice, will punish anyone who does such things. 3 Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? 4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

5 But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 He will judge everyone according to what they have done. 7 He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. 8 But He will pour out His anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. 9 There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. 10 But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

12 When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. 13 For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in His sight. 14 Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know His law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. 15 They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. 16 And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.

Sermon

The first Christians in Rome were likely Jews who had been converted on the Day of Pentecost during the famous sermon the Apostle Peter gave that day. After the Pentecost festivities, they would have returned to Rome continuing to practice their Jewish food, ceremonial, and morality laws while proclaiming that Jesus, their Messiah, had come and was with them! That would have been in AD 33. Over the years that followed, Gentiles would have likely joined them in their faith, but since Gentiles weren’t required to keep the food and ceremonial laws, the Gentiles would have practiced the faith somewhat differently.

Sometime in the 40’s (ten or so years later), the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome – even Christian Jews – and so the Roman churches came to be made up of only Gentiles for the next ten years until Claudius’ death in AD 54, when his edict was repealed and Jews were permitted to return. This letter, from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome, addresses the tensions the congregations in Rome were facing as the Jews returned, and as the Jewish and Gentile Christians began to clash on account of their culturally different ways of expressing their faith in Jesus.

As we are reading the New Testament together in 2016, and as I’ve committed to preach on something we’ve just read the week before, we’ve only gotten to the middle of chapter 3 in Romans so far. So, let me summarize that part of Paul’s argument that we have read:

Whether you are a Jew who knows and has always had God’s laws, or whether you are a Gentile just getting to know God’s story-with-humanity and striving to live in-step with the Holy Spirit, you are a sinner: A rebel against God and against His ways; perhaps a big sinner or perhaps a little sinner, but “no one is righteous – not even one.” (3:10) You are not a better Christian if you had or didn’t have God’s law. You’re not a worse Christian if you had or didn’t have God’s law. “No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.” (3:11-12) Whether Jew or Gentile, whether Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian, the only hope for anyone – for everyone – is the Lord Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross making a way for us back to God. Bragging about your ancestry or what you do or don’t do, having confidence or putting your hope in anything other than Jesus Christ crucified-and-risen is foolishness and emptiness and death. But bragging and having confidence and hope in Christ is glory, peace, and everlasting life!

Let me unpack this a little bit more.

The Lord Jesus once told a story about two men who came to Jerusalem to pray. He said, “One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank You, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to Heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’” Jesus said, “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home [declared innocent] before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14) What’s Jesus getting at here?

He gives us a picture of one guy who knows his Bible well, who has really cleaned up his life, and who practices spiritual disciplines and gives money to the poor. And He gives us a picture of a second guy who’s a liar and a cheat and who steals from his family. They both go to church one Sunday and are praying, and Jesus tells us that the “good guy” goes away still in his sins (though they may be few) and that the “bad guy” goes away completely forgiven (though his sins had been many). Why?

Of course, Jesus tells us. He tells us that the “good guy” went away still in his sins because he knew about all the changes that had happened in his life – that is, he knew he knew the Bible pretty well, he knew he’d left behind him a lot of terrible sinning that he used to do, he knew that he gave money to the poor – he knew all these things and he was proud of the man he had become. And because he was proud of himself he went away still guilty in God’s sight.

But Jesus tells us that the other guy was so convicted of his own sin as he came into the church that he wouldn’t even look up towards Heaven as he prayed, but was sad and ashamed for all he’d done. And, because he kept God high and himself low, Jesus tells us that God forgave him his sins and that he went home that day declared innocent of sin by God. Because those who make much of themselves will be made little of by God, but those who make little of themselves will be made much of by God!

It is so great to be loved and adopted by the Father! But if it leads us to be proud and a “holier than thou” attitude then even our righteousness is causing us to sin. No, the only way to be truly great and to stay truly great is for us to humbly recognize our own sinfulness, and for us to humbly recognize that only Christ has made us and can keep us declared innocent of sin on account of His once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Not I, but Christ; if we’re going to boast let us only ever boast in the Lord.

The kindness of God in the cross of Jesus Christ can lead people to think too little of sin. But it is intended to lead us all to greater and ever-greater turning from sin. The kindness of God in the cross of Jesus Christ can lead people to take God’s love more and more for granted. But it is intended to fan the flames of our hearts into greater and ever-greater love for Him. The kindness of God in the cross of Jesus Christ can lead people into seeing their own sin as small and far less offensive than the sins of others around them. But it is intended to highlight to us our identity as sinners – whether our sins are grievous or mild – and to drive us to Him as our only our only hope for rescue and peace.