Sermon – 1 June 2008

[audio:Sermon 1 June 2008.mp3]

For audio, click the icon above. Text below. Usual disclaimers. I didn’t say what the text says. Here it is:

I don’t preach on St Paul very often, but this seems to me to be important this week, so I am going to preach on the second of our readings, from the letter to the Romans. What I want to say, is something about the context we are in as Anglicans about the need for us to look deep, very deep into the foundations of our faith.

I remember once hearing Richard Holloway say that we had to stop reading the book of Romans through the eyes of Martin Luther and try to get back to reading it afresh for ourselves.

That is quite a hard concept to take in. What does it mean to be reading Romans through Luther’s eyes? What could it possibly mean to read it afresh for ourselves?

Well, it means somehow that we have to get to the root of what it is that Paul is talking about and I want to give an example of what that might mean.

People tend to write things as an answer to some question – anyone who is dealing with the sitting or marking of examination papers this week does not need to be told that. What we need to think about with this passage from Romans is what it was that made Paul write it.

At the explosion of the reformation in the church, Martin Luther did indeed read this book. And he found in it the answers to questions that he was asking of God. The main question being, “How can I be saved?” And as Luther looked, Luther found. This morning’s reading is typical of one of the answers that Luther found. But, and this is a big but, it is easy, far too easy to presume that the Bible will provide us with specific answers to our problems just by flicking the pages or sticking in a pin. What Luther was up to could in fact be seen as a sophisticated version of just that. He had his question in his mind and stuck his finger in and found this passage and presumed that God was giving him the answer.

When he read the words, “There can be no distinction for all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.” He saw in them the answer to his question. But that question may not be the question that we bring today.

And, that may not have been why Paul wrote it. It may not even have been why God inspired it, if you believe in that kind of inspiration.

It seems to me more and more important for us to rediscover the idea of the divine inspiration of the reader of scripture as well as that of the authors. We must read the bible in our own context and ask what it means for us today. As I heard the story of Noah this morning, my mind was stirred into thinking about climate change. That is the kind of reading which we need to rediscover.

We need to think about the context of the author and the context of us as readers. It seems to me, trying in my small way to read Romans afresh that Paul was writing for a very different reason to the reason that Luther was getting at, and in that, I agree with Bishop Richard. We need to read Romans through our own eyes, not through the eyes of Martin Luther.

It seems that the house church in Rome, for that is the object of Paul’s writing, was a church which was potentially, bitterly divided. Rome, the centre of so much power in those days was a cosmopolitan city. And as people mixed together, they were also coming under the influence of Christianity together and found themselves, perhaps rather reluctantly worshipping in the same church. There was undoubtedly racial and religious tension, particularly between Jews and Gentiles, but probably between different ethnic groups as well.

It can be rather chastening to discover yourself in church with someone you dislike. However, the Roman Church was also divided in a different way in that it comprised of free people and also slaves. And if the ethnic mix presented problems, how much more difficult was it for those who had liberty to worship with those who did not?

Seen with that little background then, Paul’s words become something different. We cannot assume that they are the answer to Luther’s question “How can I, Martin Luther be saved?” No, in a way, Paul’s writing was much more profound. He was writing to a divided church to bring it together.

He was writing to bring harmony and peace to a church congregation in danger of being at war with itself. Paul was looking for commonality amongst the people, and found it, simply in their common faith. And in that light, his letter becomes a call for people to put aside their differences and build a just church community where everyone was welcome.

Paul is not writing a recipe for salvation, neither Martin Luther’s salvation nor anyone else’s. Paul is writing to set the church free from racism which would cripple it and divisions of status which would kill it.

The letter to the Romans has been used as a test of faith by so many. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and so the question arises, are you justified. Is your faith enough. Do you have enough of God’s grace to stand before God on the day of judgement without fear in your heart. This is the question which many in the African Anglican churches are asking the churches of the west at this time. And the letter to the Romans has been used to divide God’s people and not to unite them. Indeed, the letter tot he Romans (especially the first chapter) has been used as a text of terror against gay and lesbian people.

This is not why Paul wrote it. This is not how I read it.

This is a letter as much about justice as salvation, though even saying that, we need to remember that Jesus did not seem to see much difference between the two.

Indeed, that might just be what some of his stories are about – the mixture of salvation and justice which marked what he called the Kingdom.

The question is not whether or not we have received just enough grace to get us into that Kingdom.

Oh no. That kingdom is characterised by grace which falls from God as fast and as furious as the rain which fell on Noah or the downpour which landed on the wise man and the foolish man in the gospel reading.

We are drenched by downpour of God’s grace and that is something which Paul, the author of Romans knew very well. He knew that all of God’s people, Gentile and Jew, slave and free were drenched in God’s saving grace and that that was the thing that they had to celebrate in order to build the church and bring the kingdom in, in Rome.

That all God’s people are drenched, already drenched in God’s grace is the truth we proclaim, the gospel that we share. And it is that grace which ultimately will bring God’s people together.

In order to bring Christ’s kingdom experience in here, in Glasgow, we must be open to the same torrent of grace and be ready to flood the world with justice. In his name. Amen


  1. It seems to me more and more important for us to rediscover the idea of the divine inspiration of the reader of scripture as well as that of the authors.

    Thank you for this, Kelvin. I agree with you wholeheartedly. After all, only the author truly knows what was in his head when he wrote it and indeed, where the inspiration came from.

    Oh, and I enjoyed the rest too.

  2. Marion Conn says

    Once again I’m listening to this late at night. Definitely food for thought and prayer. I was outside in the rain tonight, I really like the idea of that I was not just wet, but drenched in Grace. Thanks Kelvin.

    Good Night.

  3. Jonathan Ensor says

    I believe that everyone has a right to freedom of thought. Freedom of speech is a circumscribed fact of life in the UK and it is certainly an interesting idea that reading can be inspired, but who is the arbiter of what is inspired and who is the arbiter of what is apostate. I may believe with all my heart that I am divinely inspired, but I still have to convince other people that this is the case and that I am not being grandiose etc. If I pontificate about a text in the common domain, I may well have to justify myself and/or defend my position at some considerable cost, which I may or may not be willing to pay.

  4. Thank you for your comments.

    Jonathan – I think that I was suggesting that we see both the authorship of texts and the reading of texts as activities that can be inspired. I think that there has to be some dialogue between author and reader.

    I also think that in the history of looking at biblical texts, some people have emphasised the value of the text to the individual whilst others have read the text in community. (We might also presume that the texts themselves were gathered in community). I don’t think that I’d like to lose sight of that idea of inspiration coming when a community reads a text together. That idea is important to me as it counters against the idea of individuals thinking that they (alone) are divinely inspired.

    It seems to me that more people have believed that they alone were the only proper source of truth or inspiration or legitimacy than has actually been the case.

  5. Elizabeth says

    Having heard this text spoken of many, many, many times in the context of Luther’s reading, I must say it was an enormous relief to hear this other way of reading. This tempts me to return to other texts of Paul’s that might be worth re-reading without Evangelical/Calvinist/Lutheran-coloured glasses.

  6. Jonathan Ensor says

    Kelvin, I agree that there has to be a community, but pretty universally in churches I have been to the Minister has preached and the community has continued to be fragmented. Also there is no chance of dialogue with dead authors and in the realm of art, once a work is in the public realm it is available for multiple interpretations which the artist may well never have considered. Even legal documents which attempt to define the law are interpreted by the judiciary. There is little chance for art or literature or the bible to be consistently read because the implications of certain phrases or sentences may reside in the way that they are written rather than in the mind of the author and the definitions may be too loosely drawn.

  7. Many thanks for your comments.

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