- October 29, 2017
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for October 29, 2017 (Reformation Sunday)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Romans 11:25-36; Psalm 46; Matthew 22:15-22
Title: The Extravagant Generosity of God
“Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out” (Romans 11:33).
Isn’t it a relief, my friends, to hear the great apostle Paul admit that we will never really figure out how God works? Isn’t it a bit encouraging, in some ways, to know that we are not alone in being confused about what God is doing in this world?
Because life is so very confusing. This morning, we heard this text from the apostle Paul in a different version. From The Message translation. I think the plain language helps us to feel a bit of the emotion that Paul was seeking to convey.
Now this passage from Romans is the conclusion of Paul’s entire theological vision that he is presenting in this letter. And strangely enough, he concludes it all by admitting just how difficult it is to understand the things of God! Because it IS difficult, even for someone like the apostle Paul!
But what is also important for us to notice is how Paul reached his conclusion about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the family of God.
How did he reach his conclusion? Well, he watched it happen! Paul is describing what he had observed within his own lifetime and how the Holy Spirit guided his thoughts as he reflected on what he saw.
And what he saw was this: The good news of new and eternal life in the Messiah came from the Jewish people. But, much to Paul’s surprise, it was not received by most of them. That inability to make progress in the synagogues forced Paul – and others like him – to take their energy and their passion elsewhere.
To the Greeks, to the Gentiles! And, lo and behold, these pagans and idol worshippers received the good news of salvation with joy!
Do you see what happened? It was entirely possible that the Church remained a strictly Jewish movement – a subculture within the synagogues, among the Jewish people. If THAT had happened, then the Gentiles would not have heard the message from Paul and the others. They would have been preoccupied with working among their own people and the message would not have gone throughout the world!
But the plain fact that the Israelites did NOT receive the messianic message meant that the door was opened to the Gentiles.
But not for their pride or conceit. Paul is keen to make sure that they do not become proud of the fact that they accepted the good news about Jesus the Messiah and the Jewish people did not. After all, it’s not as though this happened because they were better or smarter or more spiritual than the Jews.
It is all part of God’s mysterious plan to “end up with a full house” packed with both Jews and Gentiles, all living together in peace.
Do you see what Paul did? Do you see how he arrived at this conclusion? The good news is that you and I can do exactly the same thing that Paul did.
We can watch and observe and pray and reflect. And by viewing the course of events from the perspective of eternity – from the divine, big picture perspective, we can begin to make sense of what God is doing in our story, in just the same way that Paul did.
And we can do all this with complete confidence and trust that God’s promises “are under full warranty – never canceled, never rescinded”. We can always trust in God’s promise.
Another thing to note from Paul’s observation is that he is actually describing a process which is remarkably common in the course of history. God does this kind of thing again and again!
We can see the same kind of process at work in the age of the reformers that was at work in the age of the apostles.
Whenever the terms of the covenant become limited due to human pride and misunderstanding, then God steps in and breaks the doors down so that more and more people can come in! This is the extravagant generosity of God!
In the age of the apostles, the people of Israel controlled access to salvation, so God sent the apostles to open the door to the Greeks, to the uncircumcised nations.
In the age of the reformers, the Vatican controlled access to salvation, so God sent the reformers to open the door to the simple people, to the peasants and ordinary folk.
Many argue that a similar thing has occurred with the incredible spread of Pentecostalism. In the age of European imperialism, the West controlled access to the Gospel, so God sent the Spirit of Pentecost around the world to open the door to the Global South, to the developing world.
In every age, what we see is God unlocking the doors of salvation so that more and more people can access the healing, redeeming, liberating, empowering Holy Spirit of God – which can never be contained or controlled by any human institution – not even by our Churches!
Martin Luther and the Reformers became champions of this idea which became known as “semper reformanda”, that is, always reforming.
Semper reformanda is the idea that no human institution can ever be equated with the kingdom of God. By definition, we are flawed sinners. We are confused creatures. We are broken vessels. We leak, we break things, we lose our way.
Nothing we build or create can ever be considered the final edition. There is always more to learn. We are always reforming, learning new things about what God was doing in ages past – and what God is doing among us now.
Semper reformanda. My friends, I want you to know that we have been so blessed to have been guided these last 10 years by our Bishop Steve who understands the imperative to be always reforming.
Yesterday, at diocesan convention, our Bishop Steve spoke once again about our need to watch and observe what God is up to in our communities, to learn new things about what God is doing today.
The name Bishop Steve gives this work is “Living Local, Joining God.” And as you can tell by the name, it is the work of paying attention to how God is at work in the lives of our real neighbors. It is the work of observing what God is doing, because the reality is that God is always at work among these people even if they never, ever darken the door of our church.
They may not even know it! They may not recognize that it is God at work in their lives, or they may use a different name. But it makes no difference, because we know that God is always opening the door to welcome them back in.
For those of us in the church, what we must always avoid is complacency!
As soon as we think that we’ve devised the perfect structure that can contain ALL that God is doing, or the most excellent temple where people are guaranteed to experience God most profoundly, well then we are bound to fail.
Because, my dear friends, at the end of the day, we are walking in the way of Jesus. It is the not the way of the Episcopal Church. Any other label that we try to put on it will fail. It is the way of Jesus. It is not our way. We are followers, and that means we must listen and observe and watch and pay attention.
And what we are watching and observing is how God is at work in the lives of our neighbors.
Consider again what it means to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. How can you do that if you do not even know your neighbors? I mean, really know them. Know their names and their stories. Know their joys and their struggles. Know their hopes and their fears.
We are always reforming because we follow a God who is always on the move! Always at work in the lives of human beings – in our lives, in our community – always moving to bring hope, healing and new life that will never, ever come to an end.
Oh, the extravagant generosity of God who is continually breaking down the narrow limits that we humans build in order to open the doors to more and more people!
My friends, can we agree to do what Paul did? To pay attention? To observe and watch and see what God is doing, and then to join in that work, even if it means leaving behind the things most comfortable to us?
Can we love our neighbors as ourselves by working with God “to open things up to all the outsiders so that we end up with a full house”, by always reforming as an act of love? May it be so for the sake of God’s glory and praise. Yes, yes, yes! Amen.