Sermon: Pentecost 14, 17 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 17thSeptember 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

ACCEPTING OUR DIFFERENCES

 (Ex 14:19-31; Ps 114; Romans 14:1-14; Matthew 18:31-35)

One of the special characteristics of our Parish is that we seek to welcome people from all church backgrounds. We don’t demand an absolutely uniform understanding of all aspects of the Christian faith. Of course we hold on to the essentials, such as those we express as we say the creed together. But we are not all the same, as I am reminded as I lead a service and see some people cross themselves and bow at particular points of the liturgy, and others who don’t do this. And of course you see the same thing up in the sanctuary: while there is a sharing together meaningfully in the liturgy and a togetherness in co-operation, there are individual differences in some of the details of what different people do. When I began to take part in the sanctuary, John Cornish was very definite that I should do what I was used to, and not feel that I should change my practices. We all seek to lead the services with meaning and dignity, but there is no regimented uniformity in absolutely everything.

As we come to our final passage in our readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see something which some of us might not have expected Paul to say; especially if we think of Paul as pretty inflexible in his views.

The starting point is Paul’s reaction to differences of opinions on matters that some people regard as important. This has always been a significant issue in the history of the church. Many would say that the major separation of the Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church in the middle ages was based on technicalities of doctrine and on issues of secondary importance. The Reformation commenced because leaders of the church refused to listen with care to those who were asking legitimate questions. And of course in more recent times there have been many disagreements with churches, and between churches, which have led to all forms of tension and division, and at times ungodly violence.

Tensions and potential division are perhaps to be expected when you are focussing on things that really matter to you, things that are important to people, matters of truth and of principle. And so the church has had many a conflict over doctrine and tradition, over organizational matters and rules for life.

The Christian church in Rome in Paul’s time had members from different backgrounds. Some were Jewish. In fact, the church may well have been founded by Jewish Christians who brought with them their knowledge of the Old Testament, and many of their Jewish traditions.

Other members of the church would have been Gentiles. They came to the faith without that Jewish background, without the same knowledge of the Old Testament, and without what some of them might have regarded as a lot of excess Jewish baggage.

Jewish Christians believed rightly that their Christian faith grew directly out of their Jewish faith, and the message of the Old Testament. Many of them would have seen no need to give up their traditions: circumcision, the Sabbath, rules about clean and unclean food, and so on. Indeed, they saw these things as very significant. Early in the life of the church, Jewish Christians had actually believed that Gentiles who turned to Christ should adopt the Jewish faith as part of their Christian commitment. Paul and even Peter made clear that to insist on this was to deny the Gospel. Jewish traditions were not to be demanded as an essential part of the Christian faith. Proselytes – Gentiles who had accepted the Jewish faith – may well have been particularly strong on this issue, having already made that change themselves before they became Christians.

Paul seems to have heard, or at least suspected, that this difference was an issue in the church at Rome. There were Jewish Christians and perhaps others who held onto traditional rules and restrictions. And there were others who would insist that they didn’t need to take those things on board. “We’ve been set free from these rules and regulations about food and drink and special days. None of these things will make us more acceptable to God. None of these things will get us any closer to heaven. We’ve got to get rid of these outdated rules. And you people who still practise them should grow up and get of these legalistic ideas.”

Yes, there was plenty of scope for tension in the church at Rome. Who was right – the “legalists” or the “libertarians”? In Chapters 14 and 15 of this letter, Paul sets out some important principles on the matter. And though the issues might not be the same for us, the way Paul tells the Romans to handle them is important for us to take on board ourselves.

Well, whose side is Paul on? Who is really right? At one level Paul agrees with those who see the Old Testament rules as no longer necessary. We are not required to eat kosher food. We don’t have to worry about whether a piece of meat comes from an animal offered in worship to a pagan god – an important issue to many Christians in those days.

The rules about food and special days in the Old Testament were significant in their time. But they have done their job, and we are not bound by them.

However, we also have to ask what rules we are talking about! Do we ditch the Ten Commandments? Do we toss out the moral demands of the prophets and of Jesus? Not at all! We don’t obey them in order to earn God’s acceptance: but we do seek to obey them because we are God’s beloved children, seeking to please our loving Father, and because we are forgiven followers of Jesus.

But rules about offering sacrifices and various ceremonies are no longer relevant, because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sins. The sacrifice we offer in response is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and of faithful service to the One who has saved us.

And rules about special days are no longer relevant, because our faith is a seven-day-a week thing. Of course observance of Easter and Christmas and Saints’ days can be a very helpful thing: but it is not something that can be demanded as an essential part of the Christian faith. Special days are helpful, but they are not fundamental.

And yes, I do include Sundays in that. The observance of Sunday is helpful: as a weekly festival of the resurrection, and a day for us to gather regularly for worship as Christians. It is not so long ago that Sunday had to be a serious day and often a joyless day for many Christians, especially for children. It is great to make Sunday a special day. But I do not believe it can be demanded as an essential part of the faith. However I do urge you to keep coming week by week! As Christians, our faith is certainly personal, but we are also part of God’s family, God’s community, and of course we express that particularly as we gather regularly for worship.

And what about food and drink? We don’t of course get uptight about kosher food, and I don’t think that vegetarianism is seen as a major spiritual issue. And as far as drink is concerned, we know that the scriptures do not forbid alcohol, although they do warn against the abuse of alcohol. Some Christians feel that abstaining is what God wants them to do. These sorts of things are matters that individuals will make their personal decisions about.

Paul wants us to see that the central issues of our faith still matter, and we need to be faithful in these areas. But there are many areas where Christians will legitimately have different views.

We have freedom in Christ, but we have been set free to love one another and to love our neighbour. So Paul says that we are not to condemn or judge or look down on others, even when we believe they are mistaken.

And we need to be careful of forcing our views onto others. Of course we can explain what we believe, and why we believe it, and even why we think it is important. But if we do not persuade someone about a matter, we are still to love them and accept them. It is God who is the judge, not us. And sometimes, says Paul, in love we will accommodate people who do things differently, people who perhaps seem narrower or stricter than we think is necessary. We might in love choose to do what they feel comfortable with, rather than insisting on our own freedom.

The unity of the church does not mean that there must be uniformity in all things. We are to love and respect one another, even when we are aware of our differences.

As Paul says, none of us lives to ourself. We live to the Lord: let us then live as the Lord’s people, remembering how the Lord has loved us and accepted us in Christ, and humbly loving one another as Christ has loved us. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Pentecost 13, 10 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 10th September 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

GOVERNMENT, LAW, LOVE AND THE CHRISTIAN

 (Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:10-20)

Michael Cassidy was a church leader in South Africa in the last decades of last century. In October 1985 he was granted an interview with President Botha. He hoped to see some openness to a change from the oppression and injustice of apartheid. The President began the interview by standing to read those opening verses of Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” The president’s message was clear: his government had the right to rule South Africa as it saw fit, and Christians should comply and not question their apartheid policy.

Was President Botha right or wrong? Of course he was using the scriptures in a distorted way for his own purposes: such a common thing for people to do. He had taken something true and important that Paul had written, and then drawn a false implication from it.

In this passage this morning, Paul reminds us that we live in the world, and we live in a society and community. And where people live this way, God’s purpose is that there be an appropriate form of structure and authority, a government, with law and direction and leadership. In a society, we need government and authority, so that we do not descend into chaos. We need someone to insist that we drive on a particular side of the road; that murder and robbery are crimes; that we must consider safety issues when building high-rise apartments or planning a public event. In our society we need governments to provide hospitals and roads and public transport and a whole range of essential services.

Paul tells us that government with its role of making laws and providing stability is a good thing, and it is a provision of God. And it has a God-given role of punishing evil and promoting what is good. That means that it must make laws, with punishments attached for those who violate them.

What about us as Christians? We are to obey the laws of our government: their power to make laws and to punish wrongdoers is a legitimate role under God.

Now that’s all very well. No government is perfect, and many governments are very far from perfect. Was President Botha right in claiming that under God he had the right to demand obedience to the laws of apartheid? And what about people like Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Idi Amin or Mugabe?

This is where we need to pay attention to what Paul was saying and what he was not saying. After all the Roman Emperor when Paul wrote was Nero. Admittedly Nero was not at his worst when Paul wrote his letter. But the Romans emperors were always something of a mixture. By military power they imposed a moderately stable peace on the Empire, and provided a moderately fair system of justice for many, and the opportunity for people to live and move about and trade. However, they could be brutal to any who challenged their power.

But Paul here is giving a general framework, not locking us into an unquestioning subservience to whoever might be in power. Paul himself called upon the Roman laws at times when he was treated contrary to Roman law. However, he was also treated unfairly at times by the system. And we might remember how the apostles, when they were told by the authorities in Jerusalem to stop preaching about Jesus, replied that they must obey God rather than humans. It actually links up very well with Jesus, when he told people to render to Caesar what was due to Caesar, and render to God what is due to God.

The claims of the state are important and valid, but they are not absolute. There may well be times when it is right to criticize or protest against the unjust laws of a government, and even perhaps to disobey those laws. We remember how the Old Testament prophets regularly found themselves castigating the rulers of Israel for their disobedience to the Lord and his ways. Churches under some oppressive regimes have continued to gather contrary to the government’s orders.

Civil disobedience has been used in Australia when the government has made laws that Christians and others have found unconscionable: this has been done, for instance, in response to what is seen as the appalling treatment of asylum seekers. Of course such actions should not be lightly decided on, but sometimes actions like this may be the right thing for Jesus’ followers to do.

God is a God of order. The establishment of human government is one expression of that order. We respond to it by obeying the laws that have been established. We mightn’t always agree with them, we mightn’t always like them. But as citizens of Australia who are also citizens of heaven, we are called by God to be law-abiding citizens. Any breaking of the law must be done with thought, with care and with prayer.

Similarly, says Paul, we are to pay our taxes: income tax, GST, roadway tolls, and so on! The government requires finance to do the job it has been given under God: providing structures and making laws and providing educational, military and health resources, and all we expect from them.

So as Christians we don’t resent paying taxes; nor do we seek questionable ways of avoiding them. We might feel that some charges are unfair. We might prefer the government to use our taxes differently. We might even feel that we have been expected to pay more than our fair share. But no system is absolutely fair, and in any case, fairness is generally in the eye of the beholder. We are to pay taxes to whom taxes are due, and honour to whom honour is due.

Once again, honouring our leaders does not mean agreeing with them or refusing to criticize them. In these cynical days, not to mention mass media which put on display all sorts of things which were once kept behind closed doors, it is sometimes hard to have a high opinion of our leaders. A Chaplain of the US Senate was once asked whether he prayed for the Senators. His reply was: “No, I look at the Senators and pray for the country.” We might be tempted to do that as we think of our parliamentarians.

The scriptures do charge us to pray for our leaders personally, and especially when we gather for worship. That is why this is part of the regular prayers at our services. It is part of the way we honour them as God calls us to do. But in fact questioning the government is also a way of honouring it, as God calls us to do. Where its actions are contrary to what we see as right and good, it is right and good to speak out and seek change. That is part of the privilege and even the responsibility that goes with living in a democratic society. And we should certainly be thankful that we do live in a democracy: it is far from perfect, but I don’t think there is a better alternative!

As Christians, Paul calls us to pay our debts, not only to the government, but wherever we have them: we are to be responsible in paying our bills and accounts, and never to take them lightly. But he points out that there is one way we will always be in debt. We owe not only our family and our fellow-Christian, but our neighbour, a debt of love. We will always have that debt – and of course in the life of God’s kingdom, love will still be at the heart of our relationships. And love is not just about how we feel: it is how we treat people and how we relate to them. We seek to do people good, not harm; thus love is the fulfilment of God’s law.

Here we are then: privileged to live in such a blessed country. Thankful for God’s blessings. But as citizens of heaven, let us remember that under God we also have responsibilities as citizens of this country. We begin by obeying the law and paying our taxes. We go on by our active concern for the life of our country and community, and indeed our active and prayerful contribution for the good of all.

But let us also seek to demonstrate in our lives and words the reality that there is another country: a kingdom without shadow, without crime and injustice, a perfect kingdom with a perfect and loving ruler. We live our lives today as good and dutiful citizens of Australia: but we know that our ultimate allegiance is to the ruler of all, Jesus Christ, the bringer of righteousness, peace and perfect love. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Pentecost 13, 10 September 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Authority- Romans 13:1-10

-Authority is probably a topic that will stir up the convict spirit that still lurks deep within the Australian psyche.

-Add in the gold rush, the Eureka stockade and a rebellious heart will begin to beat hard merely at its mention.

-None of that is particularly helped by the last several years of federal governments,

-Where political parties have even overthrown their own leaders,

-And the general population has wanted to overthrow the lot.

-But we Australians are positively sycophantic,

-Compared to the average American’s attitude to government and authority.

-But as God’s people what should our attitude be to authority?

-Do we uncritically follow society, culture or our own personal biases?

-Do we unthinkingly embrace the spirit of a rebellious, fallen heart?

-Or is there a better understanding of authority,

-That sees its place as a positive and necessary part of human interaction?

 

-The Apostle Paul in ch13 of Romans moves his readers from a focus on the personal,

-To the corporate life.

-Beginning with a warning at the start of ch12,

-Paul exhorts his Christian readers not to conform to the pattern of this world,

-But be transformed by the renewing of their minds.

-This world wants to squeeze us into its mould,

-But we must resist that,

-And live lives that reflect our obedience to God and his purposes for this creation and us in it.

-We’re to live humbly in this world,

-Thinking of ourselves with sober judgement.

-In a narcissistic, egocentric world that is a great challenge.

-But we have God’s Holy Spirit within us,

-Guiding and directing us through his word,

-To lives that will confront the world with the reality and possibility of transformation.

-We’ve been given a hope in Christ that transcends the bleak and desperate world that confounds many others,

-Because we know that our God is still in control of this world.

 

-That would have been a great message for the believers of Paul’s day to receive.

-Although the persecutions that led to John’s writing of the book of Revelation hadn’t yet escalated,

-These were still times of rising threat to the Christians of Rome,

-So Paul’s words in ch13:1 may have been somewhat confronting;

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Romans 13: 1

-Even the mere mention of the word ‘submit’ or ‘be subject’ raises the hackles of our ferociously independent culture.

-But Paul raises a challenge to that thinking,

-Because he sees authority and government within a higher theological system.

 

-From monarchy to Marxism,

-There’s a very broad understanding of government and the rule and ordering of human society.

-But Paul doesn’t use political theory to explain how the follower of Jesus ought to face authority,

-But rather a theological one;

“There is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Romans 13:1

-All authority originates in God.

-This is just the working out of the doctrine of sovereignty,

-That God is in total control of this world,

-That everything that occurs in our world is under the divine rule of a loving and gracious God.

-And just so his readers understand how complete that rule is he continues;

“Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed,” Romans 13:2

 

-Because we’ve lived through times,

-Where we’ve seen the most horrific crimes against humanity committed by governing authorities,

-We struggle with a sense of enraged injustice,

-To believe that God could be behind even these authorities.

-But that is to focus on the extremities of the result of a fallen and broken world.

-Paul probably could have pointed to his own situation to decry a faulty authority,

-But he doesn’t, rather he says;

“Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:3-4

-The extreme abuses of authority we’re all too well aware of,

-Are aberrations of the created purpose of rule and authority.

-Every part of our world is tainted by the fall and corrupted by sin,

-But that was not how God created it.

-Notice that rulers hold no terror for those whose conduct is good.

-Conversely, those whose conduct is bad will come under its judgement.

-Governments are ordained by God for the good of society.

-Governments are to take care of their people by restraining evil and promoting good.

-Governments are to be an extension of God’s rule in this world,

-That’s why Paul says rulers are God’s servants,

-And he didn’t say it just once but three times,

-Rulers are God’s servants for our good,

-They’re God’s servants to bring judgement on wrongdoing,

-They’re God’s servant busy with the work of God.

 

-But we should never underestimate just how extensive that work of God is,

-Or how it may challenge our understanding of God’s sovereignty.

-If we jump back into the Old Testament we get a rather dramatic picture of one aspect of that work of God.

-The book of Habakkuk opens with a complaint by the prophet,

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgement comes forth perverted.” Habakkuk 1:2-4

-So violent, immoral and corrupt were the people of Israel during Habakkuk’s day,

-That he accuses God of not caring,

-Of wilfully ignoring the injustices and strife around him.

-If governing authority was to promote the public good,

-To bring evil doers to judgement,

-Then God has lost control.

-But God’s response to Habakkuk’s charge will shock him even more than the corruption around him;

“Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honour.” Habakkuk 1:5-7

 

-Habakkuk accused God of doing nothing,

-But God was planning to bring judgement upon all the sinfulness that Habakkuk was complaining of.

-But here’s the sting,

-God was going to send the Babylonians to bring that judgement.

-That would be like us complaining about the injustice and immorality of our nation,

-And God saying ‘I’m sending the North Koreans to sort it out!’

-Habakkuk is now doubly shocked,

-As bad as he thinks his own people are,

-They’re not as bad as the Babylonians.

-Can you see his confusion?

-He calls for God to bring judgement upon the sins of his people.

-But he thinks that will be done by the direct intervention of God,

-Maybe God would strike down the sinners,

-Like he did Korah and his compatriots in the wilderness.

-But instead he sends a more powerful,

-Even more ruthless authority,

-To swallow up the whole of Israel,

-The Babylonian empire.

-Just listen to these words of God to the prophet Ezekiel about this Babylonian invasion;

“I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Ezekiel 29:20

-God uses everything in his creation to fulfil his purposes,

-Even an even more violent and immoral nation to chasten his own people.

-Remember Paul’s words;

“They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4

 

-If that is confronting to you,

-If that rattles your understanding of the character of God,

-Then you would be in the exact same position as Habakkuk in his confusion.

-But listen to how Habakkuk concludes his book;

“In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations.13 You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot.14 With his own spear you pierced his head when his warriors stormed out to scatter us,” Habakkuk 3:12-14

-The nation that was sent to chasten Israel was itself brought down by God.

-Historically we know that the Babylonian empire was destroyed by the Persians,

-And in their turn by the Greeks,

-And the Greeks by the Romans.

-All of that was still in the future for Habakkuk.

-But what he concludes with may be the most famous verses,

-On dependence on the promises of a faithful and loving God;

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.19 God, the Lord, is my strength;” Habakkuk 3:17-19

 

-In so many ways we try to justify God,

-Or put our own finite understanding in judgement over the actions and purposes of God.

-We try through sophistry or denial to avoid what we conclude to be a moral failure of God.

-Like Habakkuk we question the principles of sending an evil nation to punish another,

-Yet fail to display the humility of Habakkuk and his trust in the character of God,

-His goodness, holiness and righteousness

-Rather than trust the purposes of God,

-We so often rebel against authority in all its forms,

-Thinking that our judgements are far more accurate than God’s.

-Even in our day to day interactions with authority,

-Whether it’s a federal or state government,

-A local council,

-Our boss at work or school leadership,

-We question their motives,

-Impugn their decisions,

-Doubt their integrity,

-Forgetting that God is fully in control and he works all things for his purposes,

-Through the structures that he has built into his creation.

 

-In that same humble spirit of Habakkuk Paul concludes his exhortation;

“Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.” Romans 13:7

-Remembering that when Jesus was asked a trick question about taxation his response was;

“Give (therefore) to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21

-But that was a tiny offering of obedience compared to the submission to authority that he made,

-As he was unjustly arrested,

-Violently tried,

-And brutally crucified so that we could be forgiven.

-Who’d have thought that from the brutality of Roman authority,

-Would come the conquering of death,

-The victory over sin,

-The defeat of the devil.

-As Jesus the Son of God submitted to the authority of the state set over him by his heavenly Father.

Sermon: Pentecost 13, 3September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 3rd September 2017

 Reverend Paul Weaver

LOVE BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER

 (Ex 3:1-15; Ps 105:1-6,23-26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28)

Five weeks ago this morning Sarah and I were at the Sunday morning service in the ancient abbey of Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  The liturgy and music were stimulating and involving. The sermon was given by a young leader of the youth program, and he was preaching on Romans 12:9-21, which I knew was our passage for this morning’s services. I of course listened with particular interest, to see what he would bring out of the passage, with its emphasis on practical love.

The question he got us to think about was this: whom do we exclude from the sort of love Paul is talking about? Whom wouldn’t we treat that way?

It’s not such an unfamiliar question: a young man asked Jesus the question in a different way when he asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbour?” Behind that question was the real question: “Who isn’t my neighbour? Who am I not required to love as myself?”

Today, we live in a world and a society where we are encouraged to draw boundaries. There are people whom we would accept, people to whom we might show love: and then there are people whom we easily exclude from that sort of love and consideration.

Our politicians want us to exclude many refugees and asylum seekers from that sort of love. Indeed, one of the sad things about the world today is the trend of suspicion and division that rejects and even demonizes people who are “not like us”, with the aim of supposedly protecting ourselves against them. We saw it in the Brexit campaign and the American election, and we see it in so much of the violence which seems to be increasing in our world today.

Although I have been out of Australia for five weeks, I get the impression that it has also been happening as the plebiscite gets closer. I gather that people speaking against same-sex marriage have sometimes been saying cruel and untrue things against gay people. I gather also that others have been making unfair accusations against those who believe that same-sex marriage should not be legalized.

To many people, the case for legalizing same-sex marriage seems fairly obvious. I suspect that much of the active opposition to it comes from Christians who have considered the issues carefully and have come to believe that same-sex marriage is contrary to principles taught in scripture, and also believe that legalizing it will lead to a range of results which will be harmful to society, as well as the Christian church. Of course, not all Christians have come to that conclusion.

I am not going to argue the case one way or another. You can find plenty of material on both sides, including some websites which have been indicated in our bulletin. I would however point out that whatever our views, and however strongly we hold them,we need to express them in a way which reflects the principles that Paul spells out in this passage. Such a personal and powerful issue needs to be handled with particular grace if it is not going to cause unnecessary hurt to many people – people on both sides of the debate. It is obvious that people can express opposition to same-sex marriage in a way which is very hurtful to gay people. It is also true that those who honestly and thoughtfully feel they must oppose it can be vilified and ridiculed for their expressions of concern. We need to remember that those with whom we disagree, however strongly, are still our neighbours.

In today’s passage, Paul spells out some of the practical aspects of what it means to live a truly Christian life. He writes about those personal qualities which are so important to a healthy Christian life: that zeal or commitment which sees our faith as something which must affect our whole life, and is far more than a bit of a hobby; that hope which guides us forward towards God’s call and God’s promises; that patience or perseverance which keeps us going when we might be tempted to take it easy or even to give up.

And he writes of that holiness which seeks to obey God and reflect his goodness and righteousness, even when current values are different from God’s ways; and that commitment to prayer which keeps us personally in touch with our heavenly Father.

But Paul’s message here is not just about our individual Christian lives: it is also about the life of Christ’s church and our contribution to it. Christ’s church is Christ’s family, and Paul calls us to treat each other as brothers and sisters, loving each other, supporting each other, caring for each other.

We are to show respect and honour to each other. We are to be hospitable to each other.

One side of that hospitality is the way we welcome people to St.Alban’s. Yes, we are often good at welcoming visitors and new people: but particularly at morning tea and other informal occasions, do we keep an eye out for the newcomer, making sure that they are included, and not just left on their own? Do people think of St.Alban’s as a congregation where people truly love one another? Do people think of St.Alban’s as a congregation which is welcoming to the visitor and the newcomer? Do we see someone on their own, and make the effort to include them?

And Paul also calls us to be generous to one another, not just financially but in giving of our time and our efforts, especially to Christians in difficult situations, and to projects which reach out to people in Christ’s name.

But Paul also calls us to reach out in love beyond the life of the church, to people who may or may not be like us, to people of other churches and others faiths, and of no faith. Like Jesus himself, we are to bless those who hurt us: we are to bless rather than curse them or lash out, or to nurse anger and resentment. We are to be willing to forgive.

And we are to be humble: not putting ourselves down, but acknowledging the humanity and the significance of those people we might be tempted to put down or to judge. We are to seek good relations with people, especially those with whom we disagree. So many of us easily reject people and their ideas and their arguments, without really trying to understand them at all. Of course we will not agree with all people on all things: truly seeking to understand others doesn’t get rid of all the differences, but it does give us a chance to truly consider different ideas, and to treat people fairly and with grace. And we might still disagree, but we will do it with respect, and even with love.

Politicians and the media thrive on divisions: we will thrive on love and understanding, humility and respect. And again, we are to be forgiving people: it is so natural to hold onto anger, but we need to seek God’s help to let love play its role when we are hurting and when other people are hurting. Forgiveness makes things better: the refusal to forgive, and especially the attempts to get back at someone who has hurt us, only make it worse.

In Romans 1-11, Paul has explained the Gospel message. Some of his doctrine is complex and challenging, but at its heart it is all about God’s grace: God’s willingness to forgive us when we deserve his judgement – his generosity to us who do not deserve it. From this chapter on, the focus is on how we live our lives as Christ’s followers. If God has treated us with grace, we must reflect that grace in the way we treat each other, and the way we treat all people.

At this time of division and potential hurt in our society, we must express our ideas with grace and humility. We must recognize the humanity of those with whom we disagree. We need to express our views with respect and courtesy. The person we might not naturally love is one of those we are called to love.

And in our own church we must keep seeking to show love to each other. Yes, there is much for which we can be thankful at St.Alban’s, but we still have a way to go, and things we need to work on, lessons to learn.

As Christians and as a church, we are still on a journey, we are certainly not there yet. We will still fall short. We will still make mistakes. We will sometimes need to apologize, and to see what we can learn. And we will sometimes need to forgive.

God graciously brings us to himself through the Gospel. Let us then keep seeking to grow in love and humility and understanding, reaching out with grace to one another and to our neighbours: whoever they may be, no matter how different they may be. As God has done for us, we are not to push people apart, but to play our part in bringing people together, in love. Amen.

Paul Weaver