2nd July, 2017
I can remember being a seminar at university several years ago when we were having to discuss a particularly turgid set of readings that our professor had assigned us. As we picked our way through this very dense material someone made the comment of, “I wish this writer of this article could have just said what they meant.” Our professor responded to this by saying, “I know what you are getting at, but these are very difficult things and sometimes difficult things require difficult language.” That put an end to that particular discussion and we promptly got back to wrestling with the rather dull material.
While I accept my professors point, sometimes difficult things do require difficult language, I suspect that little axiom is overused, particularly when it comes to academic writing. It is just as fair to say that sometimes difficult things require simple language. That thought sounds just as virtuous. In fact, having waded through the writings of a number of theologians I find that the people I hold in highest regard are the ones who unpack difficult ideas and express them in an accessible and understandable way. After all, thoughts are not of great value if they can only be understood by a handful of well qualified people.
These are the thoughts I bring to this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Like much of Paul’s writing, this passage is a small section of a larger dialogue. Paul is trying to make a simple point, but is also trying to develop an argument, whilst attending to his own and other people’s baggage. The result is a simple idea that gets increasingly convoluted.
Let’s begin by simplifying what we heard this morning. Essentially Paul is presenting a choice. Either you live a life of sin, or you live a life within God’s love. Paul embellishes this thought by suggesting that a slave can only serve one master, so again, which master do you choose, sin or God’s love. He finishes this thought by pointing out the consequences of this choice, to choose sin is to choose death, but to choose the love of God is to gain eternal life. That’s it in a nutshell.
But there is an even simpler thought at the very heart of what Paul is saying. Paul is pointing to the ultimate reality of God. The word he uses to express this ultimate reality is the word grace. Our current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby describes grace in this way. “Grace is the most beautiful word in the language of God – it means love given freely without expectation of return.”
To put that another way, an image I find helpful is to imagine an enormous reservoir. Now imagine a powerful river feeding into that reservoir. Slowly it fills with water until it cannot possibly contain anymore. But the water doesn’t stop flowing. It pours over the top of the reservoir and overflows. The water in this image is a metaphor for God’s love. Just when it seems like there couldn’t be more, there is more. God’s love is constant and overflowing in its abundance.
For me this is a powerful image, because for much of my life I believed that love was something that existed in a finite amount. Rather than the image of an overflowing reservoir I believed that love was more like half a glass of water. You might get to have a sip, but there wasn’t very much and others need to get their share too. Sometimes the glass might be empty before it even got to you. This is a theology of scarcity and an understanding of love that is deeply harmful.
I do not want to use my sermon as a confessional, so let me simply conclude that thought by saying that I have been fortunate enough to have had experiences of love that shifted my understanding from the half empty glass to the overflowing reservoir.
Two weeks ago I spoke about the sacrament of Holy Communion and referred to the text book definition of a sacrament. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inward invisible grace. To understand grace as the abundant outpouring of divine love, helps us to make sense of sacramental language. Love cannot be seen, in that sense it is invisible. But there are things that direct our attention to this constant outpouring of love that undergirds creation. In the tradition of the church we have named seven sacraments, that we agree, do point towards God’s grace. Baptism, communion, marriage…the list goes on. But the experience of God’s grace is not limited to the named seven sacraments.
Paul in his writing to the Romans, is arguing that Christ was a living embodiment of God’s love. Paul is convince that Christ was a human expression of the love that God is constantly pouring into creation. In this sense Christ was a living sacrament, a tangible expression of God’s love for all. But God’s grace is not limited to the life of Christ either. Paul is simply pointing to a place where the reality of God’s love can be easily seen and comprehended.
I remember a different lecturer of mine once saying that we should be less concerned with the Sacraments, meaning the tradition list of seven, and more concerned with sacramentality. By sacramentality he meant that we all need to develop a sensitivity to the love of God that is all around us. If, like Paul we agree that the most basic truth of life is that God loves us without reservation, with a love that cannot be exhausted, then our job of people of faith is to become attuned to that love. It is ok to allow ourselves to feel love and to respond to that experience by seeking to draw others into that experience.
Bishop John Spong in his book A New Christianity for a New World says, “God is love…and we worship this God by loving wastefully.” I really struggle with these words, partly because the idea of doing anything in a wasteful way really grates with me. I blame a lifetime of being told to reduce, reuse and recycle. I am more inclined to speak of loving generously, but that changes what Spong is getting at in an unhelpful way. Spong, like Paul is understanding grace as this abundant outpouring of love. Love that even God cannot contain. Love that flows towards and across all things. Grace is the love that says, it does not matter who you are, what you have done or how you feel about yourself…you are loved. To love wastefully is to love without reservation, without keeping anything back, because there is more than enough for all of us.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant