Preacher: The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

 Romans 9:30-10:4

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9:30-32)

Saint Paul, writing to the people of Rome, explores, in the part of the letter that we heard as our second reading tonight, one of the themes that is most important to him. Are we made righteous with God through the law or are we made righteous through faith? This passage is absolutely not about being a Jew or a Gentile. This passage is absolutely not about belonging or not belonging to a particular group. This passage is about how we live well with God.

Paul uses the word “righteousness” frequently in his letters. It is one of those religious words that can make our eyes glaze over. What does it mean? What matters to Paul is that our relationship with God is healthy, that we are in right relationship with God, that we live in the love of God as God made us to live. And this also means that we live in relationship with one another as God made us to live.

God made a covenant with the people of Israel when, through the actions of Moses, God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness into a life of freedom in the Promised Land. This story gives critical insight into the way of God. God hears the cry of God’s people when they are trapped or imprisoned, and God frees God’s people and brings them into a place where they can thrive. This is at the heart of God’s relationship with God’s people. God creates, God loves, God frees.

Essential to this relationship with God is the relationship of the people with one another. God gave the Law, the principles by which the people of Israel are to live in relationship with God and with one another, on Mt Sinai, through Moses. The Law is imaged most especially in the Ten Commandments. Five of these commandments give guidance on relating with God and five of them give guidance on relating with one another. The Tem Commandments are the heart of that Law. The Law is wise and good.

But the essence of Paul’s understanding of the way of God in Christ is that, whilst keeping the Law important, it is not the key to living in right relationship with God. The heart of a life of righteousness, to use Paul’s word, the heart of thriving as a child of God, in the community of God’s children, is faith. Faith in Jesus Christ found through the faith of Jesus Christ in his Father God, the one he knew intimately and profoundly as Abba. Jesus lived a life of extraordinary closeness to God. Jesus lived and healed and taught and faced his suffering and death out of that profound closeness, that “Abba” closeness. It is into that closeness that we are invited. In the chapter before the one read tonight, chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul writes:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, (Romans 8:14-16)

Through faith in God, nurtured by the Spirit of God, we, too, may name God, “Abba, Father.” Through that spirit we know ourselves as God’s children. And there is nothing we can do, no work we can do, that will make that happen. We are children of God through faith.

In September, you are warmly invited to join one of two groups, one on Monday mornings and one on Thursday evenings, that will study a small book by Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Paul. In this book, Rowan Williams explores the key theme of Paul’s that we are discussing tonight. He is writing about Paul’s view on the law and faith and he says that God wants us to know freedom. He writes:

“This freedom … is not a licence to allow our wonderful unique, luxuriant personalities to blossom in every possible direction and tread on everyone’s toes. The freedom Paul is interested in is radically different. It is above all the freedom from thinking that you have to satisfy God before God will welcome you. That, in Paul’s eyes is the biggest slavery of all: imagining that you have to make God happy before God will invite you in. Get rid of that, Paul is saying, and your slavery is over and the true freedom begins. God is not sitting there, arms folded, waiting for you to entertain him, satisfy him, make him happy and pleased with you. He is already ‘pleased’ with you in the simple sense that he has decided to invite you and accept you. He is already welcoming you, from all eternity. This is the great theme of the letter to Rome above all – that our relation with God is ‘rectified’, put straight, justified, as the word is so often translated, by God’s action calling out our trust (not our good behaviour calling out God’s approval).”[1]

Here is the key to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in Rowan Williams’ words:

[O]ur relation with God is …put straight, … by God’s action calling out our trust (not our good behaviour calling out God’s approval).

And so, how do we respond? How do we know, how do we hear, how do we see that action of God in Christ that is calling out our trust? And how do we let go, if only a little, of the idea that if we are good enough, if we behave well enough, God will approve of us. How do we let go of control? That is it, really, isn’t it? How do we let go of control? How do we accept that our call to God, is the call of the slaves of Egypt to be set free, or that cry of the blind man who knew somehow that Jesus was walking by, “Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me” ? Our call to God is of our helplessness and our struggle at times, not our achievements. Our call to God comes from our vulnerability, not our strength.

And at other times, when the sun is shining and we are sitting in our garden drinking tea or walking by the sea watching the birds forage in the shallows or we are treasuring deeply the love of the one or two or perhaps a few dear souls that God has given us to know well and love – that our cry, then, is one of gratitude.

And so we call to God in two key ways. Our call to God is of our need for God’s healing freeing love. And our call to God is of our gratitude. God’s call to us is that we might live a life of trust, trust that we can call out in need, speak out in gratitude. What God longs  for in God’s children is a life of faith, a life where we know that we, like Christ, might live in profound closeness to God, a life where we know that we, too, might call God, “Abba, Father”.


[1] Rowan Williams Meeting God in Paul pp35-6.