I sat by the man`s hospital bedside with a strange mixture of emotions. “You know, Vicar”, he said. “I`m not sure I really believe any of this”. The man was within days of dying and here was an invitation, you might think, to get into a theological discussion. I warmed to his honesty but he was tired, heavily medicated as the dying often are these days and (though it`s not impossible) it`s very difficult to do your religious homework at that stage in life…
But two things have stayed with me. Firstly, here was a man who had been at worship each Sunday for much of his life (though it was the “wife`s fault”, he always insisted!) and secondly, I was bothered by the way he narrowed faith down to what we might call a `zero-sum game`. Basically he had bought into the idea that faith was a matter of either there is a God or there isn`t ……..and in those last days he really wasn`t so sure.
Now, there was an awful lot going on in that conversation and I`m not reporting it in a flippant or disrespectful way. I was simply saddened that after all these years there was so much about the faith that he hadn`t embraced and that he had become so stuck. I understand why people get hung up on what we call the `God` debate; and far cleverer minds than mine engage with it all ……but it`s always struck me as the wrong way to go about things. Theological and philosophical arguments and so-called `proofs` of the existence or otherwise of the one we refer to as God always generate far more heat than light don`t they?
I`m not against using the brains we`ve been given but if this were the way we were to go about things I just find it interesting that there`s precious little sign of it for example, in the life and ministry of Jesus. I don`t see Jesus wasting his time on speculations. No his approach is to make an announcement. As we are told this morning, he `proclaims` the Good news of the Kingdom… and then asks his followers to do the same. (Matthew 9 35, 10.36)
In other words, it`s not that the questions don`t matter but Jesus doesn`t treat God (His Father) as a concept or a subject of speculation. No, he goes about his business announcing that something has happened, something is happening and something will happen and then he invites us to open our eyes. This `something` is the Kingdom reign of God. And this is why so many of the healing miracles have to do with blindness and sight. Coming to see what`s really going on. “Behold” is one of my favourite Biblical words.
And St. Paul, who wasn`t averse to the occasional theological argument adopts pretty much the same approach in our Epistle this morning. (Romans 5.1-8) In trying to build up the peoples` faith he doesn`t speculate about the existence or otherwise of God he also points to what has happened, is happening and will happen.
In that short piece from his letter to the Church in Rome Paul tells us about the material change that has come about because of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and he asks us to open our eyes and to see how we have been caught upon in it all. What`s happened? Well firstly, he says we have been `justified by faith` (Romans 8.1) Justification in the New Testament is about the final judgement which God will make; it`s about our being declared `in the right`.
Paul is saying that Christians can experience this sense of being justified in the here and now by our faith in Christ. Put it another way; the pressure is off. Unlike many around us, we don`t have to live out o0ur days pursuing all manner of `self-justifying activity`. There`s no need to as we say, `justify our existence` and so on. So, as a consequence, Paul goes on to say, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 8.1). The word `peace` here has a far richer meaning than we might appreciate. It`s much more than `Give peace a chance` or `ban the bomb`… it`s about experiencing the life of the kingdom; the age of the Messiah in the here and now… (Like we say, “a bit of heaven on earth”)
Then in verse two Paul says that through Christ we stand `under grace`. Curiously, he`s saying far more than (as we might expect) that we are the objects of His unmerited and unconditional love… No, he`s saying that we`ve entered the `sphere` of God`s grace. To put it another way, it`s as if we`ve been brought into the court of the King; and this is where we have, he says taken `our stand`. We belong in this new space, breathing this new air and this new relationship is as someone says is “not sporadic but continuous, not precarious but secure”. (John Stott) And there`s much more on the horizon. Pauls says, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Romans 5.2)
All of which acts not as an insulation from the troubles we face but as a way of understanding and navigating our way through them. Christian struggles are a sharing in the path taken by Christ; they form a robust faith and are often the occasion in which a window is opened onto the Lord`s providence. And these wonderful few verses are capped off by one of those lines we should all commit to memory. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us”. (Romans 5.8) Or if you can`t manage that try, “God helps those who can`t help themselves”.
So, let`s put it this way. This morning`s readings tell us that Christ announces the presence of the Kingdom reign of God; a material change and Paul illustrates it by telling us what it means: `We are Justified, we have peace with God, we live under grace, with the hope of glory, a robust faith and as redeemed sinners`.
There`s SO much in these few verses which, as I say are a statement of what has happened, is happening and will happen. Back there at that bedside I was well aware that speculation; all that `head-work` has its place but the Psalms tells, “Taste and see that the Lord is Good” (Psalm 34.8) Open your eyes.
I remember many years ago being told: “Don`t think too much about God… let him happen to you”. The ground on which we walk is holy. Burning bushes are everywhere to be seen. The trick is making a commitment to act on the truth of what Jesus proclaims. Going about our business as part of God`s story as if this Kingdom is real. And learning to see ourselves as those who are Justified, who have peace with God, living under grace, with the hope of glory, a robust faith and as redeemed sinners`. Do this now. Don`t leave your theological homework to the end.
Taste and see. Let God happen to you.