Scripture: Romans 3:27–30 & 5:1–8
Note: We had some technical difficulties with audio for the first 7 minutes of the service this week, which also meant that Pastor Cristina’s prayer cannot be heard in the video. Here is her prayer, followed by Pastor Matt’s sermon.
“Mother God, who cares for us in our beginnings, endings, and all of the times in between, we come to you today with many thoughts and feelings.
On this Mother’s Day, we ask you to rejoice with those who are excited to celebrate Mother’s Day, to comfort those who find Mother’s Day difficult, and to care for those whose emotions fall in between.
As graduation is upon KU this morning and so many others this season, we ask you to guide those who know what next steps they want to take, those who are uncertain about the future, and all of those whose plans fall in between.
As school is ending, we ask for patience for those who cannot wait for summer to begin, for comfort and support for those who are dreading the end of the school year, and for you to be with those who fall somewhere in between the countdown to summer and the dreaded end of school.
In Mental Health Awareness Month, we thank you for those who are in a good place with their mental health right now, we ask for your loving presence, peace, and comfort for those whose lives feel overwhelmed by mental health problems, and for those whose mental health falls in between and ask that you be with them as well.
Our country and world feel so divided right now, so we pray for those on the right, on the left, and all those whose opinions fall in between. Guide us all, God, to find ways to care and love for our neighbors, to say no to fear and yes to love, and to not demonize others.
As COVID emergency policies are ending after 3 long years and millions of lives lost, we ask that you grant comfort and safety to those who are afraid of the consequences of COVID fading into the background, we ask for understanding for those who left COVID worries behind long ago, and we ask for guidance for those who fall in between and are trying to figure out what is best for them and those they love. Comfort those who are grieving, heal those with COVID and long COVID, and give doctors wisdom as they treat all affected.
There are so many others we could pray for Mother God, so we ask that you look into our hearts and help us give our burdens to you so we do not have to carry them alone.
And thank you for sending your son who was born, died, lived a life of love in between, was resurrected, and who taught us to pray… [The Lord’s Prayer]”
Sermon—A Proven Love
We are in trouble.
There was an article that I read last week, actually published closer to Easter, that suggests that churches and denominations like ours are in trouble. The thesis of the article is that the energy of the Church in the Global South will create a shift in American churches in the coming years. In what the article calls the “browning of America,” an influx of immigrants will continue to change the landscape of the US church. While current American churches and denominations are seeing attendance numbers drop precipitously, those who are entering the country as immigrants are often incredibly committed to their faith.
The result of this shift will rock the American church landscape. There are many politically progressive churches who are supportive of those immigrants, but find that the ideology of these new Americans is often more conservative than their own. Meanwhile, there are conservative churches who might find ideological connection with these immigrants, but many of these churches have been hoodwinked by political ideologies like white nationalism, meaning that these immigrants are not friends but enemies to avoided or even eliminated.
And then there’s us.
Denominations like American Baptists find themselves somewhere in the middle. Nationally, we are almost perfectly split 50/50 between those who identify with Republicans and those who identify with Democrats. This topic and article came up in denominational meetings that I attended last week, along with the very sobering question of whether this means we are in trouble. After all, for years we have heard about the impending death of “purple” churches and “purple” denominations (those who are both conservative red and progressive blue together). That they would feel the effects of both sides of this shift, and won’t be able to survive. That they just need to pick a side and blast away at the enemy, like everyone else in the country does.
In other words, churches and denominations like ours are in trouble.
I will say we’re in good company. The church in Rome was in trouble, too.
I would argue that there are some very real similarities between the US Church today and the Roman Christian churches. It wouldn’t be quite fair to call the Roman church a denomination, but in our language, it would be something like an association or region. There were a lot of smaller house-based congregations that would have been associated with each other, but diverse in their practice. And because of their own political and cultural context, there was a certain set of challenges that these churches faced. That’s why Paul was writing to them in the first place. Let me highlight a few connections to our own context:
- The Roman church was politically diverse. It was the “purple church” of their day. There were Jewish Christians who had relocated from Jerusalem or Galilee, and had become Christ followers. And there were those who were culturally Greek, converting from the worship of the cultural gods and political leaders of their day, like we talked about last week. The size of Rome meant that those Greek ideologies would not have been homogenous, either, but varied and diverse. Pretty purple.
- Second, the church in Rome would have been diverse in terms of class. Some scholars suggest that in the Roman cities in this time period, the percentage of the population who were slaves would have been as high as 30%. The culture worked really hard to keep these classes separate, to the point that even if someone worked for and achieved their freedom as a slave, they were still branded as a former slave, even on their gravestones. The Roman church stood against this cultural classism, and rejected its discrimination. Congregations were made up of the richest and the poorest, worshipping right next to each other.
- Finally, the context in Rome would have been defined by racial division. There were a lot of immigrants who had moved into the city, and it often created tension. There were frescos just down the coast in Pompeii, preserved when Mt. Vesuvius buried the city, that depicted caricatures of black Africans, demonstrating how they were considered as second class citizens. Again, the evidence suggests that the Church in Rome went against the grain of this fundamental racism of the culture, and was instead racially diverse.
So in short, they were in trouble. In such a culturally divided and diverse city like Rome, it made sense to find one little ideological and demographic niche and hunker down. But the Roman Christians kind of did the opposite, and so, in some significant ways, they were in trouble.
Except Paul didn’t see it that way. His letter to the congregations of Rome was meant to help them set their identity apart from the racism and the classism and the political divisiveness of their day. In the passage we read today, there are several hints that this is what Paul was up to. In short, Paul was trying to suggest to the Romans exactly why they were NOT in trouble, and were actually perfectly positioned to change the world. What I’d like to do is take a look at some of those phrases and verses from that I read a minute ago, and try to capture some of the counter-culture stuff that Paul was trying to make clear for them. This passage bounces around a bit between a lot of different theological ideas, so kind of like last week, I’d like to reach out and grab a few of them and dig a little deeper.
The way I’d like to do that is to layer in some comments that I have heard the last couple of weeks at some of these denominational meetings that I referred to. Many of you know that I have just started a term as the national Ministers Council president. The Ministers Council is an organization made up of clergy, with the goal of supporting each other as ministers. I have been the local chapter president in the Central Region the last couple of years, and am now working with the national group. So, two weeks ago, I was with the MC leadership team in Philadelphia, and last week I represented that team in Green Lake, Wisconsin, alongside a lot of the regional executive ministers and the denominational executive leaders. I have been talking a lot in the last couple of weeks about what it means to be Baptist. About a Baptist missiology. About Baptist history. About the future of Baptist principles and passions. And this whole time, I have been ruminating about Romans 3 and 5, and so I couldn’t help but notice some connections. Let me name a few.
The first is a comment about what Paul calls “boasting.” In that context, there was this rhetorical competitiveness; the Romans would find their little ideological spot and create a bunker from which to lob their anger. Those who disagreed were the enemy. And it seems to be that Paul heard rumors that this was creeping into the church, and wanted to stop it before it became a problem: Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded….is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of gentiles also? Yes, of gentiles also, since God is one… Paul is using here the language and the rationale of the Shema, from Deuteronomy: “The Lord our God is One.” If we believe this to be the case, he argued, then we don’t have one God for the Jews and another for the gentiles. Our political and cultural ideologies don’t get to separate us since our God is one God.
Of course, this is not unlike what we see in our world today. Talking heads on cable news. Folks on social media, dismantling each other, lobbing their anger from behind their bunker. We have a similar type of “boasting,” of ideological and rhetorical competitiveness. Last week, I heard the wise words of Doug Avilesbernal, Regional Minister of Evergreen Association in the Pacific Northwest (mostly). He used the metaphor of a boxing match to talk about this competitiveness. More often than not, folks don’t really want to come to some conclusion as they argue about politics…they just want to beat their opponent to a pulp. Each of us runs to our corners, and then comes out swinging. But reflecting on what it means to be American Baptist, he suggests that “instead of running to our corners, we run to our community.” We don’t have one God for the Republicans and one God for the Democrats. Boasting is excluded! Our God is one! How meaningful it is to create this kind of community with one another, in both a congregational or denominational context.
There is a bridge here to chapter 5, in which Paul uses the phrase that is best translated, “let us have peace.” Cheryl Dudley, who is the executive minister in metro New York, delivered a reflection based on the words of Henri Nouwen last week. And one of the lines that stuck out to me was “ministry is not only a communal experience…it is a mutual experience.” As we set aside our boasting, we choose instead to pick up peace. Shalom. Justice and righteousness. Not just community for the sake of being together, but a mutual trust and peace with one another.
But Paul knows that this isn’t simple. All the time, living this kind of life got Paul into trouble. He made one side or the other mad, and ended up tortured or in jail or both, in chains for living this kind of life. He reflects on this suffering in Chapter 5. It is this beautiful poetic section that we have often heard quoted: And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. In other words, living this kind of life is hard, but working through the struggles is the only way to hope.
And while we may not have the same level of struggle or suffering that Paul did, in the face of those who differ from us ideologically, we have to acknowledge that this isn’t an easy process. Last week, the Regional Minister in New Jersey, Miriam Mendez, did just that. She spoke about work of being American Baptist. She said that in order to live in this shared ideological space, you have to do your own work first. What are your biases and presumptions? What does it take to push your buttons and why? What does your own history say about how you deal with conflict? She says that we have to come with a “teachable spirit” to these spaces of diversity. We have to be open to hearing a new way. One of her favorite statements is simple: “tell me more.” Not defending. Not correcting. Not counter-attacking. Willing to be taught: “tell me more.” That is the beauty of American Baptist diversity, when it is healthy. From suffering…to hope. From affliction…to understanding that God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
I didn’t really give a fair shake to the article I mentioned at the beginning. It really isn’t all gloom and doom, like a lot of them are. In fact, there is a lot of hope in it. The author is John Blake, and the title is actually pretty hopeful: “Predictions about the decline of Christianity in America may be premature.” And while he does name a few doom-and-gloom statistics, he quotes several voices who suggest that this is an incredible opportunity for the Church in the US. A chance to move toward community. A chance to do our work with a teachable spirit. And I would argue that is even better news for denominations like ours. Because that’s the heritage of American Baptists, who don’t have a single racial identity that makes up more than 50% of the membership; we have no majority race represented. That’s the history of American Baptists, who have historically seen the value in ideological diversity, proud to be a purple denomination made up of purple churches. That’s who have been, and that’s who we can continue to be. We are not in trouble, but we are positioned with this amazing opportunity to embrace a global Christianity, and watch God open the door to new expressions of faith. In the end, this is not bad news, but the opposite!
In fact, that sounds a lot like Paul:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
We don’t need to live our lives afraid and angry. There is a love that is already proven, already demonstrated. We don’t need to prove our righteousness to anyone, because we don’t need to be righteous to earn that love. And therefore, we don’t need to go out with some kind of measuring stick, to make sure that everyone else is the right race, or the right class, or the right ideology, because God has proved his love for us, and that’s enough. God’s love is enough. Today I stand before you proud to be a follower of Christ, in the American Baptist tradition. I join with my siblings in Christ to say it again: God has proved his love for us, and that is enough.