Sunday at St Andrew's

27 September 2020, 10am

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

 

Series: Romans ‘Good News for All’

18. Romans 16. 1-27

‘Good News: A Community of Grace’

Speaker: James Cook

 

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Welcome to this service at St Andrew’s Eaton.

Today we come to the end of Paul’s great letter to the Romans.

He’s covered so much ground: 

  • our human lostness
  • God’s generous love
  • and his great redemption through Jesus.

There have also been many challenges to live in the light of this great teaching.

But now we come to the end, and a mighty theological climax is on the cards.

But we’re given something very different: a list of the ‘little people’, the ‘bit players’…

Possibly, though, we’re also given one final call to Christ’s church…

 

As we begin, let’s pray that God will still our hearts and minds and speak to us in this time today.

 

INTRODUCTION               

Leader:  Grace, mercy and peace

             from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

             be with you

All:        and also with you.

Leader:  Loving God, we have come to worship you.

All:        Help us to pray to you in faith,
             to sing your praise with gratitude,
             and to listen to your word with eagerness;
             through Christ our Lord.
             Amen.

 

HYMN: Thanks to God whose word was spoken

 

CONFESSION     

Leader: Jesus says, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’

    So let us turn away from our sin and turn to Christ,

    confessing our sins in penitence and faith.

Leader:  God our Father,

we come to you in sorrow for our sins.

For turning away from you,

and ignoring your will for our lives;

              Father, forgive us:

All:     save us and help us.

For behaving just as we wish,

without thinking of you;

             Father, forgive us:

All:    save us and help us.

For failing you by what we do,

and think and say;

             Father, forgive us:

All:    save us and help us.

For letting ourselves be drawn away from you

by temptations in the world about us;

             Father, forgive us:

All:    save us and help us.

For living as if we were ashamed

to belong to your Son;

Father, forgive us:

All:     save us and help us.

Leader: May the Father of all mercies

              cleanse us from our sins,

              and restore us in his image

              to the praise and glory of his name,

              through Jesus Christ our Lord.

All:         Amen.

 

PSALM 78.1-16

1  Hear my teaching, O my people; 

incline your ears to the words of my mouth.

2  I will open my mouth in a parable; 

I will pour forth mysteries from of old,

3  Such as we have heard and known, 

which our forebears have told us.

4  We will not hide from their children,

but will recount to generations to come, 

the praises of the Lord and his power

and the wonderful works he has done.  

5  He laid a solemn charge on Jacob

and made it a law in Israel, 

which he commanded them to teach their children,

6  That the generations to come might know,

and the children yet unborn, 

that they in turn might tell it to their children;

7  So that they might put their trust in God 

and not forget the deeds of God,

but keep his commandments,

8  And not be like their forebears,

a stubborn and rebellious generation, 

a generation whose heart was not steadfast,

and whose spirit was not faithful to God.

9  The people of Ephraim, armed with the bow, 

turned back in the day of battle;

10  They did not keep the covenant of God 

and refused to walk in his law;

11  They forgot what he had done 

and the wonders he had shown them.

12  For he did marvellous things in the sight of 
their forebears, 

in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.

13  He divided the sea and let them pass through; 

he made the waters stand still in a heap.

14  He led them with a cloud by day 

and all the night through with a blaze of fire.

15  He split the hard rocks in the wilderness 

and gave them drink as from the great deep.

16  He brought streams out of the rock 

and made water gush out like rivers.

Glory to the Father and to the Son

and to the Holy Spirit;

as it was in the beginning is now

and shall be for ever.

Amen.

 

FIRST READING                      

Matthew chapter 21 verses 23-32

The Authority of Jesus Questioned

 

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

 

HYMN: All I once held dear or listen here

 

SECOND READING

Romans chapter 16 verses 1-27

Personal Greetings for a Community of Grace

 

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

 

SERMON (James Cook)

Romans 16.1-27

‘Good News: A Community of Grace’

And so, after many months we’ve finally reached the end of our long series through the apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, a letter in which Paul has been outlining the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Good News that God’s love for us is so great that in the person of Jesus Christ he lay down his very life for us, that we might be redeemed, restored, forgiven, the slate wiped clean. 

And so, after all that, chapter 16 might feel a bit of an anticlimax. We believe, as Paul says elsewhere, that all scripture is inspired by God and useful, but we come to passages like this, and we think ‘really?’ What use is there in this long list of names? Paul often finishes his letters by passing on his greetings, or the greetings of others, to individuals that he knows in the church he’s writing to; but here he goes overboard in the sheer number of people he names. The lectionary in fact omits the passage; and it’s not just us in the 21st century who can feel it has little of value: the great fourth-century preacher John Chrysostom complained in his sermon on these verses that most preachers in his day considered them ‘superfluous and holding no great value’. But he urged us not to ‘skip over such great cakes of gold ... for even from bare names there is a great treasure to be found.’

Well, what is the treasure to be found in these verses? As I see it, they present us with a picture of what true Christian community should look like. It’s a community that welcomes diversity, involving, including, valuing every member, whoever they are; and it’s a community that is tightly bound together in love. This picture of community should be such good news for the culture in which we live, which even before the days of Covid was one in which people were feeling increasingly isolated and alone. We even had a minister for loneliness appointed under Teresa May. But in the days of ‘social distancing’, we’ll all be very familiar personally with how feelings of loneliness have been greatly augmented.

This passage should be good news for people crying out for community; but it’s also a challenge to us, the Church, to be this community, to live this distinctive life, and to offer this community life itself as good news to those around us.

So first of all I want to draw out the diversity of this community. If you look carefully through this list, you’ll see a diverse group of people are mentioned. I don’t have the time sadly to go through the list in detail. But they’re a group who are diverse in gender (10 individual women are mentioned, some of whom clearly have a very prominent role to play such as Junia and Phoebe); they’re diverse in race (for Jews like Paul, the world was essentially divided into Jews and non-Jews, but the names in the list seem to include both Jews and non-Jews side-by-side); and they’re a socio-economically diverse church (the families of Aristobulus and Narcissus that Paul greets most likely refer to their wider households, that is to their slaves; and at the other end there is mention of Erastus, described as the city treasurer, clearly an individual holding high social rank).

By naming each of these individuals, Paul expresses that he values each of them, individually, for the part they play in the church. Diversity is a big theme in contemporary conversations. In politics, entertainment, business and indeed in the Church, there’s a growing recognition of the importance of reflecting the diversity of the culture in which we live. But too often this can become little more than a tick-box exercise: we trumpet the fact that our Cabinet, our TV show, our board or whatever has x number of women, y number of ethnic minorities and z number of people from state schools, and we think ‘Good, we’ve ticked the diversity box’; but in practice day by day we don’t actually value the contribution that each of these individuals has to make.

Here Paul is doing so much than ticking the diversity box. He values and welcomes each of these individuals and their individual contribution to the life of the Church. And he does this precisely because of the Gospel of grace he has been unfolding throughout the letter. We are all sinners, we are all at fault and in need of redemption, of forgiveness, of cleansing, no-one is any better than another; and we each of us can only be redeemed by the free gift of God’s love poured out for us in Christ’s death on the cross. Notice how time and time again Paul uses in this list of greetings the phrase ‘in Christ’ or ‘in the Lord’: ‘welcome her in the Lord’, ‘who work with me in Christ Jesus’, ‘my beloved in the Lord’ and so on. In and through Christ, people from every walk of life are being brought together into a new, restored humanity: and the old divisions of the world, the divisions by which we make ourselves feel better than others, should not be seen in the Church, where all come as equals, equally in need of grace, equally loved and valued. John Stott put it succinctly: ‘a homogenous church is a defective church’. A homogenous church only perpetuates the divisions of the world that Christ came to overcome.

How welcoming is St Andrew’s of diversity? Thinking about our current congregation, are there people we value more than others? If you went away and wrote a letter back to St Andrew’s, who would you name in your letter? Who would you not name, and why would you not name them? And what about when people visit the church – and let’s pray even in these Covid days we might get visitors – are there people who we would naturally gravitate to and immediately take over to coffee, and are there people you could imagine seeing and rather wishing they went off to Christ Church instead?

So the church should be a community that welcomes diversity; it should also be a community tightly bound together in love. It’s clear that Paul’s relationship with these Christians extends much, much further than simply being at church with them on Sundays. It’s by our common, shared life together that we reflect the love of God and the beauty of the Gospel to the world around us, to a world crying out for true, genuine community. It’s by our common life that we display to a broken world torn by divisions and hatred a vision of the restored humanity that God is creating in Christ.

What can we do in practice to build this common life? Well, there are three characteristics of Paul’s relationships with the individuals listed here that might give us some pointers:

First, there are some he has served and suffered alongside. Prisca and Aquila work with him in Christ Jesus, Andronicus and Junia were in prison with him. How could we serve alongside each other? Many will already be serving alongside others on the coffee rota or in the Sunday school. Are there other ways in which we could serve alongside others in our church? As we head likely into another lockdown over winter, could you team up with others in your local area to offer support for those self-isolating on your street? 

Secondly, although we know Paul as one of the apostles and a great theologian, he expresses a clear dependence on others. Prisca and Aquila ‘risked their necks’ for him. Rufus’ mother was a like a mother to Paul. We need each other. We need to be prepared both to ask for help and to offer it, and I think probably many of us will find one of those more difficult than the other. I’d love it if we could be a church where we can all be honest about when we need help, and where we would all cheerfully offer our services when needed.

Thirdly, there is clearly a depth of feeling, of warm emotion expressed in these verses. Some Paul particularly describes as his beloved; others it is clear from the shared experiences he alludes to the depth of attachment he feels. And he longs for them as a church to embrace each other as brothers and sisters. Verse 16 he commands them to greet each other with a holy kiss. And at this point all the commentators quickly caveat the verse and say this is a cultural reference, we don’t need to do this literally today; one translates it as ‘greet one another with a hearty handshake’, which just seems to me very polite and English. Now I’m not saying we do need to give each other a big kiss, but could we go deeper in our love and care for each other?

Stephanie once visited a church in Oxford, and I asked her afterwards what it was like, and she replied that felt like a church she could cry in. And that’s always stuck with me as a wonderful description of what a church at its best should be. I don’t mean one where we’re all crying. But a church where we don’t feel a need to put on a façade, to dress up in our Sunday Best of the stiff upper lip, but one where we can be honest about how we’re doing, knowing that we will be loved and cared for.

There may well be some here who would happily describe St Andrew’s as a church where they can cry, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could grow even more into a church community that is closely bound together in love, as we serve and suffer alongside each other, as we depend on one another and draw closer to each other; a church community where each individual, whoever they are, is named, is valued as the person God has made them to be.

 

A version of this sermon in video format will be available on the St Andrew’s channel on YouTube, from later on Sunday 13 September.

 

HYMN: All for Jesus or accompaniment here

 

PRAYERS (Chris Smith)

As we are so aware this week that the virus is going to be with our world for some time to come – let us remember that our Heavenly Father is also concerned about all that is happening in his world.

We think first of all the countries where there is a lack of health system to relieve the suffering or where the country is involved in other sorts of conflicts. Lord we pray for relief and that their leaders will work for peace and the good of all.

Lord in your mercy,

All: hear our prayer.

In this country we thank you for the efforts being made to control the virus. May we all play our part to prevent the spread of infection.  Strengthen our health service workers in the coming weeks. Give our politicians the wisdom to make the right decisions. May an effective vaccine soon be found.

We pray for those in the community who are specially vulnerable, that they will receive the support they need. Show us if there is more that we can do to help. Make the harvest gifts to charities a blessing to those who receive them.

Thank you that children are back at school. May they catch up on their learning and the teachers remain well. 

In these tighter restrictions we pray for businesses, that right decisions will be taken about their future. Help the unemployed to be patient in their search for work.

Lord in your mercy,

All: hear our prayer.

Paul in this last chapter of Romans shows his love and concern for Christians and the local community. Lord we pray for church leaders, national and local, that they will know the best way forward for your church today in our desire to reach out with the Good News that we want to share for those around us.

Lord in your mercy,

All: hear our prayer.

In a moment of quiet let’s pray for anyone we know in special need of our prayers today…

Merciful Father,

All: Accept these prayers

for the sake of your Son,

our Saviour Jesus Christ,

Amen.

 

The Collect for today

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear 

the prayers of your people 
who call upon you;

and grant that they may both perceive 
and know what things they ought to do,

and also may have grace and power 
faithfully to fulfil them;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

 

All:        Amen.

 

As our Saviour taught us, so we pray:

All:            Our Father in heaven, 

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done, 

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever. 

Amen.

 

HYMN: Lord of the Church 

 

THE BLESSING

 

Leader:   Christ the good shepherd,

who laid down his life for the sheep,

draw you and all who hear his voice,

to be one flock within one fold;

and the blessing of God almighty,

the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

be among you and remain with you always.

All:        Amen.

 

Leader:   The peace of the Lord be always with you

All:        and also with you.

 

 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION AND REFLECTION

 

  1. If you were to write a letter to St Andrew’s, who would you name and not name and why?

 

  1. Do you find it harder to ask for help or to offer help?

 

  1. How could you, how could St Andrew’s go deeper in our love and care for each other?

 

 

 

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