Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sermon Starters: Moving On

I almost gave a three-point devotional the other night (time constraints made it a four minute-er instead of a twenty, twenty-fiver. I'm sure they got the better deal). If I were to preach this, I would do it as a narrative sermon. I'd talk as if I were Paul (not in Wilbur Williams style--I'd use my own voice).

The point of view would be Romans 15, Paul's at Corinth at the end of his third missionary journey. He feels like his ministry in the east is done. He's now looking beyond Rome to Spain and in fact writes Romans as an introductory letter meant to present himself with a view to the ways some have criticized him while also hoping to secure a favorable base from which to begin a new mission (much as Antioch served for his first missionary journey).

Here were my three points from the devotional:

1. As Paul looked back, he had any number of successes to look back on. Philippians 3, as many of you know, is not primarily Paul looking back on his failures when he says, "forgetting what is behind and pressing to what is before." The first verses of Philippians 3 recount things he might boast about as a human being, including the fact that he was as blameless at keeping the Jewish law that a human could be (3:6).

Part of what Paul was leaving behind was anything that might be to his credit. We can't ride on our laurels to heaven. As you all would know that I don't find much room for eternal security in my understanding of the New Testament. The verse that weighs most heavily on my in favor of it is 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul wants to deliver a person over to Satan for the destruction of his body and salvation of his spirit on the Day of Judgment. Although I have not interpreted it this way, it seems at least conceivable that Paul, thinking the judgment would take place soon and within the near future, expect the man's body to be destroyed in the judgment while his spirit would be saved. This interpretation might reflect a kind of eternal security. I cannot imagine, however, that it is very attractive to anyone, including those who believe in eternal security.

In contrast, the vast majority of relevant passages--as well as the sociological context of the NT-- suggest a presumption and strong security for believers but not an absolute security. These passages suggest to me that the alternative interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5 is not correct.

The long and the short of this matter is that a) human accomplishments are but "dung" in the light of Christ and b) past spiritual victory is something God remembers and values (e.g. Heb. 6), but it does not provide absolute security in terms of ultimate salvation.

2. The main spark for the devotional was my current understanding of Paul's circumstances as he writes Romans. He has probably been imprisoned at Ephesus, during which he wrote Philippians. I suspect the governor expelled him from the city and forbade him to return. Many Jews in the city rejected him, perhaps even many who called themselves believers (Phil. 1).

We have no real sense of whether the Galatians accepted Paul's teaching that he wrote them. They might have, but we just don't know.

If indeed 2 Corinthians 10-13 give us the latest state of affairs before Paul came to the city and wrote Romans, then it is not at all clear that Paul had the full loyalty of the city when he was penning Romans. His last words to the community are anything but resolved from conflict.

In this context Paul writes in Romans 15 that there is no more room for him to minister in the regions of the east. He says nothing of spending months at Ephesus or Corinth. He's done.

Forgetting what's behind and pressing on, means all that's in the past. Sins, failures, struggles, painful situations--there all past and left behind in the light of our future with Christ.

3. So what really counts most is not the past, either its successes, pains, or failures. What matters is the upward call in Christ Jesus, the call to make it to the resurrection. Paul mentions this in Philippians 3. He mentions it in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul doesn't want to fail to get the prize after he has worked so hard. So he presses on for the mark of the upward call, to make it to the end.

So Paul is not done, even as he writes Romans. He plans to go to Rome and then to Spain. We don't know if he actually made it to Spain, but he did make it to Rome. Are you still pressing on?

1 comment:

JohnLDrury said...

What a relief! A future-oriented faith releases us from both the good and the bad of our past. Now that's justification by faith but without any wacky stuff about our good actually being bad, but just simply that neither our acheivements nor our failures have the power of the resurrection of the dead.