Inspiration: The Gift that Keeps on Giving
Text: Romans 1:8-17
(I paraphrased the key verses of Romans--1:16-17, which I described as a "zipped file" of the whole book of Romans.)
I used as one of the themes of the sermon the idea that in Europe, you find that the same stones are reused over and over again over centuries, even millennia, to build the structures needed in each time and place (I referenced York Minister, the ruins of Troy, and the ruins of a priory used in a nearby farm in the countryside outside of Durham).
My gambit is that God uses and reuses the words of Scripture to build the houses that we need at various points in history and, indeed, in our individual lives. The inspiration of Scripture is not just what it meant in the "bubble above Paul's head," but God continues inspiring his people to hear in Scripture what they need to hear to make their way through this world and into eternity.
(My sermon was located at the end of a series on "Understanding the Bible" at Mark's church. They had been learning how to read the Bible in context, so I wanted to emphasize that, even though that is the goal, God will meet us where we are at take us from there. We need not be discouraged that we don't know all the things pastors and scholars know about how to interpret the Bible.)
The Example of Romans 1:17
I then transitioned into using Romans 1:17 and the "exquisite stone" of the "righteousness of God" throughout history as an example of the inspiration that keeps on giving and how God meets us where we are as we read Scripture. I proposed that I knew at least four ways to take this concept of the righteousness of God (more, actually), and that all of them had some truth to them.
And here was a key point. Revelation has never been us coming up to God's level. Revelation (including the Bible) is God coming down to meet us on our level. This is of course what Jesus did when he came to earth and took on human flesh (John 1:14). If we could catch a glimpse of how the Father talks to Jesus and the Holy Spirit in heaven, our heads would explode.
Catholics, Luther, and Wesley
I then talk about how the RCC, Luther, and Wesley understood the righteousness of God, all of which had some truth to them.
- The RCC of Luther's day understood Romans 1:17 to be about the righteous justice of God. Well, there's some truth there. Look at Romans 1:18. "Good news" is often good news against the backdrop of what could have been bad news, and there is potential bad new here--the judgment.
- Luther saw in 1:17 the idea of a legal righteousness from God, God declaring us right with him in the divine court on the basis of Jesus (justification by faith). His theology was correct (see Romans 3), but that's probably not what Paul meant in this specific verse.
- Wesley agreed with Luther on justification by faith and the meaning of 1:17, but he thought something was missing from Luther's theology of righteousness. Luther primarily saw it as a legal verdict, not as real godliness or goodness. Wesley believed God could actually change us to make us Christ-like and loving toward each other (see Romans 8).
- God used the stone of the righteousness of God to build true structures for each of the above, even though none of them probably understood Romans 1:17 in terms of what was in the bubble over Paul's head when God inspired him at the first.
Even the stone Paul used in Romans 1:17 did not just fall out of heaven on his head. Paul himself was drawing on an exquisite stone from the Old Testament when he wrote about the righteousness of God. I looked at Psalm 71 and a number of similarities to Romans 1:16-17. I mentioned the later chapters of Isaiah as well where the righteousness of God and his giving of salvation are in parallel (Dead Sea Scrolls too).
I mentioned how parallelism works in Hebrew poetry--say it and say it again. So this prevailing background in the OT suggests that Paul's starting point for thinking about the righteousness of God was the way God wants to save his people. He's not like a professor who wants you to fail. He's not like a cowboy who wants an excuse to shoot you. God wants to save us!
So there is even a rebuilding from the building God made out of the stone in Psalm 71 and the building God makes out of the stone of God's righteousness in Romans 1:16-17. In the psalm, the psalmist is talking about God's faithfulness to him as an individual, just as God will be faithful to us as individuals today.
In Romans, the faithfulness is to all of humanity. As in Adam all died, so in Christ all will be made alive. God's faithfulness is shown in the good news of Jesus in that he has made a way for humanity and the whole creation to be rescued.
I used the story I heard about Virginia Wright at her funeral as the beginning of the conclusion. It was said that she could have a conversation with anyone, both a scholar and a three-year old. It's a great picture of how God can speak to you through Scripture no matter how young or old we are, no matter what our profession, no matter how smart we are. I used the old illustration of the farmer trying to get some chicks into a barn before a storm and thinking if he could just get down to their level and communicate with them.
That, I suggested, is what God does over and over again through Scripture. He takes these same stones, the old ancient stones that God used to build the people of God in the Old and New Testaments, and builds something beautiful in our lives.