Thursday, 28 July 2011

Giving it all away.

How completely and utterly must Paul have loved his kindred?

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.

Paul’s people were the Israelites and in these words we hear his heart felt cry that they too would know Jesus Christ as he does.

I want this morning to explore with you the depth of faith from which this cry is uttered and to do so I will begin by describing a little bit about Paul and his faith as well as when the letter was written and to whom he was writing.

Having gained a bit of an understanding of the context of the letter I want to dig deeper into the expression and witness of Paul’s understanding of faith in these words.

And lastly, to seek to listen for what God might be saying to us today in our hearing of this story.

So, first to a little bit of history!

Paul was originally known as Saul, a Jewish scholar and scribe by background. Prior to his conversion he had been involved with the persecution of the first disciples of Jesus within the Jewish community.

In the books of Acts he is implicated in the stoning of Stephen and we are told that from that point on, Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.

Saul’s conversion, including his name change to Paul, occurs when the risen Jesus miraculously appeared before him on his journey to Damascus.

After his conversion Paul embarked on numerous missionary journeys through the Roman Empire. The majority of the letters of the New Testament are attribute to him as communiqués sent to those communities of believers that he had established.

Paul clearly understood himself as a missionary, to bring the good of news to those outside the Jewish community as well as those within.

There had been an issue in the early years after Jesus death as to which Jesus message was for: was it simply the Jewish people or the gentiles as well.

The answer that came through was the Jesus message was to be shared with all peoples. It is clear in the book of Acts and within Paul’s letters themselves that whilst some of the Jews converted and the Jewish communities were often the starting point for sharing the message many gentiles joined the faith.

This was no less the case in Rome and there had been some tension within the Jewish community over the issue. Remember Paul’s own background persecuting the first followers of Jesus.

It is commonly accepted that the account of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in the year 49 by the Emperor Claudius, by the Roman historian Suetonius, is an indicator of this tension.

It is argued that the Jews were expelled because of the emerging Christian movement causing friction within the Jewish community.

The letter that Paul wrote to the Romans is normally dated around 6-8 years after these events and it appears that whilst there were clearly Jews within the community the community also had a large number of gentiles.

This little peek into the history of the situation should help you to understand the position that Paul found himself in. He was a Jewish Christian spreading the good news of Jesus among gentiles and seeing his own people not responding to the proclamation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

This leads into my second point: to pick up on Paul’s words and what they say about his faith.

Paul’s faith was rooted in a specific and personal revelation of Jesus Christ that changed his heart from being prepared to hold the coats whilst Stephen was stoned into sharing that very same message which Stephen held on to.

It is difficult for us to understand the shift in Paul’s life in this matter: suffice it to say that it was huge.

It was a complete turn around in his life, his view of God, his behaviour.

The message of Jesus and his understanding of God’s love for him were all consuming. Simply reading his letter to the Romans to this point should open our eyes to this.

Paul understood himself as specially chosen and sent messenger of God’s grace – he was an ambassador for Jesus Christ.

Jesus, whom Paul understood, to have given himself, for the sake of the world to make the world righteous in God’s eyes.

There can be little doubt that Paul had personal sense of his salvation in Christ yet such was his faith that he was prepared to give his own relationship with God in Christ away so that others might believe.

For me this is an expression of what is at the heart of the Christian faith, a willingness to give everything for the sake of the other.

Paul so longed that his Jewish kindred would come to understand and know Christ as he did that he was willing to give up all that had gained in Christ for this to occur.

To jump to another of Paul’s letters for a moment this example of faith in Paul’s letter reflects the very action of God sending Jesus into the world.

In Philippians we read:

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Just as God gave Christ into the world so too Paul was prepared to give himself and his new life in Christ for the sake of the Jewish people to know Christ.

To me this is the ultimate expression and understanding of the Christian faith it is not about what I get out of it for myself but what is done that others might enter into the peace of God established in Christ.

This brings me to invite you to reflect on your own faith in Jesus Christ. We tend to be self-centred consumers in all of thinking, including in our thinking about faith. The primary question is what is in it for me?

But is that what being a Christian is all about?

Is being a Christian about getting to go to heaven or getting to avoid hell? Which are two different things, one motivated by reward the other by fear.

Is being a Christian about getting blessings from God day by day?

Paul’s example seems to suggest otherwise. Following Jesus means being willing to give up everything for the sake of others so that they too may know the immensity of God’s love and grace. Even to the point of giving up that very relationship so that others might believe.

Here is a commitment to follow Christ who gives up all for our sake that should cause us to take pause and contemplate. How deep is our faith? How well do we understand that grace given to us so freely? How much are we prepared to give so that others might know God’s love in Jesus Christ?

Paul’s message of grace is the message of the Jesus who looked upon the crowd and had compassion. It is the message of God’s abundant generosity that feeds the crowd and has left over’s. It is the message of God’s love drawing us back into the meaning and purpose of our existence.

So as we give thanks and break bread today let us be drenched in that hope and celebrate God’s generosity in the giving of ourselves for others.

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