Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 November 2013
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT, 2013
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
During the Second World War, our most famous former choirboy, Laurence Olivier, directed and starred in a film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, with the king’s great speech on the morning of the Battle at Agincourt, to encourage his outnumbered army: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
In the context of a much greater struggle for the survival not just of an army, or even of a nation, but of civilisation itself, Shakespeare emerged from the realm highbrow culture and school curriculum, to speak afresh, to lend courage for the fight.
Paul writes his Letter to the Romans, not from the peace of an academic study or a country vicarage, but as he travels to Jerusalem to deliver the collection has raised for the impoverished church there from the churches he had founded. He writes as one who has already endured great suffering and who faces the prospect of further, even mortal danger as he returns to Jerusalem. He writes to a Christian community whose own existence in the capital of the empire is precarious and which would soon suffer the reality of persecution – a persecution which would claim the life of Paul himself and of Peter.
Our passage this evening comes at the end of the first half of the epistle which has spelt out both the plight of a sinful humanity and a fallen world, and what God has done to remedy this; to free humankind and the whole of creation from the consequences of sin and death. To Christians who face the prospect of being condemned for the tribunals of this world, he speaks of the ultimate tribunal – the only one which counts in the final analysis – that of God.
In this great flourish, which concludes the first half of the epistle, he weaves together scriptural allusions and rhetorical questions.
“If God be for us, who can be against us? He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him us for us all…”
In the iconography of this building, the section many find most puzzling is the tryptich on the west wall. It has three “types” – that is fore-shadowing – of the sacrifice of Christ and its celebration in the sacrament of the Eucharist:
- The bronze serpent made by Moses so that those who looked upon it might be healed;
- The bread and wine offered to Abraham by the priest-king Melchizedek,
- And, most puzzling of all, the binding or sacrifice of Isaac.
In that mysterious story, Isaac is in the end spared – the Lord provides the sacrifice – the ram caught by its horns in the thicket. For Paul, God has provided the ultimate sacrifice: his Son – the one in whom we see that God is totally for us.
If, says Paul, God has done this, what more will he not give us?
He then moves into a passage with echoes of the court room: accusation and defence, condemnation and acquittal. He asks a series of rhetorical questions; questions which expect the answer “Nobody.”
“Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?
It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who intercedes for us.” Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Just in case we don’t get the message, he lists some possibilities – “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?”
After I had finished work on Thursday evening, I watched part of a film on television. It was called “Resistance” and was about a group of Jews in Byelorussia who had fled into the forests to escape the SS extermination squads who had followed the invading German army.
The timing was I suspect no coincidence – for today is not only Remembrance Sunday but the anniversary of Kristalnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – in 1938, with its destruction of Germany’s synagogues and acts of violence against Jews. The timing of that foretaste of the unimaginably worse to come was no coincidence either.
In the poisonous memory of the Nazis, the Jews were blamed for the “stab-in-the-back” which had cost Germany the war – not the defeat of its army on the field of battle. Another war brought the opportunity for revenge. Indeed the motivation for that war was in part that lust for vengeance.
In one scene in the film, the fugitive Jews are being led in prayer by one of their number. He pleads with God on behalf of this community which has suffered so much and now faces a fate so awful that people could not believe it. He addresses God: “Choose someone else, sanctify another people. Let us go. We have suffered too long. We cannot go on.”
Lest we who have not suffered think this is blasphemous, we should note that Paul goes on to quote from Psalm 44:
“For your sake, we are being killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
This psalm begins by celebrating the love of God for his people but then turns to complaint. Everything has gone wrong, enemies prevail and mock Israel, God’s people are covered with shame. And this time it is not because of Israel’s disloyalty! The psalmist too argues with God on behalf of a people who suffer because of their association with him.
What is God going to do about it?
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, of sword?
All these Paul has faced and suffered in reality or prospect as a consequence of his calling.
In the preceding chapters, Paul has written of how Christ’s victory on the cross has freed us from sin and death, from the law and the powers of this world. But that victory has an “already but not yet” about it. These things remain in the world and Christians must live through them. Indeed their allegiance to Christ will attract them as the powers of this world seek to resist Christ.
For Paul the Christian life is focussed on the cross and marked by it. The cross is the sign of our hope – the reminder that God is with us and for us. “It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”
Here there is an echo of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. Christian tradition sees them in relation to Jesus. Paul himself does in Philippians, in that passage we hear at Mass every Palm Sunday:
“Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 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 unto death, even death on a cross.” 2, 6-8.
But here in Romans, it is the Church which takes on the role of servant – standing before hostile adversaries – trusting totally in God and awaiting vindication (8.33-4).
However, it is the Church only as it is “in Christ” that can take this stance. Paul’s point throughout Romans 5-8 is that the identity of the Church is discovered in Christ. The reference to his heavenly intercession echoes those words from Isaiah which we hear in the Liturgy of the Passion every Good Friday:
“…because he poured out himself to death: and was numbered with the transgressors; yet bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” 53.12
At the same time, declaring that Christ is now “at God’s right hand” summons up Psalm 110.1 – a text early Christians used most often to understand Christ’s status. Jesus is now sharing the throne of God and his place at God’s right hand was seen from early on as an encouragement to the suffering Church; both because he is interceding for it and because his place there is an assurance of eventual vindication.
There is a lesson here for us. This confidence and security in God’s love is maintained for us by the reading, praying and singing of scripture, just as it was for Paul in that web of allusion, echo and quotation. It is maintained for us by the celebration of the sacraments: “Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
But the cross does not save the believer from suffering but in spite of suffering and through suffering. For the people of God, suffering is not just something from which God would deliver, but through which God would deliver. The elect are called not to privilege and security but to identification with Christ crucified. Steeped as he is in the scriptures, he takes comfort from the knowledge that this is part of the vocation of God’s people.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
But the source of Christian hope is that none of them can stand against God and the Christ who loved us.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Not just the human enemies we can see and perhaps understand, but the incomprehensible forces of evil which seem greater than the sum of human wickedness and beyond any human power to overcome.
Nor is this a matter of passive resistance or grim endurance or stoic endurance. As Fr. Julian was telling us this morning, remembrance is an active giving up of our comfortable, secure and self-centred lives in favour of the active compassion of Christ-like love.
This was Christ’s way and the after him Paul’s, who rejoices that “in the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” we are enabled to overcome all.