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A free floating commentary on culture, politics, economics, and religion based on a passionate commitment to the truth and a desire graciously to refute that which is contrary to it….
"He must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it."
--Titus 1:9, Revised Standard Version
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Thank you so much for your welcome. Acts 22 and 2 Corinthians 5 are going to be the focus of our attention tonight.
One man standing on the steps of an impressive building in the capital city of his own nation, one man addressing a crowd, and delivering a speech which will effectively set the course of his life for the next four years - these might be references to Monday’s inaugural event at Capitol Hill, but they in fact describe the event described in our first lesson. Paul the Apostle, standing on the steps of the Antonia Fortress, the Roman army barracks overlooking the Temple in Jerusalem. I can’t find many other points of comparison between Monday’s speech and that delivered here by St Paul, but I thought at least that it would grab your attention, if only perhaps to help us to detect and to see afresh the incredible significance of what Paul is doing here. He is indeed on his final visit to the capital city of his own Jewish nation, Jerusalem. And he has just been arrested and will as a result spend at least the next four years as a prisoner, both in Caesarea and then in Rome.
And what he does here is extraordinarily brave. The angry mob is baying for his blood but Paul rather than gratefully being ushered into the safety of the Antonia Fortress, turns and asks permission to address the crowd. Why? What made him do it? Why did he risk it?
The answer however also has to do with the significance of the geographical place in which Paul uniquely found himself at just that moment. In his speech as you look down it, summarised here by Luke in Acts 22, Paul makes several intriguing references to events in his own life which had taken place within five hundred yards of those steps on which he was now standing. His education in Jerusalem’s torah academy under professor Gamaliel, his consultations with the High Priest and the Sanhedrin in the Temple enclosure; procuring extradition warrants on those blaspheming messianic believers in Jesus; his own part with assisting in the stoning of Stephen probably two hundred yards to his right, just outside the city’s Northern Gate; and then his time of prayer some four or five years later after conversion to Christ, when he was back from a brief visit to Jerusalem meeting the apostles and was praying in the Temple just two hundred yards to his left, when the risen Jesus warned him to leave the city.
Paul is back amongst his old haunts. Jerusalem university was his alma mater, and this was the place where he knew he was persona non grata. This was the place where he deeply wanted to speak of Jesus, risking all, so that his own countrymen, caught up as he had once been in Jerusalem’s mad religious and political agendas might hear of God’s will for them in Messiah Jesus.
But there is another event in Jerusalem’s recent past which also took place nearby. I was in Jerusalem over New Year and standing overlooking the model of ancient Jerusalem in the Israel Museum, and I got my students there to look at these steps of the Antonia Fortress which face West and I asked them the question: ‘As Paul stood there, what was directly in front of him, just two hundred yards away, albeit on the other side of the city wall?’ And the answer – Golgotha, the place where twenty seven years earlier his Lord Jesus had died for him, so maybe as Paul turned and faced the crowd he was also looking beyond them and seeing the cross of Jesus in his mind’s eye. And maybe that is precisely why he turned and faced them and faced their hostility, even his own death, because he knew that just over there his Lord Jesus had risked everything for him. Jesus had died in Jerusalem. Stephen had died in Jerusalem, and now Paul had to risk the same fate himself. He could do no less. In fact we know this pattern of thought was indeed in Paul’s mind, because when others are trying to dissuade him from going up to Jerusalem, he rebuts them quite plainly Acts 21 verse 13 ‘Why are you breaking my heart, I am willing not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus’.
Well what would make Paul say such a thing? Indeed, how does anyone brace themselves for suffering? What makes anyone take a stand in the face of severe opposition? What causes anyone, rather than fleeing the enemy, to turn and face them willing to take the consequences?
Now I may be a British academic, and therefore prone to being a bit out of touch with realities here on the ground in the United States, but even I cannot miss the fact that Mere Anglicanism this year, meets at a critical time in the history of the life of the Diocese of South Carolina, where clergy and people are having to make tough decisions about how to turn and face those who are opposed to them; and about precisely where to take their stand. And when faced with tough decisions, we all need in the words of Psalm 77 which I was reading myself this morning to seek the Lord and for our spirits to make a diligent search, to be asking hard questions even of God himself; but then going back to find a bedrock of conviction on which we can take a firm stand, going back to God’s clear actions in redemption history in the past.
Well that hard bedrock of conviction I suggest for all of us can be found by looking together at our other New Testament reading from 2 Corinthians 5 where we see deep truths which Paul had been relying on during his earlier period of very fierce opposition in Ephesus, finishing in the Autumn of AD 55. These words were therefore written by Paul perhaps eighteen months or so before he was arrested in Jerusalem during that Pentecost May AD 57. They show us the convictions which had burned into him during that crucible of suffering in Ephesus and they explain why Paul decided to turn and face the hostile crowd in Jerusalem two years later, and they can inspire and strengthen us for any stands which we may too need to make in our own day. And to summarise what we shall find we will look briefly at Paul’s convictions about the person and work of Jesus from which we will see that Paul draws out two further related conclusions.
So then what were Paul’s convictions about the person and the work of Christ? I hope again that you have this in front of you, 2 Corinthians 5 and you can see where I am drawing these points.
Concerning the person of Christ – well this is the passage where expressly in verse 16 Paul says we are not to regard Christ according to the flesh. Descriptions of Jesus in merely human categories are not sufficient and need to be abandoned. Jesus was an undeniable figure of recent history, but he is for more than just a figure of history, even a so-called ‘historical Jesus’. He is the Christ, that is the Messiah of Israel, but boldly and amazingly this Christ is closely associated with two things which properly belonged uniquely to Yahweh, the God of Israel: he is involved with Creation verse 17 ‘if anyone is in Christ, new creation’ and also with final judgement verse 10 just before our passage ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ’. Above all Paul makes clear that what Christ did and achieved can be seen straightforwardly and completely as the work and activity of God, verse 18 ‘All this is from God who through Christ reconciled us’; verse 19 ‘In Christ God was reconciling the world’, verse 20 ‘On behalf of Christ be reconciled to God’.
In these three verses Paul repeatedly brackets Christ and God together, deliberately, so that the work and the activity of the one is the work and the activity of the other, not 75% but 100%. There is no distinction; there is no hair’s breadth between them. This is Paul’s conviction about Jesus Christ. He is to be identified with the God of Israel. Yes, this is in some mysterious way which will take theologians several hundred years to hammer out into the Creeds, but here is the raw data for that later theological elucidation. God was working through Christ - in Christ, God.
Now this is normative New Testament Christology. By the way I always tell my students never to use that word Christology in their sermons but perhaps I can be forgiven for using it here as it is the theme of Mere Anglicanism. High Christology, an ugly word to describe a beautiful thing, does not appear only in a few places in the New Testament, perhaps in documents that are thought to be rather late in the first century after about 60 years during which Jesus’ status has gradually been elevated somewhere into the divine. No, it is there consistently and from the very beginning.
I was speaking at the bishop’s house last night with your keynote speakers, Paul Barnett and David Wenham and I quickly checked with these Pauline scholars whether they thought that Galatians was Paul’s first letter. Happily we all agreed, a rare event amongst scholars – it must have been something to do with the Bishop’s food and drink I suppose - and if so, Galatians Chapter 1 verse 1 is the opening verse of the New Testament, written within twenty years of the Resurrection, and it categorically refers to Jesus as divine and not merely human. I quote: ‘Paul, an apostle not through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father’. They are the opening words of the New Testament and do it straight away; Jesus is not on the human side of the line, he is on the divine side of the line. Paul is convinced about the divinity, the deity, the God-ness of Jesus: ‘in Christ, God’.
Paul also has convictions about the work of Christ. He is convinced about Jesus’ resurrection, verse 15 ‘who for their sake died and was raised’. Paul is actually counting on this personally as the basis for his own hope of resurrection in the future. Earlier in Chapter 5 he has been trusting that when he dies and puts away his tent God will provide a building for him, a place where he will be at home with the Lord – isn’t that a lovely phrase ‘at home with the Lord’? But Paul in the verses of our second reading is focussed more especially on the cross, on Jesus’ death and crucifixion. Verse 14: ‘we have concluded this’ he writes, so here we are going to hear one of those settled Pauline convictions. What is it? ‘That one has died for all, therefore all have died’. ‘He died for all,’ he repeats.
Paul is convinced that Jesus’ death was a dramatic and intentional act designed to benefit all people in the world. But it is more than just for the benefit of all. Many people in church today perhaps would subscribe to some such fuzzy notion as that: ‘oh Jesus died for all’, they might say – ‘his death was an example of supreme love and it now means that God loves everybody regardless of whether they know it or want it’. That’s not how Paul finishes his sentence: ‘One died for all, therefore all have died’. Jesus’ death reveals that every human being is effectively in God’s estimation in a state of death. Jesus’ death reveals God’s judgement, his verdict on sinful human beings, a verdict of death, one died for all that therefore we now know that in God’s sight, all have died.
And if this is only implicit in Verse 14, Paul makes this conviction quite explicit in verse 21: ‘for our sake God made Christ to be sin’ – his death was therefore a dying caused by God’s verdict on human sin. It was substitutionary – Christ himself knew no sin but bore our sins, so that we [oh sweet exchange] might experience forgiveness and justification; that we might become the righteousness of God.
Here is Paul’s settled conviction about the work of Christ. Through his death and resurrection God has done the work of great salvation and redemption. He has dealt with the issue of human sin, 'not counting our trespasses against us [verse 19]. One way of saying this is to say that God through Christ brought righteousness and forgiveness in the place of sin and judgement. Another way of saying the same thing: God in Christ brought life out of death, in the place of death.
Now, please note that those two different ways of my summarising that just now use two different background metaphors. One was using more legal terms, the language of the law court. God has brought righteousness and forgiveness in the place of sin and judgement – that is legal, forensic terminology. The second one was using the language of the hospital, perhaps the maternity ward, or perhaps the morgue, the place where dead bodies are put. God has brought life in the place of death. These are Paul’s two parallel ways of summarising or concluding his convictions. His key word for the first one is reconciliation, or we might say re-conciliation; and his key word for the second is new creation, or we might say re-creation.
His use of the first term is clear and repeated several times. Verse 18 ‘God reconciled us to himself’, God again ‘was reconciling the world to himself’. Twice he speaks of Christians now being given a ministry or message of reconciliation, and so he appeals to us ‘be reconciled to God’. Reconciliation for Paul has been accomplished and now it must be announced. The barriers between the holy God and sinful humanity have been bulldozed away by the sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ, and we must now invite people to avail themselves of that death, of that pathway which has been blown open for them, so that they can walk into God’s presence. The judge in the law court turns out to be a heavenly father. The sentence of judgement has been replaced by sentences of tender love.
And Paul’s use of the second term comes only once but it is powerful and pithy: ‘If anyone in Christ, new creation.’ Yes the death of Jesus reveals that all have died, all are dead, but that is not the last word on the subject, because the crucifixion was decidedly not God’s last word about Jesus. Jesus was gloriously raised by God, dramatically and objectively, as a sure sign of God’s purposes, restoring his broken world in an eventual act of new creation. And that new creation can come and kick back into reality here and now, when men and women join themselves by faith to the death of Christ and so share in his resurrection. As Paul will develop this, perhaps about a year later, when writing Romans 6 verse 5: ‘If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in his resurrection.’
So there – reconciliation, re-creation – two great words, two Gospel truths that Paul presents to us in 2 Corinthians 5.
And as we close we inevitably should be asking these kinds of questions both to ourselves and to our churches as communities: ‘How much do we really believe these things? Are these the bedrock on which we are willing to make our stand?’ As individuals it is easy for our hearts to wander, we know it well, for familiarity to weaken our grasp of these truths, for the trials and busyness of life to take us elsewhere. Fifteen months ago I was reading through 2 Corinthians, it was a particularly dark time in my life, one of those times when the lights just seemed to have gone out and God was, as it were, leading me through a dark underwater tunnel. And I was reading through this dark and painful text, 2 Corinthians, for it to be light in my darkness, on my own there in a hotel room in Sicily. And I found myself having to confront all my buried doubts about Christ, about death, about my hope of resurrection. And I had to simply recite these words of 2 Corinthians 5 out loud to myself on my own to get my heart to trust these words as true for me.
Is that something which you need to do this day in this conference of Mere Anglicanism or in this dark season in the life of the Diocese – just to read these words to your own heart, to re-kindle the flame of your own personal faith and to trust in their truth? Jesus said to Martha: ‘do you believe?’ – and she found herself saying: ‘yes Lord, I do believe.’ [John 11:25-27]
As for our communities and wider church life we could spend ages asking whether these great Gospel truths of God’s reconciliation and recreation in Christ are really at the center of what we do and proclaim in that community called the church. How often are there sermons on the atoning death of Jesus or on the resurrection power of God? How seriously are we beseeching people to be reconciled to God as they surely need to be? How clearly are we proclaiming to people that through the Gospel, God can unleash his resurrection power, in making them to be new creations, re-oriented now to live not for themselves but for the God who loves them? To often these messages get silenced and the Gospel truths get abandoned and other agendas so easily take center stage in the life of the church.
I have the joy each morning of travelling to work at Trinity Ambridge in the same car as your chaplain here, Leander Harding, chaplain at Mere Anglicanism, and on this Tuesday morning as we navigated through the Arctic conditions of West Pennsylvania, my senior colleague Leander came out with this telling phrase: ‘some people are in the church for the purposes of faith in religion while others are there because the church is a useful place to pursue other agendas. Justin Terry and I just laughed and laughed until our lungs froze, but it is not a laughing matter. What are the other agendas which are sweeping through our church and effectively replacing the Gospel driven agenda set here by Paul?
So, are we willing to take our stand on these Gospel truths of divine reconciliation and divine recreation accomplished in Jesus Christ? Are these the convictions which are truly at the bedrock of our lives? On the eve of the conversion of St Paul we could do no better than to learn again these convictions held by Paul and to note how they strengthened him, they steadied him that day a few years later on that day in Jerusalem and caused him not to flee for cover but to turn and face the life-threatening opponents, as he was looking straight ahead of him to the very place where Jesus had died for him.
You know, we can almost imagine saying under his breath as he braces himself to speak: ‘I have concluded that one has died for all, and therefore all have died. And he died for me, so that I who am alive today should not live for myself, but if need be, die – for him who died for me – and was raised.’ Amen.
The Reverend Dr Peter Walker is Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania
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