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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 02/25/2018

Paul’s letter to the Romans is unique among all his letters in that when he wrote it, he had never been to Rome. His other letters are all written either to the people of a church he founded, usually in response to problems that had developed since he left, or in a couple of cases he writes to individuals he had personally converted to Christianity. In the case of the letter to the Romans though, Paul had never been to Rome, but he was planning to go in order to try and raise money for the church in Jerusalem; but he knew there were problems in Rome.

To make a long story short, in the year 49, under Emperor Claudius, Jews had been expelled from Rome because of the perception that they were disturbing the public order. Among the Jews expelled were Jewish Christians which might sound like an oxymoron but they were people of Jewish heritage who now professed faith in Jesus. Some however, continued to observe many Jewish laws and rituals, some not so many, some none at all so there were several groups of these Jewish Christians. When Claudius died in the year 54, the Jews were allowed to return to Rome and upon return the Jewish Christians found that Gentile Christians had assumed control of the church there. That resulted in tension between all the various groups concerning who was a real Christian and who wasn’t, the big question being, to what extent was it necessary as a Christian, to continue to observe Jewish laws and rituals?

In his letter though, Paul more or less refuses to get drawn into the conflict, dismissing the arguments of all of those involved by saying, “For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” with that followed by, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It’s classic Paul that eventually becomes classic Luther: The bad news is that you all are sinners; the good news is that you have all received God’s grace as a gift. Paul’s message to the Romans was you are more alike than you are different.

Paul knew that if the church was going to survive and move into the future, those who called themselves Christians would have to get past that which divided them and focus on that which united them and for Paul, the primary uniting factor had to do with God’s grace.

So again, rather than getting into it with them, in the verses we heard today, Paul used the example of Abraham to emphasize the fact that grace and the future it promised had always been the defining characteristic of their God. Abraham appeared to have no future, being, as Paul says, “as good as dead,” and on top of that, wife Sarah was barren. There was no hope of children and in that culture to have no children, no heirs, meant you might as well be dead. But the Lord entered into that dead end and promised Abraham that there was a future, “you will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations,” a future made possible not because of anything Abraham had done, but only because of God’s grace. Obedience on the part of Abraham followed, but the promise was pure grace, pure gift.

This is Paul at his best. The Christians of Rome needed to remember that grace and God’s promise to create new life and new possibilities was their starting point just as it was the starting point for Abraham. The story of Abraham was a good reminder that the same God who by grace brought new life out of that barren situation, also raised Jesus from the dead, an act of grace into which all of them were joined. It was this focus on grace that could get them past concerns about who was a real Christian and who wasn’t, grace that would move them into the future of God’s promise.

The same theme of grace and new life is reflected in today’s psalm in a somewhat different way. It’s the back end of Psalm 22, the psalm of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, that starts with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” words that Jesus spoke from the cross. Today’s reading though starts at verse 23 and by then, something has happened. Typical of many psalms, we’re not told what happened but in the middle of verse 21 something changes. The verse begins with “Save me from the lion’s mouth,” and ends with “From the horns of wild bulls you have rescued me. The forsakenness of the first verse is a thing of the past and a new and brighter future has begun and it’s a future that calls for praise of the Lord. “You who fear the Lord, give praise! All you of Jacob’s line give glory.” By grace, God has acted and raised the forsaken psalmist to new life.

Coming as they do during the season of Lent, this combination of lessons is a reminder to us that, although it might not be obvious at first, Lent is also ultimately about grace and about the future. Lent is a time of repentance as we are called to honestly think about who we are including the things that make our relationship with God less than it could be. For each of us, that repentance involves thinking about the past, our past, our own most grievous past; but thinking about the past is not intended to leave us stuck there but instead to move us into the future, a future that brings us closer to being who God would have us be. Movement toward that future begins with accepting and trusting in God’s gift of grace that tells us that new life is possible. It’s the same grace extended to Abraham, the same grace extended to the psalmist. Trusting in the gift, we are empowered to respond.

As was the case with the psalmist of Psalm 22, part of that response has to do with praising God. Today’s gospel though gets at another part of our response as we are called to take up our cross. Jesus says, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

To be honest, bearing one’s cross has become a bit of a cliché. “I guess it’s just my cross to bear,” winds up as an expression used in reference to a wide manner of inconveniences of varying degrees of seriousness. A teacher with a particularly annoying student or for that matter, a pastor with a difficult church member might say, “I guess he or she is my cross to bear.” Someone afflicted with a chronic illness might say, “It’s my cross to bear.” The same words however are used concerning minor irritations like when the toilet doesn’t flush or the car or the washing machine breaks down.

All such examples are aggravating and it is admirable to bear them with patience, but I don’t think even the more serious of them were what Jesus was talking about. The cross was what happened to Jesus as a result of his opposition to the ways of the empire, both religious and political, where those in power either lorded over or were mostly oblivious to everyone else. For Jesus, the cross was about his opposition to the corruption of religion, his concern about the oppression of the poor and the marginalization of those who were different. For Jesus the cross was about injustice and his identification with the outcast, the forgotten and the oppressed. That’s what led the religious and political leaders to conspire against him. For Jesus, the cross wasn’t about an annoying co-worker or a broken washing machine or even a chronic illness; it was more and it’s that more that Lent calls us to consider.

For any of us, to take up our cross means to join in confronting the kind of issues that Jesus confronted in whatever ways we can. Taking up the cross means being at work where God is at work in the world to relieve suffering and injustice, to rescue the weak, and to bring peace and justice to bear for all people. It means being agents and bearers of grace.

As individuals, we all have opportunities to take up our cross in this manner. I think however, that this is a good opportunity to lift up the work of our own Northern Great Lakes Synod and the ELCA as a whole. As individuals we can feel like we can’t do very much to be agents of such grace, to relieve suffering and injustice, to rescue the weak and to bring peace and justice to bear. As individuals it is difficult; together though, we’re able to do more.

Like any church body, we of the ELCA aren’t perfect, but I don’t think anyone can criticize us for not taking up our cross in the manner described here. Our confirmation kids will be doing so this afternoon as they participate in the synod’s Marked event, taking food that you have donated to help with the synod’s backpack program. As part of your Lenten discipline you might go to elca.org where you’ll find their 40 Days of Giving initiative that provides an opportunity to join with others and give to various hunger programs, not looking for a pat on the back but in response to God’s gift of grace to you.

In some fashion all of these lessons today come back to God’s grace and God’s future as revealed in and through Jesus. In response to the gift of grace we’ve been given we do take up our cross and follow. In response to God’s grace, we do make a difference in helping to make God’s future known.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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