June 18, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Not That Normal Anymore
(first in the series Church and State)
Right there in verse sixteen Paul puts it like this: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel…”
Every time I read the whole passage, there’s something in this phrase that reaches up, grabs me, and does not let go. First of all, it makes me a little defensive! “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” says Paul, as though he’s issuing an unspoken dare: “Are you?” And of course not! I just don’t go around telling people that…
Maybe it’s because in many circles these days, it is not popular to admit to being Christian. This might be especially true for younger people. If you’re a young person in America today, there is a costly social risk in coming out to your friends as Christian. So when Paul says right out loud that he’s not ashamed of the Gospel, there’s something that stirs in my conscience, that makes me wonder whether I might be.
Something about shame: It lives in the place of our deepest self, usually nestled in between our secret pain and our intrinsic compassion. Which means, we don’t usually feel ashamed of something or someone we don’t care about. So when Paul makes this provocative claim, it means the gospel is not a story about Jesus he can hold at arms’ length. The gospel’s saving power of God has laid a claim on Paul, and he’s let us in on the truth: Paul is not just a church planter with a persuasive argument. Paul knows what it is to have your life saved by Jesus, and maybe we know this too.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel,” says Paul. Are you? I can tell you, I am not ashamed of God’s saving power. But considering this makes me look into the deep crevices of my faith, which does, in turn, poke at my shame. I see where my faith falls short; these days, I am struggling with trust.
I believe God can see more than I can see. We can debate whether or not God has a plan, but I know God envisions possibilities I cannot fathom. Now if I mean to grow closer to God, I need to move into these places I can’t see and take the risks I’d prefer to avoid. If I mean to grow closer to Christ, and I do, I need to spend more time with people I don’t know, take on more projects that might fall apart, because what if they don’t…
What if I don’t get to have a faith that will authorize my safe responsible planning but instead will fling my schedules and budgets right into the wild dreaming of God? This is what makes me uncomfortable. And you know what the teachers of our faith will say to me, “That’s good. Feel uncomfortable, then keep going.” We can’t afford to stay where it’s safe and pleasantly comprehensible. Ashamed or not, Jesus is saving our lives.
Friends, today we are beginning the summer series called Church and State which will explore points of connection and points of conflict between Christianity and patriotism, while at the same time, setting this conversation next to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is a couple of things. It is Paul’s savvy argument for Christianity which advocates sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. Some parts are also like a journal in which Paul is working out some of his own stuff out while he is preaching. (You can imagine that.) On a practical level, this letter is intended to encourage the Christians in Rome. He wants to visit them soon, and would they please give him some money for his trip to Spain.
Now Paul has never met the members of this church. He introduces himself to them by identifying as a slave of Jesus Christ. Our translation said “servant” but the word meant slave.
To our ears, this notion of being a slave is disturbing, with good reason. This probably would not have bothered the early Christians in the same way, but here’s the dangerous part: Paul does not identify as a slave of the Roman emperor. Everybody knows the emperor is the divine savior, the son of god. Your allegiance belongs to the emperor of course; and Paul says, not mine. If I’m going to serve anybody, and we’ve all got to serve somebody, it will be Jesus Christ. You are called to belong to Jesus too, says Paul, all before he gets to the official “hello” of the letter.
A few verses later, Paul explains why he is writing: “I remember you always in my prayers,” he says, “asking that by God’s will I may somehow… succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so I may share some spiritual gift to strengthen you, or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith…”
Paul’s letter to the Romans is a call to share our Christian faith with each other that we may be mutually encouraged, but then Paul pushes the edges a little further —not just those of us who are Jewish Christians, but Gentile Christians, and Greeks, and everyone. As though the Gospel is not just for us, but for them. Not just for us, but for them… As though all people can receive God’s saving power. And in this, we hear hints of shimmering, expansive inclusivity and hints of troubling colonialism.
Paul’s interest in sharing the Christian faith, or evangelizing, is an interest we’re re-discovering in our world today. Now for many of us, evangelizing was not a standard activity of our childhood years in the church. It may have been something Other Christians did. Maybe they approached strangers with the question “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” Maybe they were most concerned about saving people from a land called hell. Since this may not be our concern, maybe we don’t need to be the ones who do evangelism, which is one reason to leave it on the shelf.
Another reason is that for a long time in America, being Christian was simply the “normal” thing to be, or at least that was the dominant perception. It was normal for families to go to church on Sundays. It was normal to see Christian symbols in public places. It was normal for everybody in a public school to start the day with a Christian-flavored prayer.
These days things have changed. Some of us Christians will argue, the problem is the separation of church and state. Indeed, the government cannot establish nor impose religion on people, and the government cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion. This means it is still legal for children to pray in school; it is not lawful for a school official to require it.
It might feel like this is the state imposing secularism on our kids! It might feel like this change helps our schools be more inclusive to children who are not Christian. How does a Muslim student feel if their class is saying the Lord’s Prayer? How would an atheist child feel sitting under the teacher’s poster of the Footprints poem?
It may be that our real problem is not the separation of church and state; not the so-called “War on Christmas.” It may be, our real problem is realizing that in American culture today, it is no longer normal to be Christian. That stings a little. (Maybe more than a little.)
Of course, the good news is Christianity was never meant to be normal. Shane Claiborne highlights how the Christian faith does not have its roots in going along with the empire. But as he puts it, “God would save the world through fascination, by setting up an alternative society on the margins of empire for the world to come and see what a society of love looks like.” I love this promise of God saving the world through fascination.
These days we can no longer rely on effective branding to take the place of evangelism. So if we can’t post the Ten Commandments on the courthouse wall or require prayer in school, what’s left? Just about everything.
In fact, in his writing to the Romans, Paul gives us a model for sharing our faith. It’s this: speak truthfully about your struggle.
Paul is not afraid to tell these Roman Christians about his own struggle with faith, and this gives him street cred. When he starts out by saying, “You might have something to teach me” (my paraphrase of 1:12), when he says, “I am in debt to the Greeks and the barbarians, to the wise and the foolish,” this makes me trust him more.
Full disclosure, in the scripture following the passage we heard, Paul goes off on a judgy rant I could do without. But even in that, you hear him grappling out loud. After all these words of harsh judgement he says, “You have no excuse when you judge others, for in doing this, you condemn yourselves” (2:1) as though he needs to hear that himself. As though I need to hear that myself. As someone reading Paul, I find myself compelled by his humility more than his authority.
This means, if you are a person who has ever struggled with your own faith, if you have ever wondered what salvation means, or why God can feel absent, or why prayer is so hard, then yours is a faith for the sharing. If you don’t have the triumphant confidence of a rock star Christian giving glory to God, then maybe we don’t need more triumphant confidence. If you have any confession in your heart, bring your confession and your longing for grace. We all need more confession, more longing for grace.
You know this is not normal. There’s nothing “normal” about following Christ through our deep shame and our deeper compassion, then seeing how we can help each other do this, then noticing how God keeps turning the world toward love.
So I can tell you: I am standing in need of grace, with a faith longing to trust more deeply, and I am not ashamed of the Gospel. What you keep teaching me is, we are always saving each other’s lives. Thank God. Amen.
 see “Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan
 Claiborne, Shane and Chris Haw. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. Zondervan, MI. 2008. page 60.