Sermon for 06-12-11: “Roman Road, Part 1: I Am Not Ashamed”

June 16, 2011

Our new summer sermon series in Vinebranch got off to a strong start, I think. Pay no attention to the title on the screen behind me: It’s “Roman Road,” not “Romans Road.” 

Sermon Text: Romans 1:16-17

The following is my original manuscript.

When I was in college the first time around, I had a history professor who was the son of Methodist missionary parents in China. As a result, he was born in China and spent much of his childhood there—before Mao’s revolution. Like a good preacher, he often drew upon this personal experience to illustrate points he wanted to make in his lecture. But here’s the rub: during each of the five or six times he mentioned growing up in China to missionary parents, he qualified it by saying: “My parents were medical missionaries; they weren’t there to convert people.” All of his students in the class understood what he meant: His parents’ life work was all about doing something useful—you know, offering modern Western medicine to an impoverished people. They weren’t there to convert anyone. After all, what good is that? How would that be useful?

By contrast, Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel”— like there’s something shameful about going to China simply to try to persuade people to believe in Jesus and find salvation from God—so we need to offer something, you know, more practical, more useful, than simply the gospel. Back in the 1960s, a Catholic missionary, Father Vincent Donovan, described being a part of a mission to East Africa, where a nomadic tribe known as the Masai lived. For over a hundred years, the Catholic church had operated a mission in East Africa, in an effort to convert the Masai people to Christianity. They offered western medicine and education and agricultural assistance to the Masai, but for a hundred years they had almost no converts to show for it.

Donovan got an idea: What if I simply went to the people directly, and asked to share the gospel message—you know, with words—instead of dressing it up with all this extra stuff, which the church was using almost like a bribe? He resolved to do just that, but he wrote in his memoir that there was a problem: he was so unaccustomed to actually putting the gospel into words, that he had to re-learn what exactly it was and why it mattered. And when he told the tribal elders that the reason the church was there in the first place was to share this gospel message, they said, “If that’s what you wanted to do, why didn’t you just say so?”

I am not ashamed of the gospel.

I heard someone who was an agnostic say one time that she was a big fan of TV preacher and best-selling author Joel Osteen. Why was this person who wasn’t even sure she believed in God a fan of Osteen’s? Because, she said, he didn’t talk about God all that much, and, besides, he gives a lot of really practical advice about living a better life. I am not ashamed of the gospel. I would be the biggest hypocrite if I sat in judgment of Osteen without also judging myself. Listen, I know first-hand the temptation to water down the gospel. Gospel literally means “good news.” But I wonder if we preachers, in the name of “making disciples,” by which we mean “fill up the pews,” desperately follow the strategy of Channels 2, 5, 11, and 46, and instead of offering the good news of Jesus Christ, simply offer “news you can use.” We want to be relevant, after all.

“Johnny Olson, can you tell the people what Jesus can do for them!” “Sure, Bob! First, Jesus can solve all their relationship problems and enable them find the right match! Get them out of credit-card debt, improve their credit score, and put them on the path to financial peace! Enable them to be better parents without all the screaming and yelling! Help them to be a better boss, following the leadership principles of Jesus, the world’s most successful CEO. And you get all this… and heaven when you die! And this showcase can all be yours, if you just say ‘yes’ to Jesus as your savior and Lord.”

I am not ashamed of the gospel. 

It’s as if we’ve turned the gospel into one kind of inward spiritual experience competing for shelf space alongside other kinds of inward spiritual experiences in our culture’s marketplace of “spirituality”—as if Caesars would have bothered to torture and kill all those Christians in the first few centuries if the gospel were only an inward spiritual experience! No, the gospel announced that Jesus is Lord, right now. And if Jesus is Lord, that meant that Caesar, contrary to popular belief, wasn’t. And while this came as good news to many marginalized people, especially the poor and slaves and women, it came as very bad news to people of power and wealth and privilege who benefited from Caesar’s death-dealing, violent, unjust ways. The gospel said that Jesus was the one true king, and all other kings better step aside, because this same King Jesus would also judge the world, and one day every knee would bow and tongue confess that Jesus was Lord.

I am not ashamed of the gospel.

Why is Paul not ashamed? Because it is the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who has faith in God.” Notice what Paul is not saying. Paul is not saying that the gospel is powerful. Don’t get me wrong: The gospel is surely the most powerful story ever told, but it isn’t just a powerful story like, you know, Schindler’s List is a powerful story. It is God’s power itself. God himself works through the proclamation of the gospel. And some people—not all people, but some people—when they hear it, they believe it, and they find that their lives are changed by it.

Once, early in my ministry, I had to preach my first funeral—for a beloved church member that I didn’t have a chance to know very well, and I was a bit nervous. There would be lots of people at the funeral, and I wanted to make a good impression as this new pastor in town. I was worried about saying the right things. How will I properly eulogize this person? Will I find the right stories and anecdotes to illustrate and sum up the person’s life? I shared my anxiety with a very seasoned pastor friend who told me, “Your job is to proclaim the gospel to these people. That’s the only thing you have to do. Let friends and family worry about telling stories about his life!”

Those words have stuck with me ever since.

The gospel is enough! I need to remind myself of that sometimes when I’m preaching. As much as I want to say things that are entertaining and clever and funny and inspiring and relevant and down-to-earth and practical, none of those things has the power by themselves to change people’s lives. The gospel has the power to change people’s lives! The gospel is power, God’s own power, and we shouldn’t ever be ashamed of it. We shouldn’t be ashamed to share it with others, verbally and through our actions. And we shouldn’t be ashamed to invite others to experience it for themselves. And we shouldn’t be ashamed that the church’s primary task is to convince the world that this gospel is true.

I am not ashamed of the gospel because it the what? The power of God. For the what? Salvation to everyone who has faith in God.

Of course, not being ashamed of the gospel means coming to grips with why humanity needs it in the first place. And the reason is our human sin… and, Paul wants us to know, God’s response to our sin, which is wrath. Paul continues in Romans chapter 1 verse 18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” Wrath is a biblical word that we almost never use except when referring to really good Star Trek movies, but it means anger. A righteous kind of anger. There are few words that make us meek-and-mild Methodists more nervous than talking about God’s wrath, but this is not because of John Wesley, who had no trouble writing and preaching about it. Wesley’s one prerequisite for entering a Methodist small group known as a “society” back in the eighteenth century was a person’s desire to “flee from the wrath to come.”

God’s wrath means that God is angry over our sin. Let me say a couple of preliminary words about this. God’s anger is not necessarily like human anger. God doesn’t get angry because he loses his temper, or gets his feelings hurt, or is just having a bad day and is feeling irritable. Oftentimes, when I’m angry, it depends on whether or not I got a good night’s sleep the night before—so my anger is kind of arbitrary and unpredictable. God’s isn’t like all that. Also, God’s very nature is love, so whatever else we say about wrath, we need to say that, like everything else pertaining to God, it springs from love. God’s wrath is not at odds with God’s love. In fact, you can’t have an loving God without having a God is angry about sin. Pastor and theologian Tim Keller describes it this way:

When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be.

God’s wrath means God is opposed to sin. We contemporary Americans don’t quite understand why God is so picky about sin. We want a God to not care about it so much. We want a God who is tolerant toward sin. We want a God who says, along with contemporary America, “Live and let live.” Tolerance is another word for indifference. We can afford to tolerate people so long as their lives don’t affect our lives; so long as their lives don’t make any difference to our lives; so long as they don’t give us any reason to care about them. We want a God, in other words, who is indifferent toward sin—which is just another way of saying we want a God who is indifferent toward us. This is why indifference is really the opposite of love, not hatred. You have to care about someone enough to hate them—there’s at least a tiny amount of love in hatred. Not so with indifference.

So God has wrath toward sin. And we should not feel ashamed of saying that, because it means God loves us. There’s a great contemporary hymn that we do in Vinebranch called “In Christ Alone.” There’s a line in it that says “on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” This is a perfectly true doctrinal statement as far as it goes, but I had Stephanie make a lyrical change, which was suggested by my favorite theologian. And the change was this: “On the cross where Jesus died, the love of God was satisfied.” It’s not that saying “wrath of God” was untrue, but it doesn’t go far enough for contemporary audiences who don’t understand the nature of this wrath. God’s wrath is motivated by God’s love, so the cross satisfies God’s love first and foremost.

But if God is angry about sin that means he’s not only angry about the big sins of genocide, terrorism, murder, and child-abuse—about which all contemporary Americans can agree that we want God to be angry about that. It means he’s angry about our sin, too. This is our problem, about which I’ll say more next week. What Paul wants us to know right now, in this “thesis statement” of his letter to the Romans is that God has not left us in our sin, without hope; God has also provided a solution. And about that solution, we have no reason to be ashamed.

One Response to “Sermon for 06-12-11: “Roman Road, Part 1: I Am Not Ashamed””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, an excellent sermon. Convicting as to “not being ashamed,” as in “not speaking up about it.” As to wrath versus indifference, your point is very interesting. “I would that you were either hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” I agree that I would much rather have someone ‘take issue” with me, even in heated tones, than to care less what I have to say.

    An interesting nuance, though. In the ultimate analysis, might we say that God in the end “hates” those who were indifferent MORE than those who “vehemently oppose” Him, precisely BECAUSE they don’t care about him? “Other things to do”? A pretty tricky point to parse. In any event, thanks for another fine post.

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