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Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Romans 7:14-25 & Matthew 11:15-19, 25-30

I want to begin this morning with a short review of today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul’s writing can be difficult to understand at the best of times, but I think this passage is perhaps even more challenging than usual! 

To put the passage in some context; earlier in the letter (Chapter 3), Paul made the bold claim that by the grace of God alone, and not through anything that they may say or do on their own, people who believe in Jesus are reconciled to God. I describe this as a bold claim, because the Jewish people of Paul’s day believed that the only way a person could be reconciled to God was if they observed and obeyed the statutes and commandments of the Torah (the Jewish Law). 

Naturally when Paul made this claim, many Jewish people believed he was being critical of the Law, and that he was saying the Law was no longer valid, which was definitely NOT what he was saying. He went to great lengths to explain that people should still respect, and as far as was practically possible, obey the Law, but that what was more important, was for them to recognise that they had been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. All they needed to do was to believe this.

In today’s passage, Paul is actually defending the Law. He argues that while people might want to uphold the Law, ultimately they are unable to because they are under the control of sin. We could say that Paul is actually describing the human condition today, where we want to do the right thing, but where we often give in to temptation and allow ourselves to be led astray. That’s what he means when he says, “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin”. 

In chapter 8 which follows, Paul will explain how we have been set free from the law of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the Spirit of God, which now resides in us, will lead us into new life. In other words, Paul is saying that the Spirit of God reveals God’s will to us.

In the same way, in today’s gospel passage we hear Jesus describe how the good news of the kingdom of God has been revealed, not to the powerful and the clever, but to the poor and simple. What Jesus is referring to here is the negative reaction that both he and John the Baptist received from the Jewish leaders and religious authorities to their respective ministries. These leaders and authorities first rejected John because he was too severe, and they then rejected Jesus because he was too lax; eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. They are the “wise and intelligent” ones from whom the kingdom of God has been hidden; those who have very strict ways to interpret Scripture (like the Pharisees), and who tended to pride themselves on the traditional interpretations of Scripture that had been handed down to them. 

But Jesus revealed the kingdom of God to “infants”; those like tax collectors and sinners who, although they may not have been able to interpret the Scriptures like the Pharisees and other religious leaders, were able to relate to, and identify with, the humility that was at the heart of the teaching of Jesus. 

It’s interesting to note those places in the world where Christianity is experiencing its greatest growth today. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary regularly publishes the Status of Global Christianity. The most recent report indicates that Christianity is barely growing in Europe (0.04% rate) and only slightly better in North America (0.56%). Oceania (0.89) and Latin America (1.18%) have marginally better rates, but the faith is exploding in Asia (1.89%) and Africa (2.89%). I wonder if the reason why Christianity is growing in Asia and Africa, is because the people of these two continents are more open to receiving the revelation of God’s kingdom?

As I’ve often said, the kingdom of God is not something that is still waiting to be revealed to us at the time of the ‘Second Coming of Jesus’; it is here with us already. It was revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is perhaps more difficult for people to accept this in today’s Western society and culture, where we automatically seek tangible evidence as proof of something’s existence. Perhaps there is more ‘openness’ to the reality of the spiritual world among the various cultures of people from Asian and African countries than there is in Western society? Perhaps people from Western cultures today are like the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day? Perhaps they think they have the answers to all of life’s difficult questions?

How might we, as Christians in Western society, help others in our society to see that the kingdom of God is present with us today? 

To answer that question, let me quote from Michael Casey, who is a Cistercian monk at Tarrawarra Abbey in the Yarra Valley: “Believers are called to be the interface between the unseen God and an unbelieving world. Even though their faith is far from perfect, from their contact with God they are empowered to reach out to those in need. To make visible the proactive compassion of a loving God, who is the source of an energy that allows them to do what otherwise would seem impossible. God becomes more visible by our love.”

I think we can boil the answer down to the last sentence of that quote: “God becomes more visible by our love”. The love we have for God; the love we have for our families and friends; the love we have for our neighbours, that is visible through the daily actions and interactions of our lives.

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