All Saints Margaret Street | Trinity 7 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 July 2018

Sermon for Trinity 7 Evensong & Benediction Sunday 15 July 2018

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Dries 

From the fifteenth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, we read the words of Paul the apostle:

“In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God.”

Romans is the longest and, in the general opinion of biblical scholars, the most significant of Paul’s letters. Many of the great theologians of the Christian tradition have been shaped and transformed by the Letter to the Romans—not least of all Augustine and Luther. John Wesley’s famous heart-warming conversion experience at Aldersgate occurred as he listened to a reading of Luther’s preface to Romans.

Romans was probably composed in Corinth in the mid- to late-50s; and was most likely Paul’s final letter.  Addressed “To all God’s beloved in Rome”, the epistle does not address particular needs or specific concerns of the Christians living in Rome; a city not yet visited by the apostle. As Paul has no personal experience of the church in Rome, the Letter to the Romans is more a lengthy theological argument or essay, rather than a pastoral  letter.

Romans provides such a comprehensive overview of Paul’s theology that it has been described as his last will and testament, we could even look upon it as his eulogy. Coming in at 7,111 words, and taking around an hour to read, it is approximately the same length as one or two eulogies I have endured in recent years. I don’t know what eulogies are like in the United Kingdom, but where I come from, they tend to be long and tedious, and they often resemble an application for sainthood.

Several years ago, I attended a funeral at which the deceased was evidently so concerned about the accuracy of the eulogy, that they had personally authored the lengthy document to be read to the congregation.

It was a detailed eulogy, listing every significant (and insignificant) achievement in a rather long life. As the authorship of this eulogy was disclosed to the congregation, there was a growing degree of awkwardness, resulting from a rather relentless sense of boastfulness. Presumably this was not the intention, but there is an element of this in Romans, particularly when Paul lists his success and achievements, and boldly asserts:

“In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God.”

Boasting has become rather fashionable in our day and age. Even some heads of state (who shall remain nameless) make regular use of social media to achieve the maximum exposure for their boasting, occasionally gaining more exposure than expected. Despite affirming in 1 Corinthians 13 that “love is not boastful”, St Paul is rather partial to the odd bout of boastfulness. He proudly boasts more than 20 times in his letters, including the disclosure in this evening’s epistle. While Paul usually limits his boasting to his faith in Christ, in Romans 15 he does boast about his own work; albeit work undertaken on God’s behalf.

Boasting—regardless of its subject—will inevitably possess a degree of arrogance or conceit. Boasting, even about our faith in a multi-faith and secular world may also bring a degree of awkwardness and political incorrectness. So much so, that Christians of our tradition are often reluctant to share our faith in polite company, lest we risk causing offence. Announcing to acquaintances that we are practising Christians can bring a sudden and awkward silence to an otherwise lively dinner party. But there must be some way of sharing our faith—of boasting in Christ—without wandering into the territory of arrogance.  

Paul’s letters are not the only passages in Scripture to contain boasting. The Hebrew Scriptures contain the word ‘mahalal’, which can be loosely translated as “to boast.” From the word ‘mahalal’ we derive the familiar word hallelujah,  meaning “to praise” or “praise God”. The challenge for us is to praise God, to tell others what God has done in our lives, without ever taking the focus away from God. There can be no better example of this than in the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise. Beginning with a boast about the miracle that has taken place in her life, Mary’s song quickly extends to include all who are faithful, lowly and downcast.

A little while ago, Pope Francis spoke to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, outlining the acceptable means and motives for boasting in God’s power. His holiness said that, in contrast to the typical effect of boasting, boasting about “the hope that we have been given (in Christ) does not separate us from others,”… nor does it lead us “to discredit or marginalise them… Instead, it is an extraordinary gift for which we are called to become ‘channels,’ with humility and simplicity, for all.” He went on to say, “our greatest pride is to have as a Father a God who has no favourites, who does not exclude anyone, but who opens his home to all human beings, beginning with the last and the distant, because as his children we learn to console and support each other,” Pope Francis concluded his address by asserting that the boast we make is simply that “God loves me.”As we gather around the altar for the Eucharist day by day, and as we put out our hands to receive that sacrament, we rejoice in this boast that we are indeed loved by God. As we sing our praise and thanksgiving, we boast that God’s power has been revealed to us; that is has been shared with us. But our boast must never end there.

Over the last few weeks, it has been a great privilege to live and worship in this beautiful and sacred place. So much of the worship, the liturgy and the music here is familiar to me. Even in the unique diocese from which I come, my parish is able to maintain a Eucharist liturgy that is universally Anglican. There are one or two subtle differences in our respective prayer books, which have caught me out once or twice, and exposed me as an imposter. However, one element of the Eucharist that seems to be common across Anglican liturgies is the thanksgiving or the prayer after Communion in which we ask God “To be sent out in the power of the Spirit to live and work to his praise and glory.” Having received the blessed sacrament, and having been nourished and transformed by it, we ask to be emboldened, to be given the courage to boast about what God has done for us, but without any hint of pride or arrogance. Inspired by the  courage and faithful witness of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, we make our boast to tell others that, what God has done for us, God has done for them.