13th Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21], rcl yr a
Sunday, August 27th, 2023
EXODUS 1:8-2:10; PSALM 124; ROMANS 12:1-8; MATTHEW 16:13-20
Our reading from Romans was an important one for Dietrich Bonhoeffer—it lies behind a great deal of his theology, and his life. Bonhoeffer was a theologian and a teacher of seminarians in a time when National Socialism and Nazi ideology was deeply embedded in German life, including the life of the church.
We can look back on that age with some clarity—it would seem quite obvious to us that the church should most certainly not conform itself to policies that lead to extreme forms of social exclusion. St. Paul would call this being conformed to the world, when the church looks away, or actively participates and encourages such deadly undertakings. But the fact that we can see just how clearly all this is contrary to the gospel, wasn’t so clear to a church that was comfortably governed by the Reich administration of the time. And this can still be true for us: that we have a hard time seeing the ways in which we are captive to the death-dealing ways of the world.
Bonhoeffer, however, along with a minority number of other pastors and Christians, did see the ways in which the church had been corrupted. And they resisted that world as best they could. I mention this in part to underline just how radical Romans can be. For Bonhoeffer, it meant seeing clearly where God was at work and where God wasn’t at work, even in the church. And it led to some radical breaks, sometimes with people who were at one time very close friends.
For a moment, though, I want us to spend some time on one very small word, one that could be easily missed in our reading—but one that the whole letter of Romans hinges upon.
The word is “therefore.”
Paul writes it here in order to make a connection to what he has already said, and what he is about to say. What comes before the “therefore” is about grace. It is about the work of God in Christ for the sake of the world, and the work of the Holy Spirit in every baptized Christian. Paul writes of the glory of God in which we rejoice; of the love that God has been poured into our hearts; that we are given, by God, new life in the Spirit; Paul tells us before the “therefore” that our old selves are crucified on the cross with Jesus, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin; that in the Spirit of Christ God sets us free some sin and death; Paul tells us that while we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly, dying for us while we were yet sinners; that we were buried with Christ by a baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life.
And much much more.
Before the “therefore” Romans is about God releasing us from sin, releasing us from the curse of death, and raising us to life, and love, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans, before the “therefore,” is about grace, where God, or Christ, or the Spirit, is the subject of the verb: it is about what God does, what God does for us.
But in our reading today we find the hinge, where Paul pivots and the letter begins to turn a corner: before the “therefore” Paul tells us of God’s work of grace for us, but now begins to speak about what this means; what does it mean to be transformed by God, in Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to live a life of grace?
All of what comes after the “therefore” is still what God does for us—but now in us. God has done great things for you, and in you; therefore, on account of God’s grace, on account of God working his will in you: “by the mercies of [this] God, […] present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
You see, the reason we can offer ourselves to God, the reason we can worship God, is because God has made it possible; it is not on account of our accomplishments that we can turn to God and worship him; even what we do now, is on account of what God has done for us in grace.
And so we are called the body of Christ by Paul. We aren’t called a club, or the legion, or even (dare I say it) a parish family; we are a community that is now, in the present, Christ’s own body—and not because we have made ourselves Christlike through spiritual discipline or mediation practice or loving our mothers (though do make sure to do all of that)—we are the body of Christ, offering ourselves to one another in mutuality, because God has made it possible to be that, by grace, by God working by grace to transform our hearts. By the grace of God, we are the body of Christ, offering ourselves to one another now in Christ.
Even as Bonhoeffer saw the church crumbling around him, enslaved to powers alien to Christ, he nevertheless did see God at work in his seminary students, in some of the resisting pastors, and in his closest friends. Paul lists here a number of vocations in the body of Christ, where the grace of God finds its expression: “prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
(I wonder, where do you find yourself there? In what ways is God by grace working through you for the sake of the church? As a prophet? In ministry?
Teaching? Exhortation? In generosity, leadership, or compassion? I’d invite you to reflect on that, keeping the “therefore” in mind: In what ways has God been graceful to you, and in what ways is God’s grace finding its expression in you?)
Bonhoeffer himself saw God at work in the church especially in self-offering, in the mutual forgiveness of sins, and in intercessory prayer, for Bonhoeffer these are ways that God acts in us, for others, by grace. For Bonhoeffer, it led to some clear distinctions about where God was at work, about which minds were renewed in Christ, in what ways some were still conformed to the ways of the world.
This is always a good question for us, no matter the season: Are we conforming to the ways of the world, or are we transformed by the renewing of our minds? Are we acting according to grace, or according to human willfulness?
For us, it is a good way to frame our own future. Keeping in mind that it is by grace that we are conformed to Christ, and not to the ways of the world; keeping in mind that as we move forward in our deliberations, that we do so in faith only because God has already accomplished such great things for us; that we can move forward in faith only insofar as God has so transformed our hearts; that we can move ahead because we have already died in Christ, and because we have already died in Christ we can now live with him, leaning not into our future, but into God’s own future: to go forward boldly, not under our own powers, but in the power of the God who saves, and the God who in his Spirit has already set us free from death, and has set us free from death for the sake of life.