Monday, 11 July 2016

Where We Start

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:1-2

I wonder if you could guess what word is used most in Paul’s letter to the Romans? Once we disregard commonly-occurring words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘in’, and ‘he’, the word most used is not ‘law’ or ‘sin’ or ‘faith’ or ‘justified’ or ‘Jew’ or ‘Gentile’, or even ‘Jesus’. The word used most in Romans is ‘God’.

What is Romans all about? The gospel? Salvation? Justification? Faith? Jesus? Yes, all of these and more, but only as they are understood in relation to God. That’s where we start.

In particular, we start with the mercy of God.

The argument of the letter reaches a peak towards the end of chapter 11, where Paul refers four times to God’s mercy (11:30-32), making it clear that no-one, Jew or Gentile, can make any claim of entitlement on God, and that the ultimate basis of God’s actions in salvation is mercy.

It’s for that reason – ‘in view of God’s mercy’ – that Paul now urges us to live out the call to be God’s new covenant people. The starting point is not primarily community cohesiveness (live this way in order to get on with each other) or even missional effectiveness (live this way in order to display the faith to outsiders). Paul’s appeal to live this kind of life is grounded first and foremost in God’s mercy.

That’s where we start. And that could be worth remembering at the beginning of a new working week, in an uncertain political scene which seems to be changing daily, in the difficult patch in the relationship with the teenager in the household, in caring for the spouse suffering with ill-health.

There’s great encouragement to be had here. In all the particularities of life, many of us read passages like Romans 12 and think we could never live up to the demands that seem to be required. And then we remember what Paul has already described for us: the mercy of God in bringing us into covenant relationship with himself, without reference to our family history or ability to keep the law; the mercy of God seen in the good news of salvation available to all who call on the name of the Lord.

The gospel is about what God has done in Christ for the world. Christian lifestyle and mission flows from that, but it begins with God not with us. Start there.

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