Today is All Souls Day – a special feast day of the Christian church that is not to be confused with All Saints Day’ (which was yesterday) or ‘All Saints Eve’ (otherwise known as ‘All Hallows Eve’ or ‘Halloween’) which was the day before.
They are, as I say, not to be confused, though they all have roughly the same focus – namely, remembering all the saints who from their labours rest.
I think that over the three days we are supposed to pray for them, remember them and get scared by them (in reverse order). Either way, this is the time to be thinking about those who have gone before us in the faith – all of them – not just one or two particularly notable saints but all the saints who from their labours rest (Alleluia).
Of course we at Holy Trinity do not have any great tradition of remembering any of the saints, let alone all the saints. Even so, I always like to take note of the special readings that are scheduled for days such as this, and indeed I found that the Epistle reading scheduled for All Souls Day really captured my imagination! Let me read it to you. It’s from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, chapter six.
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:1-5)
Now your knee-jerk reaction to that reading may be the same as mine – namely, what’s that have to do with all those saints who from their labours rest? That’s a fair question, and one I will return to later, but whatever the intended connection, it is a passage that I think takes us to the heart of the message of Jesus and the Apostles, and hence it’s one that I’d like us to spend some time reflecting on with you today.
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” The opening question – “What then are we to say” – makes it obvious that we have joined the Apostle Paul mid-soliloquy! “What then are we to say” introduces a response to an already-existing discussion, and that discussion is to be found in the preceding segments of Paul’s letter.
It’s a discussion that is perhaps best summarised by the opening verse of the previous chapter of the letter – “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1)
Paul’s issue under discussion is peace with God – reconciliation between God and humanity – and his key point in the discussion thus far has been that reconciliation takes place simply through faith, as an act of God’s grace.
This grace is, Paul says, a ‘free gift’. We do not earn it, and we do not earn it because we cannot earn it. God extends His love to us not because we are essentially deserving of His love but simply because that’s the sort of god that God is! God is merciful, God gracious and loving, and God’s forgiveness trumps our hopelessness every time! In the end, God will be reconciled to us because God is love, and that love remains constant regardless of our sins and failures.
“Between the stirrup and the ground, mercy sought, mercy found” – it’s an old Christian truism that my father used to quote to me, indicating how a guy falling from his horse and about to smash his head on the road and die could nonetheless discover forgiveness and mercy – even between the stirrup and the ground!
It doesn’t matter how notorious your life has been! No, it doesn’t matter how weak and hopeless you are! God is merciful and gracious and forgiving. Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s the message – that’s the message of St Paul and that’s the heart of the message of Jesus too, and yet, when outlined this way, it leads a lot of people to ask what seems like an obvious question – namely, “what’s the point?”
‘What’s the point of trying to do the right thing all your life if God forgives you in the end anyway?’ ‘What’s the point of holy living when you can live life as notoriously as you like and all you have to do is say ‘sorry’ between the stirrup and the ground and everything will be fine?’ What’s the point of foregoing all the fun things in life when, according to St Paul at least, you can have your cake and eat it!’
These are the sorts of questions that Paul’s understanding of God’s all-encompassing forgiveness raises and, in truth, I do get asked these sorts of questions quite a lot and, dare I say, particularly by my Muslim brothers and sisters!
Now let me say straight up that I do not think the reason these sorts of questions come up so often when I’m dialoguing with Muslim friends is because the Muslim community is more inclined than other communities to want to have its cake and eat it (not at all). It may simply be because nowadays I have more theological discussions with my Muslims than with anybody else.
In truth though I do think that Paul’s understanding of God’s love and forgiveness does challenge something that is at the heart of Islamic thinking, and possibly at the heart of all religious thinking outside of the New Testament, and I’m talking about a basic sense of divine justice!
Good will be rewarded and evil punished – that’s about as basic a religious intuition as you can get, I think. Indeed, in the thinking of the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, it is the great religious intuition upon which all other religious thinking is based!
The idea that God rewards what is good and punishes evil is a basic religious equation that is bigger than any one religion though, as I say, I’ve found that my Islamic friends have been the most articulate in communicating it with me.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in Islamic theology, of course, but if I might quote my dear friend Sheikh Mansour (a man who is an expert in Islam) he said one thing to me many years ago when we were driving together from Sydney to Canberra to meet up with the former President of Iran (Mohammad Khatami).
We were engaged in a quite intense theological discussion for much of the trip and he said to me “ultimately Islam is very simple: if you do the right thing by God you get closer to God. If you do wrong by God you move further from God”.
I responded by saying that my understanding of the Christian Gospel was equally simple: “if you do the right thing by God you get closer to God. If you do the wrong thing by God, God loves you anyway.”
I may not have remembered that conversation word for word but that was certainly the gist of it, and I must be honest and say that Mansour’s simple summary of this basic equation of salvation (if we might call it that) makes a lot of sense.
God is holy, and so God cannot simply overlook human sinfulness. God is just, and letting evil go unpunished is not just. Evil must be punished just as good must be rewarded, and if that’s not the case – if all evil is forgiven and forgotten, then what’s the point? Should we, as St Paul says, “continue in sin so that grace may abound?”
It’s the obvious question that arises out of the teachings of St Paul and Jesus, both of whom spoke of God as one who extends universal mercy and forgiveness to all. If everyone is forgiven then why should anyone bother doing right any of the time? Why not just sin more so that grace may abound more?
And the fascinating thing about the way St Paul responds to this question in his letter to the church at Rome, I think, is what he does not say.
Should we sin more so that grace will abound? Paul’s response is not the one you received from your parents.
Do you remember that conversation your dad had with you the first time you were caught smoking or drinking or flirting with the girls after the Friday night church youth group meeting?
“Son, you might think that getting drunk and taking mind-altering drugs and sleeping with a different woman every night would be a lot of fun but it’s not! Sin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!” The obvious response to this, of course, is ‘but how would you know that, Dad?’ but if you’re like me you were too respectful to ask that question.
“And when it comes to relationships with girls what you want to aim for is a solid marriage like me and your mother have!” My dad was never able offer me that section of the traditional lecture but I’m sure that each of us at some point was given some variation of this ‘sin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be’ type of speech.
You might think that cavorting and carrying on and fulfilling all your wanton desires is going to bring you happiness but it is not! It is a false trail! That is good, solid, father-to-son, mother-to-daughter, wisdom-of-the-ages stuff, and it is true enough! Interestingly though, St Paul does not take this line.
‘Should we sin more so that grace may abound?’ Paul does not give the response your mum or dad would have, and he doesn’t give the government response either!
I’m thinking of all the images that are displayed on cigarette packages in this country. Most of them are obscene to my thinking! You don’t need to go to church to be told that the wages of sin is death. Just look at a cigarette package. The wages of cigarette-smoking make death look like a merciful alternative – brain tumours, decaying hearts, amputated limbs, rotting lungs …!
This is the way our guardians in government try to curb our sinful habits – smoking, drinking, gambling, speeding and one-punch knockouts. They don’t threaten us with eternal damnation. They point us to the very real and imminent suffering that will be experienced in this life by those who do wrong!
Crime does not pay, and neither does excessive drinking, smoking nor gambling, though, of course, all these activities do pay the government (who get a significant cut on all profits in these areas through taxes) and so we’re not encouraged to give these things up completely, but to act in moderation.
Should we sin more so that grace may abound? Paul does not advise us along the same lines as our political parent-figures – that sinning will only get us into trouble – any more than he echoes the wisdom of our earthly parents. Most significantly, Paul doesn’t even give the response you normally get from your parish priest – that even if God does forgive you, He’ll make you suffer for your sins in some way anyway!
I said earlier that the basic religious equation – that good must be rewarded and evil punished – was fundamental to Islam, but the truth is that it has always been at the heart of the teachings of the church too, and this despite the contrary teachings of both Jesus and St Paul!
All good children go to Heaven! That’s not just Islam, is it? That was a part of what we in the church were brought up with – an understanding that good people will one day receive their Heavenly reward and that evil people like Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and the last half-dozen or so Presidents of the USA will suffer for all eternity in hell for their crimes because God is just and if God is just then good must be rewarded and evil punished, regardless of what Jesus or St Paul said!
We invented the concept of purgatory as a way of resolving this dilemma. Everybody may be forgiven in the end, but evil must be punished too, and so we envisage some place of temporary suffering so that the demands of justice can be satisfied without compromising the ultimate triumph of forgiveness!
Of course, if you have to suffer for your crimes before you can be forgiven for them then you weren’t really forgiven for them in the first place, were you? Even so, I can understand why the concept of purgatory is so attractive even if it’s a concept that is completely absent from the Bible and runs contrary to the primary teachings of New Testament for, in truth, the basic religious intuition that good must be rewarded and evil punished is not easy to ignore!
Should we sin more so that grace might abound? If St Paul had been a child of the church rather than a founding father of the church he might well have said “don’t think you can get away with it, son! God will make you pay for all your wrong-doings one way or another! You might not think He sees what you are doing or cares about it but you’ll most surely pay for it one way or another!”
No! Paul is not your priest any more than he is your parent or Prime Minister. ‘Should we sin more so that grace may abound?’ What does Paul say?
How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:2-5)
There it is, and isn’t it beautiful!
Should we sin more so that grace might abound? No! For why would we want to do that? We are no longer the people we were. We are united with Christ now! We have been buried with Him and have been raised with Him and we are now living in Him as He is living in us! And if the spirit of Christ is living in us and we in Him then how can we do anything but live as Christ lives and love as Christ loves! For it’s not an issue any more of reward and punishment. It’s a question of living out who we are!
“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:6-11)
What is extraordinary in Paul’s response to the question “Should we sin more so that grace may abound?” is that, having moved beyond the framework of divine justice – of rewards and punishment – Paul doesn’t bring it back in at a later stage! On the contrary, that whole framework seems to have been abandoned! For God’s justice ultimately is not about good being rewarded and evil punished or about everybody getting what they deserve! It’s about grace and love and forgiveness and mercy, and it’s about living in Christ and living out the life of Christ by living in love!
All good children go to Heaven … NOT! Or, at least, not by themselves! The good, the bad and the ugly – they all go together! Because God is merciful, because love rules, and because divine forgiveness ultimately trumps all of our sins and failures!
And what’s that got to do with all the saints who from their labours rest? Well … it’s only the love and mercy and grace of God that allows all the saints to be at rest!
And we can rest – we can sleep easy, confident that the love and mercy and grace of God will never let us go!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 2nd of November, 2014.