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6th September 2020


Passage: Romans 13;8-14


So- “One more step along the world I go….” The thing about life is that it progresses whether we intend it to or not. Some people have ambitious plans and projects for their life. Others more or less give up. But even if you choose to spend all day lying on the sofa watching television and eating chocolate, your life will still progress. First, your body will gain several kilos in weight and second, given the quality of our current television programmes, your brain will lose several thousand brain cells. Each moment we live moves us in some direction.
That is a scary thought and at the moment it is made a lot scarier, partly by the knowledge that we cannot go back. Our lives have changed dramatically since March and will never be the same again. And partly because we cannot even plan a few steps forward. The global pandemic is making planning impossible. We have no idea what life in this country or anywhere in the world is going to look like in 2021.

We are also quite well aware by now that a great many unthought out actions and attitudes got us into this pandemic in the first place. No-one meant it to happen. And now, in a sense, we are all on the front line- in that the steps each one of us now take might bring the world to a safer place or might possibly push it in to a far more dangerous place.
“One more step along the world I go…” Please tell me where to place my feet!

Let’s take a look at St Paul. (He cannot make things any worse, can he?)
Back in about AD 57, Paul wrote a letter to a new Christian church in the city of Rome. Rome was the seat of the Emperor and the capital of the vast Roman Empire. The city boasted wonderful art and architecture, huge financial and political power.
It was also described as the “sewer of the universe, where all the scum from every corner of the empire gathered.” You could probably say the same of most capital cities. They are open targets for crime, corruption and social injustice. The Emperor Nero had recently come to power and we all know that name, don’t we? Actually, in his early years Nero did some good stuff. Like most infamous dictators he started out with high ideals. But when one person is set up as supreme ruler over a vast empire, they generally cannot cope with that level of power and every step they take leads them toward megalomania.

Paul himself was a Roman citizen: a privileged position for a Jew. He was very much a man of the world and not some stained-glass-window-saint. And he could see that a whole series of steps in beliefs, attitudes, actions, politics, religion were leading the world as he knew it into trouble. More than once in his letters he predicted a huge crisis. And of course, he was proved right. (Google Nero…)

The first eleven chapters of this letter set out his basic theology- his understanding of God. Those eleven chapters take some very thorough reading but, in a nutshell, Paul is insisting that our relationship with God is all about faith. We are “justified”/ put right with God through faith. Paul really hammers this out. It is not about good works; it is not about which race you happen to have been born in; it is not about religious ritual but about faith.

It does take Paul a long time to say this, but it makes good sense. If there is a God, how else would you achieve a good relationship with Him? If God, by his very nature is God, then no amount of good or great things we could do, would ever put us on an equal footing with him. And if God is the Father, the giver of life to the whole human race then why would He choose to relate only to one particular nation? And if God is God then how could we hope to tie him down with our scientific formulae or religious ritual? Paul is right: only faith- believing in God and trusting in God-can put us right with Him.
Paul was living in a culture shaped by racism and elitism. He was living amongst people who understood their lives in terms of what others decreed they were worth. He could see where the political elitism of the Roman Empire was heading- into trouble. He could see where the religious elitism of people like the Jews was heading- into trouble. He could see where the social greed and corruption and injustice of the city was heading- into trouble.
And his answer to this was the Gospel- God’s saving grace. The justification for your life was not to be found in what others believed about you or in what you believed about yourself but through faith in God. This, said Paul, was what the whole life and teaching of Jesus Christ had been about: giving us access to the saving grace of God.

Having got this all down on paper (or papyrus) Paul then went on to describe what life looks like; what changes about you, when you live by faith?
Romans 13, verses 8-10:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfilment of the law.

When you live in a society largely inspired by elitism, social privilege and fierce competition, the other people in your society become rivals, critics, timewasters, bloodsuckers. We get that we fear and resent them. And that is not a good way to be. How often have we bitterly regretted time we might have spent with our families or friends or neighbours or even those totally different to ourselves and we did not because we were too hell bent on our own personal agenda?
And how many civilisations have fallen apart because one class of people have concluded that another class of people simply is not worth bothering about? (Google Black Lives Matter…)
Love, says St Paul, is a continuing debt. We can never get to the point when we believe that we have done enough loving. But so long as we keep loving, we shall keep hoping. And so long as we keep hoping, we shall keep on doing good. And so long as we keep on doing good, we shall be taking one step at a time towards a better world.
The Jewish law- that is what Paul is talking about when he says “the law”- was basically about loving God and loving your neighbour. And so long as a religion is founded and continually inspired by that love, it will keep you close to God, who will -as our first song said- guide your path.
Paul goes on: Romans 13, verses 11-14 Now do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So, let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.
Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

OK- this passage is one of those which makes people say ‘typical boring old church. No drinking, no sex, never wanting anyone to have a good time.” Maybe… but the kind of behaviour Paul was talking about does not sound so much like people having a good time as people trying hard to make up for the fact that they are having rather a bad time. Evelyn Waugh wrote a novel called Bright Young Things, all about the wild partying that went on amongst the privileged classes after the First World War and it was not really about fun. It was about fear and pain and not understanding why the world had apparently gone to hell in a handcart.
Paul saw a lot of people like that and he is offering hope- don’t give in to weariness and despair and self-destruction. The night is coming to an end; the day is almost here. There is a spiritual armour of light which will protect you from even the very darkest forces. So, grow some self-respect. Here is your PPE (personal protective equipment) in a dangerous world- put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a story that St Augustine of Hippo was converted to the Christian faith by reading those last words. Like most of us, Augustine wanted a happy and fulfilling life. But, again like most of us, he kept failing in his attempts to create a good life. He was frustrated and unhappy but was guided to these words and God’s Word found him there. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

Life, as I said at the start, will progress in one direction or another whatever we do. And our greatest challenge is taking the right steps when we cannot see the path down which these steps are taking us. All of us want to be happy and to feel satisfied with our life but for each one of us life throws trouble and temptation in our way, causing us to head in the wrong direction and to end up in places we do not want to be and as people we would rather not be.
Paul had been there himself and he knew who and what had saved him.
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul had found Jesus or rather Jesus had found Paul. And in Jesus, Paul had found God. Paul’s life did not become easier when he became a follower of Jesus. If anything, it became a whole lot more complicated. But it was real, and it produced a love which had not been there before. Paul had been motivated by pride, by religious elitism, by a brutal campaign of violence against those he believed deserved to die- what kind of a life was that? In Jesus Paul had found love; he had found saving grace; he had found a new purpose in living and, although he never knew which way each step he took would lead him, he placed himself in the power of Christ and trusted God’s love and grace to keep him on the right path.

So-One More Step along the world I go. I wonder what our mobiles will look like in 6 weeks’ time?
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to pray that every step we take will bring us closer to God.
Because whilst we remain close to God, we will remain on the right paths.
And what I would suggest you do through this coming week is to ask yourself what brings you closer to God? Prayer? Different ways of doing prayer? Reading the Bible? Different ways of reading the Bible? Talking with other believers or searchers? Doing good things for others? Taking time out to be still with God in the fresh air?
The famous modern thinker and psychiatrist, Jordan Peterson writes that we must change not only what we do but what we think is important. Is God really important to you? If He is, then you can be sure that he is walking with you and that you are walking with him.
One More Step- let’s walk together with God into the future. Amen.