The Power of Life   (Romans 1: 16-17)

by | Apr 26, 2020 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

A little over twenty years ago, two enraged and heavily-armed teenagers determined to wreak havoc in their community, entered Columbine High School and found several terrified students huddling in the library.  They apparently asked at least two of these students, “Do you believe in God?”  Both young women answered “Yes.”   The boys shot them, wounding one of them seriously, the other fatally.  The young woman who died was named Cassie Bernall. The irony is, the arc of her teenaged life had for a period closely paralleled that of her two murderers.  She, too, had experienced the full spectrum of teenage rebellion, had endured a period of alienation, experimented with drugs, and created around her a hard, impenetrable shell that seemed impervious to the wisdom of parents, friends and teachers.  Somehow the Spirit of Christ had found her and pierced that shell, connecting her to the power of love and life.  She had become an active participant in her faith community, a volunteer with inner-city gang members.   Now, by a horrific turn of events, she faced the same spirit of aimless destruction and purposeless hatred that had once so distorted her own perspective. I cannot help but wonder, in that horrific moment when she was asked, “Do you believe in God?” if this phrase of Paul flitted across her consciousness:  “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of salvation.”   How could she deny the power of life that had filled her being with light, even if it meant her death?   She answered, “Yes,” to the question, though it cost her earthly life.   In the intervening twenty years I suspect that Cassie Bernall’s courage has influenced thousands of lives – for she was not ashamed of the Gospel. 

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel,” thundered Paul to the church in Rome.  “For it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Paul was, of course, a Jew, indeed, a Pharisee who sought to serve God through adherence to the religious law of his people.  But as he described so vividly in this letter to the Romans, Paul found that obedience to the Law of Moses had the effect of cutting him off from the power of life, communicating to him only the power of death.  Only when the light of Jesus Christ broke into his life, as it did for Cassie Bernall, were his eyes opened to a true path forward.  A relationship with Christ brought him into contact with the power of life.  In so doing, he alienated many of his own people who hounded him, harassed him, and invented a variety of ways by which they could assassinate him.  But he was not ashamed of the Gospel, even if it cost him his life. 

Paul was also well-acquainted with the Gentile world.   He was a Roman citizen, had grown up in a Gentile city, knew well the Gentile mindset, its high estimation of worldly wisdom, its confidence in orderly government, its lust for the sensuous, its appetite for violence.  He also knew the gnawing spiritual emptiness at the heart of the Gentile culture, a hunger for transcendence ironically signaled by the dozens of temples that dominated every Gentile city.  Law and logic were not enough to feed their souls.  Rich and poor alike went from temple to temple making sacrifices, trying to appease powers of light and placate powers of darkness.  This multitude of temples did not signify belief in God, or even belief in gods. They signified only that everyone was aware that at work in the world were spiritual realities greater than human life, and they wanted somehow to satisfy these forces of light and  darkness so they might somehow win liberation and a sense of security.  Paul proclaimed to them, ‘I have found that power. There is one power over all spiritual powers, one God over all gods.  This God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’  Certain Gentile audiences found Paul’s message appealing, but many Gentiles found two aspects of his presentation profoundly troubling. First, Paul preached that this powerful God who ruled all spiritual forces had manifested his strength through the weakness of a crucified Savior.  Such a message, to the Gentile mind, was obscene foolishness.  Second, Gentiles were troubled that Paul’s Messiah had been crucified by the Roman government as a seditious traitor, raising the possibility that this small, nascent religious movement might ultimately pose a challenge to the sovereignty of Rome.  In point of fact, as history developed, Paul and many of the Christians to whom he wrote in Rome died by the sword, persecuted by a Roman government that endeavored to suppress this Gospel of life with its authority of death.  But though Christians died by the thousands, their deaths did not stymie their movement but rather gave it momentum.  For they died not ashamed of the Gospel!  They knew that the Gospel, though it cost them their lives, was the power of life!

Fast forward three hundred and fifty years.  Irony of ironies, the very religion that had been suppressed by Rome was now the official religion of the empire.  Yet a new crisis had arisen:  even as the power of the Gospel waxed, the power of the Roman Empire waned.    In AD 410, Vandals overran the eternal city of Rome, by far the most traumatic and momentous event of that era.  A sentiment, first whispered, soon became a shout, then a popular clamor — that Rome fell because of the Christian faith.  People said, when we stopped worshipping pagan gods of power and started worshipping this weak God represented by a crucified Savior, that is when Rome lost its strength.  That clamor reached the ears of a Christian bishop in North Africa by the name of Augustine.  Augustine was one of the most brilliant minds ever to walk the earth.   His mother was a Christian, but young Augustine sampled every conceivable philosophy and intellectual perspective.  In his meandering spiritual pilgrimage he composed the prayer, “Lord, give me chastity – but not yet!”  However, eventually, Augustine yielded to the call of Christ and over time became a mere believer, then a priest, then, reluctantly, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa.  This brilliant mind answered the charge against Christianity with a powerful NO!  He maintained that Rome did not fall because of its embrace of the Christian faith. Rather, the Christian faith endowed the Roman Empire with a moral vigor and positive force of character.  The Empire would have fallen much sooner had it not embraced Christianity!   However, added Augustine, Christians are citizens of two places.  In truth, all empires are time-bound; all empires rise and fall; all empires enjoy their day in the sun, then diminish.  And Christians are citizens of a particular nation, defined by a particular allegiance in a particular time.  But all Christians are also citizens of an empire that never diminishes or fades.  Christians are ultimately citizens of the Kingdom of God, and even as all earthly powers wax and wane, the true and eternal kingdom of God claims our ultimate allegiance and remains our ultimate destiny.    

What I have said to you in about two minutes took Augustine 17 years to say in a massive work called

The City of God, which remains a classic, influential exposition of how Christian discipleship and integrity must be lived in conversation with the world.  Every page of that work reflects the conviction of a man who was not ashamed of the Gospel, but saw it as the power of life.

Fast forward to the 17th-century, the flowering of the Enlightenment, where the intelligentsia of the day was sure that the scientific method, the inventiveness of human creativity and the power of human reason would liberate humanity from the need for God.  We would create through the exercise of our own flourishing talents a heaven on earth.  An outcry went up among progressive thinkers of that era that Christianity’s time had come and gone.  Over against this outcry God raised up an unusual prophet.  All of us are indebted to that prophet, though most of us are unaware of our indebtedness.  We are indebted to this prophet every time we use a calculator.  In the 1600’s, he invented the first one.  If you have ever been to Paris and made use of public transportation, you have taken advantage of the prophet’s innovative mind.   When you turn on your tap water, you are indebted to this prophet, who was the first to demonstrate the mechanics of hydraulic pressure.  The fact you are watching this service on your computers, means that you are indebted to this prophet, because he built the first prototype of our modern day computer in the seventeenth century.

This prophet’s name was Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician.  He only lived thirty-nine years, but Blaise Pascal graced the world with extraordinary inventions and insights. Pascal countered the arrogant human confidence in the contributions of science and rational thought with the argument that no matter how sophisticated our machines might become they can never measure or encompass the height, depth and complexity of life’s meaning and truth as embodied by Jesus Christ.  He noted that the brain could only progress so far in unlocking the meaning of the universe: the heart has reasons to believe which reason knows not of.  Indeed, one day this brilliant mathematician had a vivid experience of the reality of God that transcended all rational powers, and he wrote down a record of that experience’s impact and sewed this account inside his coat.  Pascal wrote:  “Fire.  The God of Abraham.  The God of Isaac.  The God of Jacob.  Not the God of the philosophers and scholars.  Certainty. Certainty.  Emotion, joy, peace, God of Jesus Christ.”  He punctuated it with the conclusion:  “Joy, joy, joy, tears of Joy!”   Here was a man who exercised his incredible intellect and made full use of his rational powers, yet he in humility knew there were realities that lay beyond the scope of our powers of reason.   Pascal found himself under attack from reactionaries within the church as well as skeptics outside of it, but he was not ashamed of the Gospel.  He wrote a series of notes, which he intended to serve as the framework for an extended defense of the Christian faith, a project he never was able to undertake.  But his sister collected his notes into a little book called “Pensees,” which remains one of the most extraordinary pieces of religious literature ever developed.   The father of computers and calculators chose the power of life, knowing himself primarily to be a child of God. 

Jump to the twentieth century, the century that owing to modernity’s burgeoning powers of intellect and technological inventiveness was touted as ushering in unparalleled peace and prosperity.  It turned out to be the bloodiest century in human history.  Look for a moment at a young man languishing in a Soviet prison, a scientist and writer by the name of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was not a Christian, but who became acquainted with a slender young man who spent his spare moments reading precious little sheets of paper that he kept smuggled in his clothes. Even in prison there was a pecking order, and religious prisoners like this slender young man were the lowest of the low.  Yet amidst unimaginable brutality, starvation and degradation this young man enjoyed an unflappable serenity.  Solzhenitsyn came to realize that written on those little pieces of paper were Scripture verses by which that young man lived and kept him connected to the power of life.   When Solzhenitsyn yielded to God’s call, he found himself on his prison cot thanking God for sending him to this brutal prison camp which stripped from him all that was extraneous and thus allowed him to see and connect to what really mattered, the power of life to be found in Jesus Christ, the Source of all true things.  How many of us would thank God for sending us into a horrific situation that would deprive us of every comfort until we could see clearly the Source of the power of life?  By this power of life Solzhenitsyn survived the Soviet Gulag to become a writer who penned a chronicle of that prison system, for which he won the Nobel-prize for Literature, a prophet who announced to the world that he was not ashamed of the Gospel.

A contemporary American teenager, a first-century Roman-Jewish theologian, a fifth-century North African bishop, a French mathematician from the 1600’s, a twentieth-century Soviet dissident – nothing connected these people, save for one theme:  they were not ashamed of the Gospel, the reality that sustained them with the power of life.  They confronted a host of lesser deities, the god of nihilistic rage, the god of religious law, the god of worldly wisdom, the god of imperial stability, the god of scientific progress, the god of totalitarian power, the god of materialistic wealth.   But these lesser deities were judged and found wanting by the true God, the Father of Jesus Christ, who alone represents the power of life.  Each of these false deities has tried to claim the status of ultimate concern, and each time a new generation of prophets has arisen in response to say, “No, I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”  We enjoy a rich heritage of faith.  You and I are the beneficiaries of the courage, strength and love of people who have not been ashamed of the power of life.

A celebrated journalist named Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a Christian over the course of his pilgrimage, maintained that there are three Testaments.  There is the Old Testament, there is the New Testament, and there is a “Third Testament.”  The Third Testament is comprised of the lives of faithful people who have brought the story of God’s Good News alive through the annals of history and into the present. The ongoing story of God has been furthered by people great and lowly, rich and poor, wise and foolish, of extraordinary and ordinary minds.  But all have been characterized by this common trait:  they were not ashamed of the Gospel.  For it is the power of salvation and the power of life.  You and I are called to be incorporated into this ongoing story of our God and live unashamed of the Gospel and to make manifest through our witness that God’s Good News is indeed the power of life, the gift of salvation to all who believe.