The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - May 22, 2016
Scripture Reading: Romans 5:1-11 ďJustified Through FaithĒ

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     Today we have moved all the way toward the end of the Bible, into the letters or Epistles.  Epistle really means a letter or communication, but is a little different in that letters were very rare in those days.  There was no postal service, so if you wanted to write to someone, you would find someone who could write, not a common skill, put this together, and of course paper or something to write on was not common, and then find a way to get it to the person or people you are sending it to, which usually meant that someone was sent to bring it to a person or group of people.  So much more involved than we think of, when we think of letters today.

     So who was Paul?  Paul was born a Jew, and persecuted early Christians.  This was right after Jesus was killed, probably starting in the 30ís.  He had an experience in which he was blinded by a bright light, and heard a voice saying ďSaul, Why do you persecute me?Ē  Saul was his name when this happened.  He went into the city he was traveling to, changed his name to Paul and started to talk about Jesus.  He started many churches and his message spread. 

     Now this was before any of the gospels were written down, we think the earliest gospel might have been in the 60ís.  So Paul probably knew many of the Apostles, but had never met Jesus when Jesus was on earth.  I said last week that Paul made things up, which is not really the best way to say it, but he was developing the early Christian teachings.  He had his own experiences, and stories to work from.   When a question came up, he was considered the expert for the answer.

     And this was the very early start of the church.
  We believe that a lot of these groups started in Jewish Synagogues, so were primarily made of up Jewish people.  So early on Paul is faced with a big issue, and that is what to do with the non-Jewish, or Gentiles. 

     The Jewish of that time are what we could consider today Orthodox Jews.  They followed the Jewish laws written in the Old Testament, as best as they were able, which is what Jesus probably did.  His parents, and probably Jesus, sacrificed the right offerings in the temple, ate a Kosher diet, and didnít do any work on the Sabbath.  To really understand why this is important, you have to put yourself into the mindset of those Jewish people.  Those that followed the Jewish laws were, for the most part, considered clean.  There were times when you were unclean, but with time, and certain actions, you could become clean again.  And this was important.  It was not necessarily a physical clean, but more clean in Godís eyes.

     One of the ways you could become unclean was doing anything with unclean people.
  So for example, some diseases made you unclean, which means that when someone, even someone who is Jewish, had certain diseases, you would not do anything with them, had stay away from them until they could become clean again.  But there are a lot of Gentiles in this time.  Gentiles are not Jewish and do not follow the Jewish laws, therefore are unclean.  As a good Jew, you donít want to do things with them unless you must or you will be unclean. 

     It is a bit hard to understand because of the world we live in today.  Do most of us remember when AIDS started to make the news in the early 1980ís?  Nobody really knew that much about it, and even into the mid 1980ís there were still a lot of questions.  I was in High School at that point and remember the total AIDS education we got.  Donít be gay and donít shoot drugs, and you donít have to worry about it.  And if you are gay or shoot drugs, you will get AIDS and you will die.  I even remember my science teacher in the later 1980ís saying that they didnít think it could be transmitted by casual contact, he still warned us about using eating utensils that may have been used by someone with AIDS, or eating at a restaurant where someone with AIDS may have prepared the food.  Who knows a drop of sweat, or someone coughing, and you might end up with something that is incurable.

     That is probably the closest I can think it would have been like for the Jewish clean and unclean.  If you touch this person, you will become unclean.  If you hang out around this person you will become unclean.  Donít want to risk it.  So if your group of early Jewish Christians stayed Jewish, you didnít really have that much to worry about.  But then you started to attract others, the Gentiles, the unclean.  The uncircumcised, who ate unclean foods and worked whenever they wanted to.

     And is it really that different today?
  When we say that all are welcome, are we really welcoming to all, or only welcoming to those all who are willing to conform to what we do.  One of the things I have been very aware of is the language that we use.  We do have language that we use in church and no place else in our lives.  Just look through your bulletin and see how many of those words we use like everyone knows them, but you have not used in the past month outside these 4 walls.  What is a Narthex?  What is an offertory?  What is an invocation or benediction?

     And we go back to these churches in and around Rome, in around the year 55 or 56.  Paul had never been to Rome but was planning a trip there.  But he was hearing about those in Rome and those in other churches.  What laws are we supposed to live by?  Are we Jewish who believe that the messiah has come, or are we breaking away from our Jewish roots, worshipping with Gentiles, and starting something new?

     So Paul is trying to figure all this out.
  Paul understood that Jesus was for all, a way of bringing people to know God.  Paul is trying to say that it does not matter who we were before, Jesus is for all of us.  We are justified, or made right before God, through our faith.

     Of course for Paulís churches in Rome, and for us today, this just makes the water muddier.  Access to God has traditionally been hard.  When I was in Seminary I took a class Judaism 101.  Rabbi Kaplanski was our professor, and this was offered during our January term.  So for about 3 weeks, you would take one class, every day.  Rabbi Kaplanski explained to us the first day that this was a safe place, anything we wanted to ask was OK.  And he was full of knowledge.  Honestly knew more about both the old and new Testament than any of us.  He was able to fairly compare what Jewish believed, and what Christians believed, had a deep understanding of each faith.

     He was a Reform Jew, not reformed, because it was not a done process.  This is the liberal branch of Judaism, and believe in ongoing revelation.  The UCCís ďGod is still speakingĒ would fit in totally in a Reform synagogue.  Because of this, they interpret that the law given to Moses at Mount Saini as not the final law.  Certainly, when you look at many of those early Jewish laws, they donít serve a purpose anymore.  Many of the Kosher laws were really safety things, with no refrigeration, and not being able to do anything on the Sabbath, you could get very sick if you try to eat this and this together.  And some was probably based in fear.  Touching the body of a deceased person is considered very bad, will make you unclean.  People didnít understand death, and in some cases, such as plagues and Ebola, the body of a dead person can make you very sick or kill you.

     Reform Jews have looked at their laws and said ďThis is good, we will keep it.Ē And looked at others and felt that they do not serve the purpose they once did, and do not need to be followed anymore.

     Rabbi Kaplanski explained that Orthodox Jews, and some other conservative groups, follow the law very closely.
  And it is hard.  To be really Kosher, you have to have two kitchens, one for meat and one for dairy.  You need to have two sets of plates and silverware, since, even after it is washed, you are not supposed to use the same dinnerware with meat and dairy.  Of course you are not supposed to even use the same sink or dishwasher to wash those different dishes.  You have different pots for cooking different meals.  Even your food, you generally cannot get anywhere.  Sure, sometimes at Market Basket or someplace else you will see something labeled as Kosher, but meat has to be slaughtered a certain way, under the supervision of a Rabbi.  Certain cuts of meat can never be considered Kosher, so they must be disposed of, or shipped off to another place to be processed, different machines, perhaps even a different building. 

     Even if you keep a Kosher home, sometimes you go out to eat.  There are restaurants that keep Kosher laws, but it certainly limits your options.  And when you go to someoneís house to eat who is not Jewish, it makes it very hard to keep those laws.  And these are only the dietary laws, there are also laws about how you interact with people, exact laws about what kind of work is permitted on the Sabbath and what is not, down to turning on a light switch or striking a match.  And some believe that many of these laws help keep a community together. 

     My sister is a doctor in Waterbury, Ct, which has a large Orthodox Jewish community.
  About 20 years ago she had her first Orthodox Jewish patient.  This woman was pregnant, so my sister prescribed pre-natal vitamins.  Are these Kosher?  Obviously my sister had no idea, so she looked into it and figured out which medicines she could prescribe that were Kosher, and which ones she could not.  Word spread about her, and now she has lots of Orthodox Jewish patients.  She is a doctor that understands their needs and desires, and is able to meet those needs.  If you are all keeping the same laws, it is easier to follow them. 

     So you can imagine in these early churches the conflicts that would easily arise.  Access to God was made much easier.  Not only did the gentiles not know the rules, they had no desire to follow them.  Will I have access to God without following these laws?  Do the Gentiles have the same access through Jesus to God that I had by following all these laws?  It is a narrow line that Paul was trying to follow.  And he never, to my knowledge, came out and said ďYou donít need to follow the Jewish lawsĒ nor did he say that you should not follow the Jewish laws.  Paul seemed to think that the end of the world was coming, very soon.  Jesus will return, so donít worry about becoming Jewish if you are not already, but donít give up your Jewish life if you are already doing it.

     It is really your faith that is the important part.  Paul tries to walk that line, saying that even if you have found Jesus, your life is not going to be perfect, but we are looking toward something in the future.  All this pain and suffering we may experience is not all bad.  Christ died for all of us, so that we might be reconciled to God.

     Of course you can debate if you are saved through faith alone, as Paul suggests in this passage, or if it also requires works, as others have suggested.
  Even though I feel that there is a balance someplace between faith and works, Paul does reassure me that even when I am not perfect, which is much of the time, I still can believe in a God who wants to be in relationship with me.  Even when my actions are not what I think God would like, Jesus still died for me, and I can still change who I am because God is trying to be in relationship with me. 

     And that is our message.  Things will not always be perfect for us, and we will not always be in a good relationship with God, but through Jesus we know that God does want to build and rebuild and rebuild that relationship with us, as many times as it necessary.