We can take pride as a generation that we have made things more accessible for people living with disability. When the bus pulls up to the kerb, it hydraulically lowers itself so that a wheelchair bound person can get onboard easily. Increasingly sign language is ‘spoken’ alongside side speakers making their message accessible to the hard of hearing. We are made aware of the things which make life more difficult for dementia sufferers or those with autism so that we can make our public spaces more welcoming and comfortable for them. Schools, hospitals, shops and churches are encouraged to make every effort to ensure that all can have access. Not everything is perfect and I am sure those with impairments of one kind or another will have bad experiences to share, but generally, we are more aware as a society and deem it unacceptable for some to be deprived access to facilities and services that others take for granted.
Today, our reading from Romans focuses on the accessibility of the gospel, of the righteousness which comes by faith. For many people, the whole idea of God, of religion, of having faith can seem completely impenetrable; nothing but a maze. But Paul says here that knowing Jesus is actually not that difficult. In fact, he’s really close. He writes: ‘Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend to heaven?’ that is to bring Christ down or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ that is, to bring Christ up from the dead. (Romans 10.6-7) As one commentator has put it; ‘Storming the ramparts of heaven or potholing in Hades in search of Christ are equally unnecessary.’ (Stott, 1994) Taking his cue from the old testament book of Deuteronomy, Paul says: ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.’ (Romans 10.8)
The problem with the law given by Moses was that you had to keep it if you wanted to be righteous enough for God’s kingdom in heaven. When you didn’t keep it, which might be often, you had to make a sacrifice to God in the temple, buying doves and pigeons with money from the money changers at extortionate rates of interest. Getting it right with God, having righteousness was far from easy; less than accessible. But Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, destroyed the temple of his body and rebuilt in three days. (John 2.13-22) In doing so, he ‘opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.’ (Te Deum) The temple curtain was torn from top to bottom. Yes, the law of the ten commandments remains as God’s standard by which we should live and Paul has things to say about that in the final chapters of Romans, but our righteousness, our ability to know God and enjoy him forever does not rest on our keeping that law, but in faith in Jesus; his death and resurrection. There is open access to God in Jesus. It is nearer and easier than we think.
As we saw last week, the background to these chapters is Paul’s particular concern for his own people, the Jews. In the opening words of our passage this morning, Paul reminds us of what Moses had said of the law that: ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ (Romans 10.5) That was exactly what Paul saw amongst his fellow Jews, using the law as a way to live; to know God, to get to heaven. Maybe we know people like that too. They are trying extremely hard to be good, to tick all the boxes believing that it will see them right in the end. When it doesn’t, they become disillusioned. When they find that despite trying to live the perfect life, they have still made mistakes, they can take it out on themselves. When calamity strikes them, they say: ‘what have I done to deserve this?’ Is that someone you know? Is it you?
Contrast all that with what Paul says about the way of faith: ‘…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ (Romans 10.9) Paul backs this up with words from the Jewish prophet Isaiah who had spoken of the time when God would lay down a corner stone for faith saying: ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame’ (Romans 10.11 & Isaiah 28.16) All of this makes God totally accessible, accessible to all as Paul goes on to make crystal clear: ‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Romans 10.12-13)
As I mentioned last week, there is a hesitancy amongst some to share this Christian message with Jews. Such a view is at odds with Paul’s burning desire that they too call on the name of Jesus. In today’s world, the Middle East remains a place of turmoil and contention. The problems are complex and rooted in deep prejudice and long histories. At a human level, they seem beyond the abilities of negotiators and peace plans to solve. Fundamentally, though, I would suggest that issues are not so significantly different in the region today as they were in the time of Jesus and Paul. Paul’s argument is that all might find God in through faith in Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Can we not support that? As Christians, we can be as pessimistic about these things as the political commentators. Ought we not instead voice the positive and life affirming message that all who call on the name of Jesus will be saved. That in him life is fulfilled and true peace to be had. That he is the real key to the Middle East peace.
Apart from supporting initiatives to make Christ known sensitively and responsibly in those regions as elsewhere in the world and praying for these things, most of us are not immediately involved. But closer to home, there are places where there are real problems in people’s lives which never seem to go away. On the first Monday of the month, a few of us gather to pray for Caia Park here in Wrexham. There is much to encourage us, but we are aware of many lives still blighted by crime, drugs, mental health issues and a deep lack of hope. On quizzing one member of the group last week about what he felt were the things we should be praying for, he responded simply and powerfully that people should know Jesus; that it is in him lies the real opportunity for good, not just of course in Caia, but across all of Wrexham and our world. That is the message of Paul in these verses.
But Paul is ever the pragmatist: But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Romans 10.14-15) As he says in a following verse: ‘faith comes from what is heard’ (Romans 10.16) While showing practical love and concern and praying are all vital, so also is getting the message of the gospel out there so that it can be heard. That depends on all of us being prepared to share our faith with others. It depends on a church which bold enough to call commission and support those it discerns with a gift of evangelism.
The gospel message makes God accessible to everyone. Jesus said his followers would be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria and to the end of the earth. Our passage today ends with Paul quoting Isaiah again: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’ (Romans 10.15 & Isaiah 52.7) Everyone has a right to the gospel. Let us not be the ones to deny anyone that right.
9th August 2020