Fourth Sunday of Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

When the Wise Go Dark


Scripture reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13.

Sermon text: Romans 1:16-32.

“A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live; a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go: to stay here is death.” — C.S. Lewis, Miracles, Chapter 6: "Answers to Misgivings"

An examination of ancient civilizations will uncover a remarkable consistency among human societies. Practically every society, regardless of its location, racial background, or amount of interaction with other societies, felt the need to worship something higher than common humans. Just as interesting, religions of these civilizations resemble each other far more than we’d expect. Practically every ancient religion involved some sort of blood sacrifice, most often performed by a particular social group specifically tasked with maintaining communication between the gods worshiped and their worshipers.

The Romans, of course, were no different. For centuries, the Romans had worshiped basically the same gods as the Greeks, merely with different names. When the new believers came from Jerusalem after Pentecost, A.D. 33, carrying a new interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, many people familiar with those Scriptures came to believe in another god: The God of the ancient Hebrews, as revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

St. Paul had already praised the Roman believers for their faith, reminding them of their impact throughout the Empire. However, there was more to this letter than a praise report. St. Paul needed to accomplish another task in this case. The Roman believers faced a major problem related to their ethnic identity. In A.D. 49, the Roman emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome, including Jewish Christians. St. Paul had met 2 of these believers, St.’s Aquila and Priscilla, in Corinth. St. Paul knew that Jewish believers had returned to Rome, but they returned to a church now predominantly Gentile. In the absence of the Jewish Christians, the Gentile believers had both maintained their faith and expanded their church. The tension between those returning and those who had remained still hampered the body of believers in Rome.

Writing to a church composed of both Jewish and Gentile Christians probably posed a difficult task, but St. Paul had ministered in such circumstances before. However, St. Paul’s letter to the Romans posed a particularly serious challenge. The Jewish believers rightfully believed they possessed a special relationship with God; after all, as they could claim, God had established a covenant with the Jews that predated the Church by millennia. Gentile believers, on the other hand, could justifiably state that they, too, now possessed a special relationship with God through their belief in Jesus Christ, His Son.

St. Paul struck a magnificent balance between these opposing claims by pointing out a truth ignored by both sides: No one deserved salvation at all. In today’s sermon passage, St. Paul both prepared the entire Roman church for his later thoughts on salvation and reminded both groups of their entire reliance on God’s grace. Today, we must never forget that, in spite of our knowledge, technological progress, or philosophical progress, we remain as needy as the ancients. We need grace. We need God.

St. Paul had just stated his major theme: The necessity of the gospel of Christ. None of the ancient civilizations managed to achieve the goal of reestablishing the relationship with their Creator. Only through belief in Jesus Christ and His resurrection could anyone even hope to achieve peace with God.

The ancients knew they were in trouble with something greater than themselves. St. Paul reminded the Romans, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

The ancients all knew something existed beyond themselves; creation itself testified to this fact. The Psalmist David had written, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Practically every human in ancient times, regardless of the primitiveness or advanced status of his civilization, looked up and wondered who created the heavens.

The question became, could creation alone serve as a guide back to God? St. Paul thought so: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” David’s glorious truth probably rang in St. Paul’s ears as he wrote this statement.

St. Paul took the Roman believers, Jew and Gentile, back to a time shortly after the Creation when all Adam’s descendants knew of Almighty God. This time predated the covenant of Abraham considered so dear to the Jews; it also predated both the Greek and Roman civilizations by millennia. As time passed after Adam, humans abandoned worship of God and turned to their own way of worship, resulting in the flood.

God gave humanity another chance following the flood of Noah’s time. Noah’s sons all knew of God; they had participated in the sacrifice after the family had left the ark. Genesis records that after only a few generations, idolatry had returned to the world. Humans again turned from God. “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

What happened? “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Ancient history tells us that every single civilization degenerated into polytheism, and none of them ever independently returned to the worship of the true God.

It seems as if humanity fell further from God as we progressed in technology and knowledge. As we learned more about the world, we failed to give God the glory for what we learned; instead, we attributed anything we learned to another “god.” We harnessed fire; practically every civilization had a god of fire. We learned to distinguish planets from stars; more gods were born. We recognized the regularity of the sun’s movements in the sky (yes, the ancients eventually figured out the earth revolved around the sun); another god came into being.

It shouldn’t surprise us that, as we fell further and further from God, we would inevitably fail to see each other as God had intended. “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

At this point, St. Paul took time to address the worst sin of humanity, the abomination that transcended every other sin we’ve ever known: Pride.

I’m certain that many ministers would, at this point in St. Paul’s letter, spend the rest of the sermon on homosexuality. I’ll say only this: Scripture clearly states that God intended for humans to express our sexuality only in a permanent, monogamous, heterosexual relationship within the bounds of marriage. And, as a famous Southern philosopher once said, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Anyone who fixates on homosexuality in this passage really manages to miss St. Paul’s real point. Note that St. Paul doesn’t dwell on homosexuality; he merely mentions it as a symptom of godlessness and then continues to another list of sins: “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

I’m not downplaying homosexuality; instead, I want to put it in its proper place. Frankly, I’ve seen more churches destroyed by envy, gossip, and slander than ever threatened by homosexuality. St. Paul never addresses homosexuality except as part of the sin of humanity.

Actually, we see a clear description of the result of pride on humanity. Every sin in this list begins when we exalt ourselves above others, including God. Every sin we see here begins when we fail to see ourselves as servants of Almighty God and His people. Every sin we find here results from the sin of the Garden. Adam and Eve already possessed perfect bodies, perfect reactions, perfect love. They lusted for more: Perfect knowledge. Unfortunately, this reached too far. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

I once told someone, “Pride is a horrible thing in a person's life. I once wrote in a midterm, ‘like Satan, every sin we commit begins with the proud assumption that we are above the rules ordained by God; of all creation, we alone believe the rules do not apply to us.’”

Can we find any hope at all in this passage? I see almost none at all. The wisest of men failed to find God through human wisdom; the most intelligent humans on the planet never noticed the existence of God even as they deciphered the clues in the heavens. Pride blinded us. Only God’s grace could save us.

This, then, is where the gospel of Christ comes to our rescue. We must return to v. 16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The gospel alone — Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and victory through the resurrection — brings us hope.

The gospel restores us to our rightful place before God, because only those who humble themselves to admit they need God’s grace will accept the gospel. We cannot maintain our pride and simultaneously admit we cannot make our own path to God. Jesus emphatically stated, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Everyone who accept Jesus as the way to God receives eternal life (John 3:16).

The gospel also requires us to exhibit the faith St. Paul mentioned in v. 17. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” When we believe in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins and accept His victory over death through His resurrection, we accept Him as Lord of our lives. When we live as Jesus requires us to live, we will live “righteous” lives before God. The word “righteous” means “right living,” i.e. living according to the standards of God rather than those of society or our own. God’s standards are clear: We must love Him with all we have, and we must love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-49).

Lastly, the gospel brings us new life in Jesus. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” When we receive the salvation that comes from accepting Jesus as Lord and believing in His resurrection, the Holy Spirit of God comes into us and begins molding us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). We find it possible to overcome temptations that once would have conquered us; we find it possible to live joyously even in times of distress. We find that the peace we receive in our restored relationship from God can help us overcome everything the world can throw at us.

Human civilization began its downward slide when the wisest failed to acknowledge God as the Creator. We received our greatest help when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, died on a cross, and rose again from the dead.

The gospel takes little wisdom to accept; it is so simple that a child can understand it. I encourage you to accept the truth of the gospel; embrace it, and live it. As the Holy Spirit works in your life, you’ll find true peace with Almighty God, your Creator and Lord.