A Great Gospel, A Great Church, A Great Time To Be A Christian
September 13, 1998 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 1:8-17
The second Sunday of September, 1968,1 stood for the first time to preach my first sermon in my first church, The First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas. Consequently, on the second Sunday in September in every year since, I always do two things: I always have us sing “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” the hymn with which that first worship service began, and I always preach a sermon that is a bit more personal in nature. Today, then, on the 30th anniversary of that very first sermon, instead of focusing on me personally, I want to focus on us—you and me together as the great First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.
For in those 30 years in ministry, I have come to love more and more this great Gospel of Jesus Christ which is ours. And in my more than 16 years as your pastor, I have come to love more and more this great church of ours. And from the vantage point of this moment, looking out at our world, I can say that there has never been a greater time to be a Christian than now. That is the theme I wish to play out in your hearing today.
There’s an old saying, “All roads lead to Rome.” Back in the first century, the old saying was literally true. Like spokes converging on the hub of a wheel, all the roads of the then-known world converged on Rome. As a result, there was channeled into Rome all different kinds of faith and philosophies and values which came from all the different lands which Rome had conquered. In fact, the Roman historian, Tacitus, went so far as to say that Rome had become nothing more than “a cesspool for the religious refuse of the empire.” He singled out Christianity as what he called a “detestable superstition.” He actually went on to write these words: “Though suppressed for the moment by the execution of its founder, Christianity broke out again, not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in Rome. And of that, we ought to be ashamed.”
With those kinds of sentiments being spread around the city of Rome, little wonder that Paul was moved to take up his pen and write a letter to the embattled Christians in Rome. There, Paul directly takes up the challenge of Tacitus and anyone else who would dare to dismiss the Gospel message. Paul cries out in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.”
What an incredible affirmation of the greatness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is why, after 30 years in ministry and 16 years in this pulpit, I want to use this verse to celebrate the greatness of the Gospel, the greatness of this church, and the greatness of this particular time in history. Paul does all of that in a single verse.
Paul writes: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” reminding us that the Gospel calls for uncommon courage.
When Paul claimed to be unashamed of the Gospel, that was not a proud boast. It was a costly confession. You see, simply for preaching the Gospel, Paul had been imprisoned in Philippi, smuggled out of Thessalonica, hounded out of Berea, laughed out of Athens, and driven out of Ephesus. But Paul was not intimidated, not for a moment. Although his message meant that he would have to live every day in fear and trembling, that very sense of helplessness served to demonstrate the power of God working through his life. It was his conviction, and he spoke of it in his letters, that divine power was most clearly revealed in human weakness. That is what enabled him to resist feeling ashamed, even when his entire enterprise for Christ seemed to be on the verge of collapse. You know, some scholars have actually retranslated this verse in Romans from “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” to “I am proud of the Gospel.” That’s wrong. The opposite of shame is not so much pride as it is courage. With his back to the wall, hemmed in by opposition on every hand, Paul did not have the luxury of boasting with pride about the Gospel. Instead he was saying, “Look, with all the courage I can muster, I take my stand upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ, cost what it may.” And cost him it did. Standing on the Gospel has been costly for this church. It has taken the same kind of courage for the leaders of this church to keep this church going and growing in the Gospel. Go back into the church’s history and you will find names like Wilson, Ivey, Slemons, Bumby, O’Neal, Lee, Yowell, McNutt, Allen—people who led this church through many a difficult and challenging time, and they did it with courage and with vision. Why? Because they were not ashamed of the Gospel. They stood for Jesus Christ in this city without shame, without fear, without apology, without concern for the cost. Oh, what courage they possessed and, oh, what a difference they made. I look back at the great saints who laid the spiritual and physical foundations for this remarkable church, and I do not know that we have the same depth of faith and commitment. But I do know this: We shall muster whatever courage we have and we shall say to this city and to the world, “We are not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The Gospel calls for uncommon courage.
Then Paul writes: “It is the power of God for salvation,” reminding us that the Gospel calls for unquestioned change.
How could Paul maintain such unwavering confidence in the Gospel, despite the ridicule and the scorn? Simple. He realized that his message was not what it appeared to be. Instead of being a foolish tale of human weakness, it was, as Paul said, the power of God unto salvation. Note, please, Paul did not say that the Gospel is a proclamation about the power of God. Rather, he said it is the power of God. The Gospel does not simply speak about salvation. The Gospel has within itself the strength and the power to save.
Back during the summer, I spent a week as the guest preacher at Chautauqua up in New York. The guest theologian that same week was Dr. Amy Jill Levine. She is a brilliant, dynamic Jewish woman who—get this now!—who teaches New Testament to the students at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. Let that wash over you for a few moments. People asked her during the week how she as a Jew could teach the Gospels to students bound for the Christian ministry. She indicated that for her, studying the Gospels was an academic exercise. Well, Trisha and I loved being with her and getting to know her, but I said to her at one point: “You are running a terrible risk by continuing to expose yourself to the pages of the Gospel story, because the Gospel has within it the power to save and one day it’s going to snare you if you keep turning its pages.”
The Gospel is, as Paul writes, the power of God for salvation. What that means is that the preacher of the Gospel literally re-creates the Christ event every time the story is told. When the message is faithfully proclaimed, Christ’s death on the cross actually happens again in human hearts. The preacher is not simply reviewing some historical record. The preacher is not analyzing some religious idea or concept. The preacher is not delivering a lecture on morality. Rather, the preacher is calling into being all over again God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. Keep coming to this church, keep sitting on these pews, keep attending our classes, and sooner or later, the Gospel is going to grab you and change you.
I read the history of this church and I read the history of her preachers—names like Stagg and Belk and McNair and Dendy and Kadel and Anderson and Chadwick. I read their sermons and I know that I am not worthy to stand with them, and yet, wonder of wonders, God has called me to this pulpit and He has charged me to preach the same Gospel they preached. That is precisely what I do because that is all I know how to do. And you see, it doesn’t matter whether I have the skills and abilities of those powerhouse preachers who preceded me in this place, because the preacher does not matter. All that matters is the Gospel, and when the Gospel is preached, the Gospel becomes the power of God for salvation, changing lives and changing the world.
Dear friends, this church must live or die on the truth of that claim. For more than 100 years, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed in this place. For the last 16 years, the joy of that proclamation has been mine and for the next 15-20 years at least, that joy will continue to be mine. Here in this church we shall preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because, as Paul put it, “it is the power of God for salvation.” The Gospel calls for unquestioned change.
Then Paul writes: “to everyone who has faith,” reminding us that that Gospel calls for unconditional compassion.
The Gospel is not just for some—it’s for everyone, everyone who has faith. We cannot all share the same citizenship on earth, for national boundaries divide us. We cannot all share the same culture, for social demarcations divide us. We cannot all share the same prosperity, for economic differences divide us. But thank God, we all can share the same salvation. It is our believing that unites us. That means that we can travel across every continent, however distant, enter any ghetto, however wretched, penetrate any culture, however sophisticated, knowing full well that saving faith destroys all human barriers. Think of it. The most powerful force in the world is available to everyone who believes. No statesman can say that about their country. No politicians can say that about their party. No CEOs can say that about their corporation. No workers can say that about their union. No scholars can say that about their university. No sales clerk can say that about their products. But we can say that about our Gospel. And for all of these years we have been saying that in this church. To everyone who believes—no matter who you are and what you may have been or done or said or thought; no matter what your background, or your environment, or your attainment, or what your color or your circumstance may be—the Gospel we proclaim and the church we love, those are for you. That’s the way this church has been. That’s the way this church shall be.
My friend, John Sloop, was telling me the other day that when he lived in Atlanta, a few years back, there was a restaurant in the inner-city called “The Church of God Grill.” It was just a little storefront hole-in-the-wall restaurant but it was very popular with downtown Atlanta’s business leaders. In a feature article in the Atlanta paper, the owner explained how the restaurant came to be. He said: “We actually opened a little mission church on Peachtree Street near downtown Atlanta in order to preach the Gospel and help people in need. It was tough going, so in order to pay the bills and keep the mission going we started selling chicken dinners at the church on Sundays to make some money. People like the chicken dinners and word began to spread and lots of people began coming down on Sunday to buy chicken dinners. It got to the point where we had to shorten our church services in order to make more chicken. Then we thought that if it’s good for Sunday, then what about the rest of the week? So we opened every day and sold a lot of chicken dinners and made a lot of money. Before long, we just closed down the mission and went into the chicken dinner business full time.” Then the owner added this little note: “Of course, we kept the name, because it is different—‘The Church of God Grill.’” That church lost sight of what the church is all about. Dear friends, I say it, and I stake my life upon the saying of it. That will never happen to this church. The center of all we do is sharing the Gospel so that everyone can believe.
So, Paul said: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel”—it calls for uncommon courage. Paul said: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation”—it calls for unquestioned change. And Paul said: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”—it calls for unconditional compassion. May the Gospel of Jesus Christ so grip our hearts and so guide our church that God will be able to use us—you and me together—to deliver that saving Gospel to this dying world of ours.
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.