One more universalist sermon this morning before I go away on holiday…
“Sentenced to Dance!”
A couple of years ago a 15 year-old criminal named Danny found himself in court yet again and waited, in shame and resignation, for the usual sentence of imprisonment in a Young Offenders’ Institution. To his amazement, Danny was sentenced to dance instead, and so began an incredible transformation of his life. His story caught my attention because it matches the gospel story in many ways. We’ll come back to Danny later.
The main bible passage we are looking at today is Romans 10.5-15, a key gospel text which has inspired many great missionaries down the ages to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. Paul himself was of course the church’s first and greatest missionary (having been its most vicious enemy) and it is likely that his purpose in writing his letter to the Roman church was to gain essential support for the mission he planned to take the gospel to Spain (see Romans 15.23-29 – Robert Jewett’s commentary argues this case very clearly).
Back to Romans 10. ‘ “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” ’ (quoting Joel 2.32, also quoted by Peter at Pentecost, Acts 2.21) writes Paul. And he famously goes on: ‘How, then, can they call on the one whom they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”’ (quoting Isaiah 52.7). Romans 10.13-15
• Romans 10 builds on Paul’s explanation of salvation in chapters 1-8, by considering how people actually come to be saved.
• Chapter 10 also needs to be seen in the context of chapters 9-11, in which Paul addresses the puzzling and for him distressing question of the rejection of Jesus by most of Israel and he wonders whether this means God has in turn rejected Israel from participating in his salvation plan.
• Paul’s argument in 9-11 moves from despair and anguish to the glorious expression of hope in 11.32 and the joyful praise song of 11.33-36.
Three clear messages about salvation stand out in Romans 10.5-15.
That salvation is not something which can be or even needs to be earned. Jesus has done all that is required. Paul has already said as much in 9. 16 ‘It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy’, and he now takes a familiar passage of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30.12ff, and shows that Jesus has fulfilled it by his faithfulness in descending from heaven and by being raised from the dead, so that the very word of God is now present in the mouths and hearts of believers, resulting in their salvation.
That salvation is a universal gift and not confined to one favoured group of people (verses 11-13). ‘…the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Romans 10.12-13, quoting Joel 2.32 – also quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon)
That God wants those who have received salvation to spread the good news, that is, to work with God in his stated mission to save and heal and restore all people and all things (verses 14-15).
What about Belief?
We now need to consider the important matter of belief, which Paul tells us is the way that people get to receive their salvation. Now the usual way of reading Romans 10.8-10 makes it very simple and it goes something like this:
The essential facts about Jesus, that he rose from the dead and that he is now Lord, are presented to all people by preachers and missionaries. Individuals then have a choice to either believe this information to be true or to reject it as false. Those who believe it to be true should confess their belief and when they do so they are officially saved, sola fides, by faith alone. This guarantees that, when they die, they will go to a place of everlasting bliss, called heaven. Those who do not choose to believe and confess will be sent when they die to a place of everlasting torment, called hell.
Now apart from one exception, this is certainly one way that Romans 10.8-10 can be understood, when read in isolation from the rest of the New Testament, but there are some problems with this understanding. The exception, the part of that popular interpretation which you can’t get from Romans 10, is the bit about everlasting hell being the fate of all people who fail to believe in the resurrection and lordship of
Jesus before they die.
Many people believe this to be true. In fact many people believe it is the very heart of the gospel and defend it fiercely, harshly criticising and trying to silence people who have discovered from their study of the Bible that it is not true.
People who insist on this idea of everlasting punishment in hell should at least pause for a moment to consider why in all of his New Testament writings and in all of his sermons and conversations recorded in Acts, Paul never mentions hell at all, not even once! (Don’t take my word for this, check it for yourself!) Surely, if everlasting punishment in hell were the fate of unbelievers, Paul would have warned them about it?
Hell is a hot topic ( ) and I’ll be coming back to the subject in future sermons and bible studies, but let’s set it aside for now and turn to other questions raised by reading Romans 10.8-10 in the simple and isolated way outlined above.
The odds are stacked against the majority of the world’s population even hearing the facts about Jesus, let alone responding in the required way. Think about it. What about the millions of people who are brought up in strict Muslim countries where christianity is outlawed? Or as Rob Bell put it in his recent book Love Wins , “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?” If God desires the salvation of all people, as the Bible clearly teaches, wouldn’t he at least make sure everybody had an equal chance?
Elsewhere in Romans, Paul teaches that sinful human beings are incapable of responding to God without his direct intervention by the Holy Spirit (8.6-7). Then in chapter 12 we find that faith itself is a gift and that a spiritual transformation of the mind is required. Taking our little section of Romans about believing and confessing on its own makes the rest of Romans quite puzzling.
Then there is the teaching of Jesus which is all about turning away from evil, about following him and about the life of the Kingdom of God. 90% of his teaching is about these things, not about avoidance of punishment for people who do not believe certain facts about him. And why would Jesus speak so often in the obscurity of parables, making it difficult for people to understand and respond? Why not make it clearer? If a confession of belief in Jesus before death was so critical for each person, wouldn’t Jesus have spent his time warning about this and urging people to make their confession of belief, instead of on providing the temporary relief of healings and teaching about a Kingdom most people would be unable to join anyway?
Then there’s the failure of this idea of salvation to address the problem of sin. Let’s take the case of Danny, the young offender I mentioned at the beginning. What if the Judge, having found Danny guilty of his crime had then sentenced him to be set free and declared innocent, on the condition that Danny accepts the Judge has the authority to do so. That might seem very merciful of the Judge, but how would it address Danny’s crime or make it less likely for him to commit further crimes? Take this lemon. I can stick a label on it that declares it to be an orange, but really, it is still a lemon!
Is there a better reading?
For a better understanding of what the New Testament really teaches about belief and salvation I want to begin by telling you the rest of Danny’s story. Danny was recommended as suitable for a radical new scheme (Dance United, see www.dance-united.com) which, instead of sending them to prison, put young offenders into a demanding, disciplined dance programme, based at the Bradford Dance Academy (It was an idea originated by someone working with street children in Ethioopia). So to start with, somebody believed in Danny enough to put him in the programme.
Even so, Danny was very skeptical at the start of his sentence. He also quickly discovered that it was not a soft option! One of the instructors, Lucy, writes that the offenders who begin the programme “arrive scowling and reluctant. They have been living on rubbish food, smoking massive numbers of cigarettes, living a nocturnal lifestyle and getting up at four in the afternoon, so they are wildly unfit and have no energy. Our first job is to change their health profile.”
Danny’s health and fitness improved quickly. He also learned new skills and became confident and motivated. Performances had to prepared and he was determined not to make a fool of himself. Later in the programme, Danny and the others were taken into primary schools to teach dance to small groups of children. After this they were encouraged to reflect on their own school experiences and were given help to improve their reading and writing, as well as learning about choreography and the history of dance.
Lucy writes “We expect high standards from our young offenders, but we also want them to know we care about them and are here if they want to talk.” The programme designer Andrew Coggins adds “Prison and other sentences that are just about teaching them a lesson do nothing to address the fundamental problem…
(Lemons come in, lemons go out. With a few extra bruises.)
…The reward (with the dance scheme) is to see their families crying with delight and pride, and people from the criminal justice system clapping. All of which reinforces the idea that they are valuable not valueless, as so many feel when they arrive: I’m convinced they’ll go out better citizens this way than if they’d been on a tough punishment block.”
So how did it turn out for Danny? He gained his silver Arts Award, went back to school and gained more qualifications there. Two years on he started a course for Gifted and Talented dancers with a prestigious Dance Company. And he wrote this:
“I’d had all these other punishments and none had made me want to change my ways or rethink my life. Coming here I was shown that I can do good. My family’s dead proud and my mum smiles now.”
How does this relate to the Gospel?
Hopefully you can see how this relates to the gospel. Psalm 103 says:-
“God does not treat us as our sins deserve … as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” (Ps 103.10,13).
The writer of Hebrews adds:-
“God disciplines us for oour good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12.10-11).
God does not sentence us sinful human beings to pointless or never-ending punishment; he sentences us to dance classes. Now for some of us the idea of attending dance classes may indeed be hell and a severe punishment, but we might also recognize that the classes are for the purpose of healing and improving us, freeing us from our unhealthy lifestyle.
By including us in Christ (putting us in the orange, as it were) God shows us that he believes in us. The missionary or preacher’s role is still vital, in telling all people what God has done for them, in calling them to join in the dance. But this is just part of something bigger that God is doing, and which in the end is irresistable.
In Romans 10.5 Paul writes “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart”, and we remember God’s promise through Isaiah “My word … will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55.11)
Friends, our faith is not a matter of saying we believe the facts about Jesus in order to avoid punishment. God believes in us and has included us sinners in the death and resurrection of his faithful Son, Jesus. And God, in his perfect love and justice, has poured out his Spirit on all people and has sentenced us to dance to his music, with joy and with discipline, and to teach the world to dance with us.
“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10.15)
The comparison of thin and thick readings of Romans 10 is from Douglas A Campbell’s book “The Deliverance of God”
Danny’s story comes from the December 2009 edition of “Readers Digest” magazine
The fruit explanation of justification was taught by Rev Dr Alan Garrow