Sermon - Pentecost 4
2 July 2017
By Virginia Fox
This summer we are focusing our preaching on Paul's letter to the Romans. It's a challenge compared to many of our readings -- -- it's not a story with plot and characters; we can't just imagine ourselves into the story-- or can we?
We have to piece together our main character from Acts, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke-- clearly many years later than the events, as well as by the letters of Paul. Like all Biblical text, we are challenged to fill in gaps and to wonder about the authenticity of all the details. Paul wrote letters to various Christian communities-- Scriptures credit him with 13 traditionally, though scholars tend to agree that only 7 are truly his, rather than the work of followers. These letters, often called Epistles, are the earliest-written texts to make it into Christian scriptures. They predate the Gospels and Acts. To some extent, the Acts author may well have been filling in his own gaps and creating a cohesive narrative, the only one we have of the early church.
Paul's own story (reported in more detail by Luke than by Paul himself) is of a Jewish leader, ardently persecuting this new offshoot within Judaism, who encounters Jesus in a vision on the road to Damascus. This sudden appearance knocks him from the horse and blinds him for three days. When he recovers, Paul is converted and sets off on a life of spreading the faith that he had once persecuted.
Paul, who happens to be a Roman citizen, uses the freedom of that status to travel the world of the Romans and teach in synagogues in the region. He is educated and literate, which enables him to write (or, more likely, dictate,) letters to these new communities and serve as a bridge between the Hebrew world and the Greek-speaking Gentile world that surrounds them. Paul is a link between the original disciples in Jerusalem and the world that is ready to learn about ministry and message of Jesus. The core tenets of the faith are still in flux-- and while Paul is using his authority as one of the few who met the living (or relatively-recently-resurrected) Jesus-- he is not the only one out there teaching. So that takes care of the author's part of the story.
Now for the Romans themselves-- here we have far less detail. Rome, at this point in history, is a diverse cosmopolitan capital of an empire. The Roman leaders were used to the idea of religious diversity and pluralism, but they had expectations for those who lived under their reign. Primary among these expectations was devotion to the emperor. This is where Christianity and Judaism, as monotheistic faiths, came into conflict. Romans were quite used to traditions that came from distant lands. Their streets were lines with temples to Gods of Egypt or the East. The ranks of mystery religions from distant lands were filled with Romans, particularly soldiers. But the followers of the One God of Judaism, both the Jews and the Christians, were an anomaly. They do not regard Caesar as a god-- and this point of contention becomes the flashpoint for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the persecution of Christians that will be an off-and-on focus of the Romans for nearly 300 years.
Paul is preaching and traveling in the midst of that conflict. Tradition tells us that he wrote the Epistle to the Romans when he was planning a trip to meet that congregation in Rome. Tradition also tells us that he is arrested by the Romans in Judea for stirring up conflict and uses his citizenship to appeal directly to the emperor. The final piece of tradition is that he makes it to Rome and is executed there-- by a sword since he is Roman and deserves a quick death. The church of St. Paul Outside the Walls contains a sarcophagus bearing his name with bones that date to the right era-- so maybe that part is true.
The letter written to the Romans is a snapshot of the early church-- a time of transition. The death and resurrection of Jesus are agreed-upon truths at this point and the significance to the Church is pretty clear, but the people he is addressing are vulnerable and experiencing their own conflicts. They are most likely a mixture of Jews who are following ancient tradition and Gentiles who are new to mono-theism. Paul's letter is focusing on core truths --and the portions of Romans that we have been reading in the lectionary were chosen to highlight those. Two weeks ago Matthew focused on grace -- God's overflowing, totally underserved love that breaks out into the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus; Last week David preached about Paul's explanation of the transformative power of baptism-- that we die with Christ and are born again in that event. Today's passage is full of...Sin!
As enticing as that might sound, that's probably not the full-credit description. If we look at the reading, we see that Paul was using his Greek rhetorical training to set up a dichotomy. Sin, wickedness and death VS. God, righteousness and life. He puts this into the metaphor of slavery and obedience, because of our "natural limitations." For a 1st Century audience in the Mediterranean world, the dynamic of slavery would be very familiar. While there were definitely examples of unspeakable cruelty in the practice of slavery, including the use of slaves as gladiators, Paul's audience, some of whom were likely slaves, also knew the practice as part of the social fabric. Slaves could be part of a household-- and in some cases would have converted to Christianity as part of the master's conversion. The image of a slave would communicate obedience and loyalty more than deprivation and abuse.
So the question remains, what is Paul trying to teach the church at Rome? Paul and the early church were in a transition. The old ways had defined Jewish life by obedience to the law, and Gentiles had lived with little or no defined religious authority-- but the Christ event-- Jesus' death and resurrection -- had changed everything. Instead of a world of sin and punishment, Jesus had ushered in a world of grace. For many early Christians, the resurrection of Jesus was seen as the beginning of the end of the world. The Messiah had returned and the new world was imminent. Christian communities were gathering, sharing stories of God's work in the world and preparing for God's reign on Earth. But as the years went on, this didn't take place in exactly the way they might have expected. Leaders like Paul are supporting the growing church and helping these communities organize and take care of themselves. But, the massive event that would overthrow the Roman empire and recreate reality just didn't seem to be happening. Questions abounded-- why hold to moral rules if God forgives everything? Why marry if time is about to end? How on earth should Jewish and Gentile Christians coexist if they had different religious practices and moral expectations? Does everyone have to be circumcised?
Paul's goal is to care for these communities, to help them grow and thrive while they waited. His letters are both practical and theological. Some of what he has to say seems unrelated to our modern life-- head coverings for women and dietary laws are not high on our list of concerns. Today's reading is more "big picture" than that. It really is about how a community and its members should focus their life and beliefs. They are called to make a choice between sin and death and God and life. It seems like an obvious choice-- who wouldn't pick the latter?
The early Christians of Rome are living at the edge of this new reality-- and that sort of transition must have been hard. The old ways were familiar-- the laws, the traditions, the alliances, but Paul equates all that with death. The new reality of Jesus compels them to choose another master, to center their lives on a different authority. The idea of grace was radical and shocking-- a God who didn't care only about their following of tradition was not the sort of God most of the ancient world knew. But in choosing the new way, they were rejecting the things that took them from God, or, in other words, they were rejecting sin. They were instead choosing to pattern their lives after the love and goodness of Jesus-- which is the opposite of sin.
Paul probably never imagined that this letter of his, or the teachings of Jesus would grow and spread to our church. He expected the return of Jesus and the end of history, but here we are, thousands of miles and nearly two thousand years away from him. On one level, his letter seems to have nothing to do with us. We don't live under slavery and empire; we don't face the world on the edge of a new reality. Or do we? Just because the early Church never saw the world give way to the second coming, the choice they faced was still important. The decision to reorient their lives to God and life made a huge impact on their reality, because it motivated them to stay together in faith against huge odds. The advice that Paul gives was intended to strengthen the individual believers and the community as a whole-- and it is no less relevant to us today.
We don't think of ourselves as being in a transition point in history, but maybe we are. Maybe every day is that transition-- not for the apocalyptic end of the world, but for the reorganizing of our hearts and our lives. When we discussed this at Gospel Preview this week, one person mused about the ways we are each slaves to things that draw us from God. Could it be fears or anxieties that keep us from engaging with the world around us? Could it be destructive beliefs that keep us from understanding that we are loved by God-- through grace, not through our own merit? Could it be addictions that pull us from those we love? When I pondered this, my own list was huge. Do I count the difficulty I have from resisting the ping of my phone, even when living, breathing people are there in front of me? Or the ways I can spend more time worried about what I think the world is expecting from me rather than pursuing what I know in my gut to be right? I believe we all face some version of this choice between sin and righteousness. Between selfishness and God's call to love and care for all of creation. Between death and life.
Paul's words to the Romans apply fully to us, and they are every bit as revolutionary today. We are already loved-- grace has already happened. The battle for our obedience has already been decided. And in our decisions, big and small, we can choose to align ourselves with that love and God and life.
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