+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the things I love about being a priest is that my peculiar manner of dress alerts the public to my vocation, leading to some interesting conversations with strangers. Please understand, I’m not saying this ironically. There are differing views among my colleagues, and I don’t fault anybody who for their own sanity decides to get on a flight or go out to dinner without their dog collar announcing their vocation to the world. When it gets humid with temperatures into the 90’s I sometimes make a similar decision (though that has less to do with wanting to go in cognito and more to do with my stubborn refusal to wear clericals that have short sleeves or are in any color other than black). In truth, I relish those conversations with people who are bold enough to engage in religious repartee, particularly as a rebellion against my upbringing, in which I was frequently reminded that such conversations are impolite in public.
Anyway, one of the most peculiar conversations I’ve had along these lines was with a fellow on a bus who asked me, after confirming that I was, indeed, a clergyman what my favorite book of the bible was. This is a surprisingly hard question for me, because the answer is always changing depending on where I am in my own spiritual life and what I’ve been reading, but I think I said something like “either John’s Gospel or the Epistle of James or else Tobit because it’s just such a fun, wacky adventure story.” I quickly learned that the fellow had really asked me because he wanted to share his own answer to the question, which was fine with me, of course. He said something like “my favorite book of the Bible is Romans, because it’s simple enough for a child to understand.”
Now, much can be said of the Epistle to the Romans. It’s a brilliant work of verbal artistry, combining the best of Greek rhetoric and Jewish Midrash (a style of rabbinical biblical interpretation). It’s a magisterial treatise on the nature of Christ and the atonement. It is, I believe, the most important summation of the Gospel message outside the very words our Lord spoke and (over the last half millennium) the most misunderstood book of the New Testament, with the possible exception of John’s Apocalypse. But “simple enough for a child to understand” is not the one I had heard.
So, all that said, the lectionary has appointed passages from the Letter to the Romans to be read as the Epistle for Mass for the next three months, and I intend on doing something I’ve not done in all my eight years of ordained ministry or my half-decade of lay-preaching before that- namely, a sermon series. I want over the course of the summer to really focus in on this important book of the Bible. There will, no doubt, be much worth explicating in the Old Testament and Gospel lessons over the same period. I would encourage those who can to make an effort to attend our Monday evening bible study to cover those topics, as we commit on Sundays to digging in to St. Paul’s magnum opus and gaining an appreciation of what it has to say to us today.
First, let’s get up to speed on both the occasion of Paul’s letter (found in the two concluding chapters of the Epistle which are omitted from the lectionary) and his argument in the four chapters which precede this morning’s Epistle- lessons we missed based on that movable feast of Easter falling a couple of weeks later this year than it could have done.
Unlike Paul’s letters to churches in Greece and Asia, the Epistle to the Romans is not occasioned by a controversy in a church which the Apostle himself had founded. The Christians in Rome no doubt began within the large Jewish expatriate community which both Cicero and Philo tell us was somewhat insular and consisted largely of the descendants of slaves brought to the imperial capitol a century earlier by Pompey. Now by the Christian era, these Jews had been freed and enfranchised, but imagine the communal narrative and corporate sense of identity if your grand-parents and great-grand-parents had been marched into Rome in chains by this foreign, pagan general who, if contemporary sources are to be believed, donned Alexander the Great’s cloak before entering the city. A new oppressor taking on the guise of a previous oppressor, would stick with you well after emancipation- even a couple generations after. And though you would have later been given (according to Tacitus) what amounted to religious freedom in 1st Century Rome, you were still reckoned superstitious by the majority and you lived in tenements in the Trastavere and you stayed well clear of the Senate and the baths and the newly constructed Colliseum.
So, one would assume this community saw non-Jewish Romans as the enemy. Yet, by the time Paul was writing to the Christians in Rome, the parts of this Jewish community who had come to follow Jesus had astonishingly integrated Gentile believers into their number, realizing the most difficult aspect of Paul’s unique mission before he had even written you a letter, much less come to visit. This much is clear from Paul’s letter. How did they get to that point?
It is possible that by the time this letter was written (the mid-50’s A.D.), Peter had made it to Rome, became bishop, and, having already been chastened by Paul regarding the universality of the Gospel, had encouraged this integration himself. I find this unlikely, though, since Paul sends greetings to a few dozen named Roman Christians in his letter but doesn’t include Peter. It would be as if I had written a letter to all the Episcopalians in Cleveland and greeted the Dean of the Cathedral and all the rectors and curates and churchwardens of all the parishes in the city and forgot to greet Bishop Hollingsworth.
I don’t know how precisely these first Roman Christians had managed this difficult task of integration when they established their church in a context in which said task should have been more difficult than any other city in the known world except to blame the Holy Spirit, and perhaps it is precisely because of this seemingly miraculous turn of events that Paul deigns to send his most fulsome account of the nature of the Gospel to the Christians in Rome, whom he has never met but whom he trusts enough to try to establish as his base of operations for a mission to Spain,a a trip which would never take place because of the martyrdom which cut his ministry short.
Now, to the text itself, and where Paul picks up his argument in the fifth chapter of the letter. Paul opens the letter by reiterating his apostolic bona fides, acknowledging Christ’s identity as Son of God and Son of David, and demanding what he calls “the obedience of faith” a concept to which we shall return shortly. He proceeds to posit “the righteousness of God” as the basis of his theological system and that it functions εκ πιστεως εις πιστιν- that is, through or from faith for faith. This he then contrasts with human depravity of all sorts- disobedience to parents, boastfulness, judgmentalness, murder.
There is here an excursus on sexual immorality, the quoting of which has become all the rage in our current culture wars, more, I think, as a function of our own modern obsession with sex than of the importance Paul gives it in the larger argument. I’ve said to some of you that Paul’s denunciation here has more to do with the sexual violence and abuse taking place in Roman bathhouses which his Roman audience would have been all too familiar with than any contemporary controversies that have sometimes well-meaning if usually morally-panicked people clutching their pearls and locking up their wedding cakes. Significantly, there is a particular sin which begets all others in Paul’s analysis- namely, idolatry, which can just as easily, he makes clear just a few verses after the sex talk, take the form of moral superiority and legalistic self-regard as anything prima facie licentious or prurient.
This dialectical relationship between the righteousness of God and the wickedness of humanity is bridged by, wouldn’t you know it, one of the most difficult verses of scripture if you want a clear, literal meaning. God’s righteousness, or justice, is manifested in the most unlikely of ways, justifying humanity “δια πιστεως Ιηδου Χριστου εις παντας και επι παντας τους πιστευοντας.” If you are a Reformed Protestant (or reading a bible translation by and for Reformed Protestants) this string of Greek words might be translated “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” If you’re reading it more literally, it becomes something like “either through faith in Jesus Christ or through the faith of Jesus Christ into all and onto all believers.” So God’s righteousness or God’s justice is affected either by our faith or Jesus’ own faith and that same righteousness or justice is brought about both within us and upon us. Phew!
The precise meaning here is unclear and one of the reasons I want to take us through a thorough review of Romans over the next several weeks I because it takes Paul some time to explicate his own point. It is not, with apologies to my interlocutor on the bus, simple enough for any child to understand.
Paul proceeds to a typological reading of Abraham, in which this great figure is shown to be a prefiguring of the believer in which the former’s faithfulness is revealed as a type of Christian faithfulness. I will over the coming weeks rely on this parallel more explicitly, but (this will give you an idea of where I’m eventually headed with all this) Abraham’s faith did not consist simply of an acknowledgment that the voice commanding him to set off on a dangerous journey was indeed God’s voice, but depended on his actually following the command he was given.
This brings us at last to the fifth chapter of Romans, where it seems to me the whole point of the Gospel Paul means to proclaim becomes clearer. Being justified by faith we have peace with God. But whose faith, Christ’s or ours? Perhaps both, but the faith shown by Jesus himself, dying for us while we were still sinners, surpasses the faith of Abraham, which itself surpasses whatever little faith we manage to show God. The clearer point, it seems to me, is that faith in this context means an awful lot more than simple belief in the same way we believe 1 and 1 makes 2, as I think I’ve said before in this pulpit. What’s more, our justification has yielded peace with God, Paul says, but it has also given us access to grace, or in the Greek, we have been προσαγωγην, or lead to grace, perhaps like being lead to water, but not necessarily made to drink, not necessarily forced to accept that grace. How do we accept it, then. Thank God it’s not all up to us. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, but acceptance may require suffering which leads to endurance which produces character which makes us capable of hope which will not disappoint, but it seems like there are a few needful steps for us to get to that point, doesn’t it?
All of this will, I think, become clearer as we delve deeper into the text over the coming weeks, but I think there is one infinitely important point we can draw from this week’s reading and what precedes it and it is a point which conversations regarding the atonement on both ends of the Protestant-Catholic spectrum often fail to acknowledge. We have, for half a Millennium been so concerned about one view or another of what constitutes a salutary faith on the part of the believer (whether it’s mere belief or faithfulness shown through Christian living or some affective shift in the believer’s heart) that we forget too often and at some peril, who the primary actor in all this is- which is precisely the point I’ve been going on about Christ’s own faith in addition to or even as opposed to our own. Only Jesus was faithful enough to make peace with God on our behalf. Only his one, perfect sacrifice – not prone to an iota of self-interest or grandiosity or scrupulosity, unquestionably pure in motive and substance – could have put things right.
It’s my firm belief that whenever the church has gone wrong in one way or another it’s because we’ve lost sight of this. Now some churches may have problems primarily stemming from how their proclamation of this Gospel is hindered by being completely out of step with reality, not to mention the social implications of the Gospel. I’m thinking specifically of the Southern Baptist Convention, which in their annual meeting last week erupted into chaos because it wasn’t initially obvious to everybody there (members of a church who have struggled with the fact that they were founded in order to oppose the abolition of slavery) that in 2017 they probably finally needed to formally denounce white supremacy. I can only speak for the Episcopal Church here, but I think whatever issues we might have had has very little to do with a lack of relevance along those lines. Rather, when we get into trouble as a national church or as dioceses or parishes, regardless of the presenting issue, it’s usually at its heart because we’ve fallen into the trap of a kind of humanist, social Christianity which preaches, as H. Richard Niebuhr put it, “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
I have relatively frequent conversations with colleagues who struggle mightily with the fact that they perceive certain moves in the larger church or positions held by their superiors to be at odds with that single, central claim. They worry the church has lost it’s way because decisions are made or positions are staked out or programs are embarked on for every reason under the sun besides the fact that Jesus is Lord, yesterday, today, and for ever. They lose heart when the overriding narrative is that salvation is something other than a miraculous state of affairs effected by the will of God for eternal communion with humankind or when church leaders can’t seem to affirm clearly and unreservedly that our Lord really died as a sacrifice for our sins and really rose again to promise us everlasting life. These colleagues run the gamut from high church to low church and from politically conservative to politically liberal. Those issues for them are all secondary to the central message of the Gospel which they see receiving either tepid approval or implicit denial. Why these colleagues come to me with these concerns I don’t know, but I’m glad they feel comfortable enough with me to do so.
The Epistle to the Romans, both the passage we heard this morning and the overriding message we’ll hear over the next several weeks, is the necessary antidote to our own self-obsession, our own desire to be the central actors in history. It reminds us that we were in need of saving and our only hope in this regard has come and saved us. How we respond to that reality is an open question, but thanks be to God that the hope we’ve been given in none other than the Lord of Life will not disappoint us.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.