Sunday, September 13, 2009

Romans Series - Part 1 Rom 1: 1-17

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks in today’s gospel. We may have our own answer to that question, but Peter blurts out with a brisk, “You are the Messiah.”

“Good answer,” Jesus seems to say. “Just don’t tell anyone.”

Like most juicy secrets, this one got out. The secret passed from person to person until it landed on the apostle Paul’s desk. It’s almost as if Jesus had asked Paul that same question, and Paul uses the first couple verses of his letter to the Romans to answer it, by way of introducing himself, saying:

“I, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which God promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

That’s quite the beginning to a letter. I certainly don't start my emails like that. It's a bit of a run-on sentence, but it doesn’t leave any doubt about who Paul thinks Jesus is. And it’s a good way to begin our journey together through Romans. Since my first official trek with Paul wasn’t so auspicious.

“How many people here hate Paul?” my professor asked, beginning his unit on Paul's writings.

About half the classes hands went up . A larger number than I expected. Although I had come to learn that Paul received mixed reviews from Christians. In some Christian circles, it's hip to hate Paul.

“Why do you hate Paul? Give me some reasons,” he said.

“He hates women, demanding that they be silent in church and submissive to their husbands,” one person shouted.

“He's a reactionary; he blesses right wing politics,” another blasted.

“He's the reason gay people are treated so badly by some Christians,” still another howled.

“He's authoritarian, tells people to be submissive to people in authority, no matter how tyrannical that authority is,” yet another yawped.

“He's anti-Semitic, a self-hating Jew who betrayed his faith, causing Christian atrocities against Jews for centuries,” another shrieked.

“He turned Jesus' message of God's kingdom of justice, peace, love, mercy, and forgiveness for the world into a mere transaction between God and the individual. He didn't get the broader social implications of Jesus' message.”

I could go on. But you get the idea. This was, of course, a more left-leaning crowd. If the class was of a more conservative bent they would find other issues with Paul to complain about:

“He's morally lax,” they might say. “Justification by faith lets people off the sin hook too easily.”

“His message of grace is too passive. The bible says we're to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.”

“He picks and chooses what he likes from the bible and the Tradition and throws the rest in the garbage.”

“He's slippery with the Old Testament, often taking passages out of context to prove a point”.

“He's too chaotic in how he structures his churches, preferring an organic system to a ordered one.”

“He sticks his nose into politics where it doesn't belong.”

Paul gets everyone mad. He's is an equal opportunity disturber.

The problem is, these people are not WRONG. Paul CAN be accused of ALL these things. On the right AND on the left. If you want I can give you chapters and verses where Paul would plead guilty to these charges.

But other problem is that these people are not RIGHT, either. Paul is more than these things. And together, as we read Romans over the next two months, we'll see how Paul's message of New Life and New Creation transcends the individual issues that people lob at his sandals.

We'll see that Paul's message has so many layers to it that we need to look at the whole of this theology to understand what he has to say to us. His message is greater than the chapters and verses of his writings.

We'll see that he takes time to build his argument over numerous chapters, unfolding, almost like a good novel, taking the reader through asides and down backstories, thickening his message until it comes together in a story of good news for the whole world.

One thing you can say about Paul is that his message will not fit on a bumper sticker. Reading Romans is more like death through 1000 cuts, so the reader can rise again, a new person.

Last year when I was in Mexico, I spent a morning reading through Paul's letters. Sunning myself on a Mexican beach with the apostle Paul was an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Paul was writing from prison. I was at a 5 star hotel with people waiting on me.

Paul used every ounce of his physical and mental energy to proclaim good news to a hurting world. I was lazing under an umbrella with a drink in my hand.

Paul described a different reality than the one the world gave, where prayer and sacrifice stood centre stage. I was luxuriating in the world's pleasures, suppressing any guilt that tried to emerge.

And as I kept reading, I found Paul's voice increasingly unsettling. But in a good way. Being unsettled is not necessarily a bad thing. Especially when Paul is doing the unsettling.

I came to know that Paul understands that we human beings fail in living how God wants us to live, and he calls us on it. 

Paul knows that we hurt ourselves and each other. He knows that a life of faith is not one big climb up to the mountain top, but that a life of faith is a series of fits and starts, of climbing and falling, of faithfulness and betrayal, of wounding and being wounded. Paul has no illusions about what resides in the human heart.

Which is why, at the heart of his message is that we come into a right relationship with God not through any good works, proper prayers, moral behaviour, or church going. But we come into a right relationship with God by God's grace through faith.

And even that faith is a gift. Some say that it’s not even OUR faith that saves us, but it's JESUS’ faith that is given to us so that could be saved.

Paul reminds us that faith comes by hearing God's Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes us holy” as Luther's catechism says, NOT through any effort on our part.

We don't accept God's grace. We can only receive it. We don't choose to be God's people. God chooses us. We are not in the driver's seat of our salvation. God is.

I don’t know about you, but I find that liberating. When I first heard that message it was like I could breathe for the first time. That’s why I can stand with Paul when he says:

“...I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”

This means that we don't have to be perfect. This means we have the FREEDOM to live how God wants us to live without fear of failure. Because we WILL fail. We WILL fall short of God's standards. ALL of us. And that's okay. Perfection is not the goal. Simply being God's child is Paul's gospel aim.

If I can sum up Paul's message it would be this: Because of what God has done in Jesus, you are forgiven. You are free. Now live in the forgiveness and freedom that God wants for you.

Maybe we can put Paul on a bumper sticker after all. But we probably shouldn't. Maybe what's being asked of us is to spend time with Paul, listening to him, arguing with him, wrestling with what he has to say, and exploring what his message of new life in Jesus means for us today.

He may infuriate you. He may make you want to throw your bible across the room. But his message – God's message – will set you free. God’s message HAS set us free.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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