Romans, Paul, I dont think either of them have often featured in our 9am family service. A bit of an unexpected choice if we consider the audience and the reputation Paul has of being difficult to read, hard to understand and his ideas not very agreeable to those who think they are at the forefront of 21st century Church life.
Poor Paul. I dont think we do him justice. I love Paul and I am fascinated by his writings. When I put this forward in the company of fellow Christians there is often an audible gasp, and when I volunteer it in a non Christian environment they think that I am a ultra orthodox conservative in a confusing and rather convincing disguise. Paul is out! Misogynist and homophobic, obscure and irrelevant, that is about the gist of it I think. Or is there more?
To me Paul has become a fellow struggler in faith. Somebody who tries to think through the issues and doesnt always come up with popular solutions. Somebody that is in constant discussion with himself and with those around him. Somebody deeply moved and changed by Christ, struggling to come to terms with what that means for him and for the community of Christians living and growing around him.
I dont believe for one moment that Paul ever meant to have the last word on anything. He was a Jew, he would have been somebody looking for debate, for interaction, for searching for meaning in the context of the community of the faithful. And I dont believe he got it all right either. His letters are proof that he was somebody that developed and changed his ideas over time, in interaction with the circumstances he encountered and the people and the problems he related to in his letters. And that that is exactly what he does in his letter to the Romans.
What seems to be happening there is that Paul is preparing to visit them. He doesnt know them and they dont know him. But he knows about them. And they know about him.
Apparently they are a mixed bunch, the Christians of Rome. Jews and Gentiles come to faith in Jesus Christ trying to give shape to a communal life and faith. And meeting all sorts of issues trying.
Their thoughts about Paul probably, from what we can gather from the letter, also mixed: Some think he is a revolutionary who wants to throw everything that is sacred to the winds and some probably feeling he doesnt go half far enough. Some not trusting him because he is a Jew and started his career persecuting Christians, others not trusting him because he no longer adheres to Jewish law and seems dismissive about its requirements.
A minefield! And it is in that minefield that Paul tries to expound who he is and what he thinks is important. Taking into account the sensitivities of his addressees.
The community of Christ and how to give it shape is one of the issues closest to Pauls heart. He is convinced that getting that right is one of the most important things for the Church. In the passage we just read as in 1 Corinthians 12 he likens the Church community to a body. A body with many different parts that all have to function together to enable the whole to be effective and alive. Each part with its own particular role to play, each part endowed with its own, necessary requirements to complement the other parts in such a way that together they become something that is far more than the constituent parts put together. A living, breathing body of Christ in the world. The parts given to each other to complement each other, each as important and valuable as the other.
That was, at the time, a revolutionary thought. Judaism would have agreed that all people were loved by God and valuable to him. Some of the gentiles would have claimed all people had a godly spark in them and started with equal potential to become godly. But most would have understood religion as a school, a ladder to climb to moral and spiritual heights with lots of practice, dedication and commitment. And that the higher one progressed on this ladder the closer one would come to God and the more valuable one would become to God.
Not so Paul. To Paul everybody is equal and nobody is more equal than any other. Slave or free, Jew or Greek, Man or Woman, all are loved by God in equal manner and all are called to play a part in the body of Christ functioning in this world. Clever or not so clever, highly successful or down and out, wealthy or not so wealthy, important or not so very important it does not matter. All are one in the body of Christ.
Some found that really hard to accept. And I dont think that has changed much in 2000 years. We still like to think of ourselves as the elite of the Church, whatever corner of it we inhabit. We still think that piety and hard work will make us more important and of greater value to God.
Grace is for free says Paul. Gods love is for free. We were all made different so we would be able to function better as a community, as a body. Because a body needs different parts to be able to function. It would be no good if we were all the same.
Does that mean we dont have to put any effort into it. That we can just sit on our back sites and let things happen?
Not at all! Thats the other thing you see, that is important for Paul.
Once you understand and accept the all embracing love of God it should be impossible to stay where and what you are. Gods love is of a transforming kind, calling for change, for more harmony, unity, peace and justice within the body of Christ as well as outside it. Calling those parts to grow together more and more and make that body work better and better. Not to earn rewards, but in answer to that unconditional love.
To Paul, if youve really come to Christ, there cant be anything else in your life but Christ and the desire to live a Christ like life. To give it your everything. Hold nothing back and become a living sacrifice, a living act of devotion to God. Growing away, transforming away, from what is important in the world and conforming more and more to what is important in life as it was revealed in Christ.
God gives for free. But he longs for an answer. A unconditional committed answer to his unconditional committed love.
In the up coming weeks the Church will be asking your support, both in the commitment of financial means as well as in time and energy. For Paul the question would not be what part of your worldly goods or time and energy you feel you can responsively set apart from your other commitments. The question would be how you can answer, in your own way, with the possibilities and opportunities you have been given. How the talents and skills God has given you, can be put to work as indispensable and vital parts of the body of Christ. How you can embody your gratefulness best, working together with others who have also received Gods blessing towards a world transformed in Christ. Amen