Saturday, July 25, 2020

Paul's Letter to the Romans

Thomas B. Woodward
July 26, 2020

There were two things I wanted to preach about this morning.
One was the Parable of the Leaven that we heard in Matthew
and the other was to do something like a Bible study
with the Epistle we’ve been hearing this summer, Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Romans it is, mostly because this is the place I go
when I really want to be nourished, spiritually by the Bible.
On the whole, this book of the Bible is really difficult stuff.
When Paul gets into the murky stuff -- it is really murky and confusing;
but the high points of Romans are as good as it gets in the Bible.
And that is what I want to talk about with you.

First, some background:
most of Paul's letters are occasional.
That is, they were written in response to some issue, some occasion (usually big trouble).
But Romans is different:
Romans is where Paul lays out his theological credentials
to pave the way for his coming visit to Rome.

There are times, in Romans, when Paul is really lyrical.
And there are other times when he seems to get so confused
that he argues with himself.
My favorite is when he concludes that it is usually the greatest sinners
who experience the most overwhelming grace and forgiveness.
"Well, then," he asks himself, "shall we sin the more . . . that grace may abound?" (Makes sense).

But then he quickly responds, "Me genoito."
which, loosely translated is "You've got to be out of your gourd."
This happens over and over again: first a question, then me genoito.
It is almost as though Paul had two heads,
constantly arguing with one another.

For me, there are several high points in Romans:
The first is too long to read now, so I'll leave you to it on your own time.
In Romans 9-11 Paul writes about Christianity's relationship to the Jews.
And what he says, with great power and relative clarity
had been ignored by Christians, by the church for almost 2000 years.
Then, an Episcopal theologian, Paul van Buren along with the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth,
wrote, simply: “Read what Paul is saying!"

Christians had always been taught (I was taught in seminary)
that once Jesus Christ had come, the Jewish religion was history.
But Van Buren and nearly every reputable scholar after him tell us this:

“Read what Paul writes."
What Paul says is this:
God made a promise to Abraham
that his descendants would be the people of God forever. Period.
That was a Promise. . . an Unconditional Promise.
That covenant. . . that binding relationship has not been broken,
and it will never be broken by God.”

Paul says, simply: "If God makes promises and then breaks them, God can't be trusted."
"We Christians," says Paul,
"We Christians have been grafted into that holy history."
We are a part (not the whole)
a wonderful, glorious part . . .of the whole people of God."
Our relationship to the Jews is not one of superior to inferior,
but one of gratitude . . . and dependence.

The second high point for me is from chapter 7 (which you heard 2 weeks ago)
This, we know most intimately, as parents...
but also, as church, as nation . . .. (and in all of life)
"The good that I would, I do not. . .
and that which I would not, is precisely what I do. . .”
We get so tied up in knots.
"Who," cries Paul, "who will deliver me from this body of death?"
Who will free me from my conditioning, my prejudice,
my worst impulses, my twisted self-interest, my sin?

And then Paul talks about overcoming our sin and isolation
through the reality of living “in Christ,” who heals and restores.
It’s not a matter of gritting out teeth and trying to measure up.
We get it wrong when we equate faith with belief or a set of doctrines.
Faith has to do with trust and relationships –
and at the heart of it, for Paul, is being “in Christ."

Being in Christ is like “being in the army” or being in the circus.
It is the context for our lives.
Earlier I told you about two short prayers that are at the heart of that:
One is for when you are in your bed and ready to go to sleep:
it is praying “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit – my self”
and letting your bed be the hands of God enfolding you.

The second is for when your feet hit the floor as you get out of bed.
Feel yourself rooted in the reality of God,
flowing from the center of creation, up through the floor,
up through your feet, into your body.
Those are the bookends of your life that day, every day.
And that is at the heart of our Baptism:
Our lives are placed, entrusted into the loving care of the Risen Christ.

The third high point for me is a single sentence
and it is the key to our life in the world.       

        "Do not be conformed to this world,
        but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

That could be the mission statement of any vital Christian congregation. [repeat].
We are in, but not of. .  the world.  
As Paul also writes:  we are here as ambassadors from heaven
That is where our lives are rooted.

The fourth high point is today’s reading from Romans 8.
It’s a passage we use at funerals,
usually when there has been great suffering involved.
Paul, himself, endured awful suffering throughout his life:
first there was his daily suffering from a childhood malady
that he only refers to as his "thorn in the flesh."
And then later the deep, deep emotional and spiritual struggles within himself.
For Paul, suffering is: no one is exempt.
In fact, it may touch those who are more spiritual  . . deeper than anyone else.
But God's love is not bound by temporal limits, by "this age" or "this time."

So, Paul writes,
"I reckon that the sufferings of this time
are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed to us.
The whole creation has been groaning, in anticipation of its birthing
and only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit;
groan inwardly as we await our adoption as children of God.”

There is so much here.
Paul's sense of the creation -- here and in Colossians -- is astounding.
Religion is not just about people or disembodied souls.
It is about all of creation.
And the whole creation groans. . . as it awaits its rebirth, it's restoration.
Sin. . . is not just a bunch of bad choices people make:  it infects everything.
It is in genetic mutations that have gone wild. -. cancer, debilitating disease.
It's weeds and flowers and grasses struggling against one another for sustenance;
it's earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados and drought – menacing the rest of creation.
It's dogs and cats and other animals and humans, dying before their time.
Just as you and I struggle for wholeness and grace
so, in a sense does all of creation.
So, in our prayers, we are to lift up -- not only our personal problems and issues,
but creation, itself, for healing and transformation.

On a more mundane level, what this means, as well,
is that the care we have for our pets and for our gardens is ministry.
It means that the care we take, in this State, for our minerals and for our water
is spiritual work and ministry … as well as good citizenship.

The last high point for me are words that have been, for me, life-saving:
Not physically life-saving, but emotionally and physically life-saving.
When I was working as Episcopal Chaplain at the University of North Carolina
I was working collaboratively with the rector of the large Episcopal Church
which was located, literally, on the campus.
Peter was a very strong, but very jealous man.
And though I worked with him and not for him – he had all the power in the relationship.

I had never done better, more effective work as a priest (and that was the problem for Peter).
My wife and I had bought a house and just had our third child
when Peter came to me after the midweek service on Epiphany.
"I need to tell you,” he said, “that your contract will be renewed  ..  over my dead body."
And I knew he had the power to make that happen.
My wife and I, absolutely devastated. . . went to a movie at the local mall that night.
And at the mall that night was a craft fair. . .
the absolute worst craft fair either of us could have imagined. . .
except for one booth near the entrance to the theater.
It housed a religious calligrapher by the name of Michael Podesta.
He had the most gorgeous work --
and one piece in particular, named "Paul" which read:

          “If God is for us, who can be against us?
           For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life,
 nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come,
          nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

My wife took my hand and said,  “We must never ever let anything or anyone else
take our church . . . or God . . away from us.”
And that was all I needed to know – then, and so many times later.
And that is Paul's message to each of us:
never let anything -- no priest, no fellow parishioner,
no slight or oversight, no tragedy or disappointment
no cancer or oncoming weakness or dementia
ever. . .separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.

Never, ever give anything in your life that power
which belongs, only, to God
who works in our good times, yes, and in our times of suffering,
who feeds us, whether we know we are hungry or not.
Who calls us by our names. Our Abba, Father, God.

So, as you read through Romans.
When you come to the dense parts, shake your head and move on (quickly)
Until you get to the good stuff.
Mark it with a highlighter if you want, God won’t mind.
And let that sink in . . . over and over and over again.