Series on Romans (Part I).

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2012-09-23 by abookflog

Preacher: Sue Haslehurst
23rd September 2012
Reading: Romans 1:16-17 (NRSV)

Romans 1:16:17 (NRSV)

16 For 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.
17 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 is the first in our new sermon series on the first half of Romans. My brief is to look at selections from Romans 1:18 to 2:16. There’s no introduction to the series (to save it all taking too long) but I’ll use part of my sermon to do some introducing…

So, Romans is a letter written to a particular church with some particular issues at a particular time – but as Paul addresses these specifics we see something of how he thinks in general. (Conveniently, Romans is one of the Pauline letters that is generally thought to be from Paul himself, so we can safely talk about “Paul” not “the writer”.) And, as Lloyd Pietersen sets out in his book Reading the bible after Christendom, it is not only genuinely from Paul but it is genuinely a letter, broadly following the usual patterns for a letter of the time, but adding to them. For instance instead of the usual “from A to B greetings” we get “from A to B grace and peace”.

What sort of background do we have on the church in Rome? The Believers Church Bible Commentary on Romans offers some insight into the Jewish community in Rome in the mid 1st century. At this time Jews probably made up around 2% to 5% of the million-strong population of Rome. Many were slaves or former slaves, some brought to Rome as captives after military campaigns, but the community was beginning to grow in size & influence, so attracting unwanted attention & persecution. Jews in Rome worshipped in hundreds of diverse & independent house synagogues, with new ones set up when and where they were needed. (And they were needed quite often as Gentiles began to worship with them, whether as full converts or as “God-fearers”.) Perhaps it’s not surprising then that we discover later in Romans that the church too met in homes – homes which archaeologists tell us ranged from part of a tenement building to rooms over a shop to the houses of better off craftsmen. And of course another characteristic they carried over from their synagogue roots, something that we’ll see much more of as we carry on reading through Romans, was that the early church in Rome was made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Ay, there’s the rub, one might be tempted to say…

Before we launch into looking at our passages, there’s one more bit of introduction. I think I need to mention the “new perspective on Paul” which has developed over the past 35 years or so. Some of your are better qualified than I am to talk about this, but here’s my attempt at a summary… The new perspective on Paul considers that 4 centuries of Protestant interpretation of Paul’s thought read back the Protestant/Catholic disagreements of the Sixteenth Century into Paul’s First Century letters. This interpretation, conditioned by its critique of the Catholic church of the time, painted Judaism as a tyrannical religion of works and self-righteousness and the gospel as rescue by grace from the treadmill of this kind of legalism. So the gospel, the good news, is about how individuals can receive the righteousness of Jesus and thus saved. The new perspective on Paul suggests that this approach misunderstands 1st century Judaism and misses Paul’s preoccupation not with the righteousness of individual sinners but with the righteousness of God. It also misses Paul’s strongly apocalyptic world view which expects God to intervene decisively to transform history to wrap up our current evil age and bring in the new age. So the gospel is that Jesus’ resurrection does at least four things:
• it puts everything right
• in doing so it proves that God keep promises to bless Israel, Gentiles and the whole of creation – God is faithful and righteous
• it proves that Jesus is Lord (Jesus not the Roman emperor)
• it brings in the new age, in which Jesus is Lord and sin & evil are no longer in charge

So, before we move on to our actual verses for the day, we’re going to hear our first reading again, this time with language used by John Toews who wrote the Believers Church Bible Commentary to reflect the new perspective on Paul.

Romans 1:16-17 (Toews)

(This will be sourced and added shortly – Ed.)

Any comments so far, esp on my summary of the new perspective on Paul?

OK, let’s hear our first passage now.

READINGS: Romans 1:18 – 25 (NRSV)

So, the message of the first passage is a stark one, God’s anger at all kinds of unrighteousness. Humanity had access through creation to the glory of God, but many have turned their backs on that to worship not God but a fellow creature, whether that be human or animal or a human artefact.

I guess you could argue that this is a simple case of caveat emptor. If people are foolish enough to trade in knowledge of the glory of God for idol worship, to settle for an impoverished second best, a pale imitation, well, more fool them, they’ll soon be living with the consequences.

But God doesn’t seem to see it this way. Certainly here God does leave them to their own devices, gives them up to the path they have chosen. But this is not just a morality tale about the inevitable consequences of bad choices – though Paul lists plenty of those in some of the verses we’re not reading today, consequences not just for the chooser but for those around them: envy, murder, ruthlessness to name but three. (You’ll notice that in those verses is also one of the New Testament references to homosexual sex that give the church so much to think about and which I’m not going to talk about today as I don’t think we can do justice to the conversation in just part of a sermon). So, if it’s not a morality tale about the inevitable consequences of bad choices, what is it? It’s about the wrath of God and the way bad choices disrupt not just the lives of the chooser and those around them but, critically, the connection with God.

I’ve often thought in the past that this passage is about people of religions other than Judaism, and of course they may well have been guilty of idolatry – we could name examples from the OT & ancient history. But verse 23 here is remarkably similar to the psalmist’s account of the Exodus on Psalm 106 and the way Israel turned against God and Moses making a golden calf to worship: “19 They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. 21 They forgot God, their Saviour, who had done great things in Egypt, 22 wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.”

And the consequences are quite similar too. In Psalm 106: “Therefore [God] said he would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” Here in our passage in Romans:
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!”

So I think already we’ve arrived at a theme that we’ll come back to today and probably on future Sundays, the impartiality of God. Followers of idolatrous religions may well be guilty of turning from worship of the Creator to worship of the creator, but they’re not the only ones. The Jews too have this in their history. And in all cases this provokes the wrath of God.

So, whoever we are, we may want to reflect on the idols we may be tempted to worship, the idols of our age. What do you think our society worships?

In his book “Reading the Bible After Christendom” Lloyd Pietersen suggests several: Mars (the god of war), Mammon (the god of economics & money), Techne (the goddess of science and technology), Venus (the goddess of love), Hebe (the goddess of youth) & Dionysus (the god of revelry & hedonism). Perhaps we can pause for a moment and ask ourselves, if I was going to worship an idol, one from Lloyd’s list or another, what would it be…

Let’s hear our next reading.

READINGS: Romans 2:1 – 11 (NRSV)

So we come back to a theme I mentioned earlier, the impartiality of God. At first sight that looks a slightly unlikely way of describing God, as to me impartiality sounds a bit cold, maybe even indifferent. The God of the Old Testament seems passionate and engaged. But I think it means the kind of generosity and unconditional care we get in Matthew 5:44-45, the opposite of a mean-spiritedness I sometimes see in myself “well, if they keep messing everything up I just won’t play any more”. In fact, God’s impartiality here is linked with love of enemies – it’s all very Anabaptist. Matt 5 says “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

And the other link I want to make to Paul’s emphasis on God’s impartiality is to Deuteronomy 5:17: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” This impartiality which ensures justice for those who don’t always get it because they can’t pay for it. So, by contrast with the prevailing wind, so to speak, it may even look like partiality, a bias to the poor, to use David Sheppard’s phrase.

So in this context God’s impartiality is about God’s concern for a life well lived, a life of patiently doing good and God’s judgement on those who are hard-hearted and self-seeking. And there’s no difference here between those whose wickedness is conspicuous & those who judge them while slyly acting just as selfishly. We’re all, Paul suggests, as bad as each other: the immoral are unjust, the judgers of others are unjust. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ challenge in John 8 “let him who is without sin throw the first stone”.

And, critically for Paul’s argument, there’s no difference between Jew and Greek. The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”. “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.” There may be a difference in sequence here but no difference in outcome. There are no grounds for Jews to feel smug that they got to God first, so to speak, but equally there are no grounds for Gentiles to feel superior that they found their way to God not by accident of birth. There are no grounds for Jews to feel smug that they know and keep the Jewish law, but equally there are no grounds for Gentiles to feel superior that they feel free of those requirements.

So Paul lays foundations for the rest of his letter in which a key question will be how to be church of both diversity & respect for that diversity, how not to divide on all sorts of questions along ethnic lines, how to be different but equal. Quite a challenge and one that may have relevance for us when we talk about areas where we disagree – but to look at that you’ll have to come back for the next instalment in 3 weeks time.

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