2012-10-14 by abookflog
Preacher: Sue Haslehurst
14th October 2012
Readings: Micah 6, Romans 3:21 – 4:25
(referenced/quoted later in sermon)
Today we continue our sermon series on the first half of Romans and look at Romans 3:21 – 4:25. I’ll start with a glance at where we got to 3 weeks ago, then look at some well known verses near the end of chapter 3, including two significant ideas that come up there, the righteousness of God and the hotly contested “faith in Jesus” – or is it the “faith of Jesus”? Then we’ll get back to the text & look much more briefly at the rest of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4. Paul’s argument is still in mid-flight at the end of chapter 4 but we’ll pause there to consider how much we can say already about how Paul’s approach may be helpful for the Roman church.
SUMMARY OF LAST TIME
We heard that the large Jewish community in 1st century Rome included many slaves or former slaves and worshipped in house synagogues. Many Gentiles began to worship with them. This pattern carried over into the early church in Rome. It too met in homes and was made up of both Jews and Gentiles. And the tricky relationship between Jews and Gentiles and the relationship each group has to the gospel are at the heart of the book of Romans..,
We also tried to get our heads round the “new perspective on Paul” which has developed over the past 35 years or so. (So, a bit like New College Oxford which was founded in the brash young year of 1379, the new perspective on Paul is not actually all that new any more…). We’ll be coming back to it today as we look at some particular verses and ideas.
In Romans chapters 1 & 2 we saw Paul criticise those (probably mostly Gentiles) who have turned their backs on what they could have known of the creator God to worship idols instead. But we found that in chapter 1 Paul uses language very similar to Psalm 106’s account of the way Israel turned against God and Moses making a golden calf to worship. So it’s not just Gentiles who have a track record of idolatry…
Which took us to a key theme of chapters 1 & 2, which we’ll see again today, the impartiality of God, an important message for a church wrestling with possible division along ethnic lines. Just as in Matthew 5 God impartially sends blessing “on the righteous and on the unrighteous”, here in Romans God is impartial in both blessing and judging: “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.” So there’s no advantage for the Jews in having the law or boasting about an identity based on the law if they’re not actually living it.
And I left you with a cliff hanger: what will Paul have to say about how to be a church where diversity, differences in background and emphasis, are respected?
So let’s start with a look at some of the most famous verses in Romans, chapter 3:21-26, which Ted Grimsrud describes as the “punch line” of the first three chapters.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile,
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—
26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Grimsrud points out the apparent contradiction in the first sentence: the righteousness of God is disclosed “apart from the law” and yet also “attested by the law and the prophets”. So is the righteousness of God apart from the law or isn’t it?
Well, before we go any further, let’s slip in a quick reference to the new perspective ojn Paul which also, I think, gives a helpful perspective on the law. It argues that Paul’s critique of Judaism is not that, as Protestants from Luther onwards have often suggested, it’s a religion of legalism which is being superseded by the gospel of grace. Rather it is that it’s not usually practised as it should be and is often too narrowly defined. So for Paul as a First Century Jew, the true meaning of the law was not a way of getting into God’s good books but a pointer to God’s mercy and grace, with instruction on how to live justly and mercifully within God’s covenant. And that’s still a good thing which doesn’t need to be set aside.
However, as we see in Romans and Galatians, some particular bits of the law – the bits about religious observance which mark Jewish ethnic identity, things like circumcision, clean and unclean food – had become very contentious between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
So I think Paul is here saying several things. The righteousness of God is revealed in a way that is not narrowly tied into the parts of the law that mark out Jews from Gentiles. Rather it’s revealed by God’s own righteous action in the faithfulness of Jesus. So in these senses it’s revealed apart from the law.
But, that’s not quite as distinct from the wider pattern of the law as we might at first think. Actually, the law and prophets are clear about the importance of loving faithfulness to God. This goes far beyond the detail of the law. Think of the exhortations in Deuteronomy for the Jews to circumcise their hearts. Or of Hosea 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” or our reading from Micah 6.
Micah 6 (NIV)
1 Listen to what the LORD says: “Stand up, plead my case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say.
2 “Hear, you mountains, the LORD’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the LORD has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.
3 “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.
4 I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.
5 My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the LORD.”
6 With what shall I come before the LORDand bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
9 Listen! The LORD is calling to the city— and to fear your name is wisdom— “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it.
10 Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house, and the short ephah, which is accursed?
11 Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?
12 Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully.
13 Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins.
14 You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty.You will store up but save nothing, because what you save I will give to the sword.
15 You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.
16 You have observed the statutes of Omri and all the practices of Ahab’s house; you have followed their traditions. Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations. ”
So the law itself – and the prophets – have always attested that the law is about the whole of life not just religious observance.
And not only that, if God has once again intervened “apart from the law” in Jesus, that pattern is well established in Old Testament. There God acts decisively to choose and rescue people to whom God makes a covenant commitment, with the law following later. Abraham is chosen and loved by God; circumcision comes later. (This is a key point in Romans chapter 4.) In the Exodus God rescues Israel out of slavery – and then gives Moses the law.
So, the law is an important idea in these verses. Let’s look now at two others: the righteousness of God and the “faith of Jesus”/ “faith in Jesus”.
Toews tells us that righteousness in the Old Testament is covenantal and relational. It’s about right relationships within the covenant community, about how to keep faith with God and the covenant and live well in a well-ordered world. Skip ahead to the Reformation and we find righteousness understood as a legal status which God confers on an individual, treated as quite distinct from the quality of his or her relationships and the ethical and political dimensions of his or her life.
The new perspective on Paul tries to reclaim what it sees as the C1st Jewish understanding of righteousness as fuller and more rounded than simply legal status – and underlines that in Romans the righteousness Paul is most interested in is not human righteousness but the righteousness of God. In the verses we just read Paul’s point is that God has righteously and justly kept the covenant promises and in Jesus has righteously dealt with sin and offered salvation impartially to Jew and Gentile alike.
So that was righteousness, now for faith.
The letter to the Romans is framed by the phrase “the obedience of faith”, in chapter 1:5 and at the end of the letter in chapter 16:26. So it looks as though for Paul obedience and faith belong together. And Toews tells us that in contemporary Greek writing, both Jewish and secular, the word being translated here means reliability, faithfulness, trust or confidence.
So does Paul mean faith or faithfulness? But that’s not the only question. Dotted throughout Romans is a phrase which is variously translated “faith in Jesus” or the “faith/faithfulness of Jesus”. So who is having faith? Who is being faithful? Faith in Jesus became the common translation for Protestants. The “new perspective on Paul” favours “the faith of Jesus” (or “the faithfulness of Jesus”) as translation for the Greek pistis Christou.
And it makes quite a difference. Is Paul usually talking about faith in Jesus which humans are asked to have or the faithfulness of Jesus which has already been delivered? Well, if all those scholars over all those years haven’t managed to reach a consensus on this, I don’t think we will nail it today.
But let me give you a tiny taste of the “faithfulness of Jesus” side of the debate. Toews looks at other Greek writing of the period and finds that this grammatical construction (“faith of” someone) always meant that person’s own faith (or faithfulness) not other people’s belief in them. (There’s another construction for talking about belief or confidence in someone else.) He points out that pre-Luther all translations of the New Testament, from the Syriac to Erasmus, used “the faith of Jesus”. And he thinks that the text reads more smoothly with less repetition if you translate it that way.
HOW DOES THIS HELP THE CHURCH IN ROME?
Let’s hear the tail end of chapter 3 and the very beginning of chapter 4, in the NRSV, which use “faith” where others might want to use “faithfulness”:
Romans 3:27 – 4:2
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith.
28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,
30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?
2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.
In earlier chapters Paul told the Jews they couldn’t boast about having the law because they weren’t keeping it. Here he says they can’t boast because the key thing is the law of faith, the faith and faithfulness of Jesus and those who believe. And, Paul points out, this is entirely logical if God is the God of Jews and Gentiles and if God is consistent – “God is one” – and will treat all peoples alike.
This understanding, Paul says, doesn’t undermine the law. Quite apart from Paul’s earlier argument it’s attested by the law (& maybe an echo of Jesus’ words that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it), there’s the story of Abraham. Abraham didn’t belong to God’s covenant family because of ethnic identity and religious observance, marked by circumcision, but because of God’s covenant and Abraham’s faith. So Abraham is not the father of an ethnic family which people would be able to join only if they became Jewish, but the father of “of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them… and… the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:11-12).
Which is a pretty significant conclusion to offer a church busy falling out over whether Gentiles had to convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus. Faithful believing Gentiles and faithful believing Jews. Paul says, are all part of the family of Abraham – and of the family of God.
Which takes us back to the question we started with: what does Paul say about how to be a church where diversity is respected and people deal well not just with differences in background but also with differences in belief and emphasis?
What, if anything, can you draw out of our passages today and my reflections that would help to answer that question?
I have a few observations of my own.
Firstly, I notice that Paul is not afraid to give an unequivocal answer – a firm “no” – to the tricky question of whether a Gentile Christian needs to become a Jewish Christian. Indeed he goes further, saying that faithful Gentiles are not just part of God’s plan for a covenant community but even part of Abraham’s family. Probably quite a disappointment for Jews who want the Gentile Christians to convert to Judaism…
However (and secondly), Paul doesn’t dismiss everything the Jews hold dear. He acknowledges the richness of Israel’s story and its special relationship with God.
Thirdly, Paul doesn’t just assert his view and leave his audience to like it or lump it. He seems to have a very good understanding of where the Jews are coming from and he engages with their objections carefully.
Fourthly, both sides thought there was a lot at stake – and there was. But Paul shows that what was actually at stake was even greater. Paul’s gift to the church in Rome is to highlight the beliefs about God and discipleship which underlie the position statements and any sense of superiority on either side. He contrasts this with his own understanding of God’s righteousness in Jesus and God’s vision of a faithful covenant family. So a third party helps them understand their own motivation and set it alongside a greater vision.
Finally he approaches the divisions within the church from the perspective of God’s impartiality and the inclusion of all who believe into one family – not perhaps one big happy family but a family nonetheless which will need to learn to appreciate each other across significant divides and to accept each other as fellow members of the family.