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The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18A)
7 September 2008

A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume

Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ezekiel 33:(1-6) 7-11
Psalm 119:33-48
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 18:15-20

Imagine a city that is the financial and cultural capital of the world. Imagine a city where people from every nation gather for new opportunities and a better life. Imagine a city where the richest people on earth live in close proximity to those who have almost nothing. What city do you imagine? Our New York? Yes, of course. Everything I have just said described our teeming metropolis perfectly. And yet, everything I have just said also describes first-century Rome, the city to which Paul, in anticipation of his own visit, sent on ahead a letter introducing himself and his ideas about Jesus Christ.

Over the past several weeks, we have heard rather large swaths of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In my own sermons I have not focussed upon this text, but rather used Paul’s message to buttress my arguments, arguments taken from the Gospel lesson for the morning. When I preach, I usually work from the Gospel out and this has certainly been the case in the past few weeks. Perhaps this is my equally Anglican and Catholic bent for privileging the Gospels, perhaps it is because those summer Gospels and their hard messages demanded the attention. In any event, it seems high time for me to speak directly to this letter that addresses sophisticated, educated urban followers of Jesus.

For most of my life, I never really had time for Romans. All that talk of “justification by faith alone,” Paul’s combination of haughtiness and self-loathing, and its history of having been used by many Christians over the centuries as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon Jews really put me off that text. Recent scholarship, however, has forced me to look at Romans with new eyes and this is the great thing about being part of a tradition that puts a high value on the critical reading of Scripture. Indeed, as Episcopalians we are willing to consider scholarship and not simply to read a text at face value and allow our own twenty first-century perceptions to lead us into interpretations that run counter to the Gospel—and when I say gospel I don’t mean the individual gospel texts, but the Good News of Jesus Christ as exemplified in his life, death, and resurrection.

Yes, recent scholarship on Romans, flowing out of the not-so recent work of the late Swedish Lutheran bishop Krister Stendahl, has forced us all to re-read Romans with new eyes and new ears (1). It has allowed us to read and hear Romans in a way more like the way in which the first-century Romans to whom the letter was written heard and read the text. This work has allowed us to free ourselves from the perceptions of Augustine and Martin Luther that have coloured the way in which the Epistle has been interpreted in the West for centuries. Augustine and Luther, who were in a way as far removed from Paul’s world as we are, were highly self-aware, self-searching men, obsessed with their own sinfulness. They therefore read Paul’s assertion “wretched man that I am” (7:24) and heard a fellow penitent. They did not hear someone we now know to be a skilled rhetor employing certain forms of argument. Augustine and Luther read about justification by faith alone and how “no human being will be justified in his sight by the works of the law” (3:20) and they heard the superiority of Christianity to Judaism and that the latter faith was outmoded. They did not read the Epistle as a letter addressed to Gentiles explaining how they, too, were invited into a relationship with the God of Israel, not through the law (which is for the Jews), but rather directly through Jesus Christ. Augustine and Luther did not seem to hear Paul saying “I am speaking to you Gentiles” and his statements that God will also bring Salvation to Israel (11:31-32).

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, then, is a highly rhetorical treatise on God’s great love for the world and his seeking to reconcile all peoples with him. It is a text addressed to a Gentile audience who were not sure whether they could be in relationship with the God of Israel at all. It reassured them, in fact, that Christ has come into the world for the very purpose of bringing them into relationship with the God who made the world and led the Children of Israel out of Egypt. It reassured them that they did not have to become Jews and follow the Law to do all this. It told them not to worry about the Jews—God has them covered (as it were)—and get on with the business of being in relationship with this God in the person of Jesus Christ. After telling the Gentile Romans all this Good News, this Gospel, Paul then goes on to say that this relationship in the faith of Jesus Christ has consequences for how they are to live their lives in the world. He goes on to tell them that God in Christ cares about their lives—how they are lived and how they are ordered. This part of the Epistle—the part of the letter where our readings for this week and last have been taken and often referred to dismissively as “the ethical material at the end”—is, in fact, hugely important.

Here we find words no less true today than they were two thousand years ago. Paul tells us that since we are called into relationship with God in Christ we must now get on with our ministry, get on with our lives in the world as if this new relationship mattered and made a difference. Each of us has different talents, he tells us, and since this relationship with the God of Israel matters, each of us has work to do:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness (12:6-8)

As I told you last week, we are called to use the gifts we have been given to serve the one who lives, truly lives, and knows what it is to suffer. We are called to use our diverse gifts and imitate Christ as best as we can and accept and Love Jesus for who he is (now who we want him to be) because that is the way in which he loves us.

In today’s epistle, Paul tells us what that service might look like:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.

Even at the end of this most theological of Epistles, Paul makes it clear that all these words, all these ideas, all these arguments about how God will enfold the Gentiles into his plans for salvation, all these things are ultimately to do with what we do and how we act while we still have life. The reality of God in Christ, his mission to the world, his incarnation in space and time all mean that what we do matters and how we live matters. It is, in fact, in this passage that we see, through all the theology and classical rhetoric, Paul getting at the very heart of the Gospel, that Good News encapsulating all of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. Here we hear Paul exhorting the Romans to nothing less that lives of love and peace, lives of hospitality and humility, lives of joy and prayer and fellowship.

And indeed, my brothers and sisters, this is still the life to which God calls us, some two thousand years later in another world capital at the centre of the known world, not unlike first-century Rome. We are like those first-century Romans, leading complex, urban lives, and we need this Good News as badly as they did: that the God of Israel calls all of us out of ourselves and into relationship with him and in that relationship calls us to live lives in keeping with, and worthy of his loving purpose.

 

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Feria, 6 September 2008

 

(1) Krister Stendahl, “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 1-77. See also Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1994) and John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: University Press, 2000).

 

©2008 Andrew Charles Blume