This week (Second Sunday after Pentecost, or Proper 5 ) we begin a season of reading St Paul and his letter to the Romans. It is worth pausing and exploring at the start for several reasons including that it is the most comprehensive and systematic statement of his theology and that means also thinking about the story of Abram and Sarah from which Paul concludes with his understanding that we are saved by faith, relationship, and not by deeds and obedience to the law.
So I am sorry – not very - but that means about one and a half sermons as I need to firstly say a few things about Paul before we can listen to this particular text. After Jesus, Paul is the single biggest influence on Christian thought. While there is a wide range of views on what Jesus meant by various words and acts there is complete agreement that he was good and kind and worthy of worship. Among Christians there is no such agreement about Paul. He was a controversial figure in his own time and remains so today.
Just as we consider the gospel of Jesus in the light of the world and time when Jesus and his disciples lived, so we must with Paul consider his world and time. Similar timeframe although a few years later but very different world. Jesus and his disciples were poor Jewish men and women of the Galilean countryside, which was one of the less sophisticated regions of Israel under Roman oppressive rule. Saul was born in Tarsus, a Roman city in what is modern day Turkey. He was Jewish but also a Roman citizen. Tarsus was an important city. It was not only a city of trading cross roads it had a school of philosophy. Paul seems to have been educated and used to cosmopolitan ideas.
Saul seems to have come to Jerusalem in his early twenties. And here he became a zealous Pharisee. In the first century the Pharisees, always great proponents of the Law of Moses, developed a passionate and possibly quite desperate belief that the strict adherence to the letter of the law would help hasten the end of days and the coming of the Messiah and that this was the only way to overcome the Roman oppression of the chosen people and their promised land. As a passionate believer in the saving – not just personal but political and religious – power of not the law but the person of Jesus the new Jesus sect within Judaism was a threat to this understanding. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that Saul persecuted the early church and was involved in the stoning to death of Christianity’s first martyr Steven. And we are told that shortly after this Saul is converted, in a blinding event on the road to Damascus, to Paul the great missionary.
From early in his ministry Paul is on a collision course with Rome and Roman authority as when he preaches that there is but one God and his son Jesus Christ, who despite being put to death by Roman authorities, still lives, Paul is preaching in direct opposition to the multitude of Roman gods including the understanding that the Caesar is the son of God on earth.
So Paul was a controversial character in his own time. Controversial to his Jewish brothers and sisters for he first persecutes those who were of the Jesus sect of Judaism and then after his conversion tells the Gentiles that they need not first convert to Judaism in order to be followers of Jesus. At first he is too Jewish and then not Jewish enough for some! And Paul is controversial to the Romans as he a Roman citizen who preaches a new belief system which if followed then threatens the authority of Rome.
Paul’s controversy for some of us is more about his first century values, in particular his acceptance of slavery as a matter of course, and his apparent disrespect for women. Over the next few weeks I think we will find neither of these positions is quite what we might have thought it was but he was certainly a man of his own times with the limitations of that. Before we judge him too harshly we might wonder what our great grandchildren will say of us. “You did what? You fed plastic into the ocean ecosystems? You allowed your brothers and sister in other countries to live in poverty while you suffered from every surfeit? You did what to your own bodies in the name of beauty?”
And one more point. Paul wrote most of his letters to communities he had already visited, that is faith communities he had established and he wrote in response to particular faith issues they were struggling with. Paul’s letter to the Romans was to a community he had not been to yet although he was planning on going there. Well he does end up there but he arrives in chains seeking judgement on the case against him. He is never heard of again and it is understood that he was sentenced to death and beheaded after spending about two years under house arrest in the Jewish quarter of Rome.
His letter to the Romans is the most systematic statement of his theology and grapples with honouring his love of Judaism and his experience of Jesus the Christ and his mission to bring the goodnews to those who are not Jewish.
So to our reading this week (Romans 4:13-25) which speaks of one of the great insights of Paul that we are saved, come into loving communion with God in Christ, not through our good works and adherence to the law, but by faith – by relationship. This coming from the one who had believed that it was his and others adherence of the Law that would bring about the coming of the Messiah. It was an utterly radical assertion then.
But what about for us now who have been raised on the notion of salvation by faith alone. Maybe not so obviously radical but we too constantly seem to slip back to thinking about God’s grace and blessings being in response to our worthiness and effort. We seem to find it hard to stay in the place of grace. We have turned the understanding of faith to be that of a belief system rather than relationship. Each and every one of us need to reclaim, again and again, the forever newly good news that we are loved before during and after whatever sinfulness, brokenness, separation that we experience.
Father Richard Rohr said it this way: “We come to God not by doing it right but, surprise of surprises, we come to God by doing it wrong! We are justified not by good works, but by faith in an Infinite Mercy that we call grace. It has nothing to do with past performance or future plans for an eternal nest egg. All it requires is a deep act of confidence in a loving God. It is so hard to believe that this imperfect, insignificant creature that I am could somehow bear the eternal mystery. God can only grow bigger as we [our egos or our wills] grow smaller, as John the Baptist put it. If we try to grow bigger by any criteria except divine mercy itself we only grow in love with our own image in a self created mirror. That is normally called narcissism.
How could God love me so unconditionally, we all ask? This was Paul’s struggle as well, and it led him to his cataclysmic conclusion. God loved Paul in his unworthiness, ‘while he was yet a sinner’... Therefore he did not have to waste the rest of his life trying to become worthy or prove his worthiness, to himself or to others. We seem to think God will love us if we change. Paul clearly knows that God loves us so we can change. For the only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved. When you feel loved, when you feel safe, and when you know your dignity, you just keep growing! That’s what loving people do for one another – offer safe relationships in which we can change. This kind of love is far from sentimental, it has real power. In general, you need a judicious combination of safety and necessary conflict to keep moving forward in life!”
Paul understood that while God’s grace was always available we often tend to be most open when we are in times of struggle. Many of us in hard times cling to the beautiful words from Romans: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our heats through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Paul understood that sometimes the most we can manage is to open the rusty gate to our hearts and allow the Spirit in. Paul fell in love with a God who has loved him ‘for nothing’. For the rest of his life, Paul was happy to give God all the credit and he stopped trying to validate himself by any means whatsoever. This created a very different kind of person, someone who was utterly free. And Paul lived the rest of his days inside that gift. Even to the end.
Paul understood what Abraham and Sarah had eventually realised, what Jesus demonstrated with his choice of disciples and healing of those he met, and Paul came to experience for himself, was that with God out of scarcity comes plenty, from among the least likely and the apparently left out, the promise of love is fulfilled.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, and give us the grace to surrender to your gift of love.
I am indebted to the work of: Marcus J Borg and John Dominic Crossan: “The First Paul: Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the Church’s conservative icon.” SPCK 2009
Martin Kemp (producer): “David Suchet in the Footsteps of St Paul”. BBC, 2011 (DVD)
Richard Rohr: “Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation”, Centre of Action and Contemplation, 2015
Richard Rohr: “St Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic”, Centre of Action and Contemplation, 2014
Pilgrim Theological College, Melbourne Australia podcast “By the Well” June 2023