A Valentine’s Verse.

February 13, 2011

love builds up

 Dear reader, today’s post is very short and, I hope, a little sweet. As you know, it’s valentines day tomorrow and so how apt that I should be reading Paul’s advice on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. However, I must admit, it’s not very romantic!

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ 2But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. (7:1-3)

I can’t imagine any one having that read at their wedding! Now, of course, it’s taken out of context. Paul was actually encouraging the Corinthians, who’d convinced themselves to give up marriage, that the union was good in the eyes of God, that it was fine for them to be married. Though he, believing that Jesus would come again in his lifetime, erred on the side of caution advising those who weren’t married to stay that way.

No, you’ll not find much romance from this chapter of Paul. But don’t despair, I have a found us a verse about love, one to keep in hearts (our real hearts that is, not over-priced chocolate covered or stuffed velvet ones!). And I have found it in the less likely chapter 8, which is all about whether or not the Corinthians should eat food offered to idols. Nestled in the very specific advice, which can feel irrelevant to us now, is this wonderful phrase:

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (8:1b)

Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to act from a place of love, rather than one of superior knowledge, and so he says Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (8:2-3). He asks them to act from a place of humility.

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I know in my own marriage this is a verse to remember. When we think we’re in the right, when we think the other person simply doesn’t understand; will I act from my ‘knowledge’ or in love (which is always God’s love)?

May tomorrow not be about cards and chocolates and flowers, which will fade so soon (and cost so much!!) but instead may it be about building each other up with a hundred little blessings; making a home of love.

Amen.

 

P.S. Just to prove I’m not blogging in a vacuum; how about Egypt huh?

Dear reader, I’ve really enjoyed my experiments over the last week or so. Letting myself be freer and more creative in my responses to reading the Bible has really breathed new life into this project. Thanks God!

Yes, I’ve definitely felt more enthusiastic of late… and then there was 1 Corinthians 5-6. These are not two chapters that give me that ‘spurred-on by the word of God feeling’; more turned off by the word of Paul. I don’t react well when the chapter heading is “sexual immorality defiles the church” and as read I just kept thinking “stop being mean!” It makes me angry when I read lines like “drive out the wicked person from among you” (5:8). Is that how the Church is supposed to behave? To ‘hand over to Satan’ those who are not living right (5:5)? Aren’t we supposed to love them???

Okay, lady, take a breath. Aaah that’s better. Once I let my immediate (allergic) reactions die down I begin to see past the bits that make me angry. Paul is writing to a divided community in different time. In fact I read a great reflection commentary on 6:12-20 which opened up this whole reading for me.  So here goes:

 It is widely believed that Paul established the church in Corinth when he lived there for a year or so (Acts 18:11, AD 49-51?). He’s writing to them sometime later (AD 54?), when they seem to have more than slightly lost their way.

He had taught them about the freedom that we are offered in Jesus; he had taught them of a redemption that was beyond the law. However, they seem to have taken the whole freedom thing and run with it. So much so that they are now boasting about a man in their congregation who’s married his father’s wife (is his father still alive? is it his mum? too many icky questions). They’re also arguing in public, taking lawsuits against each other (6:1-11). So it looks like the early Christians weren’t so good at working on their public image; “come to church; you can sleep with your step-mum and argue with each other”. Erm, no thanks.

When I think about it like this, no wonder Paul needs to give them a good talking to. I’m still uncomfortable with the whole ‘throw the naughty ones out’ idea. Seventy times seven and all that. But then I guess you can’t forgive someone if they’re not sorry… Still, I think one of the most miraculous and inspiring things is when you stick by someone even when they’re behaving badly. When you just keep loving them. That’s a witness of Christ to me.

That aside, there’s something really important going on here. The beloved Spiderman quotation (beloved by my husband at least, he wishes he had spidey senses) goes “with great power comes great responsibility”, perhaps the same is true of freedom. Indeed, I think what it is to be free has been totally misunderstood in recent years (always? I duno, I’m only 26). It’s seen as an absence of constraints, a “I can do anything I want, I’m empowered” thing. I certainly saw it like that (within reason, not many people feel they are ‘free’ to kill others etc).

But perhaps instead of an absence it’s a presence, or the assurance of a presence. The deep knowing that God is and always will be with us. This freedom isn’t the kind that makes you want to go out and get wasted, it’s the kind that frees you from those needs for oblivion. But there are no rules; you don’t have to be a teetotaler to please Him either. He just wants your heart. That’s a big ‘just’.

A passage from ‘concerning worship’ in the Iona Abbey worship book (fantastic resource) reads “We owe our very existence as a community to the central Gospel conviction that worship is all that we are and all that we do. Either everything we do is an offering to God, or nothing. We may not pick and chose.”

Wow. Everthing? I was really struck by this, especially “we can’t pick and choose”. And it seems to resonate with what Pauls is saying when he asks “do you know that your bodies are members of Christ?” He is reminding the Corinthians that they’re not living for themselves, that their religion cannot simply be a mechanism for justifying their behaviour.

You are one with Christ. Do you get that? Do you get how major that is?

When we know this, when we enter into a community where knowing this is the premise for everything else, we open ourselves up to be challenged. Instead of reading Paul’s words as arrogant berating, I could see them as brotherly admonition (though he terms it fatherly in 4:15 but that’s not very Matthew 23:9).

It is okay for us to challenge each other, because we have all made a commitment to be changed each day from glory in glory.

Paul makes it very clear that there is a different standard for those outside the Church (5:10) and though he phrases it in rather derogatory terms (we know that there are good people who aren’t Christian!) I think his meaning remains true for us. If you have invested in the message of Jesus, if you have chosen the narrow gate, then you better be ready to have a long hard look at yourself. What is the church for if not to hold up the mirror?

Church needs to be a place where can safely, lovingly challenge each other, not because we know better, or we live better, but precisely because we’re all in the same boat. And sometimes the boat needs rocking.

Can you imagine a community where it was safe enough to challenge each other? Where criticism could be seen as an expression of love not attack? I’m not sure I’m secure enough to be a community like that, but I think it sounds very special. Perhaps Paul thought so too.

Dear reader, this is my 70th post. Go me! Although I had originally intended to post every day that hasn’t really happened, as you know. This is partly health, partly work, partly fun stuff getting in the way, and I think that’s fine. But I must admit I’m not really ‘raring to go’ with this blog at the moment. When I began it was the first flush of enthusiasm; a new project is always enlivening (unless it’s a let’s-clean-the-skirting-boards-with-a-toothbrush project of something of that ilk). But as winter set in and I realised I wasn’t suddenly going to go viral and become and internet sensation, I felt slightly less enthusiastic.

What I’m realising with this process is that it’s not just about learning what the scripture says, which was my original intention. It’s actually teaching me about my relationship with the Bible; my prejudices, my favouritisms, my cynicism. This is something of real value, and something I hadn’t really thought about before. But it’s obvious really, that our state of mind affects how we approach, and so how we absorb, the words in this book.

Recently I’ve been feeling a bit stale, a bit stuck around this project. I’m reading dutifully, but not joyfully. I suppose that’s a common experience with Bible reading. And the principle of self-discipline – ploughing on when we’d rather be watching Friends repeats – is a good one, but I’m wondering what’s to be done? I’m wondering whether reading the Bible could actually be…fun… dun dun der!

 I love being playful, irreverent even, but somehow I don’t include this part of myself this with the process of reading the Bible. But why not? There are jokes in there! Hebrew scholars tells us there are lots of puns and plays on words in the Old Testament, which we sadly lose in translation. And then there’s the New Testament, there are loads of jokes in there. Why do you look at the splinter in someone else’s eye when there’s a log in your own? Classic! And Paul’s not adverse to a joke or two either, honest! But I always come back to the idea that, finally, our experience must profound. Even if that means it’s profoundly boring.

So, dear reader, what to do, what to do? Mix it up a bit of course!

And that’s what I did with good old Paul and his letter to the Corinthians. I have definitely learned about my prejudices to Paul through this reading. In my head his letters speak in a serious and self-satisfied tone. So I decided to counteract that with my first mixing-it-up experiment. There’s nothing like a bit of silliness to loosen things up.

I read 1 Corinthians aloud in a number of different voices. First, as a Blue Peter presenter, then in a sort of swanky advert voice (“you too can have a sparkling new X”, that sort of thing), and finally, and a bit more seriously, in the voice a nurturing, caring mother; something I rarely think of Paul as!

So did it help? Well at first I thought maybe not. It amused me to read the words of Paul in the voice of an overenthusiastic children’s TV presenter, sure, especially saying things like “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” in a relentlessly cheerful manner. And perhaps I heard the words differently than before. But I found myself asking, what insight in the words am I gaining here? And the answer was, pretty much, none.

But do I need to gain insight every time I pick up the Bible? Surely to expect a daily epiphany is a bit much? My experiment wasn’t geared in that direction, rather it was meant to bring a bit of life, and a bit of me into my relationship with this book. What reading 1 Corinthians 3-4 aloud in these different voices did was nothing dramatic; I havent suddenly fallen madly in love with Paul and all that he was. To be frank, whatever tone I read “I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me” in it doesn’t lose its patronising edge (4:16). But it did something; shifted something. I helped me to enjoy reading the Bible, with a pinch of a irreverence, but all the same to engage in a new way. And the voice of the mother helped me to consider the idea that Paul wrote in a spirit of love. I invite you to give it a try. Can you think of some out of the box voices? Please share them!

I think the word relationship is a good one to apply to how we interact with the Bible. Whether we’re acquaintances or long-term lovers, there seems to be more going on than the dynamic of a person and an inanimate book. For my part, I believe that the Bible is alive, speaking to us in new ways and revealing the ever-newness of God, if we’ll listen. That’s why it’s so important for me not just go through the motions. Like in every relationship, I need to put the work and mix it up if things are going to last.

So over the next week (month? year?) I’ll be trying a few experiments different ways of responding to what I read. Jesus came to give us life in all its fullness, why should we limited and uncreative in our approach to the book that tells us this good news?

 

Oh, and if you’re unfamiliar with the ‘blue peter presenter’ genre, enjoy:

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Great way to start a post hey? Well, I can’t take all (any) of the credit as a stole it from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, verse 3 to be precise.

The verse that ends today’s reading (chapters 1-2) is equally quotable: “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” The mind of Christ? Wowza. What does that even mean?

In these chapters Paul spends most of  his time contrasting the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.He writes that the message of the cross is “foolishness” to those who do not accept Jesus, or as Paul tactfully describes them “those who are perishing”. I am well aware of how foolish and strange many of the most familiar Christian beliefs are. In my work I have spoken with international students who come from places where little is known about Chriastianity and are perplexed to hear the details: “you believe God was a human?” “well, yes, but also no…” “so you believe God was crucified?” “well yes…”.

My favourite question I’ve been asked is from a Muslim student here to do a PhD; “I’ve heard some Christians eat bread and drink wine and they believe that it symbolises Jesus’ body and blood, what kind of Christians are they? ” His tone implied that the thought it was some kind of sect, until I said “actually, we pretty much all do that, some more often than others, and some Christians believe that it’s actually the body and blood of Jesus.” Now that was an interesting conversation! The point here is not to imply that this guy was one of those worldly foolish types, but to show how alien and unintelligible Christian beliefs can be. This would also be a good point to mention that I have learned and will continue to learn much on my spiritual journey from other faiths and people of all faiths and none.

Paul’s writing can make it all seem pretty clear cut: those with human wisdom don’t understand the gospel, those with God’s wisdom do. But I worry about these conclusions; as I said in my last post, there’s nothing worse than a smug Christian. Okay, so Paul makes it clear that our boast should be in God, not in our own understanding (1:31), but we’re still affirming that we are the ones who have received God’s wisdom; we must be very very of some egos getting puffed up here.

Over this Christmas season (it’s not over until the 6th people!) it really struck me me how much I believe in Jesus; his birth and life, his death and resurrection and the saving grace that he has brought the world. How much I believe the doctrines preached by Christians (including Paul) for two millenia, even if I do shrink from a few of the add-ons. If I have any wisdom then it is through Christ Jesus and I feel it has been revealed to me by the Spirit, as Paul writes in 2:12-13. Believing these things that I do means that I disagree with others, not only with atheists, but with those of other faiths. And I must be true to this, because I would have no integrity if I simply pretended to agree with whoever I was with (though of course there is a time to speak and a time remain silent). But how do I do this with humility?

Perhaps if I never make these beliefs into beliefs about myself; about how I”m right, or I’m spiritual. It feels a bit scary to think about that; to toy with the idea of losing my identity in God’s. 

Though I find Paul’s binary languages about Christians and others (e.g. worldly wise and godly wise, spiritual and unspiritual) hard to accept, I do like how he describes his attempts to share God simply in Corinth;

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (2:1-2)

To know nothing except Jesus Christ. What a wonderful concept. Even as I write again I find the concept more than a little scary. “know nothing else? what about all that education I have? what about my theological musings? what about me?” This scared little voice is an unmistakably good sign; not about me, but about the idea.

To know nothing except Jesus. What would that look like? What would we know? Freedom, sacrifice, love, mercy, justice, peace, obedience, passion, forgiveness. What would we forget? Pride, arrogance, greed, money, materialism, selfishness, fear, sin.

Now wouldn’t that be something? Like to having the mind of Christ perhaps…

 I love Romans 15-16. It brings to an end the first letter from Paul that we read in the New Testament and though I have a bit of sense of achievement from getting through my first epistle, that’s not why I like it so much. Chapter 15 ends with promises of a trip to Rome and then in chapter 16 we get the personal greetings Paul sends to members of the Christian community as well as greetings sent by Christians in other places to the Romans. At first, like the many genealogies in the Bible, this can seem like an irrelevant list, something to be skim read so we can get on to the good stuff. But this is not true for the genealogies and neither is it true for these words of greeting.

I love this more personal, more specific ending of Paul’s letter because it reminds me that this was a real letter sent to real people who, like us, were grappling with the Big Questions and striving to live in Christ with each other. What’s more, we get a glimpse of Paul, not as some lofty orator whose voice bellows from the pages of a scripture, but as a real person, with relatives and friends and, dare I say it, favourites.

Let me pick out a few greetings that especially broadened my smile:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Paul, often quite a lone figure in the New Testament, had relatives, had people whom he had suffered with and, more importantly for me, whom he looked up to. Paul’s writing can sound a little arrogant here and there, like in 15:1 when he says “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak “. (Alright mate, get over yourself!) This, among other things, can lead some to dismiss him out of hand, but I like that in chapter 16 I can see that Paul had people whose words were important to him, who were “in Christ before him”. Conversely, I think that’s also important to remember as sometimes Paul can be held up as the ‘ultimate Christian’, but he too held others in high esteem.

This is also highlighted in 16:13: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also.” Anyone who’s seen Dogma will know why I especially like the mention of Rufus ‘chosen in the Lord’ (it’s just a joke, don’t get your knickers in a twist!). But I also like that there was a Christian woman who mothered Paul. Again this is because Paul doesn’t always read like someone who would let himself be mothered very much, but also because it reminds me that a church, the Church, is at its best when it’s a family.

And it’s worth mentioning that Junia and Rufus’ mother and also Pheobe who is a commended in 16:11 (I assume she delivered the letter?)  are all women (there are probably more, I’m not very good with guessing the gender of names). Horrah! It’s nice to see that whatever sweeping statements Paul occassionally makes about his sisters in Christ, he actually rates many of them very highly indeed.

But the reasons above are in way too complex (I know, they’re not very complex, but bear with me), because what I really love is that Paul ends his letter like so many of us would. “say hi to Rufus for me, remember me to his mum, say hi to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas and Hermas”. Okay, I’ve never written to anyone called Asyncritus or Phlegon either, but you get the picture. I just love to imagine this network of early Christians, who knew and loved each other and of whom Paul was a part. When I think of him this way he becomes more relatable and so does his writing.

And what writing it is, say what you like about the guy but he can sign off a letter like nobody’s business. So I’ll think I’ll leave this one to him:

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.

I must confess that I’ve spent my blogging time today sleeping and reading. The sleeping was necessary for brain function and the reading was mostly about Romans 13-14 (except a little Harry Potter indulgence) but it all makes for a very short post.

There are two things I want to mention. The first is that Romans 13:1-7 with its statement that “whoever resists authorities resists what God has appointed” could be used to say that Christians should not be involved in campaign and resistance to injustice…I mean it could be used like that, unless you’ve actually read the rest of the Bible! All of the prophets were directly criticising and challenging those in authority and as Isaiah tells us to speak out for those who can’t speak from themselves. 7 verses in Romans can’t change the sweep of the entire Bible. So there. In case you’re interested, I read this interesting article and about the context Paul was writing in, which I found through textweek.com; an amazing resource for preaching and bible study!

The second thing I’d like to say is that verses 8-10 pretty much sum it all up for me:

8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 10Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

‘Love is the fulfilling of the law’ how awesome is that? Actually awesome, not ‘oh my days I love your t-shirt, it’s awesome!’. Yes. Chapter 14 fills in some details of what this love may look like in action; not judging and thinking about how your behaviour affects others. And the details are useful, but the love is the thing that gives me hope. God’ s will is not fulfilled through governments and wars, but by love in action. Some call it cheesy; I call it true!

It seems to me that chapters 11-12 of Romans (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=157726670) see the conclusion of one train of thought and the beginning of another. Chapter 11 brings to an end the long theological extrapolation that Paul has been performing since early in this letter. The fate of Israelites and Gentiles are settled, the idea of an ‘elect’ comes up (which I find rather unsettling), and we end with an amen. Then a much less intellectual more instructional section begins. Suddenly Paul’s letter doesn’t seem so wordy, in fact the langauge becomes quite elegantly economical.

I could read Romans 12 over and over again. It’s the kind of chapter I feel that every Christian could do with reading every morning. It’s all in here: “let love be genuine” (9); “extend hospitality to strangers” (13b), “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (15); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (17a) and much more. If “love thy neighbour” is Christian conduct in brief that this is the extended version.

Before this list of compassionate qualities Paul asks his readers “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (1b). To be a living sacrifice.

When I was younger I didn’t really think of myself as christian but I liked singing so I was in the local church choir. Somehow, although I was tired from Saturday nights out in Croydon or distracted by passing notes to my best friend about our latest crushes, the liturgy of that church has stayed with me. When I came to faith while at university these word “to be a living sacrifice’ (from the prayer after communion) returned to me. I wanted so much for my life to be God’s and I understood somehow that I would live more fully if I gave my life. But what did that look like? How would I be if I surrendered to God? Well I think Paul has a good shot at imagining this in 12:9-21. It’s an inspiring read; I recommend it. So I’ll make this a short post and give you time ponder Paul’s words.

I’ll leave you with the prayer I’ve loved so much:

Almighty God,
we thank you for feeding us
with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies
to be a living sacrifice.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory.
Amen.

 

Paul has a lot to say in Romans 8-10; no change there then. If, like me, you have a sleepy brain it might  feel like a lot to get through this evening. It seems to me, though, that it’s all a variation on one quite beautiful theme though. He really wants to you to know that whoever wants to access God’s love through Jesus can. And there’s not much I can add to that. So instead I have picked two verses that I think we could all do with hearing, again and again and again;

38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:38-9)

Amen.

Many phrases come to mind as I read chapters 5-7 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, but one keeps recurring; “what are you on about mate??” Granted, he’s trying to explain some pretty ground breaking theological ideas, but surely there’s a simpler way of writing about them! The long sentences; the repetition of words (sin, law, righteous, death) until they’re piled up in my head; the constant questions and refutations “what are we to say then? x? y? z? no!” (6:1, 6:15, 7:7). Maybe it’s just my bed time, but I feel like my head is going to explode!

Perhaps I am being unfair. The things that Paul’s trying to pin down here are slippery, they are still the things that we grapple with today. That to be free from the law does mean we can do what we like (6:1-2). That even what in fundamentally good (the law) can be corrupted into temptation by sin (7:7-13). The death can bring life! (5:10, 6:3-4). The Christian religion contains many paradoxes, which makes trying to explain things pretty tricky…

For me the biggest tension here is Paul’s attempt to assert justification through faith while at the same time not throwing out the law. He wants to tell us it’s through Jesus we are saved…but that doesn’t mean we can be naughty! And I quite agree. But it’s a difficult one to sell;

“you need to have faith in Jesus, because through him we access grace” (5:1-2)

“oh right, so as long as I love Jesus it doesn’t matter how I act?”

“er, no that’s not quite it…”

“well, what’s the difference if I still have to keep the law?”

“no, no, you are free from the law”

“bonus! so I can steal and cheat on my wife and all that?”

“no, you can’t. You’re free from the law but…”

“great, casinos and brothels here I come!”

“oh just forget it!”

While I think I understand the concepts a little better than my imaginary character, I’m still not clear at all. But then these are paradoxes; mysteries. They are things not necessarily there to be neatly intellectualized, not necessarily to be understood. Sometimes there is an undercurrant of truth in words, though the words themselves might not get right to the heart of it. Does that make sense? 

Paul successfully communicates two things to me; first that Jesus offers a radical new way to live, really live. Though when I try to put this invitation, this freedom, into words I never quite manage it. Second, that there are no neat explanations to this mystery. Though others may disagree with me I don’t think Paul brilliantly nails this conundrum, though he gives it a blooming good shot! But I’m glad this writing allows me only to glimpse, never to fully grasp, the nature of redemption that is offered through Jesus. If I glimpse,then I can hope, if I grasp then I may smother. 

I think this glimpse of redemption and our struggles towards it are most clearly and beautifully communicated thought the opening paragraph of chapter 5 , with which I’ll leave you…

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God […] and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Amen

Good old Paul. Good old verbose, passionate, occasionally infuriating, often inspiring Paul. What the New Testament be without him? Well, very very short for starters.

These first two chapters bring up the mingled feelings of affection and frustration I have with the letters of Paul. I love his sheer bombasticy (not a word, but should be), his zeal and his directness. Even his salutation is a nifty summary of the gospel with references to Jewish heritage as well as a welcome to the Gentiles. He doesn’t waste time, our Paul. No sooner has he given effulgent thanks for the Roman Christians and slotted in a couple of verses about the power of the gospel than he sets off on hot subject number one; the guilt of humankind. ‘O here we go!’ says a naughty little voice in my head.

This stuff makes difficult reading for me if I’m honest. I didn’t grow up in the church and I had to work hard not to be completely thrown by words like ‘wickedness’, ‘evil’ and ‘impurity’. Not that they just occur in Paul, of course, but they are rather densely clustered here! Yet if I can get through the language laden with hundreds of years of human baggage there are so many gems in this reading; so many truths.

Before I go any further, though, let me deal with the big homophobic elephant in the room. Verses 26-27 make me profoundly uncomfortable. When these passages are read as ‘homosexuality is a sign of human degradation’ it makes my skin crawl. For me this a prime example of a culturally specific part of the Bible that we don’t need to take literally, just as we would no longer tells slaves to obey their masters or women to keep silence in church (if you would do either of those things then this might not be the blog for you.) This was a time when there we no space in society for same-sex couples to develop a loving, monogamous relationship and build a family. Now, thank God, there is in many countries. The Message translation of this text puts in lots of modern conservative Christian thought that’s not there but it does also say the problem was “all lust, no love”. That’s a sign of us going astray but it can happen to straight people as much as gay people, believe me, I know! So I’ll attempt to put this archaic aspect aside and concentrate on the more eternal truths to be found.

Paul writes that God’s divine nature is revealed in his creation; that though He is invisible he can be seen in the glory of the world (1:20). Later in, chapter 2 he tells us that those who obey the law without knowing it will be rewarded. He says that the law is not just something you hear and obey but something that is written in our hearts (2:15). He is writing this to break down distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, a favourite campaign of his, but more than this he’s illustrating the universality of God’s call, God’s truth.

But still, it’s not all peachy. We have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, he writes in 1:24. In the same verse he mentions about idol worship – worshipping the creature rather than the creator. This speaks to me of how easy it to reduce God to our parameters of understanding, rather than submit in awe to the Mystery we will never solve, but can somehow serve.

The lies are easier sometimes, aren’t they? We have swapped golden idols for money and images in magazines now. The perfect body, house, relationship, life. We worship ideals dictated more by commerce that anything else. I’m guilty as charged here. I once went to a great Christian arts campaigns night about fairtrade and one of the most striking things I wrote was the sentence “help us who love things more than their Creator”. When I buy something to cheer me up instead of leaning on God am I any better than the people with their secret golden gods? I can only answer no.

Paul really nails it in for me when he warns against judging others in early chapter 2. “Takes one to know one” says the Message translation. I don’t think I’m a very judgemental person, but I totally am on this front. When I see someone driving an immaculately clean 4X4 in the city or who spends more on his/her appearance than I spend on food, I judge. And Paul, with all his strictness and zeal, reminds me of my profound imperfection, reminds me that I fall short daily.

Now, this is a depressing ending to my usually breezy posts, unfortunately we haven’t got to the part of Romans that says “don’t worry if you’re not perfect, be Jesus is, yay” (not sure if that’s quite word-for-word…). But yay all the same. It doesn’t mean I don’t need reminding that there’s (a heck of a lot of) room for improvement. Indeed, if I didn’t need that much of the Bible would become pretty redundant, especially good old Paul. But somehow it’s easier to face my own imperfections when I know that they’re not the be-all-and-end-all. God is the be-all-and-end-all, even gentiley old me knows that. It’s written on my heart.