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!

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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.

 

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.