Thursday, 15 December 2016

Paul's first words to Rome

If you can drag yourself back 2000 years and imagine that you are in Rome listening, for the very first time, to Paul’s letter to the community there, I imagine you might have wondered something along the lines, “Who the heck does this guy think he is?”

The opening line of his letter betrays an audacity that we can easily miss:

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”

These words are no simple salutation; no common greeting.  Paul’s claim to be a slave to Christ Jesus and called to be an apostle contain echoes of the claims of the Old Testament prophets and their call to be God’s servants and slaves.  Paul is claiming a heritage and authority that reflects these ancient claims and may very well have astounded his first audience in Rome.

Yet, if those early Christians found Paul’s words surprising, it may have been just as surprising to Paul that nearly 400 years later one of the greatest preachers of the early church John Chrysostom, also known as golden mouth, said of this very letter that he read it twice a week, and sometimes even 3 or 4 times a week.

Further, it may have surprised Paul to know that in the early 1500's Martin Luther would be dwelling on Paul’s letter to the Romans so deeply, as he struggled with his faith and discovered in Paul’s words God’s grace.

And, again, at the beginning of the 20th century, Paul might have been amazed as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth launched his stellar career with his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Even beyond the walls of the Church Paul’s impact is recognized.  The historian Larry Siedentop argues that the origins of Western liberalism lie in Paul’s concept of the individual. 

And, here now in this small gathering of God’s people at St Lucia we are still reading and contemplating Paul’s words. 

Why?  Well maybe it is as Barth says, at the beginning of his commentary, that “he veritably speaks to all men [and women] of every age”. 

Paul may have never foreseen the impact of his letter to the Christians in Rome and how the influence of his words would spill over into 2000 years of history but maybe it is precisely because he is as he claims, a slave of Christ Jesus, that his words do this.  He recognizes something fundamental about his existence – it is not his own.

The revelation of Christ to Paul on the Damascus road led him to the deep discovery that life was less about who he was as it was about whose he was.  He was God’s and he was God’s in a special way: called to be an apostle.

Now it is my conviction that each one of you is called into a relationship of service with God. In fact I have a sense that all people are called into such a relationship.  Yet, for each one of us the calling to follow and serve Jesus is particular and specific. We are not all meant to be the apostle Paul.  He has a special role at a particular time in history. Paul’s words transcend his time and place in history because they carry an authority that invite us to reflect not about Paul but about the one in whom Paul has grounded his life: Christ Jesus.

It Christ Jesus who is ground zero for the Christian faith because as Barth says in his commentary on Romans:

Jesus Christ our Lord.  This is the Gospel and the meaning of history.  In this name two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown.

In Christ Jesus there is a convergence between our known finite earthly existence and the mystery of God’s eternal existence.  Our earthly existence in all its ambiguity and messiness: life and death; joy and sorrow; good and evil; pleasure and pain; beauty and horror intersects with God’s existence: source of life, origin of being, eternal mystery, love, grace, hope, transcendence and immanence.

Christ Jesus enters history and the life of the world intersects with the life of God in his very person.  This is whom Paul speaks of and like a stone thrown into a pond the ripples of Jesus existence extend out through space and time to touch of all of the creation for all of time, including your life and mine.  And in this God says to us your lives are relevant to me; you are not alone; you are loved.

We heard this amazing good news in the reading from Matthew this morning as Jesus’ birth was described by the gospel writer. 
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’

God is with us, present with us in history, in the flesh, in Christ Jesus, but more than that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is eternally present.  God is with us and so we can say that we are not without God.

This is the good news as we wrestle with conundrums of our lives.  As we confront loneliness and loss, evil and ego, temptation and terror, pain and poverty, suffering and sorrow God is with us, God walks beside in Jesus and has shared the fullness of our human experience.  God is with us and even when we might count ourselves forsaken by God we are not without God.  The intersection of created history with God’s life in Jesus is our source of hope.  

In this discovery of God’s love for us Paul knew whose he was and we can come to know whose we are as well.  Servants of Christ Jesus called into life and called into the love and life of God.

As Paul penned his letter to the Christians in Rome the words of admonishment, of hope, of faith and of grace flowed out into history to teach us about Jesus and who we are as God’s people.  He writes:

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Paul names the people as God’s beloved, beloved just as Jesus himself was beloved.  Not alone or bereft but accompanied through life by God in Christ Jesus and in this made saints, holy people, not by our own action but by God’s presence with us.  We are drawn beyond the division between the created and Creator into the unity of life with God – all of the prior boundaries are being obliterated.

This is why Paul then goes on to say:

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

Once again we drag ourselves back through history to understand the importance of Paul’s greeting.  “Grace”, charis, was a common greeting among the Greek speaking world, whilst “Peace”, shalom, was and remains a common greeting among the Jewish people.  Grace and peace represent once again the intersection of different worlds and of different communities. 

Just as in Christ Jesus God overcomes the division between the divine and the created, so to in Christ Jesus God is calling us into our common humanity: transcending cultural and ethnic and socio-economic disparities God calls us into community with one another. 

One of the key reasons for Paul’s letter to the Romans was to deal with the tension that had emerged between followers of Christ with different background.  Through history, we as Christians, and we as humanity, have continued to struggle to find our common identity.  We have not understood the greeting of Paul ‘grace and peace’ is meant to draw us beyond the safe boundaries of our communities into loving one another just as we have been loved.

This is no less a challenge for us as God’s beloved in our time, to recognize whose we are together, and to know that we are companions with all other people through this life.

This is why today, at the table of grace, we are called to remember that God in Christ is our companion on the journey of life.  Companion from its origins literally means ‘with bread’ and reminds us that in the breaking of the bread together with Christ as our host we are indeed God’s companions, God is with us, we are loved, and we are not alone.  The loving companion that we meet here binds us all together as God’s creatures as God overcomes our divisions: grace and peace.

When Paul wrote that letter to that first group of Christians in Rome, he made the claim that his importance was secondary to one to whom he witness:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.

Paul’s letter endures for us as a witness to God’s love for and reminds us that though we may not be an apostle like Paul, or a saint like Francis, or a teacher like Martin Luther, or a healer like Mother Theresa, we, each one of you, is beloved and is called into the service of the God who is with you and within you.  God is with us.  God is with you.  Christ Jesus: this is whose we are and defines who we are and this is indeed the good news.