This morning we begin a six-week series on the book of Romans. Perhaps no book in the whole Bible has been as influential and as controversial as Romans. And the same goes for its author, the Apostle Paul. Most people either love him or hate him. Guess what? As always, black and white answers are too easy. First of all the apostle Paul was a human being just like all of us. He is not just one thing. He has strengths and he has flaws. His theology, especially his expectation of Christ's return, evolves throughout his writing. He was a deeply religious and observant Jewish man, and a flame-throwing reformer. He wrote at least seven books of the New Testament, and as many as six more were written in his name by people who learned from him. Romans is one of his latest letters and there's a few important things to keep in mind as we study it. The first one is that at this point, nobody had heard of Christianity, including Paul. And as much as Paul was a reformer, he did not think he was starting something new. He thought that God was expanding the work God had already been doing in the world since the beginning. Paul believed that the Gentiles, or the people who were not born Jewish, were simply being brought into the story and faith of the Jewish people. And what is really revolutionary is not how the Gentiles get included, but how everyone gets included. Paul's big message here in Romans and also in other books like Galatians, is that everyone, both Jew and Gentile is saved by grace through faith.
"So let us listen know in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings Romans 1:8-25, 28-2:4 (NIV)
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr says, "That which makes you holy can also make you evil." And he says this in the context of talking about the apostle Paul. Remember Paul wasn't a Christian, at least not in the way we use the word. Paul was a deeply religious observant Jew. And before he had a transcendent encounter with the Risen Christ, his deep commitment to Judaism led him to kill other Jews who were following Jesus. His devotion to God prompted his destruction of others. That which makes you holy can also make you evil.
You know what changed things for Paul? A conversion experience. A transcendent encounter with the Risen Christ. A spiritual revelation. On the road to Damascus, on the way to find and kill more followers of Jesus, Paul was physically knocked off his feet. He literally saw the light and heard a voice. And that voice told him two things: 1. all his religious fervor was leading him in the wrong direction, and 2. that God wanted him. This is what always happens in conversion. It doesn't have to just happen one time, and it's not always this dramatic. In whatever way God communicates with you, you will hear/or feel/or see God saying simultaneously that you are not righteous and that you are totally righteous. It's always that same incongruous message, the same sense, no matter how many times it happens or in what way it happens, and every one of us experiences it differently. But this is the basic Christian recognition: we are not righteous and we are totally righteous. At the same time. Period.
Now that is very hard thing to teach, because it seems illogical to us. We have all been raised in a culture that judges our inherent worth and value by how well we conform with the standards set up by the ruling class.
This explanation of conversion is also a difficult thing to hear, because what everyone hears first is that they are somehow not measuring up. And then we stop listening. Because most of us hear that all the time in some form or another.
But it's very different when we receive that message from God. Not through a sermon, or even by reading the Bible. But by having whatever kind of experience we each have with the transcendent divine creative power that is over all and through all and in all. When we have this realization, however it comes, we are able to hold both of those truths, of our unrighteousness and our complete righteousness, we are able to hold both of those in tension and neither one of them overwhelms the other. That is conversion, over and over and over.
And THAT is what I believe Paul is trying to explain in Romans 1 through 3. He is explaining the theology behind the conversion experience. Father Rohr said, and I think he was quoting someone else, that the greatest distortions in Christian theology have come from someone misinterpreting one sentence of the apostle Paul. With Paul, you have to keep reading. What we read today in chapter 1 is only the beginning of the argument. If Paul is trying to provide a theological outline of what we experience in our converting encounters with God, he has to start with the idea that nobody is righteous. And even though it's uncomfortable to hear, I think we must not skip it and here's why.
First of all the word Paul uses is the word righteous. This is a key word throughout all of the book of Romans. The same concept is included in the words that we translate righteous, righteousness, wickedness, justice, justified, and justification. I want you to know that because those words show up all over the place in Romans and if we don't realize that they all have the same root, we won't understand how they are related. It all starts with God's righteousness. The righteousness of God throughout the Old Testament refers to God's character and will for justice in the world, and also the actions that God takes to enact that justice on behalf of the vulnerable.
Righteousness is character in line with desire in line with actions to carry out the desire. God is, and obviously, we aren't. And that's something that people who are mature are able to admit. Nobody is consistent from character to desire on through to actions. Every single one of us experiences a breakdown in that system, a short-circuit in the wiring. We just do.
The point is not that YOU are not worthy of love and acceptance because you do bad things. That's a distorted shortcut taken by people who are interested in manipulating you into following their rules. The point is that you are not more righteous than someone else and nobody else is more righteous than you. The real benefit of having a "doctrine of original sin" is not to say that everyone is bad; it's to say that everyone is the same. And let's be honest, we all have someone that we are tempted to put in the "less worthy than me" category. That's what Paul is railing against in Romans 1 and 2. He is saying everyone is the same, for him the big categories are Jews and Gentiles.
In verse 18 he begins explaining how everyone has the same opportunity to recognize the reality of God's presence in the world, regardless of their religious upbringing. That's what we are created for. But all of us, at some point and in some way, turn to idols. Maybe not images of trees or animals, but we make idols of other things. Good things that are given an unhealthy amount of authority and priority in our lives become idols, whether that's money or sex or power or our own families. When we worship anything other than God, all kinds of distortions creep into our lives.
At this point, I want to point out that we did not read verses 26 and 27, which are some of the very few verses in the Bible that seem to refer to same-sex erotic experiences. I skipped these because I didn't want you to get distracted as you were listening. What I will tell you now is that I fully believe these verses are about Greek and Roman temple prostitution. Even in the Old Testament, descriptions of this kind of experience often show up in the same context as adultery. The ancient world had no concept of orientation like we do now and I've never found any scholarship that supports the idea that committed monogamous same-sex relationships were possible in the social structure of ancient culture. We don't have time to unpack all of that this morning and I'd be happy to point you to other resources. But I just wanted to say for the record, that I think those two verses were specific to the context and not of great significance to the explanation I'm giving you today. OK?
The point is that, although we are created for righteousness, everyone falls into idolatry. And the "wrath of God" is God turning us over to the power of our idols. Not punishing us with fire and brimstone; but giving us what we apparently want; allowing us to experience the full consequences of our choices. Just like every good parent eventually does.
What's very interesting is that in Romans, Paul does not talk about God forgiving us. It's not that we have done wrong and God is angry and can be appeased when we are sorry enough. What Paul says is that God justifies us, literally God makes us righteous. It's that same concept of righteousness again. And friends, HOW that happens is a mystery. Thank God, or we would think we could control it.
By grace, as a gift, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus restores to us a consistency of character, desire, and actions for doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Because it is a mysterious gracious gift, the only way we can receive it is by faith, by trusting that it's the case. And if it's true for me then it's true for you and you and Ghandi and Hitler. Everyone is saved by grace and we appropriate the reality of it in our lives through trusting, through faith.
This is what Paul is trying to explain, but the theological explanation is not going to transform us. We cannot cognitively work our way into transformation. Transformation, conversion, comes to us as a gift, as grace. Now a better understanding of it may help us to recognize it, or it may even open our minds to it. But grace is grace, the word means gift, and real gifts are always free and unearned. And the best ones feel undeserved. In the midst of realizing that we all have this fatal flaw of unrighteousness we receive the gift of God's righteousness. We are transformed through trusting that we do not have to earn anything, that it's never been about our being worthy. We experience freedom, and we are inspired to share that freedom and that love with the world. Amen.