Exodus 14: 19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14: 1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
The time is the winter of 56-57 in what we mark as the first century of the Christian era. Saul, renamed Paul following his conversion in 33, is at his writing desk in Corinth. He is staying in the house of his friend and fellow Christian, Gaius. Gaius, fortunately for Paul, is a wealthy nobleman and most generous host. He has provided Paul with a secretary and an amanuensis.
Before he begins to dictate his letter Paul thinks back on his career. He is now 51 years old. He has been a missionary to the Gentiles for 24 years. His career is winding down. For his efforts on behalf of the gospel has been imprisoned, flogged, beaten, stoned. He has forded dangerous rivers, been ship-wrecked, survived snake-bite, been an equal opportunity target of ridicule from Jews and Gentiles been robbed, has exposed faith-healers faking it as Christians. He has known what it is to sleep in a tent-city of homeless people under a tarp in the rain. He suffers anxiety when he thinks about the precarious state and indeterminate fate of the various congregations he has founded across the middle east and Europe.
Paul has traveled to all or most of the populous places in the Roman world. He has three items left on his itinerary. He has to visit Jerusalem to deliver some money from gentile churches to the Jewish Christian community which is in need. He has not yet been to Rome but he has been long intending to do so. First though, he must go to Jerusalem and after Rome he hopes to go further west, to Spain, the Oregon territory of the Roman Empire, yet unvisited by any apostle.
Now put yourself in Paul’s sandals. There you are in your friend’s well-appointed home, your servant has just brought your coffee from the Starbuck’s next door and your amanuensis is ready to take down your every word. But what are you going to say? First how would you like to send an open letter inviting yourself to speak in the meeting rooms of congregations, with whom you have not previously had any dealings? If you flip to the last chapter of Romans you will find quite a list of people currently in Rome that he knows. You will also notice that none of these people have invited him to visit. Second, and though Paul only mentions it late in the letter, is his trip to Spain. The complication there is that someone will have to back his enterprise. So how would you like to invite yourself to visit a new town the congregations of which you do not know and then ask them for money to fund your mission to the interior of Brazil? (Of course there is the chance that after a few days they might be willing to pay you to leave.) Third, and hardly last, and as is true in other of Paul’s letters, there is a local problem. There is tension, not between Christians and Jews but between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. So how would you like to invite yourself to speak in the meeting places of congregations whom you do not know, ask them for money, and into the bargain offer them free advice on how to settle their internal disputes?
To appreciate the issue that divided Jewish and gentile Christians, in Rome recall that the church began as an off-shoot of the Synagogue. Jews who were Christians and Jews who were not fell out with one another. Because in Rome the Christian and Non-Christian Jews disturbed the peace the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the capitol in 49. A slightly garbled report from the time tells us “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” In 54 Nero readmitted the Jews.
Let us Imagine the situation of the Jews and gentiles in ‘54 in our terms. A whole bunch of fellow followers of the Way whom we do not know arrive in our sanctuary from abroad. Unlike us, they also go to the synagogue in addition to coming here. They observe different holidays, do not pledge allegiance to the flag do not serve in the army, and do not eat ham sandwiches. You cannot have potlucks with most of them because of their dietary restrictions. Oh, and, whether you are a Jew or gentile would you want your son or daughter to marry one of them? I seem to hear a voice saying: “How is that inter-cultural, religious correctness WOKE thingy working out for ya?”
So how is Paul to win the trust of his audience, overcome these divisions and orient them to the future in hope? First he establishes his own good-will toward both parties. He is, after all, Rom 1:1 “called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel” —and yet he is also an observant Jew. He tells us he learns not just from Jews and Gentiles but he throws in a little humor when he adds in Rom 1: 14 he is indebted both “to the Greeks and the barbarians, the wise and the unwise.” He affirms of the gentiles that though they lack the law of Moses, they have an in-born sense of right and wrong Rom: 1:20. Of course, he hastens to add, only some of them follow it. Nonetheless, paradoxical as it may seem, those gentiles who follow the inner law are more righteous in God’s eyes than observant Jews who follow Moses law, but lack the inner faith of Abraham.
By inviting the Roman churches to unite in common prayer for the success of his mission to the Jews of Jerusalem, and by urging them to participate in his mission to Spain, Paul motivates the rival Christian factions of Rome, to overcome their divisions answer the call of the Holy Spirit, and advance the Kingdom as far west as earth went. (Or so it was thought.)
A key passage in Romans is “Welcome those weak in faith but not to doubtful disputations.” I take it that weakness of faith and a tendency toward doubtful disputations are pretty much the same. If you are a gentile, it is none of your business if your Christian brother or sister who is Jewish, still identifies with their home culture. Similarly, if you are a Jew you are not to regard gentiles as second-class members of the Kingdom, even if they are, just because they were not born of Jewish mothers. If the faith of Abraham is the model then Jew and Gentile alike are redeemed by faith and not by the law of Moses—advantageous as the law is. Paul even has an intriguing metaphor in which the gentiles are wild branches grafted in to the ancient tree.
So what has this 2,000 year old dispute to do with us? First Paul reminds us—it is not our merits on life’s way that save us, but grace. Second, grace has consequences. To give but one instance: When we see that woman with the headscarf we should not think “Oh my god she is a Muslim!” but that that woman came within my field of vision to bid me to repent my tribalism and open my heart to the grace that does not discriminate among Jew, Gentile, Arab, African, Asian or in Paul’s time Epicurean or S. It would be a pity for our country, if like the churches in Rome to which Paul wrote, we had so many people so regularly exposed to the gospel yet so incapable of hearing it.
So what of Paul’s mission? We know that Paul took his gift to the Christian Jews in Jerusalem and that he made it to Rome, though under arrest in the year 58. We do not know if he ever made it to Spain. What we do know is that like the early Roman Christians, who were stumbling out of darkness into unaccustomed light, we too are called to rise above our tribalisms, take risks, make mistakes, grow, and mature in hope. Neither in Romans nor in his other letters does Paul answer all our questions. As illustrated by our clergy this morning, in places we have corrected Paul’s legacy by applying to it his own inclusive standards. That Paul was human, cantankerous, fallible yet spectacularly open to reversing a life-time of seemingly settled convictions on the basis of fresh experience, should give us pause. There is a Pauline hypothesis that has surprised many a tepid Christian of doubtful faith who has dared venture forth to test it on The Way.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, neither height, nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom: 8: 38, 39)
Is it yet possible for such grace and faith to guide, correct and redeem us?
St. Hugh Episcopal Church
280 Wheelright St. (P.O. Box 156)
Alyn, Washington 98524