Romans 5: 1-11
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through 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 not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely, therefore, since we have now been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The book of Romans is often presented as the most concentrated explanation of salvation in the New Testament. The letter is a defense of Jewish Christians but one that equally tackles the concept why non-Jews are now able to join into a religion that is born from the death and resurrection of a Jewish Messiah and founded on the scriptures of Israel and Judah from centuries before. Romans is a defense of Jewish believers, written by a Jewish author, but it is also trying to explain fully why the Church was crossing over previously solid barriers in culture to create an increasingly large alternative culture – the Kingdom of God.
The full picture of why Paul feels the need to spell out salvation so exhaustively and in the particular framework of Jews and Gentiles, is complicated. There was a time when the people of Judah had fairly porous religious and culture barriers around them. From at least Solomon to Josiah, a span of about three hundred years, people of all cultures and religions lived in Jerusalem and intermarried with the inhabitants. The Assyrian Empire changed things when it conquered Judah during the time of the prophet Isaiah. Faced with control by one empire, and now threatened at its end by Egypt on one side and Babylon on the other, Josiah attempted to crack down on what he saw as religious indiscretions.
Josiah centralized worship of the God of Israel in Jerusalem, destroying altars to foreign divinities and even destroying ancient ritual sites that were meant for Judah’s God if they were a challenge to centralized worship. The result of his reforms was a push for religious homogeny. It was only after the Babylonian Exile had come and gone, about sixty years after Josiah died, that an ethnic separation was imposed on the people of Judah. The returned exiles, now called Judeans or Jews, were led by Ezra and later by King Nehemiah, in a dangerous gambit for survival. To maintain their identity, they defined a Jew as someone born of a Jewish mother, and ideally, of dual Jewish parents. They had to marry within their own people, and anyone who had “foreign wives,” was made to abandon them to die, along with their children, outside of Jerusalem.
The exact politics and ideology behind this expulsion is complicated, we spent several weeks delving into it when a few of us studied Ezra last year. The essential point to be made here, all the same, is that this is not an idea held by modern Jews – and so we cannot and should not impose anything I just said on them. It is also not what God intended, as we see in the words of the prophet Jeremiah to the people, telling them to go out and marry among the Babylonians for the good of both peoples. Yet, regardless of intent or purpose, the outcome was that an in-group of Jewish believers was created and an outgroup of everyone else put in opposition to it. We cannot judge the people of Judea for this, it was a tactic to survive, but we nonetheless as Gentile believers can say that we uphold it either.
Paul struggled his whole life with these ideas, in large part because he was a Greek Jew. These “Hellenists,” were ethnically Jewish, but were descended from the wider Jewish diaspora. Greek Jews spoke, well, Greek. Depending on where they were from they would dress differently than Judean believers, and ultimately were seen as lesser by many in Judea. Not to equivocate my own experiences, but think of how people react when I say I’m from the Eastern Panhandle. “Not really West Virginia,” they might say, putting me on the outside even though I have every right to claim my heritage that was born in Petroleum and Grantsville.
Crank that up to eleven, and you get the sort of thing we are dealing with. As a result, many Greek speaking Jews were even more committed to the traditions and adherence to the faith than even Judean believers. The rejection they felt from their own people was enough to make them want to do everything they could to look and sound as Judean as possible. Back to my own example, it probably isn’t a coincidence that I have so much memorabilia of thoroughly West Virginia things like ramps, the Braxton Beast, or Mothman. For Paul though, memorabilia wasn’t enough – he was committed to being a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and to the purity of his faith.
This is why he responded the way he did to Jesus’s movement. It was an open invitation to all people to become part of Judaism, and that was something Paul had never accepted for himself. The doubt he felt over his own identity spilled into a zealous defense of the faith from these seeming “aggressors,” and he sought to kill anyone who challenged the peace. Did he have any power to do this? Only through mob violence, but it was something he tried. Eventually, God intervened through Christ’s sudden appearance to him, and after a long wrestling with himself, Paul accepted his Greek heritage and went a step further to begin accepting Gentiles too. He even dropped the Hebrew name he took on when he moved to Jerusalem, “Saul,” and accepted the name he was given at birth, “Paul.”
Paul’s letters work hard to establish just how wide God’s kingdom really is. At times, he seems to swing so far as to abolish Jewish practices among Christians, but his own life tells us that he never stopped being a Jew, even as he was most ardently Christian. So when he heard that Jews were expelled from Rome under Claudius, he would have wept for his siblings in faith. Yet, when he heard that upon their return, the Gentile Christians were not accepting them back into the Church they had founded – his tears turned into a righteous indignation. Paul put pen to paper and set out to settle the issues between Jews and Gentiles once and for all, and in the process wrote the letter we read from today. Without even trying, he wrote something that, for many of us, suffices to explain Salvation better than any other text. So much so, that our Communion Liturgy borrows directly from sections throughout Romans.
The work that Paul embarks upon requires equalization above all else. All people are sinful, all people having fallen short of standards both human and divine. Rather than being a source of perpetual shame, Paul puts this forward as something that simply removes any form of shame from the community of faith. We are all sinners, but being redeemed, we are not to be ashamed of that fact, instead we are equipped to overcome the conflicts of our past and take on something new. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul puts forward that both Jews and Gentiles have advantages as members of the Church. Jews have the entire history of Israel, the scriptures, the teachings of sages and teachers, and as a result carry the history of God’s work in the world and how grace has been poured out since Eden on all flesh. Gentiles, meanwhile, are admitted into the Church by grace and so speak more directly to how grace exists in the here and now.
Grace did not cease to be given to the Jews or transfer to be a Gentile only matter. Paul does not deny that the two populations are different, maybe even overwhelmingly so. All the same, Christ’s work unites them in something stronger than those differences. The opportunity to learn from those differences, to compromise where compromise is possible and respect the extremes of one another where compromise cannot happen, it is a boundless place for growth. When I worked for the Baptist Convention in D.C. there were many things that seemed alien to little ole Methodist me. I thank God for everyone of them I saw in action, because I saw in the different ways of worship or working, God at work. When you see God at work in something completely different than what you are used to, you begin to see the universal nature of God’s grace.
God has reconciled all flesh, God has given salvation to everyone. No matter how sinful a person may be. No matter how different they may be from what we call, “the norm,” God is inviting all people in. We can fight this, or we can accept it, but only one of those choices is Godly. We may like Paul deny the parts of ourselves that make us seem different from the people around us, but that is a dead end. Only in accepting, embracing, and promoting difference, can true unity be found. When we take off the name we’ve put on ourselves to blend in, and take on the name that was always our to have and to embrace – then we will know true growth. God is here, God is welcoming us and all others into the Kingdom, let us lock arms and charge in with joy, unashamed, and fully accepting God’s call to us, and not to the “us,” we pretend to be. – Amen.