By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today I want to invite us to reflect on Paul’s Letter to the Romans (13:8-14). This is Paul’s longest letter, which is why in most translations of the Bible, it is placed immediately following the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. It is the last of the letters attributed to Paul believed to have actually been written by him. The letter has often been considered ‘Paul’s theological last will and testament’, as it has profoundly shaped Christian belief and identity - for better and for worse.* One of the most unfortunate results of this letter is how it has been used to perpetuate a dangerous and harmful belief that Christianity is superior to Judaism. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the Jewish Annotated New Testament, theologian Mark Nanos offers an entirely different way to interpret the content of this letter.** It is grounded in the simple fact that, like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul was a devout Jew who practiced Judaism. One of the dangers of reading history backwards, is we have a cognitive bias, as we know how things have already turned out, leading us to ignore essential information.***
We have traditionally been taught that Paul was a convert to the new religion, Christianity, and like some other converts before and since, he belittled his previous religious tradition.** Paul came to be seen as the great evangelist who liberated converts from Judaism. This view characterized Judaism as legalistic, focused more on external ritual rather than heartfelt beliefs; and with performing good works in order to earn God’s grace. These views were further compounded during the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther described Protestant Christianity as a ‘religion of grace’ and Judaism and Roman Catholicism as ‘religions of law’. Most scholars today find these characterizations mistaken.
At the time of Paul’s writing, Christianity did not exist as a separate religion.** Jesus of Nazareth began a movement within Judaism, and Paul understood it as his calling to further that movement. Paul cared deeply for this movement, and dedicated his life and ministry to its success. He believed Jesus was the Christ, ushering in a new era of God’s reign on heaven and earth. Paul dedicated his time to planting churches; offered general counsel, training, and teaching; and helped communities sort through conflict.**** Unlike most of the other communities Paul worked with, he had not been to Rome. He knew of the community in Rome, just as they knew of him.
Rome was the beating heart of the expansive Roman Empire. If you were to imagine the city of Rome as a large circle, the vast majority of the population within that circle were Gentiles, or pagans. Within that circle, is a very small circle, representing the minority Jewish community. Within that circle is a tiny circle, representing the Christ-following Gentiles within the Jewish community. Even though we are talking about a very small population, their proximity to the powerful leaders guiding the government and economy of the Roman Empire made them more visible than other Jewish communities may have been. If the community thrived, that was good news for the growth of the Jesus movement and Paul’s endeavors to further that movement elsewhere. Likewise, if the community was wrought with conflict and strife, that could limit the growth of the Jesus movement, and Paul’s ability to raise capital for his endeavors. Whatever direction the community went, it could ripple out beyond Rome and affect the Jesus movement throughout the empire.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul was writing specifically to the Christ-following Gentiles.** He was concerned about the deteriorating relationship between Christ-following Gentiles and the Jewish community within Rome. According to theologian Mark Nanos,
“Paul was a Jew who saw the Christ-following groups as an authentic
expression of Judaism…he engaged in an outreach to the Gentiles because he believed that in Jesus the awaited age of God’s restoration and rule, beginning with the Jewish community, and extending beyond it, had dawned.”**
Paul felt that the Christ-following Gentiles needed to understand how they should live and interact within the Jewish community. He believed that Christ-following Gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism through rituals like circumcision, in order to become full members of the Jewish community. In fact, he longed for the Christ-following Gentiles to see themselves as full members, and urged them to engage in the Jewish communal way of life.
Paul had good reason to be concerned with this growing tension. Christ-following Gentiles were becoming resentful, as they felt their claims for full inclusion were not being accepted, which was at least partially true, as there were some Jews within the community who refused to accept them. Theologian Mark Nanos writes:
“These Gentiles are tempted to presume that they are replacing the
Jews, whom they see as having lost God’s favor by not accepting the
gospel message. Instead of advancing the gospel, their attitudes threaten
to undermine God’s designs, and Paul writes to change their attitude.
Now that they have acknowledged the God of Israel…Paul imagines that
these Gentile followers will help persuade his fellow Jews to see that
God’s plans are being fulfilled in Paul’s ministry.”
Communities are complicated, and the Jewish community in Rome was no exception. Similarly, Paul had his own motivations, which were primarily for the well-being of the mission, but also were a little bit about him. I imagine the same could be said about our own motivations at times.
I’ll confess, Paul’s Letter to the Romans was not always my favorite text, primarily because of the way it has been traditionally interpreted over the years, but I found theologian Mark Nanos’ perspective, grounding Paul within Judaism, incredibly helpful. It gave me a new appreciation for the tender dynamics within the community of the faithful in Rome. The Christ-following Gentiles in Rome likely had identified with the majority culture before joining the Jewish community. They were vulnerable and took a risk joining this minority culture. Maybe they thought they would be welcomed with open arms or maybe they were nervous about joining this community. In any case, they experienced some rejection and judgment. And what do we so often do when we feel rejected? We begin to draw our own conclusions, and may choose to judge in return, further straining relationships and in this instance, harming the community.
This is about as human of an experience as it gets. Our identity is shaped by so many factors - our age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, size and weight, educational attainment, academic and social achievements, family makeup, geographic background, language, learning style, citizenship, and beliefs.***** When we feel any aspect of our identity being judged, when we feel othered, we may be tempted to go into a self-protection mode. What is so painfully difficult and unfortunate about that instinct, is it almost never brings about healing or restores relationships. What does bring about healing and restoration in those circumstances, what does give us a new chance to grow, learn, and be our best selves is love, forgiveness, and compassion. Which is why Christ gave us this one guiding principal, which Paul repeats in today’s lesson,
“Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor,
therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
This is true in our personal lives and relationships, and it is even more acutely true in community life. This is at least partially why Paul was so insistent in his letter that the Christ-following Gentiles stick with it, work it out, and be in relationship with their neighbors within the Jewish community, even when they feel judged. Be persistent in love. The more we are able to be persistent in love, the more we are able to engage in the mission Christ has called the Church into.
If the Church, in all her iterations, wants to turn this world upside down and right side up again, we must be persistent in love. Even when it's hard. Even when we hurt. Be persistent in love.
As we get ready to head back into the world today, I would invite us to do some reflecting this week…
* Neil Elliott, p.1976, New Revised Standard Version
** Mark Nanos, p.285-286 Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd edition.
*** You can read more about the dangers of reading history backwards in an article by Cambridge University.
**** Rich Simpson offers a perspective on Paul’s ministry and motivations with regard to Romans in greater detail here: https://rmsimpson.blogspot.com/2023/06/pauls-letter-to-church-in-rome.html
***** Examples of cultural identity taken from National Association of Independent Schools
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