A look at Paul

Pentecost 10 2011

Romans 12:1-8

Marian Free

 in the name of God who longs for all creation to know and acknowledge him. Amen.

 

 Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered his finest work. In fact for centuries, scholars referred to it as Paul ‘s last will and testament. By this they meant that in this letter, Paul gathered together and summed up his theological endeavours in one final document. It was felt that, rather than writing to address the problems of a particular community – as is clearly the case in say the letters to Corinth – Paul was setting out the theology that he had honed over the extent of his missionary travels. In recent times this view has been revised.

It is now understood that Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses issues within the Roman church and is not just a theological treatise written in isolation and ignorant of the situation in Rome.

Paul was a tour de force in early christianity. While there were almost certainly other missionaries, it is only Paul who has left us with such a huge body of writing, and it was he who interpreted the story of Jesus for new believers. It was Paul who gave us the notions of grace and of justification by faith, Paul who understood and taught the idea that the cross reversed the way in which we viewed the world and God. It was Paul who had the courage to grapple with the problem of how to include non-Jews in a faith that had developed out of Judaism. In fact, without Paul, Christianity and our understanding of it would have been remarkably poorer. Thanks to Paul and the letters that he wrote, we have a much  fuller understanding of a the beginnings of our faith and the struggles that made it what it is.

Paul had an experience of the risen Christ that turned his life around. He changed from someone who had persecuted those who believed in Jesus to being a passionate believer.

His passion led him to spread the word – in Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, Philippi. his visits to these communities were not long – eighteen months at best. That meant that when he moved on to another place, there were likely to be questions and misinterpretations of what he had said. Often these were sufficient to cause serious strife for the new communities. Paul wrote his letters to inform, correct and even chide those whom he had left behind. He almost certainly had no idea of his letters being included in our scriptures and being read and studied some 2000 years later!

Broadly speaking there were two major issues. In Corinth and Thessalonica, the believers had either not understood Paul’s teaching or had misunderstood it. In both communities there was confusion about the resurrection and in particular – what happens to those who die before Jesus comes again? The letters also reveal that there were tensions within the community that were causing divisions, competition among members and so on. Paul’s wonderful exposition on love in first Corinthians is, in it’s original context, Paul’s censure of the unloving Corinthians who were competing with each other, taking each other to court and engaging in immoral behaviour.

The second major issue that Paul’s letter address is the problem of creating a new community (albeit one that grew out of and had strong links with Judaism) that included both Jew and non – Jew. this was a matter of some sensitivity. Jews had strict law of ritual cleanliness and equally strict food laws. this made it impossible for them to associate with those who did not adhere to these rules. In particular, it meant that Jews were not allowed to eat with Gentiles – a grave difficulty when the central act of worship included a meal. Another  difficulty for a faith that grew out of Judaism was that of circumcision. In order to become a Jew a male had to be circumcised- a step that few were willing to take.

The difficulty for the early church was that there were many Gentiles who had come to believe in Jesus and who, as a result wanted to join in worship with others. In both  Romans and Galatians we see something of how this played out in reality. (Of course, in re-constructing the situation, we are relying on our best guess as we have only the information in the letters to go on.)

It appears that the community in Galatia were being troubled by those who were teaching a message different from that of Paul. Whether it was the pagans trying to convince the believers to give up their new found faith (because it required circumcision) or Judaisers who were arguing that the converts had to first become Jews (be circumcised) in order to be Christ followers, the community of faith was wavering. In fact it appears that they were in danger of abandoning their faith altogether, In response Paul says some very negative things about the Jewish law and it’s ability to save.

When Paul decides to write to Rome – a community which he did not found, and which knows him only by repute – he is aware that what he has written to the Galatians is known in Rome. The believers in Rome seem to have the idea that Paul has rejected his Jewish heritage. As a result, they are asking questions about the faithfulness of God. Can God be trusted if God has abandoned the Jews – God’s chosen people? What guarantee is there that God won’t change God’s mind again?

The letter to the Romans deals with this issue – God’s faithfulness to GOD’s promises. Paul has to demonstrate that the inclusion of the Gentiles was always part of God’s plan and that even now, the Jews who do not believe in Christ have not been cast aside. He does this in a number of ways. First of all he argues that all people are equal before God because all have sinned. Then he argues that the way to salvation is – and always was – faith. Finally, he points to God’s right to choose the make-up of God’s chosen people.

Our understanding of our faith is based in part on the way in which the early believers grappled with and applied the teachings of Jesus – whom they had come to believe was the Son of God. Years before the Gospel writers made an attempt to record the life and teaching of Jesus, Paul struggled to make sense of this new belief system and how it applied to Jew and Gentile alike. We owe him a great debt and if we make the effort to read and study what he has to say our lives and our faith will be greatly enriched.

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