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Lent 2: Demonstrating Justice

March 12, 2017

Victory

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday Lent , March 12, 2017. This is the second in a series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans called “Justice, Generosity and Joy.” Above, a victory photo from the Sri Lankan women’s land struggle (referenced in the sermon below), which was brought to a successful conclusion earlier this week. Their land occupation began on January 31 and ended March 2 when the government returned the lands that the navy had taken from the people during the civil war more than 8 years prior.

Scripture: Romans 5:1-11

Therefore, since through faithfulness we become just, we have peace with God through our leader Joshua messiah, through whom we have access by faithfulness to this generosity in which we stand and exult in hope of the shining forth of God. And not only exulting in the hope of the glory of God, but also exulting in affliction, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not shame us because divine love has been poured in our hearts through holy spirit given to us.

For while we were weak, at the right time messiah died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a just person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves God’s love for us in that while we still were sinners, messiah died on our account. Much more surely then, now that we have been made just in his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of God’s son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved in his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our leader Joshua messiah, through whom we have now received the reconciliation as a gift.

Translation by Theodore Jennings[1]

Novelist Elmore Leonard, well known as the author of Get Shorty and Swag among other works, is equally famous for penning the Ten Rules for Writing he would give to aspiring authors. Rule number one is “Never open with the weather.” As in:

In was a typically mild day in the spring of 56 as Paul and Phoebe paced the upper room of Gaius’ house, where Paul was staying. They were working out the ideas that would become Paul’s Letter to the Congregations in Rome. The sky was clear, the sun was bright, with not a sign of rain – a welcome change after the long, wet winter. The moist air of the Aegean Sea was blowing in, mixing with the briny smell of salted fish and the sounds of trade – a reminder that Corinth was a port city, open to all the world.

Elmore Leonard’s Rule Number Two is, “Avoid Prologues,” as in

Paul had spent previous two years encouraging the gentile congregations to take up a financial collection to support the impoverished Jewish communities of Palestine. If accepted by the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, the offering would be a sign that they approved of Paul’s mission among the gentiles. It would mean non-Jewish followers of Jesus were equal partners in the community of faith, their only requirement being that they practiced the self-sacrificial love and generosity of Jesus.

Rule Number Ten is, try to leave out the part that readers skip!

Last week, author Marc Laidlaw offered an 11th rule to supplement Leonard’s commandments. Laidlaw tweeted this hilariously provocative suggestion: “The first line of almost any story can be improved by making sure the second line is, ‘And then the murders began.’” Almost instantly it became an Internet meme, with Laidlaw’s comment receiving more than 5000 re-tweets in just three days, and the Internet was filled with examples from Harry Potter to Jane Austen, and Hemingway to Winnie the Pooh. (“I wonder what Piglet is doing?” thought Pooh. And then the murders began.)[2]

So

Paul decided to force the hand of the Jerusalem leaders to decide the question, were gentiles equals in faithfulness or not, by leading a procession of gentiles into Jerusalem to deliver the generous financial collection. And then the murders began. Or at least one murder was planned. Paul’s action led to a public riot, after which forty men swore an oath never to eat or drink again until Paul was killed. (see Acts 23:12-15)

You see, it works because you automatically want to ask all the right questions: Who is committing the murders? Who’s being killed? Why? Who’s next?

When Paul writes to the church in Rome, asking for their prayers that he might be delivered from the unbelievers in Jerusalem (15:30ff), this is what he’s talking about. The whole letter carries his anxiety that Jerusalem will reject the very people he has come to love, God-fearing gentiles following the generous way of Jesus (as gentiles) in a hostile and brutal world.

Romans is not a philosophical treatise, or doctrine. It is not a recipe for what to do to “get right with God.” It is a heartfelt and, at times, heart wrenching communication about the challenges facing the first century movement of Christ followers. It discusses the bitter divisions within the movement. And proposes the vision Paul believes God has for the young, dispersed church. Paul has already put that vision into practices by encouraging the gentile congregations in different cities to collect the offering. Divine justice, for Paul, is not an abstract concept – it has to do with the concrete distribution of money and goods among Christ followers. Paul’s letter is intimately connected to the collection and delivery of this offering for Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. The letter pairs theological themes with an examination of community practices. Paul understands God’s vision for the world to be something that is meant to be implemented, not just imagined. That God’s vision for the world becomes real not by thinking about it but by daring new ways of cooperation and mutual aid. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul’s words weave the expanding movement of Christ followers, scattered throughout various cities in the Empire, together in a way that strengthens their own ability to create resistant and resilient ways of life amid oppression.[3]

In Brief: Paul is asking the community to do materially, what God has done for the world spiritually. Which is to give of themselves for others. Redeeming the world, for Paul, entails courage, risk, and commitment. Because for Paul, grace is not focused on individual salvation but collective well-being.

So Paul was planning to personally deliver this offering from gentile congregations to the congregations in Jerusalem. Palestine had experienced a major famine, but this offering was about more than offer of relief. It was about poor people who had gathered themselves in Macedonia, Galatia, Asia and Achaia – gathered themselves around living in Christ’s way – it was about poor people who themselves struggled to survive, taking from the little they had to share with the newly poor leaders in Jerusalem.[4]

I want to be clear that this is not charity or even generosity in the way we usually think of it in twenty-first century America; it is redistribution from poor communities to a newly poor community. Further, remember that the money that was collected came from congregations comprised of gentiles; by which I mean non-Jewish peoples of different ethnicities, all of whose nations or cities had been subjugated by Rome’s power.[5]

So this offering was about poor people supporting poor people because everyone knew what it took to survive. But the twist was that it was money coming to a predominantly Jewish community of Christ followers from people who that community was not sure Jesus intended to be a part of his followers. Paul’s mission to “the gentiles” – those conquered people from many nations residing in cities across the Roman Empire – was not a mission that was supported by all the leaders of the Christ-following community in Jerusalem, at least not in the way Paul was doing it. In fact, it was greatly opposed.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul is writing the equivalent of the “why we march” statements that peoples’ movements worldwide write prior to a significant public action. Whether it’s the Sri Lankan women’s declaration that they will occupy the land their government stole from them until it is returned, whether it’s the manifesto published before the women’s march held in January of this year, whether it’s the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ “why boycott Wendy’s” epistle as they prepare to travel to corporate headquarters this month, it is the rationale behind the action. In this letter, Paul is writing to explain the stakes in the delivery and the acceptance of the offering by Christ-followers leading predominantly Jewish congregations in Jerusalem.[6]

Now, especially in this climate where violence and threats have been unleashed in a wave of hatred toward our Jewish neighbors, please hear me when I say this conflict which forms the background for our ancient scripture reading today is an intra-Jewish dispute about the expansion of what was a Jewish covenant renewal movement led by Jesus. Remember Jesus was Jewish. And so is Paul. Paul, however, decided to push the boundaries of this Jewish renewal movement into uncharted territory – so uncharted that some of the central covenant practices that were defined by the Torah for life together, were put into question, among them circumcision and keeping kashrut, what we’d call kosher. There were genuine disagreements between the leaders in Jerusalem and Paul, who worked principally with the gentile congregations he had helped to found. These were not trivial matters, but rather went to the heart of what it meant to live faithfully together to renew and redeem the world.[7]

So the letter to the Romans is a declaration of sorts. It provides a window into Paul and Phoebe’s thinking as Paul prepared to march with hundreds of gentiles into the temple in Jerusalem to deliver the offering from gentile congregations, and as Phoebe prepared to travel with Paul’s message to the congregations in Rome.

In that ancient time, Paul argues in this letter that God has a vision of us as one just community, supporting one another across our differences and for common well-being. His opponents in Jerusalem weren’t horrible, short-sighted bigots. His opponents were adherents to the covenant tradition that had defined them and their ancestors for generations. For this tradition many had died and were prepared to die. Paul hoped to convince them to enlarge that tradition. Honestly, the fears that the Jerusalem Jesus followers undoubtedly must have had, showed themselves to be true a generation later, as Jews and Christ followers started a painful parting of the ways, and as Constantine still later declared Christianity the official religion of the newly “Christianized” Roman Empire and marked Jews for second class status.

In our current political situation, Paul’s letter to the church at Rome reads with new significance. It calls us to ask how we live with our neighbors who are different from ourselves as equals, with mutual respect, and with mutual support in a climate where some among us are being made ever more vulnerable. Paul’s letter is not about our being weak and God rushing in to make up the difference. Instead, it is a message of strength and power. God needs our hands, our feet, our voices to make God’s vision of justice, of life together, a reality. It is a message that you are acceptable to God; just as you are. That any brokenness you feel within – from shame, from grief, from guilt – can be healed by stretching out, with all your courage and generosity to others. As Paul said, “Through faithfulness we become just.” Because all of us have hurt and been hurt. And all of us have helped and been helped. God’s grace doesn’t make up the difference for our inadequacies. God’s grace changes the very equation itself. It is love that grows amidst brokenness. It is love that defies barriers. It is love that sees that by seeking the welfare of others, we will meet our own deepest needs.[8]

So I ask you today, what are you prepared to do to concretely demonstrate that grace that we have all received? How might God be calling you and might be calling us, this congregation, to live out God’s vision of justice for our world?

[1] Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul. (Stanford, 2013).

[2] http://www.avclub.com/article/improve-any-novel-changing-its-second-line-and-the-251576

[3] How this works is detailed by L.L. Welborn in his Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life: Political Theology and the Coming Awakening. (Columbia, 2015). He describes how Paul’s injunction in Romans 13:11, “owe no one anything,” encourages these communities of “unplug from the patronage system” by which to Empire operates, and instead practice “economic mutualism as a survival strategy among his messianic assemblies.”

[4] See Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Changed the World. (Grosset/Putnam, 1997).

[5] See Neil Elliot, The Arrogance of the Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire. Paul in Critical Contexts. (Fortress Press, 2008).

[6] I thank The Rev. Noelle Damico for this brilliant formulation of “why we march,” which I find absolutely compelling. For a case that Paul’s anxiety about the offering shaped this letter, see Herman C. Waetjen, The Letter to the Romans: Salvation as Justice and the Deconstruction of the Law. (Sheffield, 2016). Especially pp. 7-11. (By the way, the Sri Lankan women won their struggle earlier this week.)

[7] Carefully unpacked by Stanley K. Stowers in A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, & Gentiles. (Yale, 1994).

[8] See my earlier sermon in which I try to move us beyond the Protestant doctrine of “justification by grace through faith.”: https://revgeary.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/lent-ii-a-shift-in-perspective/

 

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