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Lent 4: The Kingdom of ‘Or Else’

March 26, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday Lent, March 26, 2017. This is the fourth of a five-part series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, called “Justice, Generosity and Joy.”

Romans 1:16-20; 2:1-4

As we continue our Lenten Study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, this week, we meet Paul’s opponents.  Oh, yes, Paul had opponents.  Plenty of them.  And a number of them had ensconced themselves in the house churches in Rome.  Paul is well aware of their presence, and he also is well acquainted with their beliefs about the nature of God; in fact, the first eleven chapters of Romans are a running argument with these opponents.[i]  By the time he is finished, at the end of his letter, Paul warns the congregation “to keep and eye on those who cause dissention and offenses.” Paul describes these troublemakers as “smooth talkers” and cautions that, “they are eloquent.” He suggests that the congregation “avoid them” altogether, or “steer clear of them.” They are, essentially, “hostile counter-missionaries” offering a competing gospel.[ii] I call this competing gospel The Kingdom of ‘Or Else.’

The voice of these troublemakers appears in Romans, though it is easy to miss, especially in our English translation, leaving most readers to wrestle with what appear to be inconsistencies in Paul’s own thinking. Romans contains a number of dialogues known as “speech-in-character.” If you listen to almost anyone speaking, we do “speech-in-character” all the time, as we repeat someone else’s words as we are telling a story, repeat something we have heard, or as we consider another perspective. When Phoebe recited Paul’s letter, the congregation in Rome would have recognized speech-in-character because Phoebe would have performed it – mimicking, in this case, the voice of Paul’s opponents. How many of you watch Trevor Noah on the Daily Show? Or have you seen one of his stand-up routines? Trevor Noah is a master of speech-in-character. It might be helpful to imagine Paul’s writing as somewhat like Trevor’s comedy. But the effect of Paul’s many uses of speech-in-character is entirely lost on us when we read the words on the page and assume all them reflect Paul’s own thought, unless we have a knowledgeable reader like Sharon.[iii]

We will meet the voice of one of Paul’s opponents in our scripture reading this morning. Recognizing it will completely change how we understand the first chapter of Romans, an already notoriously difficult text.

After Paul introduces himself and greets the church, he tells them that his gospel is the power of God for salvation, because it reveals the justice of God from faithfulness for faithfulness, from Jesus’ faithfulness to our faithfulness. And then in verse 18 there is an abrupt change of tone. The subject suddenly changes from faithfulness to the wrath. But these are not Paul’s thoughts. This is Paul speaking in the voice of his smooth-talking opponent. If we miss this change, then it will appear that

…Paul launches the body of his letter – in his own voice – with the statement, ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness…’ (1:18). This, of course, is what many of us have been taught, that Paul’s point of departure for the gospel proper begins with the problem of universal human wickedness and corresponding divine wrath. The chapter heading in your pew Bible says as much. The list of Roman vices that follow then make Paul sound pompous and almost shrill, as he recites a god-awful catalogue of how terrible things are in the world, counting on our sense of disgust to establish a connection between idolatry and sexual excess.[iv]

By the way, Sharon will not read all these verses today, nor the two that have traditionally been cited as Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality. Suffice it to say, for now, that these lists of vices are not about what we would call homosexuality or same-sex relationships of mutual love, but describe widely criticized non-consensual debauchery and sexual abuse practiced by the Romans elite, the ancient 1%, and the Emperor Nero himself.[v]

Whatever else there may be to say about the people depicted in this passage, the speaker’s point is now abundantly clear. These people are really, really bad, and they surely deserve to be punished!” They are designed to make us feel “revulsion, not compassion”[vi]

But these verses represent the views and voice of a well-spoken opponent. They are not the view or voice of Paul. It is Paul’s opponents who introduce the idea of wrath, because they equate justice with retribution/punishment. Let me repeat that: It is Paul’s opponents who introduce the idea of wrath, because they equate justice with retribution/punishment. They cannot imagine divine justice without punishment and ‘just-rewards’. These opponents believe in a God-of-Wrath, a God whose anger, judgment and ultimate punishment is the proof that God is just. After all, argue Paul’s opponents, they (the Gentiles/The Romans/The unjust pagans) have brought judgment on themselves.

With this in mind, the exchange between Paul and his opponents might sound something like this…

Paul/Phoebe: That’s why I want so much to tell the good news to you there in Rome. For me there’s no shame in telling the Good News. No, because it is the power God uses to save everyone who believes – the Jews first, and now also the Greek. Yes, the Good News shows how good and faithful God is to do what God has promised. It shows how the faithfulness of one, Jesus the Messiah, leads to the faithfulness of many. As the Scriptures say, ‘the one who is accepted by God will live by faithfulness.’ (Romans 1:16-17)

The Opponent: Well, we also see how God shows his anger against all the bad things wicked people do. They show no respect for God, and they do wrong to each other. Their evil lives keep the truth about God from being known. God is angry with them because they should know better, right? They can see in nature what can be known about God. Yes, God has made it clear to them. (Romans 1:18-20)

Paul/Phoebe: But you have no excuse, O ‘virtuous’ person, you and all who judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself [according to your own “law”], because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth’. Do you imagine, O ‘virtuous’ person, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God (on which you place so much emphasis). Or do you despise the wealth of God’s kindness and forbearance and long-suffering? Don’t you realize that the kindness of God aims to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4) [vii]

To be clear, I don’t imagine Paul’s letter is a record of an actual exchange. Rather, Paul is anticipating and imitating the voice of his opponents. Phoebe’s performance would have made this clear.

There is a world of difference between Paul and his opponents.  While Paul believes in a kingdom of ‘grace’, Paul’s opponents believe in a kingdom of ‘Or Else.’ Paul’s substantial discussion of the law in chapters 2-7 are about this ‘Or Else.’ ‘Or Else’ is the threat that stands behind all law. It is the legitimate violence that guarantees every system of law. Law would not be law without legally sanctioned consequences. But Paul declares that there is no condemnation in God, only generosity. There is no violence, only faithfulness. To be human after the model of Christ is to be faithful without weapons, without resort to violence, or revenge. God desires so much more than merely upholding of the law because we are afraid, or holding the law up to others as a threat. God’s justice exceeds that of Law.  And this is demonstrated for us in God’s giving to us God’s very life, beyond obligation or debt, as pure gift. The good news that is the power of God for salvation is the discovery that God is not a God of wrath, but that God is a God of generosity. In Jesus, God demonstrated this justice with a faithfulness even unto death. Compared to this divine justice all systems of State law, Roman law, Jewish law, (U.S. law and international law) fall short.

While Paul’s opponents believe that God ‘hands over’ those who practice injustice to a Day of Wrath and punishment, or abandons them to their own devices, Paul insists that God does not give up on anyone – neither the Jew (Ch. 9-11), nor the Gentile (Ch. 2-4), nor the whole world of nature and creation (Ch. 8). And God does not give up on you or me. This is the way God makes the world right, identifying with us and loving us.

I think it is important to pause, here at the midway point of our Lenten journey, to acknowledge that quite often, Paul’s greatest opponent is inside us. It’s not just that we want to see others get their ‘just deserts,’ (though we do), but that we feel like we deserve them ourselves. We can be our own hardest critics, tallying up our sins and feeling we have not only disappointed others, but most of all God. Believing that God is first and last, and angry judge, we become just like the angry judging God we seek to serve. Hard people.  Hard on ourselves.  Hard on others.  And like an addict, we seek forgiveness for our failings, but even forgiveness confirms our failure and confirms our sense of worthlessness. This is the cycle Jesus breaks us out of, by showing us the wideness of God’s mercy. And in so seeing God rightly, we may see ourselves, as God sees us, perhaps for the first time.


Derek Walcott, the West Indian Nobel Laureate in Literature, who died on March 17 in his home in Saint Lucia, wrote about the experience of coming home to ourselves. His use of sacramental language reminds us that this is grace – a free gift, without judgment – that changes everything.[viii] This is the way God would wish us to be with ourselves, to treat ourselves.  And it is the way God, in God’s grace, loves us already. Dare to imagine and receive grace through these words.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

[We closed y singing, “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy.”]

[i] See Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. (Yale, 1994).

[ii] Sigve Tonstad, The Letter to the Romans: Paul Among the Ecologists. (Sheffield, 2016). pp. 84-86.

[iii] There is a clear description of speech-in-character in Emma Wasserman “Paul Among the Ancient Philosophers: The Case of Romans 7” in Paul Among the Philosophers, edited by Ward Blanton and Hent De Vries. (Fordham, 2013). There is a side-bar about this in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy Jill Levine.

[iv] Adapted from Tonstad, Paul the Ecologist. page 95-97. Italics are my additions.

[v] There is great merit in the indictment of Roman Imperial society. See Davina Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission. Paul in Critical Contexts. (Fortress, 2008); James Romm, Dying Every Day: Seneca in the Court of Nero. (Vintage Books, 2014). For a detailed exegesis of 1:26-27 see Theodore Jennings, Jr. Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia. (Pilgrim Press, 2009) which details how ancient Greek homophobia was only later grafted on to Christianity in general and Paul’s thought in particular.

[vi] Sigve Tonstad, Paul Among the Ecologists. pp. 95-97.

[vii] Daniel Rodriquez, cited in Sigve Tonsdad, Paul Among the Ecologists. p. 105.


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