Called to be Saints
Paul’s letter to the Romans begins this way: 1:1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you realize that Paul’s salutation to the church in Rome is one long, complex and confusing sentence in which he delineates his theology. We face several challenges that make it difficult for us to understand what Paul wrote, the first being simply trying to make sense out of such complex sentence structures. secondly, Paul wrote in the common Greek of his day attempting to translate Hebrew concepts into what was, for all intents and purposes, a foreign language, a language for which he had to coin words that had never existed before. And then, as we attempt to translate Paul’s ideas into more modern languages, we further distort those concepts. William Tyndale, somewhere around 1500, made the first English translation of Paul’s letters working from Greek texts. Up until then English translations were the result of further translating the Latin Vulgate into an English that most of us can’t understand today.
We make the erroneous assumption that what Paul penned were timeless and generally applicable advices when his intention was to address specific individuals and communities about specific situations. Unless we have an understanding of the cultural situation that Paul was addressing his words can not be applied with any validity to life in the 21st century. Of course there are those who argue that all we need to interpret scripture is scripture itself and while I’m a full supporter of the devotional practice of Lexio Divina, we can’t even understand our own attempts at communicating what’s on our minds without a grasp of context. But probably the biggest hurdle we face is our own theological bias. This is the predictable problem with putting too much faith in paraphrased editions and one of the weaknesses to which the translators of the New International Version admit.
All those are simpler issues with interpretation and translation and don’t begin to touch the more complex problems in understanding Paul. We know little of the Hebrew methods of teaching in which Paul learned and then employed. We know little of his understanding of Scripture from the perspective of a Pharisee. Remember he was proud to identify himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees. To be a Pharisee was to be a separatist, the equivalent of being a member of the Holiness movement. And lastly, we don’t grasp the deeper mystical aspects of Paul’s Hebrew theology.
So, what was Paul getting to in these beginning words of the Letter to the Romans? I’ve worked over this lengthy sentence to try and discern the purposeful core of it. Why was it that it was important to write to the Romans that he was a servant of Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel? He says that he had received grace and apostleship for a singular purpose: to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his (Jesus’ ) name,
In the mid 19th century, in commenting on the Apostle Paul’s salutation in Romans 1, B. W. Johnson wrote: “In the Apostolic age there were no recognized believers but obedient believers.” No nominal Christians, no cultural Christians. The whole purpose of Paul’s ministry was to call Gentiles to the obedience of faith.
That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it: “the obedience of faith.” Such a simple phrase challenges our ideas of how belief leads to sharing in God’s promise. While it is difficult to keep in mind in the midst of holiday celebrations, shopping, lights and decorations, and joyful carols, Advent is intended to be a season of fasting and there are a variety of ways that this time of contemplation works itself out in the season. Reflection on the violence and evil in the world and in our selves cause us to cry out to God to make things right—or as the composer of our Advent Hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel put it “to put death’s dark shadows to flight”. The discomfort of living in the exile of the present can make us want to escape to what must be a better place, to look forward to a future Exodus. And our own sinfulness and need for grace leads us to pray for the Holy Spirit to renew his work in conforming us into the image of Christ. Such a personal spiritual reformation doesn’t lead us to a Christianized nirvana, like a candle blown out. According to Paul, it leads to an obedience of faith; a commitment to work to continue Christ’s work, the work of the prophets before him; the effort to restore God’s creation.
We miss that when our understanding of faithfulness becomes a simple belief in being miraculously lifted from this plane of existence to enjoy a heavenly audience. Without a doubt, when the Church celebrates Advent she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah but it isn’t about some futuristic coming but Christ coming now to empower us to the obedience of faith.
And dare we imagine what that might look like? One traditional goal of the Advent season is to make our souls fitting abodes for the Redeemer. Christ living in us.
Susan and I have been keeping our home ready for potential buyers – we’ve cleared away what seems tons of our possessions – they called it depersonalizing. When we began it was summer time. We’ve had to buy new winter coats because all our winter wear is buried somewhere in that container in the drive way. Each time someone comes to look we vacuum the carpets, swisher the hardwoods, polish woodwork, sinks and faucets. That’s like the beginning of Advent, getting ready for Christ to make Christ’s self known. It would be nice if it got easier but next, as Paul declares himself to be, we too become ‘a servant of Jesus Christ’. What’s next is to see the world and others through Christ’s eyes. It causes us to see how injustice, oppression, violence destroys God’s intention for creation. Now you can understand this phrase of bringing about the obedience of faith. We are called to challenge injustice, oppression and violence, not simply bemoan it or worse look past it.
Phil Gulley recently wrote: “Progress is not inevitable. It is not some great ideal toward which the universe magically bends. Fair play and progress are the result of dedicated people rolling up their sleeves and putting their hands to the plow. The universe will only bend toward justice if we make it so. It is not inevitable. It is the consequences of our unswerving dedication to a world restored. Justice is never a sure thing. The moment we think that justice is inevitable, with no effort on our part, is the moment it begins to recede.
“As Quakers, ours is a double call. Our first responsibility is to be vigilant for justice. When people are diminished, when their rights and dignity are threatened, we must not be silent and still. The second is to love those with whom we disagree, remembering that a nation’s moral stature is only secure when its citizens refuse to hate. As Quakers we must model the reconciliation we promote, even when,especially when, reconciliation has become a minor key in our nature’s song.”
A word that has been playing on my mind for the last week or so. It’s the adjective “obsequious.” While it’s not part of our common vocabulary and it’s a word with which we well may have to come to terms. It means to be excessively servile. Some synonyms are: subservient, submissive, slavish, even brown-nosing, boot-licking, smarmy, a noun might be a ‘toady.’ It’s the opposite of standing against injustice, oppression and violence. As a servant of Christ we are called to the obedience of faith for the sake of Christ’s name. It may be a hard row to hoe, but according to Paul you are called to be a saint, set apart for the gospel of God.