In Romans we start by reading Paul’s condemnation of sinfulness. The language he uses is “them”, which distinguishes these sinners as other. Most of us should have noticed that Paul was playing a trick on his listeners, because by the end of it it was clear that he was talking about `us’ and not `them’ — however, what we have not thought much about is “who are they?” — The readers must have had an idea what the two sides were. Another thing that we must consider is “how do we act, knowing that we are them?”
Most scholars believe that Romans was written in the mid 50’s. Nero was newly made emperor, and was at this point more tolerant than his uncle Claudius was in his reign. Rome had a Christian community, but it was not evangelized by Paul, or Peter. Most likely Rome was evangelized by Jewish Christians, such as those who joined Christianity at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Certainly the early leadership of the Roman church was early Jewish Christians.
Claudius banished Jews from Rome, meaning that there was a change in the character of the Roman church — it shifted from mostly Jewish to more and more gentile. Paul writes of the Jew and the Greek throughout the epistle, so clearly Paul sees this as an important conflict in the Roman church. I would like to suggest that “they” are gentiles. The sins Paul attributes to “them” start very culturally specific. While the Jews have taboos against things such as sacrificing to idols, they were a cultural expectation among the gentiles. When a Roman became a Christian, perhaps his behavior would change, but those who wanted purity could always remember that they were never idol worshipers. The gentile, due to his past, could always be an `other’ with a past — not pure enough.
The genius of Paul’s writing shines through as he reverses this. Paul starts listing areas of sinfulness that exists among practicing Christians, or had existed among the best of the Christian church. Paul was a murderer, James and John’s envy was shown by their mother asking for Jesus to give them special favors. Peter was untrustworthy, as he promised to stay with Jesus no matter what, and instead lied and denied ever knowing him. Can we find anyone who has not disobeyed their parents? Can we find anyone who loves perfectly, forgives consistently and shows mercy? The genius of Paul is he makes it clear that we are also them.
The thing is that trying to purify the church by getting rid of the sinners is a losing proposition. Every few generations, someone tried. Tertullian, for example did not like the fact the church was accepting Christians who denied Christ instead of suffering death back into fellowship. He became part of a community that refused fellowship with these backsliders — but, this was not enough for him, there was so much sin to condemn. Eventually, he was the only person pure enough for his own standards.
It would be so easy for me to be like Tertullian. I learned a religion of following rules, and I still tend to follow them. I’m very good at not doing things — I don’t dance, I don’t drink, I don’t go to places with gambling, I don’t go to morally lose parties. If Christianity was about following rules, I would have been a good Christian from childhood. Paul however points out that rules do not make any of us righteous. No matter how good we are at following rules, we are sinful. Attempts to purge sinners out of churches are like attempts to purify an alcoholics anonymous group of drunks. If we were good enough of ourselves, we would not go to the meetings.
Jesus teaches us though that the letter of the law kills. Paul shows us that the law does nothing more than condemns us. Experience and Jesus’ exchanges with the Pharisees teaches us that rules can be weapons in the hands of a bully — though they are good to protect, they can be abused by those who are abusive. The thing is that rules are a time tested approach — how do we live after we have replaced the rule of law with the rule of faith?
I have been struggling with this very question for many years. You see, as I said before my introduction to Christianity taught me what good Christians do not do, and a few things that we should do. As I tried to live the Christian life, I became entrenched in rules. As good as I was at following rules, (including saying the right prayer when I was younger), I cannot say that it did anything for my spiritual life. I was not merciful, I was not forgiving, I failed to love as I should — mostly I avoided doing those things I understood as being wrong.
One day after doing one of those things I understood as being right (reading Isaiah), I meet God in a period of solitude. I had a life changing mystical experience where I heard what I understand to be Jesus. I heard “you have tried to please others — walk with me.” This was both a judgment of my attempts to be a good Christian, and it was also freeing. I was forced to re-evaluate what it meant — and I realized that Christianity is about relationship, not about rules.
This shift in thinking has been challenging however. There is something comforting about rules, its great to be able to make a list of things to do and things to avoid — check them off, and know that everything is ok. It would be nice if suddenly I experienced a transformation, and I suddenly was above ‘sinfulness’, always living according to the work of Jesus in my life. When I followed rules, they did nothing to cure pride, or greed, or any of the other sinful attitudes that cannot be legislated away. A recognition that I need to live with Jesus did not suddenly change me either.
Fortunately, I’m in good company. Even after Jesus restored Peter, he was not perfect. Though Peter was the first voice calling the church to accept gentiles as equals, he would not eat with the gentiles in Antioch while the powerful Jewish Christians were there. His hypocrisy was sinful — though he was one of the greatest leaders of his day. Paul was far from gracious when he refused John Mark as a traveling companion — Barnabas and Paul separated over this disagreement, and Paul’s writings implies that Paul recognized he was in the wrong. Though we live with Jesus, we still struggle with sin. Christ transforms us, but it seems we are a work in process.
The good news for me is that Christ chooses let us walk and live with him. In the end, judgment is given to Jesus — this is the same Jesus that embraced Paul the murderer, and raised him up to the apostle of the gentiles. This is the same Jesus that embraced Peter who denied him, and made him into a pillar of the church. I cannot judge where my neighbor’s heart is — but I know that Christ embraces us while we are sinners. If we live with Christ, we are in the same company as those who are remembered as saints. We slip and fall — but Christ continues to help us up out of the mud and to walk with us.
How can we recognize Christ’s work in our own lives?
What does it mean to live with Christ’s light?
How can we show mercy when the world shows judgment?