August 23rd August.
What have the Romans ever done for us? The great question from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Rome was the capital of a great Empire. If famously exported road building and aqueduct construction with its armies as brought out by that famous joke.
St Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome nearly 30 years after Christ’s crucifixion, by which time the imperial power had spread its tentacles of conquest, as its enemies saw it, or Pax Romana, as its leaders spin doctors called it even further ,across the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa.
And yet is only now that St Paul turns, in the last letter he is known to have written, to the great capital.
And as the letter itself says he is only planning to stay for a short time before heading off west to Spain.
He is going for a stop over.
Towards the end of the letter he tells us that he is coming after undertaking an important and urgent case. He is going to go to Jerusalem to take money gathered on his travels to help the community there. The saints in Jerusalem.
I say all this because St Paul’s letter to the Romans needs putting in perspective. It is just about the longest of his letters, and although it was the last to be written it is the first we come across in the New Testament, and it has undoubtedly had a huge effect upon the thinking of the church- it was particularly central to the debates of the Reformation, over the issue of faith versus works.
But, it is only one part of St Paul’s output, and a fraction of the New Testament. It is also, you might have noticed sometimes treated as a key to interpreting the Gospel. Many, including myself, would look first to the teaching and life of the Christ we see in the Gospels themselves, but grant Paul an exalted role as an inspired interpreter and guide.
Romans 12. 1-8 provides a few great examples of this.
Christ spoke about taking up his cross and following Him. St Paul seems to be on the same page.
Beginning with an idea which we should all be familiar, even if we might find the words daunting or troubling-‘ be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’
From the Jerusalem Temple and right across the known world sacrifices were of animals, or plants.
There were dark references in the Old Testament to children being sacrificed and in the Graeco Roman world there were disturbing myths, like the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia by Agamemnon to get a fair wind to sail to Troy in the famous saga.
From which atrocity unfurled the great cycles of revenge that became the subject of so many Greek tragedies.
But this notion of not doing, or witnessing a sacrifice, but being a sacrifice was something new. An individual choosing to follow Christ by leading a life of self giving and love, internalised religion. Being a sacrifice opened the door to the practice of charity, kindness, the development of conscience, and a sense of personal agency and freedom. Especially when it is linked by Paul to renewing the mind.
He uses the word metamorphosis at this point- like the amazing transformation that we associate with, caterpillars becoming butterflies. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the letter to the Romans ends with Paul’s rescue mission to Jerusalem- to help the same people he had wanted to kill just a few years earlier.
Other verses in this section discuss the nature of the church and what it should be like.
I am going to quote from a book by an eminent evangelical biblical scholar at this point.
‘ Diversity not uniformity, is the mark of God’s handiwork. It is so in nature ; it is so in grace too, and nowhere more so than in the Christian community.’
That might sound quite recent to your ears. It was written by FF Bruce just under 60 years ago.
The message of Romans echoes St Paul’s words elsewhere. God calls all kinds- ‘the scum of the earth,’ as he rather harshly calls believers, including himself, in his first letter to the Corinthians.
Elsewhere when Paul is celebrating diversity he mentions men, and women, Jew and Gentile, people who speak in tongues or prophesy but in Romans the list is slightly different again.
He includes, leaders, teachers, encouragers, generous givers, and people of compassion.
There seems little doubt that St Paul was running with a principle here, not drawing up arbitrary lists. Those who come belong, he insists. Those who belong have something to contribute.
On a slightly flippant note I always regret that he hadn’t thought ahead to the invention of PCC’s, our Parochial Church Councils, and talked about the gift of cussedness, wandering off point, or total recall. All of which are, of course, sometimes invaluable, but where not, are only human.
Because another theme which St Paul brings out; something wise and precious which links the idea of being a living sacrifice and valuing enriching differences in others, is that we should not think more highly of ourselves that we ought to think. This connects with Jesus teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, about the humble being particularly blessed. Where the word that Jesus uses, usually translated humble or meek, is more subtle, combining tenderness and strength.
The gentle strong shall inherit the earth.
Diversity is ingrained into Christianity from the beginning. From that first ragbag of disciples, led by Peter, called by Jesus, through to St Paul, a transformed fundamentalist, down to us. Being welcomed through grace, and loved by God, not because of our special abilities, but because we are human beings in his image.