Friday, 27 May 2016

Duck soup doodlings

Dark matter makes up 80% of the universe, but where is it? American scientists now think they’ve found the answer: 11250 Waples Mill Road, Fairfax, Virginia.

“Hope is the thing with feathers” (Emily Dickinson). Despair is the asshole behind the duck blind with a 20-gauge double barrel shotgun.

There is nothing like a presidential election – this one in particular – to rescue from desuetude the imprecations of the Psalms.

So Neil Young, Elton John, and Adele are pissed off that their music has been hijacked by the Trump campaign. Imagine, then, the velocity of the spinning corpses of Charles Albert Tindley, Louise Shropshire, and Pete Seeger when the GOP starts singing “We Shall Overcome” at the Republican National Convention in July.

General Relativity for Reformed theologians: Calvin tells Barth how to move, Barth tells Calvin how to curve.

Einstein, of course, was right: God doesn’t play dice. He plays cards: Solitaire with Unitarians, Go Fish with Evangelicals, I Doubt It with Liberals, Old Maid with Roman Catholics, Spite and Malice with Hyper-Calvinists, Follow the Queen with Anglicans, Hearts with Universalists, Bridge with Ecumenists, Gin with lapsed Methodists, and Stud Poker with Promise Keepers.

The doctrine of predestination is no more a doctrine than the ontological argument is an argument. They are brilliant theological gags. If you get them, you smile, blissfully; if you don’t, you turn to tortured – or torturing – explanations.

Marilynne Robinson is such a thoroughgoing Barthian humanist – her childlike delight in creation, her suspicion of a logos asarkos, and her affirmation of a costly universalism – that one might call her writings a poetics of Bruce McCormack.

Time moves slowly in Hell, but the 14th-century sign at the entrance – “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here” – has finally been replaced. The new sign, above an arrow composed of flashing coloured lights, reads “Follow the Money”.

Many evangelicals who declare that “America is a Christian nation” remind me of George Lindbeck’s crusader who cries “Christus est Dominus!” The only difference is their weapon of choice.

Where there’s a will, there’s a prey.

Writing for the Church Times (15 April), Andrew Brown observes that xenophobia and nationalism in Sweden have “taken a religious expression in paganism, not Christianity.” So just like the US and the UK then.

I hear that Liberty University is offering a new module in Russian literature. It features Chekov’s Uncle Samuíl, Tolstoy’s War and Piece, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Kalashnikov, and Turgenev’s Fathers, Sons, and Womenfolk.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Ever since 9/11, the US and the UK have repeatedly backed tinpot allies in the Middle East who they claim can form a government yet who are hated by the local population, while the Saudis, “our friends” (i.e., our business partners in arms and oil), remain the (wild) elephant in the region. Sisters and brothers, can I get a Yemen?

I think of the pulpit as home plate and therefore suggest that preachers should dress like umpires. If they preach the gospel, eventually they’ll need protection.

Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, one or two will piss off and start their own church” (Matthew 18:20, Original Autograph).

Jesus said, “Where two or three thousand gather together in my name, please accept my apologies for absence” (Matthew 18:20, Another Original Autograph).

I walk into a coffee shop. At the counter is a kid wearing a name badge. Zack asks, “Can I help you?” “A cappuccino, please.” “Awesome,” Zack replies. “With an extra shot.” “Awesome,” Zack adds. “And a chocolate top.” “Awesome,” Zack repeats. A hat trick of semantic vacuity. You know the worship ditty, “Our God is an awesome God”? Take it from the top, all you Zacks out there.

“No problem” is another word-wreck of a reply you often get from a waiter/ waitress/ waitperson/ waitbeing. As if in taking an order of burgers and fries he/she might suddenly find him/herself addressing an incident on Apollo 13.

The good news is that the truth will set you free. The bad news is that the truth will set you free.

What is salvation? The past catching up with you – and the Future snatching you from its grasp.

Jesus went to the territory near the town of Caesarea Philippi, where he asked his disciples, “Who so people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “David Berkowitz, of course.” “‘Man’!” Jesus shouted. “‘Son of Man’, you idiots!” (Matthew 16:13-14, Original Autograph).

“Just be yourself” goes the psychomantra. Really? And which “self” would that be? And even assuming you manage to locate and isolate one, why would you want to be him/her/whomever? Are you work-shy or just unimaginative? Have you never prayed?

The bewitchment of language begins with the hocus of “I” and the pocus of “me”.

I’m 67. Do I miss the old days? Not really. I’ve taken the good stuff with me. (And contrary to boomers who were no less senescent then than they are now, there was a heap of good stuff.) What I miss is the young days.

Monday, 23 May 2016

God’s Selfie: a sermon on Rublev’s icon of the Trinity

Icons. Nowadays “icons” are mega-celebrities of one sort or another: pop idols, movie stars, royalty: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana – they are modern icons par excellence. In his brilliant reflection on contemporary culture, Lost Icons, Rowan Williams situates this “iconography” “in the complex realm of public presentation … [and] the marketing of personalities.” It is a travesty, he observes, of the “traditional icon of the Eastern [Orthodox] Christian world,” which “is never meant to be a reproduction of the world you see around you.” Rather, “the point of the icon is to give us a window into an alien frame of reference that is at the same time the structure that will make definitive sense of the world we inhabit.” And many Western Christians have also discovered that, prayerfully contemplated, these exquisite, evocative paintings of holy figures may awaken our spiritual senses and grace us with glimpses of God.

Here is one of the most famous of all icons. It was painted in the late 14th century by Andrei Rublev, a monk at the monastery of Zagorsk, near Moscow. It’s called “The Hospitality of Abraham”, narratively based as it is on the story in Genesis 18 about the three mysterious figures entertained by Abraham and Sarah who announce to them the birth of Isaac. But what do you suppose this icon is really all about? Here is a hint: its more common name is – “The Trinity.” But I reckon you could call it “God’s Selfie.”

But let’s take a step back and first ask how on earth – how on earth – can you picture the Trinity? Well, you can have a go at the Son – at least he becomes incarnate in the man Jesus. But what about the Father and the Holy Spirit? Perhaps an old man with a beard for the Father, and a dove for the Spirit? That’s been the tradition in Western art, the best of it quite sublime. But a dove lacks the “personhood” of the Holy Spirit, and while such imagery might tell us something about God’s work in creation and redemption – God as God reveals Godself to us (what theologians call the “economic” Trinity) – it tells us virtually nothing about God as God is in Godself (what theologian call the “imminent” or “eternal” Trinity).

Any other possibilities? Well, there is the venerable tradition of biblical interpretation known as typology, which re-reads the story of Israel in the light of the story of Jesus, hearing echoes of the former in the latter. It sees connections and explores correspondences between persons, events, and themes in the Old Testament and persons, events, and themes in the New Testament: sees the Old Testament prefiguring the New Testament and the New Testament reconfiguring the Old Testament. For example: in Romans 5 Paul writes of Adam as “a figure of the one who is to come”, namely Christ, the Second Adam; and in 1 Peter 3 the author sees the floodwaters in Noah’s day as anticipating Christian baptism in his own day.

Now: back to this strange tale in Genesis 18 about Abraham, Sarah, and the three mysterious visitors. Rublev is by no means the first Christian to have taken this story as a foreshadowing of the Trinity. It is certainly a strange story, full of suggestive ambiguity. Are there really three visitors, or only one? The text jumps between both possibilities. And who are these travellers? Are they human, angelic, divine? Certainly they bring the promise of the miraculous birth of a child. You can see how the story resonates with trinitarian themes. Perhaps, then, you can understand why it became the basis of attempts by Eastern Orthodox Christians to create a compelling visual aid to help us understand and worship God as Trinity.

So Rublev focuses our attention on these three persons imaged as angels – you can tell they are angels because they’ve got wings! (Abraham and Sarah don’t appear in the picture, although the tree rising over the left wing of the central angel reminds us of the oak of Mamre, where they entertained their visitors.) The angels are linked together by their common blue garments – blue, the colour of the sky, the heavens, and therefore symbolic of eternity. (The building above the angel on the left probably represents the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem.) And the whole scene is suffused with regal gold.

The angel on the right, introducing us to the Godhead, represents the Holy Spirit. His blue robe is covered by a green cloak – green, the colour of life, because the Holy Spirit (in the words of the Nicene Creed) is “the Lord, the Giver of Life”, including the earthly life of the Son through the Virgin Birth. The angel in the middle represents the Son. His blue cloak overlays a dark red robe – red, the colour of earth, the colour of blood, symbolising, respectively, the incarnation and the crucifixion. And the angel on the left represents the Father, his blue robe covered with a translucent cloak, symbolising the eternal divine glory.

What else? Observe that a circle can be traced around the angels, emphasising their divine unity and perfection. Note that each angel has a halo, symbolising their co-equality, and that each has a staff, representing their co-authority. And observe that they are sitting around a table, not round but rectangular, representing the world of time and space. But more, the table is clearly a Communion table – there is a chalice on it. And the angel of the Son is pointing to it with two fingers on his right hand, reflecting his two natures, human and divine, and yet, at the same time – such is Rublev’s artistry – also pointing beyond the table to the Spirit on his left, the Spirit sent by the Father through the Son. And in the chalice, though it is almost impossible to make out, there is a lamb: Behold the Lamb of God! – slain on the cross, but also slain before the foundations of the world.

Now look closely again at the three figures. They are certainly three distinct figures. But look at the way they are sitting, angled towards each other. And look at the way they are gazing – the Spirit on the right at the Father across the table, the Son in the middle at the Father to his right, the Father on the left at the Spirit across the Table – or is it at the Son to his left? The ambiguity is no doubt intended. But look too at the family resemblance – they could almost be triplets – no old man, young man, and a bird! – which suggests not only their equality but also their indivisibility. They seem to be giving themselves to each other, absorbed in each other, living in and for each other – one-in-three, three-in-one, the perfect expression of love. And the Son is central – why? Because he is the key that opens the door to the reality of God as Trinity, as it was by reflecting on his person and work that the early church came to understand and express that God is Trinity.

It has been observed that “this image of God does not always square with our understanding of personal relationships, whether with God or with each other. Often we do not link together the person on the one hand and the relationship on the other, because in modern western societies when we say ‘personal’ we usually mean ‘individual’ without any necessary sense of mutuality, interdependency, and inseparability. The Holy Trinity is not personal in our western sense at all. The personal nature of God, God’s very being, is relatedness, is Father, Son, and Spirit in the unity of communion. And so, in turn, for us to have a personal relationship with God is not a matter of two separate individuals, creature and creator, becoming ‘pals’. It is much deeper than that. It is a matter of being caught up into the very life of God, which is always personal but never individualistic. The Trinity reminds us that Christianity is not about having a one-to-one relationship with an isolated God, nor is it about having a private relationship with God to the exclusion of others. No, from start to finish Christianity is about participating in the trinitarian life of God, and it’s about participating in the community of the church, its human reflection” (from James White, The Forgotten Trinity, much adapted).

One last look at Rublev’s astonishing icon. I’ve left something out. I’ve missed what’s missing. Can you see how the scene, reversing the perspective we’re used to in Western art, seems to beckon towards us? Observe the empty space at the front of the table: the perfect circle is also an open circle. Could it be that Rublev is inviting us, the observers, to stop being observers and step into the frame, to approach the table, to share in the holy communion of Father, Son, and Spirit? For is that not the meaning and purpose of worship, of being church, of being Christian – to be drawn into, to indwell, the very life and being of God, as we lift up our hearts to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit? Yes, it is so. It is certainly so.

Finally this. Observe – none of the figures is speaking, they sit in silent, prayerful contemplation. So let us, like them, be quiet for a moment – in silent, prayerful contemplation …

Friday, 20 May 2016

Review of Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels

A guest-review by Jeff Aernie

Richard Hays’ 1989 publication Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul was—without exaggeration—a watershed moment in New Testament studies. Hays’ careful theological and exegetical analysis of the way the Scriptures of Israel reverberated through the corridors of the Pauline epistles sparked a hermeneutical conversation across the theological landscape. Teachers and students were required to read Paul again—to hear afresh the way the apostle called forth Israel’s narrative within early Christianity.

Nearly thirty years later, Hays has provided another masterful foray into the hermeneutical question of how the New Testament authors read Scripture: Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016). In this volume Hays turns his attention away from Paul and toward the authors of the fourfold Gospel. His primary aim, in his own words, is to offer “an account of the narrative representation of Israel, Jesus, and the church in the canonical Gospels, with particular attention to the ways in which the four Evangelists reread Israel’s Scripture” (7). Hays describes the key for this interpretive task as reading backwards or figurally—by which he means that the Evangelists’ engagement with the text is primarily retrospective. Again, to quote Hays: “the Evangelists were convinced that the events of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection were in fact revelatory: they held the key to understanding all that had gone before” (358). The re-interpretation or re-narration of Israel’s story for the life of the church is necessarily mediated through Jesus.

Hays pursues this interpretive agenda by providing a separate chapter on each of the Gospels which provides extensive exegetical analysis on each of the key aspects of his wider thesis: how each evokes Israel’s Scripture to re-narrate Israel’s story, to portray Jesus’ identity and significance, and to describe the church’s role in the world. I am tempted to fill the rest of this brief post with quotations from these chapters, since Hays’ analysis of each of the Gospels reflects the type of exegetical care that should be a standard for the discipline. But I will confine myself to one extended quotation. In his conclusion to the chapter on the Gospel of Luke, Hays highlights a point which, I think, should influence our reading of each of the Gospels:
Luke’s Christology of divine identity requires a fundamental rethinking of our notion of “God.” Jesus is the Kyrios; the Kyrios is Jesus. God is therefore not a concept subject to general philosophical elucidation but a “person,” an agent known through the complex unfolding of his narrative identity—and only so. And precisely for that reason, the “low/high” christological categories collapse completely. God discloses himself to us precisely in lowliness (280).
The key emphasis here is Hays’ rejection of the artificial construction that certain Gospel authors develop distinctly “low” or “high” Christologies. He argues convincingly that the Gospel authors are re-narrating Israel’s Scripture in their own context precisely to engage with the mystery of how Jesus can simultaneously embody both Yahweh and humanity. For Hays, it is in recognizing the Evangelists’ figural reading of Israel’s Scripture that we are enabled to understand the complexity and depth of their narratives. “For the Evangelists, Israel’s Scripture told the true story of the world. Scripture was not merely a repository of ancient writings …; rather, it traced out a coherent story line that stretched from creation, through the election of Israel, to the telos of God’s redemption of the world” (360).

Importantly, Hays’ delineation of this Scriptural storyline is a reminder that the interpretive task never ends with narration. The Evangelists’ reading of Scripture does not culminate in mere exegetical assent. Rather, their portrayal of Jesus is also a call for the church to participate in that narrative. It is a commission to Christian discipleship. This, it seems to me, is what we have in Hays’ volume: an act of Christian discipleship that seeks “to carry forward the story of Jesus with new freedom and faithfulness” (366).

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

High church anti-clericalism: some thoughts on ministry

Late in the afternoon I went out for ice cream with one of my doctoral students. We sat on small chairs on the pavement crowded with bankers and lawyers scurrying home from work, and the slower, reluctant stream of bartenders, security guards, and prostitutes who crept half-heartedly into the dying light to commence their nighttime labours. We ate the ice cream, my student and I, with glad hearts and loud exclamations. For we were arguing about lofty things – I mean the priesthood, the sacraments, ordination, and grace.

My student was provoked by my refusal to believe in mediated grace. I should have been politer, more ecumenical, since he had paid for the ice cream. But in my heart of hearts I cannot see how the church or the clergy could mediate divine grace to anybody’s soul. I do not see how special powers could be conferred on a person through ordination.

And yet I love the liturgy, the priesthood, and all the rest. I am practically Calvinist in my understanding of these matters, and practically Catholic in my feelings. I want the laying on of hands and orders of ministry and candles and vestments and chanted psalms and the sign of the cross and a certain measure of good-hearted pomp and ceremony. I approve even of liberal doses of incense, provided it is not sprayed directly in my face, as I’m afraid the stuff makes me sneeze. Nothing detracts from Liturgical Solemnity like a thundering sneeze.

My view, in short, combines high-church feelings with low-church theology. If I had to give it a name, I would call it high church anti-clericalism.

Edmund Burke had a similar view of political leadership. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke noted that the French revolutionaries had a purely rational assessment of political leaders. There is no divine right of kings. No supernatural power is invested in a head of state. There is no difference between royal blood and the blood of any common peasant. The queen of France is a woman, a human being, nothing more. Monarchy, according to the revolutionaries, is merely an illusion. All its pomp and ceremony need to be stripped away in order to get at the bare truth of things.

Burke might agree with the metaphysics of the revolutionaries – of course monarchs are not anointed by God; of course a king is a man like any other – but he disagrees with their conclusions about the value of culture and tradition. Pomp and ceremony are important because the king is merely a man. Without the elaborate artifice of glory, our relationship to rulers would be reduced to one of naked power: we would obey because the sovereign wields the sword. But rulers are clothed in ceremonial traditions in order to subdue our hearts. We form attachments to the office of our rulers. We obey not out of fear but out of love. “It was this,” Burke says, that “produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings.” When we treat a human being as if he were appointed by God, it makes our obedience “liberal” and his power “gentle.”

Paradoxical as it might seem, Burke thought the rigorous equalising metaphysics of the revolutionaries would end up transforming the ruling office into a position of naked power, and would turn citizens into craven subjects. By contrast, the elaborate trappings of hierarchical tradition end up elevating citizens to a level of spiritual equality with their rulers, whom they serve freely with affectionate hearts. Burke viewed with horror the rationalistic iconoclasm of the revolutionaries. Nothing good will come of this return to bare nature and bare power: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded, as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

Well I’m inclined to think about these ecclesiological matters along similar lines. Of course the Christian minister is not directly appointed by God – but let us relate to the clergy as if they were appointed by God. Of course the laying on of hands at ordination does not confer spiritual powers on a person – but let us celebrate ordination as if it were a conferral of grace. Of course preachers speak only human words when they stand up in the assembly to expound the scriptures – but let us listen to them as if listening to the voice of God. Of course the priest cannot transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – but let us receive bread from the priest’s hand as if receiving it from the hand of Christ.

The church is not a grace-machine. It is a human gathering that seeks to bear witness to the totally free movement of the grace of God. The symbols around which we gather are not illusions; but nor are they the thing itself. My anti-clericalism is high-church because I think the symbols are indispensable: I do not want an evangelicalism in which “all the decent drapery of life is rudely torn off,” to quote Burke again. But my high-churchliness is anti-clerical because I think the symbols point to something only God can do. They proclaim grace in word and action, but do not confer it. They are instruments of witness to God but not mediators of God. Only God can mediate God.

Thus it was that we argued and disputed on the pavement outside the ice cream shop. I quoted Calvin, I quoted Karl Barth, I expounded patristic authors, I waved my little plastic spoon with the gravest theological gesticulations. I don’t mind admitting that we did not quite see eye to eye. He went away, my student, with a head still full of mediatory ecclesiology. What more could I do? I would have mediated the truth to him if I could. But I am a mere teacher of theology, a layman, and laypeople don’t mediate anything. We might have agreed on that much.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Holy Spirit, breath of life: a hymn for Pentecost

(Tune: Gwalchmai) - from Paddling by the Shore: Hymns of Kim Fabricius

Holy Spirit, breath of life,
     breathe upon me;
comforter in times of strife,
     make my fears flee.
You alone can save my soul
     from life’s wild sea;
you alone can fill the hole
     deep within me.

Come, then, Spirit from above,
     fall upon me;
bond of Son and Father’s love,
     set my soul free.
To the cell in which I’m bound
     you’re the sole key;
through the years you’ve sought and found
     self-enclosed me.

God of warmth who goes between
     others and me;
God of light who can’t be seen,
     help us to see:
only as we live in you
     can we then be;
living then for others too,
     I become me.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Paul's personal greetings: a sermon for Easter 6

Texts: Acts 16:9-15 / Romans 16:1-16

Do you like the Marx Brothers? I love the Marx Brothers. The humour is so clever, chaotic, and subversive. Duck Soup is undoubtedly their best film, but At the Circus gives you a wonderful vaudevillian show, including Groucho singing about “the most glorious creature under the sun”:
Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?
Lydia the Tattooed Lady.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
and a torso even more so.
Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclo-pidia,
Oh Lydia the Queen of Tattoo …
Well, you get the, er, “picture” of this illustrious illustrated lady.

I don’t suppose the Lydia of Acts 16 had any tattoos – Leviticus bans body art – but she was certainly a lady who knew how to make an entrance and leave an impression. An affluent Greek living in the Roman colony of Philippi, Lydia was a business woman, a seller of posh purple textiles. She encounters Paul and his missionary companions, has a conversation with them, and, moved to faith, she is baptised. Then to wet the lady’s head, she invites the boys back to her home for a meal. How I would like to have been a fly on those walls! The first convert to Christianity in Europe, Lydia is recognised by the Church as a saint, and the Orthodox Church has even given her the title “Equal of the Apostles”. Wow!

Of course, Lydia (“Oh Lydia!”) was not the only woman who left her mark on the early Church, as the passage we’ve just heard from Romans 16 demonstrates.

Let’s start with a critical principle for reading: always pay attention to beginnings and endings. So, too, in letters, with salutations and valedictions. The way we sign on and off may be mere boilerplate – “Dear So-and-So” and “Etcetera, etcetera”. On the other hand, they may have a significance disclosed to close and attentive reading. Perhaps that may be the case with Romans?

Another fundamental principle in approaching any text is to note its genre. Romans is, er – a letter! But for much of its history, readers have ignored this fact and treated it as a kind of mini-systematic theology. And it’s true that in Romans, after two decades of ministry, Paul is bringing it all together and writing it all down – about Jesus, I mean. Still, Romans is a letter. It’s what scholars call “occasional”, that is, it’s written to particular recipients in a specific context. Whatever the theology of the letter – well, theology is made for people, not people for theology.

But who are these people, people Paul knows by name? That in itself is interesting. For Paul had never visited the church in Rome, yet he is acquainted with quite a few of its members. How so? Presumably he has met them on his toing-and-froing around the Roman Empire – and in the early church, there was a lot of such to-and-froing. So you can understand why Paul begins the “Personal Greetings” section at the end of his letter by commending to the Roman church one Phoebe, who is acting as a postwoman between Corinth, where Paul wrote the letter, and its destination in the imperial capital. But Phoebe isn’t just a gopher, she’s a valued church-worker, indeed church leader, who has been of immense assistance to Paul.

Nor is Phoebe the only woman mentioned by Paul. There’s Prisca, or Priscilla (as she is called in the book of Acts). She and her husband Aquila were outstanding missionaries who risked their lives for Paul. Jewish Christians banished from Rome by an edict of the emperor Claudius, they worked abroad in Ephesus and Corinth, but Claudius is now dead and they have returned to their home church. The astonishing thing, however, is that Prisca is mentioned at all, since normally only the husband was named in greetings to a married couple. But Paul not only calls Prisca by name, he names her first, indicating that she is the more important of the two.

And the list of women continues. There’s Mary, and Tryphaena and Tryphosa (probably sisters), and Persis and Julia, as well the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus. And then there’s the peculiar case of Junias – or is it Junia? The manuscripts vary, but what may have happened is that, as women became more marginalised in the church during the following centuries, certain scribes replaced a woman’s name with a man’s, thus airbrushing Junia out of history. But in the original text, women account for fully a third of the people Paul greets, which is an astonishing statistic about leadership in the early church, and a shaming indictment of even the 21st century church whose members are mainly women but whose leaders are – still – mostly men. We have yet to get our heads around Paul’s revolutionary manifesto that in Christ there is neither male nor female.

And, for that matter, neither Jew nor Gentile. That’s another thing about the people Paul greets: many of them are Jews. Like Paul himself, they are Jews who have become Christians. In the Roman church there are also Gentiles who have become Christians. And it turns out that the two parties have been quarrelling. The Jewish Christians think the Gentile Christians are too liberal and treat them judgementally. The Gentile Christians think the Jewish Christians are too conservative and treat them with contempt. Sound familiar? Interest groups, lines drawn, exclusions, walk-outs – what else is new? But my opponents, Paul insists, are they not also my siblings whom the Father has given me to love, and who therefore have a non-negotiable claim on my consideration and care?

“We are,” observes Rowan Williams, “regularly undone by a form of inattention – the failure to see what other people really are – which in turn gives rise to inappropriate forms of harshness.” And the more power we have, the greater the temptation to treat fellow believers with intolerance and discourtesy. In Rome, power was shifting to the Gentile Christians, who unsurprisingly were getting what Pauls calls “boastful”. Is that why the apostle forefronts so many Jewish Christians in his greetings, even though, with his own theology of freedom, he is closer to their critics? Is he reminding the Gentiles of the debt they owe to their Jewish brothers and sisters, of how Gentiles are but honorary Jews who must use their freedom with sensitivity and respect? Is not Paul here subtly brokering the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile – of traditionalist and progressive – that is at the heart his gospel?

Male and female, Jew and Gentile – sexual and religious divisions – Paul also seeks to overcome the social divide of slave and free: all are one in Christ. And what do you know: we find that a few of the people Paul greets have names commonly used for bonded and freedmen. So we can be sure that that the church in Rome included not only men and women, Jew and Gentile, but also the wealthy and the poor, the educated and uneducated. Which leads me, finally, to make a rather astonishing observation, and to pose a quite urgent question.

In his famous commentary on Romans, Karl Barth wrote this: “The possibility that Tryphaena and Tryphosa and other ordinary people would not have been able to understand the letter does not seem to have been considered [by Paul]. That is, there was once a body of men and women to whom the letter … could be sent in the confident expectation that it provided an answer to their questions; that somehow or another it would be understood and valued. [That for these people] … theology – theology! – was THE living theme.” Ordinary folk who just could not get enough of thinking and talking about God. Wow!

Think about it. We can all read and write. We’ve all got some education, some of us a lot of education. Yet we find Paul’s theology demanding and difficult. Why is that? It’s not because we’re stupid. So why? It’s because Paul’s theology is difficult and demanding! It was difficult and demanding for the Roman Christians too: to the uneducated because it was learned; to the Gentiles because it was steeped in the Jewish scriptures; to the Jews because it subverted their cherished traditions. But they wrestled with the letter because of that “confident expectation that it provided an answer to their questions”. The BIG questions: the meaning of life, the purpose of history, creation and redemption, how to live creatively with conflict, how to make a difference as public witnesses to truth, compassion, and peace in a world of mendacity, self-interest, and violence.

Can we say the same? Are these BIG questions – and not the “Can Christians wear tattoos?” kinds of questions! – are they still the themes that draw us to faith and fellowship, that challenge and inspire us, that we can’t stop thinking and talking about? In Emily Dickinson’s striking image, is God “still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul”? In Philip Larkin’s famous phrase, is the church still “A serious house on serious earth …, / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet”? May it be so – for each of us and all of us – A, B, C, D, … and all the saints at Uniting Church Sketty!

Paul concludes his greetings (the translation is mine): “Cwtches all around!” Not a bad way to conclude a sermon – and head towards the sacrament!


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