Sunday, May 7, 2023

Moriah Hurst: God keeping faith with us

The Spirit of Jesus reveals righteousness
The Wind of God Blows New Life
Romans 1:1-17

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Last week I was talking with a few seminary educated, pastor friends. We started discussing baptism, sin and salvation - you know light and normal lunch conversation. I noticed that sometimes the questions I expect to be easy for pastors really stump us - what is the gospel? What is righteousness? My pastor friends and I realized that for many of us these topics are hard to talk about. We don’t have good language for them. We lean away from heavy language of condemnation and fear but haven’t found newer ways to articulate these basics in our faith. So with that as my backdrop we approach Romans. A book that might get a bad reputation when it comes to misuse and feels like intense theology for this bright spring morning.

This Sunday we start 4 weeks looking at the book of Romans. This letter written by Paul is the longest of his letters in the bible. Romans is different to the other epistles or letters from Paul. First, this is the only letter to a church that Paul didn’t found. He hadn’t even met the Roman church yet. I understand a bit better the first 15 verses of this text as Paul introduces himself, trying to gain footing with this group of people who don’t know him. He is giving a context for who he is.

In the same way that I would give some background when I introduce someone and want to let people know why they would want to know them or talk to them. This is my friend Alissa, we were roommates in seminary together and she just finished up pastoring in Hamilton Ontario.

Some scholars note that Paul’s language to the Roman church is more cool and dispassionate than some of his tone in letters to churches he is more familiar with.  “Paul offers a more sustained, careful account of his own positions and makes little clear reference to the church in Rome. These distinct features prompted earlier generations of scholars to identify Romans as a summary of Paul’s thought, unlike his other letters that were written to address specific communities and their problems.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 548)

It also helps me to realize that Paul was most likely dictating his letter to a scribe. We tend to speak differently than we write. I had a student once that would write an entire paragraph without any punctuation. In getting them to start noticing where they needed punctuation, I had them read their paper out loud. Whenever they felt like they needed to breathe I’d tell them that was a good spot to put punctuation. If you notice the first 7 verses of this text only have commas. Thus, approaching the thoughts captured in these run-on sentences can feel overwhelming.

We are also switching from narratives, stories captured in the bible, to a letter containing Paul’s thoughts and theology.  So Paul starts with an opening, goes on to thanksgiving and then gives what many call his thesis for the rest of his letter in verses 16-17. Paul is giving the background of his theology but it is a one way communication, not a back and forth conversation. Letters don’t really capture dialogue.

Rome was a big city and the church there might not have been very large. Paul expresses affirmation for the work they are doing and that he wants to both see it and join them in it. This big task that they share of including people of many backgrounds in the big tent of God’s love and salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is longing for the mutual encouragement of “we are in this together”.

And then we come to his theme for the next 11 chapters, verses 16-17 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is God’s saving power for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

When we look at the life, transformation and then work and teaching of Paul, it seems almost humorous for him to state that he is not ashamed of the Gospel. No kidding! Paul, who had a dramatic conversion to being a christ follower.  Paul, who went on to take 3 significant missionary journeys and taught, preached and started churches. Of course he’s not ashamed of the gospel, it’s the opposite of that, he is proud of it.  But maybe he is making some space for some of us that do feel ashamed sometimes. Not ashamed of God’s saving work in the world, but very conflicted about how that has been communicated. We are confused about how we articulate the gospel and salvation and when it is appropriate or tolerable to do that without being labeled some kind of Jesus freak. We want to be subtle, not wanting to offend or be pushy.

 Mary Austin writes: “Paul proclaims that he is not ashamed of the gospel, but I often find myself ashamed of the church, and what we have done, collectively, in the name of the gospel.  How do we separate God’s good news from our flawed expression of it?  Are there places where we should be ashamed?  Where do we find God’s “righteousness,” as Paul calls it, mixed in with our human frailty?” (

“Maybe Paul is being gracious to us there. If you are ashamed I get it, but I’m not” (Bible Worm podcast).
Yet as we go on, these verses offer that it is God who is faithful to us first. We are inspired by the faithfulness and love of God and respond with faith and love.

For many in the biblical text salvation was understood as deliverance from physical danger. Freed from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, these are defining stories. For us, it might be truer to say that salvation is deliverance from being caught in cycles of sin and thinking that we can save ourselves. God’s desire for salvation is expansive, it reaches to us and on to creation itself. It starts with God and then we mirror or respond to God’s actions. Humans are enveloped in God’s justice and righteousness. It is a gift. This grace that God offers us, we can’t achieve it but it is abundantly offered, just because we are deeply and fully held in the love of God.

A podcast I really appreciate is Bible Worm, where a Jewish and Christian theologian reflect together on the text for the week. Coming out of the book of Matthew as we follow the narrative lectionary and now turning to Romans they paint a picture of Salvation this way.

“Salvation - Yes, it's where you will go when you die but in this text it is a setting free from the power of oppression in the world here and now. Talking about the world constructed by those with ruling power. Proclaiming a Gospel that Caesar is no longer Lord, Jesus Christ is Lord. The way that Rome has ordered the world in ways that are unjust is no longer the way the world is going to be. But we are working together with God to this more just world. And that’s what salvation is, that’s what justice is, that’s what righteousness is” (Bible Worm Podcast)

“God is acting in ways in the world that nudge the world closer to justice. And God is faithful to us and so when we live in faithful response to God then we must also move the world towards justice.” (Bible Worm Podcast) “We trust in God and God trusts in us and together we work to move the world towards the just community that God has in mind”
I think I can work with that definition and live into that invitation.

“Let’s trust that God is bringing about a new world that is closer to justice. Let's be faithful in our response, not be ashamed of our role. Let’s talk to people about a more just world that is possible.”

As we approach this table where we tell the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, we do proclaim it as good news. We are taking Jesus' life into us and allowing this community and our life together to shape us for God’s work in the world. We are acknowledging that we don’t have to generate love and justice on our own but we do it in response to what God has already done for us. God has faith in us and with us. May we respond in kind with faith.

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