When Paul writes the letter to the Romans he is staying in Corinth, he is probably in his early 50s, he has already written a lot of letters. Paul, is turning his energy to a city which is the centre of a world super power. This isn’t Trump’s America, its Nero’s Rome and in many ways it’s a frightening place for Christians. Paul has always tried to focus on starting new communities of Christians in some of the big urban centres but here he is writing to a church which he didn’t found and which is not under his authority.
This is a letter which tries to explain a lot of complex stuff – justification, salvation, reconciliation, atonement, redemption, sanctification. A lot of people love it because it tackles these big theological issues. But the bit we chose to read this morning is all about everyday living, about living together in the midst of our difference.
In the Greco-Roman world letters were important. Just as we still struggle with e-mail etiquette, the Romans thought carefully about the form of letters. You can see the influence of Rhetoric in Roman letters, many having the structure or style of a speech, with an exhortation to get the attention, a statement of the facts, a proposition to be proved by a list of proofs and refutations and an epilogue summarizing the arguments. But letters were also about sustaining or deepening relationships. Christian letters drew on all this but they were also rooted in faith, they began and ended by invoking the blessing of God or of Christ. And although the writer often wrote from a position of authority he also recognised his equality with the Christian Brothers and sisters he is writing to.
Romans is an exciting letter NOT because it’s a timeless compendium of Christian teaching but because Paul writes into a maelstrom of difference and disagreement about what it means to be a Christian in a huge and important city which doesn’t really care either way about Christianity – sound familiar? A Church tearing itself apart in the midst of a huge and powerful non-Christian culture that isn’t interested – welcome to 21st century Britain, welcome to Romans.
In some ways Christianity maybe felt safer when it was still part of a Jewish religious world view, and still lived out in a place and a community where it had roots and from which it gained inspiration. But how does one live as Christians in Rome. in the diaspora – circumcision, Sabbath observance, food Laws – how do we live by these rules in a place which doesn’t understand them. And you might think, wow that must be what it is like for Muslims in East Oxford or for Hindus or Sikhs – having to live by religious rules others ignore or don’t understand, but increasingly this is our situation. Christians in a society which is confidently post Christian. And if you look at the church in Oxford – divided between Liberal, Catholic or Evangelical, fundamentally divided on the position of women in ministry, LGBT rights, Biblical inerrancy, the nature of conversion and of salvation, then you see a mirror image of what Paul saw when he wrote Romans. A tiny community which society as a whole didn’t really rate as important – many people had never heard of this new religion and it had all the down sides of being vulgarly nouveau. The Roman Christian community – if you could call it that – didn’t think lets work together, they thought instead – he’s in and he’s out.
The big division in Romans is between the Jewish and Gentile Church but there were also lots of other smaller divisions. In particular there was the division between what Paul refers to as the weak and the strong. The weak, mostly from the Jewish Christian community abstained from meet and wine and saw some days as more important than others. The Strong were meat eating, wine drinking all days are the same to me kind of people. Some think that Paul is merely re-running his argument at Corinth about whether Christians can eat meat that Pagans have sacrificed – Paul would see himself on the side of the gentile Christian community who felt they could eat most meat put in front of them.
This might seem a rather unimportant argument to be having and you might be wondering how relevant this is today. Well, firstly, we’re not sure this was the big division and most likely it was just different house churches arguing with each other about who was best but secondly, and more importantly, Paul is not about taking sides but about mutual flourishing. The point for Paul is that one group must not judge or belittle the other. God has welcomed both groups into Christ’s house. Paul wants people to live in harmony with one another but this does not mean a single solution to a problem but a single ‘mind set’. If we want to grow as a community following Christ we need renewal – this isn’t the avoidance of conflict at all costs but it is a focus on Christ not on our petty divisions.
In some ways the translation we heard lacks power. It says ‘We who are strong should put up with the failings of the weak’. A better translation is ‘the strong must support the weakness of the weak’. Weakness is not to be tolerated but rather supported and even celebrated. Weakness is not an added annoyance that we bear in order ‘to be nice’ it is the whole Gospel, revealed to us in Christ.
God welcomes Jews and Gentiles, those who abstain from meat and those who don’t – inclusion is doubly emphasised. We might say at this point that we can pat ourselves on the back – we are a church which has a particular desire to reach out to those in distress or need and we consider ourselves inclusive. But Paul seems to want to push us further: to be a community that not only acts inclusively in favour of the weak but which defines itself, in Christ as a community of the weak. That means putting the voice of the weak at the heart of community.
The real scandal of the Christian life is that it passes through, and has to pass through our relations with other human beings. The first properly Christian attitude when we arrive at church is not to turn inward focusing on ourselves and God (that comes later), the first thing is a kind of de-centration – a deliberate taking cognisance of others, recognising them as our brothers and sisters (Chauvet).
Why does the Church exist? To be the place where we meet Christ in each other no despite but because of our differences.
How can we ‘be’ the Church? By living with fundamental disagreements and deep divisions about religious practice in a way which still points to the love of God
What are we to ‘do’ as Church? Support the weak not because we are better than them but because the heart of the Gospel about weakness. Weakness, hope, perseverance and love.
Other people won’t receive the Church if we can’t ourselves; receive the community of the Church as Grace. And in looking for the heart of the church seek out those who fall short of your vision for this church, those who you dislike or disapprove of for whatever reason and find Christ in them. A renewed vision of church life based on Paul’s letter to the Romans is a call to be not passengers but participants, it is not just about what we believe but rather about how we live out that belief in our relationships with others. Not avoiding conflict but living together in love so that all can flourish in a Church which lives like Christ for the weak and those in need.