Dear Inspiration Seekers,
When we travelled to Ireland a couple of years ago, I recall one of the tour books mentioning that the oldest extant copy of Paul’s letter to the Romans was safely brought to Ireland to preserve in a monastery. Christianity has a long history of one sect trying to purify itself from another. Destroying churches and monasteries, along with sacred documents, relics, and art work related to the offending denomination was the practice of the day. Ireland was a far away and hostile (geography and tribal culture) place to go, thus good for preserving treasures, which would have been swept away in England, France, or Spain. The Romans landed on the western shores near Dublin, but then decided to pack it up and return to friendlier places, like behind Hadrian’s Wall (those damn Scots). So, a copy of the letter to the Romans, transcribed around 180 BCE is in Ireland. We found the Book of Kells, at Trinity College in Dublin, but did not get to see the copy of Paul’s letter. We will have to get back to it some day.
Paul, to the Romans. That could be a tweet. Rather, Paul uses the flourish of rhetorical language, which we are losing in our society, to greet the Romans. He packs clause after clause of ideas, outlining his basic theology, into his introduction. Then, bam, a quick greeting. Being a letter writer myself, though not claiming such position of authority, I enjoy a good letter. Recently, we received a letter from a dear friend in Alaska, in response to a letter which I had sent to him. He marveled at the joy of finding something personal in his mail box one day. Imagine what joy we could bring to each other, for only 44 cent still, just by writing letters to each other. E-mails, texts, blogs have their place for imparting information, but are much more ephemeral than letters. Digital communication is easy to delete and forget about. A letter requires some thought to toss out. I do not know how common writing was when Paul placed his thoughts on parchment or some other medium to send to the Romans, but such an act of composition and delivery must have been impressive. Certainly, someone thought is was worth copying and sending off to Ireland.
Paul then sets out his mission: to bring the gospel to the Romans, or more broadly to anyone who desires to believe and live a life influenced by Christ’s teaching. I do think that a characteristic of Christianity, which brought a new influence on the world, is that Christ’s message could apply to all people, not just those from a certain region or ethnic background. This is different from imposing social and political norms of an expanding empire, such as Rome. The history of faiths is full of regional sects or ethnic groupings, including Judaism. Most belief systems kept to themselves, possibly accepting in initiates who approached them, but not seeking out new members. Even Judaism was primarily thought of as being for people of Jewish decent, wherever they lived. Ironically, as Christianity grew out of Judaism and initially was considered just another sect within that tradition, Judaism set the stage for bringing the gospel to the Roman world because groups of Jews had settled into most of the regions that the Roman Empire occupied. Thus, non-Jews had some contact with Jews before Christians.
So, Paul states that the gospel is open to all, and he wants to bring this message to any who will listen. This brings up a theme, which comes up in several other letters to churches in the Gentile regions: do non-Jews have to adhere to Jewish law to be Christians? The debate between salvation by works and grace has begun. It is still debated today. Paul’s conclusion to this debate is “yes”. Yes, to believing in the gospel message. Yes, to doing what is right.
Following the law by itself is not sufficient, because, as he will outline later, we shall fall short of our own standards. Believing as a means of sitting our butts and not doing good works, does not put the message of a changed life into action. A church with filled pews is a church full of asses. While I believe that for many gathering for worship is a worthwhile activity, it should be a starting point, not an end. I was impressed a month ago, when the Vicar mentioned that for one Sunday a group of churches in their area closed there doors for a Sunday, encouraged their members to go into the community, and provided them with a number of service opportunities. If I recall the numbers correctly, 1,500 Christians spent a day doing good.
The third theme Paul moves onto is our potential, and probability, of becoming corrupt, on an institutional and person level. The Jewish texts, from the story of Eden to the Flood, the Judges and Kings, and the Prophets are full of the cycle of purity and corruption. A major theme of Christian theology is the need for a New Covenant, because of the nit-picky fights within Judaism. Mohammad would make the same case for a new revelation in the form of the recitation of the Koran, because of the corruption of Christ’s prophecies by several hundred years of additions from various Christian sects. Martin Luther would use similar reasoning to try to reform the church. George Whitefield would argue again in the colonial era with the First Great Awakening in the 18th century. The 19th century had the Second Great Awakening. Billy Graham would fill a similar role for the 20th century. Newt Gingrich would claim such authority, politically, with the 1994 Republican Revolution. The Tea Party boasts this logic for Constitutional purity today. And, Representative Weiner resigns his post in congress to clean up his own corruption.
Paul has pointed out a cycle that occur in groups and individuals. We start with some great, simple ideas. Then, over time, we bog down this idea with details, as we try to figure out how a grand concept can be put into action. Start with believing the I Am, and you get a thousand years of Torah and Talmud making so many laws that no one can possibly know how to keep them all, let alone actually keep them. Start with “love God and you neighbor”, add two thousand years of creeds, church calendars, saints, etc. and showing up on Sundays is easier than reaching out to the guy who parks his car next to yours, let alone to those who sell their bodies to keep their lives going. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, gets lost in racial quotas, gay rights, and “drill, baby, drill”. Best to do as Paul will in the next chapter and address the concept of sin.
Until next time, Inspiration Seekers.
*The titles for each text are those selected by my father for his Bible classes. I may or may not touch on these, depending on the inspirations which catch my attention.