Dear Sibblings in Christ,
For three chapters in my letter to the Romans, I struggled, twisted and turned, tried to articulate and express what God was doing with his people.
I struggled so mightily because the whole thing, God’s merciful acts for us, is so mysterious and unexpected.
I struggled as well, because I was writing to a mixed community—both Jew and Gentile; one that had experienced turmoil on account of the persecution and expulsion of the Jews in Rome… for 3 years the community had been solely gentile, the Emperor had removed all the Jews from the city, including the Christian Jews in that congregation—and by the time they returned the dynamics there had shifted, relations strained.
I struggled, because that question weighed so heavily upon my soul—what of my own kinspeople? What of the people from whom Jesus Christ came, whom God adopted, made a relationship with, gave the commandments to, who rightly worshipped God and held tightly to God’s promises. What, I asked, is God doing in relationship to his people? Who are his people? How does God’s mercy and God’s majesty play out?
I struggled with it, and still do.
But this I know. I know that at least I, Paul, embraced God’s law without the Spirit, and in so doing condemned what God was doing through Jesus Christ.
I persecuted the early church;
I witnessed and aided the stoning of Saint Stephen;
I called cursed that which God had blessed—truly I had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
And I did so because I clung to holy words “cursed is the one who hangs upon a tree,” I held to them so tightly that I squeezed the holiness right out of them. I couldn’t see Jesus holding out his loving arms to all people from that cursed tree!
And I worried that my people had done something similar, that some of
-Our cultural practices,
-The boundary markers created to keep our communities safe,
-Emblems of Identity held dear, so the dominant culture couldn’t crush the covenant God made with us…
That these things had become a stumbling block.
That these same fences keeping corruption out, were now keeping God’s mercy confined,
Keeping those who desperately needed the salvation of Jesus, from receiving it.
And it is hard to talk about these things, these days, because my words are sometimes been used as ammunition by anti-Semites to injure my people—the Jews.
In fact, I think the only honest way to hear my words is to apply them to your congregation or synod or denomination or religious tradition.
The only honest way to hear my words about my people is to sincerely assess:
your own cultural practices,
your own boundary markers,
your own emblems of identity,
your own fences,
your own fanaticism.
How have they held back God’s work—the reconciliation of the whole world?
How have they stifled the Spirit and called cursed, those things which God has blessed?
I have heard that 300 years after my death Christianity tied itself to Rome—that being Roman and being Christian became part of a single cultural package—and then Rome fell and nearly took the faith down with it.
I have heard of Christian churches that lock their doors during the service, because they are afraid of their neighbors—they literally fence off those seeking the freedom of Christ.
I’ve even heard of some Christians that so associate their faith with a meeting of people in a building, that they forget that being a Christian is a lifetime of ongoing repentance, everywhere, not just for an hour on Sunday.
I encourage you to think of the fanatics, fences, emblems of identity, boundary markers, and cultural practices of your faith that might be getting in the way of Christ.
Those things—are, at the end of the day, all human attempt to Resurrect Jesus, and to incarnate God. They are works of humans, that are for not.
After all, you must know that God already came in the flesh of Jesus,
and death has already been overcome by Christ
—the resurrection, the incarnation, they are God’s to do, not yours!
These things are already done. All we can do is trust it to be true
—trust that God’s got this.
All we can do is get out of the way and watch God at work in the lives of people with whom we wouldn’t expect God to act
—listen to the good news that God has acted for us and not against us
—for all of us, against no one!
God’s merciful reach is bigger than our boldest imagination!
God is always merciful.
It’s all a gift, a calling, a promise, and it is all-irrevocable.
God is faithful and God’s promises are unbreakable.
How this all come together—it is ultimately a great mystery—the mysterious works of God—and even as it is a struggle to speak of it, or grasp it in our minds or hearts, or express it ourselves,
it is so marvelous!