Text: Romans 5:1-8
The comedian Louis C.K. has a bit in one of his stand-up routines in which he points out the reality of Christian cultural dominance.
“I always tell my kids, ‘There are many religions in the world and they’re all equal, but the Christians are the main one.’ That’s what I tell them. ‘The Christians won. They’re the winners, so act accordingly. Congratulate Christians when you meet them, because they won the world.’
And it’s true. It’s true! We love to tell ourselves, ‘Every religion is exactly…’ No, no they’re not. The Christians won everything, a long time ago. If you don’t believe me, let me ask you a question: what year is it?”
He goes on from there to illustrate the point, imagining a conversation between a couple of grown adults back in the year 3. How do they explain that? Or people living before the “common era,” what we used to call “B.C.” in an effort to acknowledge that not everyone makes the same confessional claims about the human being named Jesus that Christians recognize as the Child of God and Lord of Creation. So now, instead of referring to things which occurred before his birth as “B.C.” we say that they happened “B.C.E.” before the common era. Which, instead of forcing a non-Christian to publicly order time according to someone’s else’s religion, now allows them to simply acknowledge that time is most commonly ordered by someone else’s religion, though not their own, if they should even happen to be religious.
For the next ten weeks we’re going to be focusing very intentionally on the book of Romans — which, in its own odd way, requires us to unwind this way of thinking about time. Like those imagined adults trying to talk about their age at the dawn of the common era, Romans is a piece of religious literature that is trying to talk about religious identity before the labels we use today were being applied. Unlike some books of the bible, the scholarly consensus is quite firm, not only about the fact that this letter is authentically Pauline, but even about the date it was written. The common assumption is that this letter can be dated to somewhere in the mid to late 50s, which places it twenty-plus years after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
So try to hold on to that. This letter from Paul to the church in Rome, a letter that will repeatedly refer to the tensions between Jews who confess Jesus as the messiah and Jews who do not and Gentiles who name Jesus as Lord and Gentiles who do not, this letter knows nothing about what we would call “Christianity.” There is no “Holy Roman Catholic Church” here. There’s not even an inkling of what a Protestant might someday be. There is the Jewish people, the people of Israel, living under Roman rule in a religiously pluralistic world in which the empire doesn’t really much care who or what you worship as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the empire’s insatiable appetite for growth and domination. Back in Jerusalem there is a small, but growing, community of Jews who believe that the long-expected messiah who would come to liberate them from Rome the way Moses liberated the people from Pharaoh had come in the most shocking way imaginable: as a countryside prophet who’d faced off against the empire and been killed for it. This Jesus, they said, God raised up from the dead and now sits at God’s right hand.
And as the community of Jewish believers in Jerusalem focused on sharing this message with other Jews, Paul — a scholar of Jewish law and one-time persecutor of the followers of Jesus — has been radicalized. Not only has he gone from persecuting the followers of Jesus to joining them, he has become an apostle to the Gentiles preaching that Jesus had come to liberate not only the nation of Israel, but all of humanity, and even all of creation!
That improbable message, delivered by that unlikely person, is the one that Louis C.K. says “wins.” And from the very beginning, it is a message that has to deal with race.
Now, in saying that, I’m intentionally blurring the very lines of history that I was just trying to tidy up. Because, to say that the gospel message preached by Paul had to deal with race is to invoke a concept that means something very specific today; something loaded with a legacy of violent power relations in much the same way that our way of keeping time globally by tracking “the year of our Lord” comes with a legacy of violent colonialism blessed by a church that Paul could never have imagined.
What Paul would have had no trouble imagining was the deep suspicion and hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles. It is the same suspicion and hostility that exists anywhere between communities that are scapegoated and targeted by the regime in power and those who benefit from that same regime. It’s not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t have dealings with each other out in the marketplace. Not that Jews and Gentiles didn’t know each other’s names and exchange sincere and friendly words. It’s not even that there could be no friendship between Jews and Gentiles, or even love that crossed lines and produced children. It’s that Jews carried the memories of centuries of occupation and oppression, of being targeted and scapegoated.
In fact, in the decade just prior to Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Roman emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome, as had happened twenty years earlier, when Jesus himself would have been a young adult, before the start of his public ministry. Jews knew that the regime in power only tolerated them so long as they remembered their place. So long as they didn’t make any moves to grow their base, or change their situation in life. It’s no wonder then that Paul spent plenty of time in prison, because his ministry was about building community — which is to say, building power — across racial lines.
Paul’s letter to the Romans explicitly addresses the barely buried lines that divide this multicultural church. The letter, which can be divided into four parts, begins by spelling out exactly what observant Jews would have thought of the Gentiles in their midst, a kind of racial profiling. Then, Paul flips the script on them, accusing them of hypocrisy for being guilty of all the same vices they abhorred in their neighbors. Their hypocrisy stinks all the more, Paul presses, because though guilty of the same offenses, they believe themselves to be superior to those they hate because of their racial and religious heritage. This, Paul deconstructs, returning to the story of Abraham their ancestor and reimagining the terms by which Abraham is to be remembered as righteous — not as the father to a nation, but as a human being trusting entirely in God’s righteousness. Ethnic pride is replaced with radical trust that God is working through history for the redemption of everyone and everything that God has made. Thus we are justified by faith, apart from any works prescribed by the law. (Rom. 3:28)
This is how we arrive at the passage from Romans read this morning, which is the beginning of the second full section of the letter. Already Paul has named the ethnic tensions in the room. Already he has invoked the long legacy of animus and prejudice. No one needs to spell out the reasons why it is hard for Jews and Gentiles to just “get along.”
You know what I mean? You hear what I’m saying?
Think of the anti-Muslim demonstrations here in Chicago this past week. Think of the families and colleagues of the politicians who were the target of the gunman in Washington, D.C. Think of Philando Castile’s mother raging at the nation that robbed her of her son and denied him justice in death. Think of all these people and their stories, their lives, their hopes, their anger, their anguish. Who are you in this story? Who are you in this story that repeats generation after generation, this story of people sitting in a room, divided by their shared history, longing for a future better than their past?
Those stories were seated side by side in a room somewhere in Rome in the mid to late 50s: stories of ancient oppression and violent colonization, stories of radical conversion and unlikely community, stories of power being built across lines meant to divide. But the tension is simmering, just under the surface, the way it always is. Then someone stands up and reads a letter to the congregation from a faraway teacher and the part you hear with fresh ears is this:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:1-5)
This is the promise of God, as reliable as the grace that comes to us by faith, that in this community of people divided by history but united by love, we do not have to remain quiet about what harms us! We do not have to pretend that we are all “alright” when the world is doing everything it can to exploit us and pit us against each other. We do not have to blame ourselves for the pain we are living with any more than we need to blame each other for the violent legacies we have inherited. Instead we can boast in our sufferings. We can tell the truth about how this present age has harmed us because our faith rests in the God who is bringing to birth a new creation. We can see the agonizing spasms of this present moment as the prelude to something new and better.
We can boast in our sufferings because we know that what we can share with one another has the power to build us up instead of tear us down. What we can share with each other produces endurance. What we can share with each other produces character, which is to say that it changes us. It takes the raw clay out of which we are made and molds us into something new. We are being transformed by one another’s suffering. We are bearing one another’s burdens. We are saying and doing things that feel outside our comfort zone. We are taking bigger risks for the sake of a bigger community, a wider sense of clan, an expanding vision of humanity in which none of us can claim superiority over another on the basis of the identities we inherited but never asked for.
This character, the character that is forming each of us and all of us together, is the source of our hope. It is no naive, amnesiac hope. It is the hope that remembers all we have suffered, all we have overcome, all that God has brought us through. It is the trust that God will do it again, and again, and again. That God is not done with us until we understand that “us” means all of us. That is the hope that does not disappoint.
It is a hope born of love, which is the subject of this letter.