Romans 1:1-7: Paul introduces himself as a servant of Jesus Christ and as one called to be an apostle. He believes God has set him apart to teach and proclaim the “gospel of God.” This gospel is not something new and alien, especially to the Jewish Christians. It continues the work of God and promise of God as understood in the Jewish prophetic literature. The good news, the gospel, is focused on God’s “Son,” Jesus Christ. Jesus was descended from David, but his identity as God’s Son is declared in a powerful way through the resurrection. In the gospels, Jesus was filled with God’s Spirit and was thus God’s person during his life. Paul focuses on what happened to Jesus after his death. Remember, Paul is working before gospels were written. Stories about Jesus were circulating orally, but had not been systematized into narratives. Paul affirms that it is in the power displayed by God raising Jesus from the dead that Jesus' life is affirmed. Paul believes that this life-giving power at work in Jesus is available to others as well. This is good news. It is from Jesus as the Christ that Paul has been given an apostolic ministry and the grace to carry it out. His ministry is to offer this life-giving message to “all the Gentiles, including those to whom he is writing. They are all “God’s beloved in Rome,” and Paul wishes them “grace and peace” from God and from Jesus the Christ.
This is a long salutation, longer than was customary. In it, Paul seeks to establish his credentials and to let his readers know that his message is in line with what they have already been taught. Verses 3-4 may quote an early Christian creed. Paul also does some other interesting things here. This is a mixed Jewish and Gentile Christian community. He asserts that the message about Jesus is in continuity with the Jewish faith (prophets, David) and that it is also for the Gentiles, to whom he has a particular calling. Jesus is called “Christ,” that is the Jewish Messiah and “Lord” – a term which would have been familiar to the Gentiles who understood Caesar to be “Lord.” Caesar would also have claimed the title “son of god.” Paul, in writing to the Christians in the capital of the empire asserts the existence of another “kingdom,” a deeper loyalty. In this “kingdom,” there is grace and peace.
Romans 1:8-15: Paul is good at complimenting his readers. He gives thanks to God for them “because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” Paul has been praying that he might be able to travel to Rome to see them face to face. He wants to share his gifts with them, and be enriched by them – not a bad model for all ministry. As a pastor, I hope I might share my gifts with those in my congregation and community, and in turn, I will be enriched by their faith and gifts. Paul acknowledges that he has already been the recipient of the gifts of faith of a variety of people – Greeks and barbarians (a phrase that simply means “everyone”). He is eager to share and receive from the Christian community in Rome.
Romans 1:16-17: Paul now proclaims that the gospel, the good news about the power of God’s love at work in Jesus Christ, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” “Power” would have been thought to be housed in the imperial palaces and strongholds of Rome. True power, power to give life, wholeness, well-being, healing is found in God as God is known in Jesus as the Christ. Paul’s message is universal, both for Jew and Greek. Paul has complete confidence in this gospel and in the God of this gospel. We know and experience the power of the gospel as we open ourselves to it in faith. When we trust the power of God’s love in our lives it becomes an effective force for transformation, for healing, for positive change. We become a part of God’s righteousness - God’s work to make the world more just, peaceful, loving, compassionate, caring.
Romans 1:18-32: Now Paul begins contrasting “the righteousness of God,” that is, God’s way for the world, God’s dream for the world, with something “other.” Paul will come to use the word “sin” for this other, and we will discuss that later. Here Paul begins to remind the Roman Christians that God’s dream for the world does not yet prevail and that there is a lot of darkness out there (William Stafford, “the darkness around us is deep”). Later, Paul will assert that one commonality in the human experience, for both Jews and Gentiles, is that all have been touched by sin, contributed it, chosen it – again, more on that later. These are very difficult verses, and after I preached on them this morning someone told me they wished a council would convene to expunge these from our Scriptures. Many of us know how he feels. Most of what follows comes from the sermon I preached this morning, though I have made some changes to fit this format.
“The darkness around us is deep” - I believe that is what Paul is trying to communicate in these verses. It is part of what we see in the world as we look at the world through the eyes of faith. Paul, looking at his world, saw that the darkness around him was deep. For some, this is not a very helpful side of the Christian faith. Paul is considered a pessimist and a prude, too hung up on “sin” and mistaken about what might constitute sin and darkness. However, Paul is too easily dismissed. I may not agree with the way Paul says what he has to say, but I take him seriously and believe he is insightful, even in this difficult section of Romans.
The darkness around us is deep, but that is not the beginning point for Paul. “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things that God has made.” The beginning point for Paul is that God’s nature, God’s power, God’s very self, are to be found in the world as we know it. When justice is done, we know something about God. When love is shown, God’s love is powerful there. Where there is beauty, we know something of the creativity of God. This is remarkable stuff and hardly pessimistic.
But Paul also believed that we could mar that image of God in ourselves and in our world. We can blow out the light of God within us so that it is little more than a trail of light smoke. Not only are we capable of doing that, it is being done – by individuals in their choosing, and by the social systems individuals create that make justice difficult, that make peace more of a challenge, that divide persons. Paul, looking through the eyes of faith, saw how dramatically the image of God could be marred in God’s good creation.
Now Paul uses some language that makes him particularly challenging. He talks about the wrath of God, and we imagine and angry God coming from the heavens to punish us mercilessly. “The wrath of God” really has to do with the idea Paul conveys in other verses – that God lets us do those things that mar God’s image in us. God gives us up to our own devices, and the word of God’s wrath, which is also a word of grace is – “look, that stuff will kill you.” We are reminded that actions have consequences, and one consequence of actions may be that God’s image in us is marred, God’s intention for our lives and communities is warped, twisted, mangled.
And for Paul, the root of the darkness around us is “idolatry,” pushing God aside. That image, too, is not very helpful to us. Most people we know don’t have image of birds or animals or reptiles to which they pay homage, which they worship. But if we think about God as one who invites justice, peace, reconciliation, care, forgiveness, creativity, beauty, goodness, love, when we make other things more important in life, we are displacing God. We are making idols of something other than God and that is problematic. Life gets messed up when we do that.
So the darkness around us is deep – that’s Paul’s message as he looks at the world through the eyes of faith, and I think it is something we see as we look at the world through the eyes of faith. The darkness is deep because we mar the image of God in ourselves and in our world. And how do we do that? This is where Paul gets really difficult for many of us, because here he brings up sex. How we use our bodies, our sexuality, can either illumine the image of God within, or mar it and contribute to the darkness. So far, we may be there with Paul. But the examples he uses are all examples of same-sex activity. Is Paul trying to say that there is something about homosexuality that inherently mars the image of God in persons? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
Paul saw things going on that he disapproved of, that he condemned. But in the words of theologian William Placher, “we are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw.” There is a fair amount of information about same sex sexual activity in the Roman world which suggests that what Paul saw was not what we have come to understand as persons whose sexual orientation was toward persons of the same sex, and thus persons seeking to live in long-term committed relationships. In the Roman world, worship at the temples of some of the Greek and Roman gods involved sexual activity, for example. As Placher goes on to ask, “Would very different forms of homosexual activity have seemed wrong to Paul in the same way?” (Jesus the Savior, 100) John Dominic Crossan, in his new book, God and Empire argues that the centerpiece of Paul’s concern in this passage is for sexual expression that is “unnatural.” He goes on to write: The problem, however, is that the natural and unnatural are open to social and cultural interpretation…. First-century Jewish writers considered homosexuality unnatural because they judged from organs and biology. Many of us today consider it natural because we judge from hormones and chemistry. (144)
Paul’s point, to my mind, is not really about homosexuality, but about the misuse of sexuality. How we use our sexuality can mar the image of God within us. And the darkness around us is deep. Steve Chapman, in a recent column in The Chicago Tribune notes that “the rise of the Internet has been a vast social experiment on the social consequences of pornography. Nearly everyone is now just a few key strokes away from sexually explicit material” (The Week, November 16, 2007, p. 18). The portrayal of human sexuality in pornography is not usually helpful or realistic.
I have deeply appreciated the words of Buddhist Sharon Salzberg on human sexuality and its misuse. Traditionally lay Buddhists undertake the practice of five precepts, one of which is “to refrain from sexual misconduct, or using sexual energy in a way that causes harm.” About this she writes: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires. (Loving-Kindness, 176) Sexuality is powerful and its misuse mars the image of God within, creating darkness rather than radiating light.
But while many interpreters have focused on this part of Paul’s words, we ought not to ignore all the other ways he identifies for marring the image of God in our lives, all the other kinds of darkness he sees around – covetousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, haughty, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. When we look through the eyes of faith at some of the ways we have organized our common life, we see such things and we see that the darkness around us is deep.
Author Joanna Macy notes, The forces of late capitalism continually tell us that we need more – more stuff, more money, more approval, more comfort, more entertainment. The dissatisfaction it breeds is profound. It infects people with a compulsion to acquire that delivers them into the cruel, humiliating bondage of debt. (Shambala Sun, November 2007: 49). In many ways, our economy encourages covetousness and envy.
And when we look at some of the economic realities around us, we see darkness. In his most recent book (The Conscience of a Liberal), economist Paul Krugman notes some of the enormous disparities in our economic life. In 1969, Charles Johnson was the CEO of General Motors, the countries largest private employer, and he was one of America’s highest paid executives. That year he earned $795,000, equivalent to $4.3 million today. The average auto industry production worker earned $9,000, equivalent to $40,000 today. Now there is a great deal of difference in those figures. However, today Wal-Mart is America’s largest corporation. In 2005, its CEO, Lee Scott was paid almost $23 million, while the average nonsupervisory employees are paid about $18,000 (139). In the 1970s, CEOs at just over 100 major companies were paid, on average about 40 times what the average full-time worker in the U.S. economy made. By the early part of this century, CEO pay averaged 367 times the pay of the average worker. (142)
These days I sometimes wonder if we are not making an idol of national security, sacrificing at its altar values that we have long held important for our life as a county, values that are important to Christian faith. What are we willing to sacrifice for security? I am not denigrating any concern for national security, only questioning the effects an exclusive concern for it may be having on us. The United States has kept people in prison for years, now, without charges and without trials. We have people debating whether or not simulated drowning is an appropriate interrogation technique. Are we becoming ruthless and heartless? The idol of national security has been used as an excuse for refusing to consider alternatives to the current strategy in Iraq, a war that was begun for reasons of national security, but which seems in hindsight ill-conceived and poorly strategized. The Bishops of The United Methodist Church, in their recent resolution, have come to think enough is enough in Iraq, and while to be a faithful United Methodist does not require agreeing with the Bishops, in this case, I do.
Paul makes a case that the darkness around us is deep. That was the case he was making to the Roman Christians and it is a case that can be made today, as the above words from my sermon indicate. Paul will continue to make his case in the next chapter. But while we follow Paul’s argument, we should never forget where he began – with a deep confidence that God’s love is more powerful than the darkness, that it has the power to heal and free and save.