Monday, August 01, 2011

Romans series Week 1

This week at Arlington we're beginning two months spent in Paul's letter to the Romans. The overall theme for our series is "Grace is for Everybody".

Each Monday I'll be posting notes from my own research and reading on the passages for the week, as well as some questions for discussion. Your comments will be a big part of my sermon preparation process. All opinions are welcome, but keep it respectful. Comments attacking others will be deleted and you will be blocked from commenting ever again.

So here's my notes and questions for Romans chapters 1 and 2, specifically Romans 1:18-23 and 2:1-6. The tentative sermon title is "I"m a Sinner, You're a Sinner".

Two preliminary notes. One, we’re going to try our best to read Paul as a first century person and a first generation follower of Jesus. We can’t simply pretend Augustine and other interpreters don’t exist, but we can acknowledge their influence and try to sort out whose voice we're hearing.

Two, there is a problem in Romans that exists in nearly all English translations of the New Testament, specifically the use of the word “Jews”. The Greek word Ioudios more accurately translates as “Judeans”. The Second Temple was still standing at the time of Paul’s writings, and the Judean faith that centered on Temple worship is so very different than the Rabbinic Judaism of today that using the term “Jews” in a New Testament document can be misleading, and can even make Paul seem anti-Jewish, which he's not because he's a Jew! The problem of anti-Judaism is especially sensitive in light things that have happened in the last century, so we’ll be using the term “Judeans” for our discussion here.

Paul’s proclamation of God’s judgment is universal. Judeans don’t get off any easier because of the covenant.

Without doing a lengthy family history, I should say that my parents and I have both had negative experiences with evangelicals who lean heavily on passages like this to convince you you’re hopeless and make you desperate for grace. So I have to acknowledge my own bias and desire not skip over passages that sound very condemning.

Is Paul doing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” here, or does his polemic about everyone being a sinner utterly dependent on God’s more an acknowledgement than a condemnation?

note- “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is perhaps the best known “hellfire and brimstone” sermon in the English language. It was preached by a guy named Jonathan Edwards (no relation to the 2004 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate) in July of 1781, during an era in American history known as the Second Great Awakening. If you’ve never read this sermon, check it out.

Paul talks about no one being in a position to condemn, but when he’s putting out his laundry list of sinful acts and attitudes, he certainly sounds like he’s doing just what he’s telling us not to do. Is that Paul’s genuine voice we’re hearing there, or is it the voice of others whose judgmental attitudes we dislike?

We're intentionally skipping last part of chapter 1, because the “God gave them up” stuff drags us into arguments about sexual orientation, which aren’t unimportant, but for our purposes here would distract us from a larger discussion about sin and grace.

John Wesley's "heart-warming" moment at Aldersgate came as he was listening to someone read Martin Luther's Preface to Romans, which is not exactly a heart-warming document. Luther's clear intent is for you to feel like an awful, hopeless sinner. What do you make of this? (I have my own theory, but I'll hold back for now).

My overall take on these first two chapters is that Paul’s long polemic serves the purpose of reminding us that we’re all in the same boat. None of us is perfect, and we all stand in need of grace. His intent is more about getting insiders off their high-horse than making outsiders feel bad for being outsiders.

Agree? Disagree? Discuss...


Katie said...

Martin Luther is well known for being rather OCD about his own sin, even constantly confessing and asking forgiveness from God. This self-loathing has to show through in his writings, such as Preface to Romans.

MIKE said...

My interpretation of the verses cited leans a slightly different direction. I see this as more of a treatise about how all of mankind, Judeans, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and all the rest are innately aware of God and the difference between “right” and “wrong” as it pertains to personal actions. In my mind, this also covers those who have not heard the Gospel and therefore are not “aware” of God in those terms. What governs their actions? How can someone who has not heard the Gospel message be held accountable for not believing in Jesus? I have understood this passage as being the “standard” by which God may judge those people: “He will judge each person according to what they have done.”

Human beings are naturally bent toward rationalization of their own actions. I know I am and I believe everyone else is, as well. This begins at a very young age in most people. As human beings mature, we witness more and more second-hand misdeeds and become more aware of the injustice that exists in the world and it begins to become rationalized on a societal level. Even some of our common sayings support a sort of rationalization of our misdeeds. For example, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Or, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” These “accepted” colloquialisms institutionalize sinful concepts that would be abhorrent to God. There are hundreds or, perhaps, thousands of these. I think Paul is issuing a warning and a challenge to this kind of thinking and were it leads if people (we) are not careful. Indirectly, Paul is also saying that though God doesn’t step in directly and punish the sinner doesn’t mean that God condones the action. Just because we “can” do something, doesn’t mean we “should” do it. The whole concept of the relativism of truth or right and wrong has become a moral watershed in the last 50 years and I believe it really started in our politicians. (Whoops! I think that was an editorial).

I have referred to this passage when talking of a non-Christian as an example of what God thinks about the behaviors of people who don’t know God. Verse 2:6 doesn’t say that God will judge people according to what they think. I also clarify that what they have done means in response to what Jesus did for us. The things we do are a result of what we have faith in and our response to grace.