I had to read the book of Romans today in one sitting for my New Testament class…before you fall asleep reading that sentence, or wonder why anyone would subject themselves to such a thing, keep reading. I have had my share of conversations and personal moments of reflection over the past few weeks on whether or not we are supposed to think that what Jesus taught us to do in the Sermon on the Mount is actually possible and worth our time. There seems to be a divide in the church over whether Jesus was meant to be taken seriously, or was simply showing us that God’s ways are so serious that we can’t possibly live up, so we need to rest in his grace.
Don’t get me wrong. The problem here isn’t whether or not we should rest in God’s grace when we fail. The problem is in saying that we have no business trying to live the way that Jesus taught us to live since it is impossible. The first reason that this troubles me is that Jesus told us that wisdom is found in hearing his words and putting them into action (Matthew 7:24-5), just after telling us that there will be many people who will be unrecognizable to him because they didn’t do the will of God (7:21-3). That seems like enough of an incentive to me.
So, while I read Romans, I wondered at why people often refer to Paul and Romans to prove their point about grace. I read it with eyes looking for evidence that Paul isn’t calling people to simply ‘rest in grace’ but to actively pursue the way of the Kingdom because of the grace they have received.
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…” (run on sentence 1 of 1,000 in Romans 1:1-6).
Here, in the opening run-on sentence, Paul declares that grace brings about obedience that causes us to belong to Jesus Christ. Jesus says belonging to him entails doing what he says we should do.
I’ll continue, only because it gets better.
The first part of Romans is telling us that the playing field of life is level: everyone is equally sinful. But, here, Paul says another interesting thing:
“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous (just, perfect, merciful, etc.) in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When the Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts…” (Rom 2:12-15).
I am not arguing for adherence to the Law of Moses in totality. Paul may be, but I am not. My argument is that what Jesus demonstrated and taught is that love is the sum of the Law. So when we act lovingly towards neighbors, strangers, and enemies, we are fulfilling the Law of God. Actually, Paul says the same thing in Romans:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… [The 10 Commandments] and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8-10).
Paul, in Romans particularly, is difficult to follow. His rhetorical argument is virtually lost on us. A summary statement could be this: We are all declared righteous because of the faithful act of Jesus in his obedience to death. We receive grace, so that we can know that our work does not produce salvation. This grace leads us to live in new ways, in obedience to the law of God, which the Spirit empowers us to do.
I wrote a song, which I will conclude with, that describes Paul’s vision of a realistically idealistic way of life (Rom. 12:9-21) that all followers of Jesus are called to embody. May we put on Christ, like a new skin, and learn to be doers of his words, and not hearers only:
Our prayer this morning is to be a blessing to those who cause suffering; to rejoice with those who are rejoicing; to weep with our friends as they are weeping
We are putting on Christ, like a new skin that we won’t fill in til resurrection
We will eat with the poor and party like priests*. We will serve ridiculous feasts, inviting all whom we love and adore…and those we wish would not come through our door.
We will seek peace as far as we can, and let You bring justice in righteousness. As You arrive and set all things to right. Until then please help us to learn not to fight.
*a priest demonstrates to the world what God is like, so why not party like people who are imaging God through our celebrations?
~Christ Like A New Skin, J Robert Eagan (Godspeed, St. Mark) 2014