Who Can Be Against Us?

I love this potential scene given by Scot McKnight of one of Paul’s house churches.

“Lets transport ourselves back to one of Paul’s house churches and imagine yet again the make-up of that group – the morally unkosher sitting with the unpowerful standing with an arm around the financially drained, addressed by an apostle who was being chased daily by opponents of the gospel. In that context, with all those people around, hear again the grand Yes of God.

‘Who can be against us?’ Paul tauntingly thunders. The answer, No one!”

The Revenant and Revenge

I recently finished reading The Revenant. We learn the meaning of this word just by looking at the book cover (N. one who has returned, as if from the dead). Author Michael Punke hints at the theme of the story with an early reference to Romans 12.9 “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

The Revenant is the story of Hugh Glass; more specifically the story of Hugh Glass from August 21, 1823 to May 7, 1824. The fact is, we do not know many details about Hugh Glass, but what we do know is worthy of a book. Since information is limited, Punke adds fictional details that help hold the story together.

I find myself liking Hugh Glass from the start. He is a member of a trapping party and serves as scout, hunter, and performs related duties. One day, while fulfilling these duties, he is attacked by a sow grizzly bear. The bear attack only lasts two pages, but it is intense. His wounds are severe. His death appears imminent. Soon afterward, two other characters emerge as more prominent.

John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger volunteer to stay with Glass until he dies and then respectfully bury him. We do not know much about the historical John Fitzgerald but Punke does a convincing job of making him the villain in the story. We know more about Jim Bridger, perhaps because he lived until 1878. Perhaps because he is known to have served as a guide for explorers, settlers, and even the U. S. Army. Perhaps because mountains, streams, and towns bear his name. But, a young Jim Bridger serves an infamous role in the Hugh Glass story.

Bridger is portayed as caring for Glass, even nursing wounds. In contrast, Fitzgerald is looking for some way to make death occur sooner. Eventually, they abandon him, robbing him of any tools for survival. From this time on, “as if from the dead” Hugh Glass is set on revenge.

Hugh Glass crawls until he is able to walk with a crutch. But it is neither crawling nor crutch that moves him forward. Fighting infection, bad dreams, hunger, natives, and wolves along the way, it is revenge that carries him forward. Although Punke refers to Romans 12.9 early in the book, it does not appear to be a text Hugh Glass is interested in. The Revenant may prompt the reader to ask some questions about determination or adversity. It may cause us to explore how far we might be willing to go for revenge. The story of Hugh Glass is a miracle. It is a story of who a person is when stripped down to bare essentials. It is a story about revenge.

This book may inspire you to plan your own adventure. At the very least, you can settle for enjoying this one from a safe distance. This story reminds us that not all adventures are equal. Adventure is more enjoyable when you get to choose your own. This is an adventure Hugh Glass would not have chosen, it is forced upon him. Adventure is always more enjoyable when you are equipped with proper gear. Yet, that is exactly what makes this one so memorable. His gear is stolen from him. No base layer wicking away moisture. No lightweight fleece to help him stay warm and dry. No tools or weapons for hunting. No map to help with direction. None of the gear we might have hoped for if we were on this adventure. But, Hugh Glass is equipped with a need for revenge. And that is all he needs to reach his destination.

A Never Ending Challenge

At times I find myself searching for quick solutions and easy answers.  Rarely do I find what I am looking for.  The Apostle Paul does not spend much time talking about easy solutions because he knows there are none.  Instead his interest is at the place where the story of God intersects with the story of people.  In fact, anything Paul says about any topic can be found at this intersection.

The Letter to the Romans makes it clear that our spiritual service of worship goes beyond a worship service.  Chapter twelve talks about the way we ought to be living.  While we might desire a practical guide on how to be faithful, Romans instead seems to remind us to just keep doing it.  After a reading of Romans twelve, we may not know what to do and when to do it, but we definitely know that there is always something to do.

This is not about doing something big.  This is nitty-gritty order of service.  We might like to look back at our efforts and feel good about our accomplishment.  Paul seems to prefer the less noticeable sacrifice, the kind that does not make you feel better.  How do we know when we accomplish the things Romans asks of us?  Things like; loving, devoting, honoring, serving, rejoicing, persevering, contributing, practicing?  What about blessing, weeping, associating, respecting, feeding, overcoming?  These things are not easy to measure.  Even more, these things present a never-ending challenge.

After considering the difficulties and challenges that these words present, Barbara Brown Taylor asks, “can we just have the ten commandments back?”  There is a mailbox that I often use that sits out in front of a local strip mall.  One day I had parked there to drop something inside when a gentleman crossed by in front of the car who stated in no uncertain terms, “that is not a parking spot.”  I realized he was right but do not always think before I talk and replied “that is not a cross walk either.”  Just saying, Romans twelve is a never-ending challenge.

Good News For Everybody

Romans introduces us to a situation where the Emperor had banished Jews from Rome.  Upon his death, they were now permitted to return.  Although Jewish Christians had begun to return, the church had not yet adjusted to its ethnic diversity.  Jews and Gentiles were divided and perhaps had different ways of expressing their faith in Jesus.  However, Romans says clearly that the Gospel is for everyone and that the consequences of sin are the same for everyone.

Romans is a story where Caesar gets in the way.  Where prejudice gets in the way.  Where self-interest gets in the way.  Romans is a story where we are reminded that the way things are going is not ok with God.  He is calling for something new, something different.  He is calling for a people who demonstrate that he is God.  So He wants to unify divided Christians.

The Letter to the Romans comes to us in the context of a larger story.  We do Romans injustice if we do not view it in light of what God has done previously.  The Gospel gives us the basic story.  Romans takes the basic story into a new place and introduces it into a new situation all the while insisting that it be believed and obeyed in the present.  The Letter to the Romans (as well as the other epistles) is the practical proclamation of the story as it is told in an expanding world, preached over multiple journeys and conflicts across multiple geographical and cultural settings.

Romans even re-introduces characters like Adam, like Abraham.  And then connects the stories of Adam and Abraham to the story of Jesus.  Romans retells the story that God has created and that a new people have been formed.  Romans reminds us that God has sent His son who taught and died and rose again.  Because of that everything has changed.  Things cannot continue as they have.  The Good news that came with Jesus changes the way we do everything.  The ways we look at others.  The way we work with others.  Nothing can ever be the same.

The Roman church reminds us that things never quite go the way we think they should, even at church.  Romans is an argument intended to get readers to change behavior.  Romans tells us that we need to act differently.  Romans reveals that God looks at us and calls dibs.  He makes a claim on us.  He has a plan and we are part of it.  His plan involves us working together, even with those who are not like us.

We Need One Another

Romans chapter twelve takes us into a hostile environment.  But instead of telling us how to escape or survive, we are told to offer ourselves – a living sacrifice.  Urged not to conform.  Ben Witherington says in The Indelible Image “This evil age tries to mold a person into a particular shape.”  Yet, it is “foolish to be conformed to something that is on the way out and already has the odor of death.”  The chapter goes on to encourage community in this environment.  And calls us to show hospitality even to those who hate us.  We are even to feed our enemies.

It is essential in such an environment to join as one body working together.  There is a diversity of gifts.  It is not necessary for someone to try to exercise all the gifts.  It is not necessary to be in competition about who will do which tasks.  It is necessary that we work together.  As body parts each serve a different function, the church needs each one in order to function properly.  We need one another.  Romans seems to suggest that it is more important to take aim together than to hit the bull’s eye alone.

Chapter twelve is clear about the importance of the body working together.  But it is chapter sixteen that gives names to individual members of the body.  Paul names people and asks the church to do the same.  This is a reminder that it is God (not us) who calls people into this body.  These people may look different and come from different backgrounds.  These people may bring different gifts.  But Romans introduces these people to us as members of the one body. In fact, their primary identity is that they belong to this body.

If you want to know what this body looks like, next time you are in worship take a look to your left and then to your right.  Listen to the lady behind you who sings too loud and off-key.  The guy who squeezes too hard when shaking your hand.  Notice the girl three rows up who raises her hands during prayer.  The gentleman who hands you the offering plate.  The child standing in the seat.  This is what this body looks like.  People with different backgrounds who come bringing different gifts.  Real people with names.  Romans suggests that we greet them.  That we recognize who they are and that we appreciate them.  After all, this is a hostile environment.  And we need one another.

A Particular Word

Romans chapter sixteen tells us that Phoebe arrives in Rome (likely carrying the Letter to the Romans).  Can you imagine that prayer meeting when she first mentioned that she would be traveling to Rome.  She may have been requesting prayer for a safe journey and good weather to travel in.  Perhaps that her business be conducted without difficulty.  She may have desired that the church pray for stamina for it would have been about eight hundred miles.  But then she was interrupted by the apostle “did you say Rome?-I have an idea.”

So Paul sets out writing the Letter to the Romans.  A word for a particular people who receive it with particular needs and who gather in a particular place.  A word has arrived and in response to this word, we are asked to behave in a particular way.  This is true for first century Romans and for twenty-first century readers today.  Romans comes to us as a word delivered to us.  Not a word that we requested.

Phoebe brought the letter to the church.  They were not asking for it.  No one phoned Paul and asked him to send Phoebe with some of that Corinthian baklava and perhaps a word from the Lord.  This is an interesting thought since the word still comes to us without our asking for it.  This is not the way we are accustomed to receiving something.  We go to a web page, we open a catalog and we place an order for what we want.  We are accustomed to things arriving because we asked for them.

Yet some things are just there.  This was made clear to me recently when one of the windows in my car shattered.  I could have pretended that it did not happen but it was winter and it gets cold driving around without a window.  Passengers would notice if they are sitting on broken glass.  We can act as if it did not snow yesterday but we still have to remove it from the windshield before we drive.  We still have to shovel it off the sidewalk.  Some things simply must be dealt with.

The word is like that.  It has been spoken, it is delivered whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.  Romans is a word that tells us that things are not ok as they are.  The ways of Rome have infiltrated the world.  The ways of God are in conflict with those ways.  The Letter to the Romans intends to get readers to act differently.  We may not be asking for a word that demands we act differently.  Still, this word comes to us – a particular people who receive it with particular needs and who gather in a particular place.  And this word must be dealt with.