Posts Tagged ‘rome’

I am struck by the amount of time the church spends talking about world leaders. Even more, I am struck by the division of Christians as they talk as if their allegiance is with one leader or another or one party over another. Still, after reading the New Testament, I cannot find the parts where the church becomes preoccupied with such conversation. If the first century Christians were debating who would succeed Tiberius as emperor, the New Testament does not show much interest. If the church divided its loyalties for and against the incoming Caligula, there is no mention of it.

Four years later, after Caligula was murdered, where is the talk about Claudius replacing him? And when Claudius banned Jews from Rome and made other important policy decisions, were there some Christians defending him and others asking for his removal? When Claudius was poisoned, did anyone in the church become obsessed with what Nero’s economic or foreign policy would be? Perhaps such conversations occurred, I cannot claim to know. But, if they did, the New Testament does not consider them worth mentioning.

Instead, the New Testament uses a lot of space to repeatedly focus on things like the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Rome appeared to rule and Caesars came and went, the New Testament remained interested in other news. I suppose conversations about emperors are not in the New Testament for a reason. It is possible the New Testament writers are only interested in the political changes that came with Jesus of Nazareth. It is possible the Christians in the first century were already aware that Caesar did not rule the world. It is possible they already realized that neither Julio-Claudians nor Flavians nor democrats nor republicans held the answers. It is possible that early Christians were convinced that if Jesus was risen the rest of this conversation was a sub point at best.

The first Christians knew their identity as Roman was not their primary identity. They knew that Rome was not the primary kingdom. They knew Caesar was not the true king. And they knew that Roman politics were not their politics. Instead, they were convinced that God had become flesh and sent the Spirit to make a new politic possible. A politic that, in our more faithful moments, we call church.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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