Sermon June 18 2023 Romans 12:9ff Rev. Betsy Hogan
There are times when I wonder what the Christian church might have been like, how things might have unfolded – not only immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection as the disciples began spreading the gospel, but for the decades and decades and centuries thereafter….
If it hadn’t been for the Apostle Paul. Or more properly, I should say, if it hadn’t been for the sacralizing in canon – I mean, the inclusion in what we now call the New Testament – of letters that Paul wrote and that were later written in his name to the early churches in Thessalonica, in Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, and of course Rome and elsewhere.
I wonder sometimes how things might have unfolded in the Christian church if all we had to go on… was the gospels. No letters of Paul. If the only words we’d soaked in sacredness as articulating the Mind and Will and Way of Jesus were what we’re told that Jesus SAID and what we’re shown Jesus DID in the gospels.
Because I think things could have been very very different. Not only in the church, but in the western culture it built as a whole. In which just a very few verses written by the Apostle Paul have done an awful lot of heavy lifting. Not the verses we’ve just heard, of course, but a handful of others. About women, about sexuality, about slavery, about submission to authority – about what and who is okay, and what and who is very much not.
The real irony, it seems to me, is that I think the Apostle Paul would have been horrified that within a few centuries after his death, not only the very specific letters that he wrote under very specific circumstances to very specific churches – but also the later circulars that were written in his name to the Mediterranean churches more broadly – were accorded by the Early Church Fathers the status of “holy scripture”.
Equivalent to the gospels, comparably sacred, and at least as authoritative and directive of the Christian life as the gospels, if not actually more so.
If not actually more so, simply because unlike the gospels – the point of which is kind of storytelling, the lifting up of Jesus’ life and words and deeds – the letters are way more straightforward in terms of being directive!
Their actual POINT is setting out norms and standards, rules and regulations. They’re NOT like the gospels, stories of Jesus’ life that reveal what God is like. They’re NOT like the gospels, that contain Jesus’ words – of course – but that also show us his will and his way in how he was in his life and ministry.
The letters of Paul aren’t like the gospels, because the gospels require discernment, they require the sifting of stories -- teachings and events and anecdotes -- so they’ll reveal Jesus’ Way. The letters of Paul aren’t like the gospels, because the gospels take work. But the letters are easy. Their very nature is directive – they’re Paul institutionalizing, regularizing, what Jesus simply lived.
And that straightforwardness has meant that in terms of shaping how the church unfolded, once they were named as sacred by the Early Church Fathers in the 3rd and 4th centuries and included in our Bible – that the letters of Paul have actually carried FAR more weight and FAR more authority in shaping how the church unfolded than the gospels themselves.
And more to the point – and frankly, I don’t think the Apostle Paul would disagree with me when I say this -- they’ve also carried FAR more weight and FAR more authority in shaping how the church unfolded… than they should have.
And part of the reason I think that is because of the passage that we just heard from one of those letters. From Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, written to prepare them for his upcoming visit.
Because in this passage what we catch a glimpse of is Paul at his purest. Paul in his very first contact with the church in Rome, literally just introducing himself to them. Paul pulling it all back – pulling back all the institutionalization. Pulling back all the theological explanations, the norms and standards, the rules and regulations, the advice and suggestions and attention to specific issues –
Pulling all of it back into what is essentially a pure distillation of simply what he considers the heart of it all … how to follow the Way of Jesus.
Because Paul knows perfectly well: that’s what actually matters. Paul didn’t know he was writing scripture. He was just writing a letter to introduce himself to the church in Rome. And in it he distills perfectly what he knows actually matters. Everything the early Christians could learn and discern and find revealed in the stories that were already being collected and retold as they were shaped into our gospels -- about “how Jesus was” in his life and ministry and how Jesus wants US to be.
It's a lovely list of how to follow the Way of Jesus. Just twenty-five easy steps.
Which admittedly is quite a lot of “easy steps”. But the point is that this passage is Paul kind of doing all the work. Mining all the collected stories, considering all the moments and interactions and conversations that Jesus had with other people – how did he behave, what did he say, how did he choose or not choose to be.
This is Paul doing all the work of distilling the heart of the how to follow the way of Jesus. And here’s what it all amounts to.
Let love be genuine; hold fast to the good and reject the wrong; love one another; be honourable, fiercely faithfully passionate for justice; serve God.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Be generous, welcome the stranger, love even those who harm you, Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another as equals, with humility, with nobility, and in peace.
It’s the whole of the Way of Jesus, distilled by Paul out of the gospel stories.
And it’s hard not to imagine what things might have been like if THAT had been what shaped how the church and the Christian life eventually unfolded. If as Christians we’d looked only at the life and words and way of Jesus as our guide, and if as a church together it had only been the life and words and way of Jesus that shaped our community ethos.
Because among other things, we’d have found ourselves without a single New Testament Bible verse we could use to oppress or harm or silence or reject whole swathes of humanity. Because NONE of those verses come from Jesus. Not one of them.
I think that matters. And frankly, I think the Apostle Paul would think that matters. Because he’s the one who at the heart of his letter to the Romans introducing himself before he visits drops in this clear and perfect distillation of the Way of Jesus – as purely itself. As revealed IN Jesus.
Unadapted, unmitigated, unshaped by Paul’s entirely separate hard and essential work of institutionalizing. Of trying to make the church do-able and sustainable in its context on the ground. In the face of a whole bunch of different and specific and variable pressures and realities and combinations of people and issues, in a very specific culture.
Paul never knew that what he was writing would get turned into sacred scripture, laden with divine authority, quoted as directive for all time and eternity. He was just institutionalizing in real time, on the ground, in the moment.
I think that has to matter. It's true that I’ve never yet met someone inclined to weaponize verses from Paul regarding who should keep silent in church or who rules whom in the hierarchy of power and submission or who might possibly be an abomination – who’s been in the least impressed or shaken in their convictions when I’ve asked them to show me where Jesus said any of those things.
I mean, they can’t – because he didn’t. But for many churches and many Christians and for many many centuries, that simply hasn’t mattered and doesn’t matter.
There’s been too long a comfort generally with a Christianness that easily and unashamedly – when presented with Jesus versus Paul – will easily and unashamedly default every time to the clarity of a verse or two from Paul rather than the words or example or way of Jesus as revealed in the gospels. Every time. Whether it’s keeping women silent or whoever doesn’t work shouldn’t eat or know your place and stay there or here’s who you get to hate and reject. For too long and for too many Christians, when it’s Jesus versus Paul, Paul always wins. Every time.
But it’s the way of Jesus that as Christians we’re invited into. It’s the way of Jesus we’re called to follow. It’s how Jesus was, how he welcomed, how he loved, that’s the example that’s meant to guide us.
It’s the fact that he made a point of pushing back on every single social norm about who didn’t matter and who could be ignored or rejected or cast out – it’s the fact that he said again and again and again instead “YOU, on the edges. YOU, they call unclean. YOU, the woman, the leper, the Samaritan, the tax collector -- You I love and I welcome as whole and beloved and a child of God.”
It's Jesus we’re meant to be following, God being our helper, on the way. Not Paul. Jesus who imagined that when he commanded and embodied wide and generous and fulsome love and welcome and well-being for all God’s children, and literally said nothing about rejecting anyone for who they are… that we’d understand he meant it.
Not be looking for ways to avoid it. Imagine what the church as Christian community for these past two thousand years might have been like if all we had was the gospels.
The irony is that we can actually draw nearer that Christian community how we imagine it might have unfolded if it hadn’t been for Paul, just by reading a little Paul.
Just by leaning into his perfect distillation of the way revealed in all the collected stories that became those gospels, in one little passage of a letter he wrote to the Romans. Twenty-five easy steps – beginning with love and ending with peace.
Because the way that Paul himself wants us to follow is the way of Jesus. Thanks be to God, our Help and our Guide. Amen.