The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s004e10  Advent 4  19/12/2010

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

Paul  Romans 1.1

Paul is the most important New Testament character apart from Jesus.   Usually I preach on the gospels, so essentially I focus on Jesus and the gospel message, and have done so for a long time.   Recently I have been thinking about Paul, with the realisation that Paul is the person who so much focusses on sin.   As the first theologically literate disciple his views on sin have been foundational for subsequent generations of christians.  

Jesus himself doesn’t talk much about sin, and when he does it is usually because someone else raises the question.   Perhaps the classic example is in John where we read that when they met a man blind from birth: ‘His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’   Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’  (John 9.2-4)   Jesus goes about indiscriminately forgiving people, usually before they had a chance to confess what they had or hadn’t done - like the paralysed man let down through the roof on a mat (Mt 9.2 & //s).   John recalls Jesus saying to people not to sin - interestingly when I looked up the occasions I found that both the paralysed man he healed and the woman caught in adultery were told not to sin anymore, where the ‘sin’ only of the second is obvious - if indeed it is obvious at all. (Jn 5.14, 8.11).   But one of the indisputable facts about Jesus was that he was noted for the fact that he associated with tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners; he did not shun them.   He ordered his disciples to forgive others as often as they asked - it was his post-resurrection charge to them.

And, significantly, his words about sin and repentance in the stories in Luke 15 - the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son - were directed towards those who most loved God, those who were most conspicuously devout and those who were most scrupulous in their religious and personal life.   And so it was these people who Jesus implies are the greatest sinners, those in most need of repentance!   In a significant statement Jesus says he has come to ‘prove the world wrong about sin’ (John 16.8), the world which has learned about sin from the devout and orthodox.

So along comes Paul on the scene, and it is precisely he who has been trained in all aspects of orthodoxy and sin.   He is on the road to Damascus and like Wile E Coyote, who realises his latest hair-brained scheme to catch the road runner is turning pear-shaped (again) and holds up the sign: “What am I doing???”   Paul realises that his religion is about hurting other people, about persecuting, marginalising and alienating others, and that THIS is sin.

So Paul has to reappraise what God is on about, and this is what he is concerned about in his letter to the Romans.   It is his ‘magnum opus’, his theological raison d’etre.   It is all about reconciling his past (seemingly) blameless, orthodox and devout life, and how this was precisely the opposite of what God wanted.

He begins by greeting his readers, which is our reading for today; but then he goes on to describe what his pre-conversion religion was like - separation from the less than devout, persecution of others who didn’t measure up or who believed in different terms.   But along with this separation from others comes a concomitant commitment to others who did measure up, those who did ‘toe the line’.   The parallels with Sodom are obvious, if perhaps the details of ‘orthodoxy’ are vastly different.   He says that his persecution, marginalisation and alienation of others in the name of God is THE sin - whether the grounds on which the persecution, marginalisation and alienation of others are biblical, orthodox, rational, irrational or entirely self-centred.   Of course there are others who persecute, marginalise and alienate others through desire for personal gain, but the rub for Paul was that he did it in the name of God.   Somehow he had to deal, not just with his error, but how God had bypassed the strictures of orthodoxy and devotion.   How God didn’t have favourites, how God treated all people equally.   In the end he had to deal with how Jesus, the Son of God, came and associated with those people he would have least expected, the religious outcasts.

If we don’t get this message, that persecution, marginalisation, and alienation is THE sin, then we haven’t got the message of Jesus, we don’t know the gospel of liberation, and we are stuck in anxiety about what and who we need to avoid - like those who had Jesus killed.   It is telling that Jesus says to the Pharisees, after he has cured the man born blind: ‘Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’   Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.   But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’  (John 9.41)

So by far the bulk of Paul’s letter to the Romans is trying to make sense of this to himself, and his powerful words which have been suggested refer to intimacy between people of the same gender in 1.18 to 2.3 actually refer to how HE WAS before his conversion.   It is absolutely inconceivable to me that he starts his reflection on his pre and post conversion life with a gratuitous swipe at those who express their intimate affections with someone else of the same gender.   It is completely out of context.

I invite anyone to read Romans 1.18 to 2.3 and hear in them a condemnation of a theology of separateness from others and communion only with those who think, worship, believe and live like them.   It is all about the ‘old boys’ networks’ that Paul was so familiar with, even a complicit part of before his conversion.   And on that road to Damascus the Lord showed him that it was wrong.  

I have said before of the person who went to an Anglican College where there was institutionalised bullying, sanctified by the official comment that ‘that’s how it’s always been’!   Each week I love to look at the latest St Gargolyes cartoon on the ‘Church Times’ web-site, and many years ago Ron had one of the vicar commissioning the new branch president of the Mothers’ Union.  The MU members were in the pew behind with a number of not particularly well concealed hockey sticks.  The caption read something like: ‘After the commissioning came the initiation.’ :-)  eg

We are told in Acts that the high priest and the council dragged Stephen ‘out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’ which was Paul’s name before his conversion.   (Acts 7.58)   It is actions such as this that Paul is describing in Romans 1.18 to 2.3.

Indeed his anxiety for those who still live under the law continues in his letter to the Romans and in chapter 9 he says: ‘I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.   For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh .. Israelites’.  (2-4)

And I find it interesting that the revelations of sexual abuse in the Anglican Church have happened at the same time as women have begun to be ordained.   Sexual abuse has nothing to do with intimacy between people, it is all about power imbalance, and clergy have always (supposedly) had power over others.   Sexual abuse goes hand in hand with a god who discriminates between people.   The ordination of women has brought with it a gift of exposing sexual abuse, for people have realised that men no longer have a (supposedly) divinely ordained monopoly on power.

Paul describes the effect of his pre-conversion faith in similar terms to the effect Sodom and Gomorrah had on others.   Idolatry and bullying of others are regularly described in scripture using pejorative sexual terms such as ‘adultery’ and ‘fornication’, and this should cause us to treat references to sexual sins with particular caution.   It is easy to deflect the real meaning of the text away from oneself by pointing the finger at those who don’t measure up to ‘our’ moral code.   I suggest that the real meaning of scripture speaks of the primary sin of communion with those who worship like us and separation from others.

So in the end, the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Paul are entirely consistent.   After his conversion Paul realised that precisely the sort of devotion and orthodoxy that he practiced previously was identical to the devotion and orthodoxy of those who had Jesus killed.   Separation from others was the sin.  

Now you and I have all sinned, we have done things that we have regretted for years afterwards, things for which we have difficulty forgiving ourselves.   These things are indeed forgiven by God and forgotten.   THE sin that can’t be forgiven is to hide in our little enclave of ‘christians’ thinking that we are the righteous, and condemn others who don’t call themselves ‘christians’, for by doing so we are imitating those who had Jesus killed and Paul before his conversion.  

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