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Blogging Romans: An Appeal and a Blessing – Living by the Spirit in the World

March 1, 2012

Well, this final installation of Blogging Romans is a few weeks late.  But as Paul writes, “I do not do the good I want” (7:19).  Perhaps my procrastination is apostolic…

Paul has worked his way through the great themes of his epistle.  We’ve been walked through the universal condition of human sin; the coming of righteousness through faith and the covenant of faith begun by God with Abraham; the justification that comes through Jesus Christ by which the reign of Adam is ended; the promise that comes through baptism; the proper role of the Law; the unshakeable assurance of life in the Spirit; and the ongoing nature of God’s promises to ethnic Israel.  Now what?

In chapters 12-16 Paul deals with the what in the now, so to speak.  There is too much ground in these five chapters to cover in detail, but certain themes emerge.

Paul begins this section with an appeal to Christians to present themselves to God as living sacrifices.  He urges: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).  The first theme, then, is that Christians are no longer of this world in the way that Paul understands the term.  This “world” is the one in which the reign of Adam and sin continues to exercises dominion and in which death holds sway.  In Christ we have been set free from this reign and live in the world of God’s reign in Christ.  Paul encourages us, therefore, to act as “citizens” of the reign of Christ, not the reign of Adam.  What does this mean for our living?  We are to discern for ourselves and one another our vocation within Christ’s body (12:3-8).  Further, we are to live with love at the center of our lives (12:9-21, 13:8-10).  Correlates include the command to not judge one another (14:1-12) and the admonition to live with others’ best interests in mind (14:13-23).

Within this call emerges the second theme: We are to live as people not of this world, but we are reminded that we still live in this world.  Paul tackles the implications of this reality in 13:1-7 in which we are encouraged to be “subject to the governing authorities” for they exist and “have been instituted by God” (13:1).  This provides some of the groundwork for what in Lutheran terms is known as the Two Kingdoms theory.  God reigns in grace with the “right hand” through Jesus Christ while continuing to reign with the “left hand” in this world.  Aside from the notion that southpaws might take offense at the terminology, this is a helpful but sometimes problematic distinction.

Paul’s understanding places the Christian squarely in this world.  One temptation for the Christian has always been to say, “If I’m not of this world, I need not care about this world.”  This world still matters and God lovingly cares for it through human means, including governments.  What happens here – governmentally, environmentally, economically, you name it – matters because this world is still God’s world.  Christians, far from being set free from the cares of this world, are finally in a state of freedom in which proper care can be give to this world and all who dwell therein.  With sin conquered, we can begin to turn outward from ourselves and engage the world as we find it.

The problematic piece emerges when one imagines that Paul’s call is one to quietism in the face of the oppressive kingdoms of this world.  Is he encouraging us to turn a blind eye to injustice, to just go along to get along?  Some say so, but I think this misses the nuance of Paul’s thinking.  In encouraging us to pay our taxes (yeah, can’t get out of that one) Paul writes that the Christian is to “pay to all what is due them” (13:7).  This means that governments are to be respected and obeyed insofar as they are, at a basic level, worthy of receiving respect and obedience.  If conscience is crossed, the Christian is free to disobey.  I think, however, that this is often invoked in contemporary political conversation much too early and used as an excuse for disobeying the government on non-crucial issues.

At any rate, Paul reminds us that we are still in this world; that what we do in this world matters; and that God is working through worldly institutions to effect his purposes in this world.  While there is often no clear-cut answer as to what we should do in this world, it is clear that we are not to check out and sit around staring heavenward.  Which goes back to the larger theme of this section: the Christian is to live by love wherever she finds herself, and that is certainly true for as long as she is in this world.

The closing sections of Paul’s letter are intensely personal.  Paul reminds the Romans again of the power of the gospel for Gentiles and Jews.  He describes his future plans to deliver an offering to Jerusalem, proceed to Rome, and from there go to Spain.  Sadly, the last part of Paul’s plan never came to fruition as he was martyred in Rome.  Paul includes a number of personal greetings and closes in doxology.  As we close, may you be blessed in Christ, to whom you now belong, whose promises will not be thwarted by anything within or beyond this life, and who calls you now to be a witness to his righteousness and his love right here in this world.

“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever!  Amen.”  Romans 16:25-27

Two words of thanks:

First, I am grateful to the fine folks of St. Peter’s who came to this class for six weeks.  I hope you learned something from our time together and were strengthened in your faith.  I know these things happened to me through your presence.

Second, I am grateful to my sister-in-law for the sweet onesie worn by Anders in this week’s picture.  Looking good, little man!

From → Scripture

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