Sermon on 31 July, 2016 - Romans 2
[Begin with prayer, then launching into “Narnia Lullaby” and the end of With You All the Way, by Max Lucado, beginning at page 27.]
Reading the end of a children’s story while listening to flute music is a rather unusual way to begin a sermon, but I want the art to pique our imaginations and to assist us with our task of digging into the text. Like the knights in Max Lucado’s short tale, we are each likely to be distracted by the sounds that surround us. Fear holds us fast, anger misleads us, doubt threatens us. We are constantly in danger of getting caught in it all, beginning to turn in circles, hearing the tunes of the forest, but failing to recognize the melody the king plays in order to guide us. Paul cautioned us last week – just as he warned the Romans – we are all prone to being misled. Like the knights in Lucado’s story, we must be humble enough to admit that our strengths and our desires will not save us. They will not get us through the parabolic forest that is full of temptations and distractions. Only one person will do that for us, Jesus. Lucado’s Cassidon says, “I knew there was only one who could play [the king’s] song exactly like [him]. …There is no one else I would have trusted to be with me all the way” (31), and Paul similarly writes, only “God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish [from the beginning of the quest until we reach the king’s castle] by faith [trusting in the king’s son all the way]. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Rom 1.17 NLT).
Last week’s passage from Romans, as well as this week’s, is difficult to take in. Paul unreservedly emphasizes our shortcomings. He wants to make it absolutely clear that we do not come even close to what God requires of us. Paul is extremely personal. He makes us uncomfortable. We read these verses from Romans, and we may be uncertain that Paul’s good news is “good” at all.
The Roman church was a phenomenon for the early church. We don’t know how the Roman church began, but we are fairly certain that the apostles weren’t directly involved with its planting. Moreover, the Epistle to the Romans suggests that the majority in the congregation were likely gentile. Paul was thinking of gentiles (non-Jews), when he wrote what we read last week, “Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip” (Rom 1.29). And, if you are anything like me, you were looking for a way to evade those words. I mentally sidestepped a little bit and thought, “Well, I’m not that bad. I make mistakes, but for the most part I’m on God’s side. I’m not as bad as them – the others.”
Watch what Paul does, though, in one of the last verses we read last week (and reread this week). He heard my thought. “You are defenseless, o man, who judges everyone; for while judging another, you condemn yourself, for you – the one who judges – are committing the same things” (Rom 2.1). Of course, I am being a little facetious. I don’t perfectly fit the characteristics of this “man” whom Paul is speaking to in verse one. Paul isn’t directly addressing me. It becomes apparent that Paul is addressing a hypothetical Jew in the Roman church. Paul admonishes him, “you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God” (2.28-29a emphasis added).
Paul is being no less personal with the Jewish believer than he was with the gentile believers. “The Jew [Paul is speaking to] seems to have supposed that he occupied a privileged position” (Erdman 38), just as Acts 10 reveals that the apostle, Peter, had thought (cf. 17 July sermon). Paul provocatively claims, “The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. … And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit” (2.25, 29). Paul is making some incredibly brave statements here. To say that circumcision makes no difference between the Jew and the gentile is to make a serious jab at Jewish patriotism.
Here is a little context: Between the events of the Old and New Testaments, king Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to wipe out the Jewish faith by forbidding circumcision. The Maccabean Revolt (166-160 BC) was the resultantly successful uprising of the Jews against the pagan leaders. The Jews remembered (and still remember) the Maccabean Revolt as a miracle, in part because the opposing army outnumbered the Jews about four-to-one. Following the insurrection against the Hellenistic (Greek) king, Hanukkah and circumcision were the most highly prized marks of Jewish loyalty to God in remembrance of that uprising (Moo 1896).
When Paul writes to the Jewish Christians in the Roman church, he is basically rejecting the importance of all that. The Jews have always been a people of memory. They remember their exiles, the Exodus, the kingship of David, more exile, the Maccabean Revolt, the rebuilding of the Temple, the dispersion out of Israel, their separated years in Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece, all across the globe, and the more recent tragedy of the Holocaust. Today, the Jews still remember all these things in order to remember who they are. So imagine their shock—the shock of the Jewish Christians in Rome—when Paul says, “you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision” (Rom 2.28). Isn’t a Jew’s heritage precisely what makes him or her a Jew?
Paul points to the gentiles, these Latinized and Hellenistic Christians – those whom the Jews painstakingly differentiated themselves from during the Maccabean Revolt and through their obedience to food laws and circumcision – and Paul says, No. “In fact uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it. … And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people” (2.27, 29b-c). In no uncertain terms, Paul is emphasizing the same lesson that Peter learned when he went to Cornelius, the first gentile recorded to have been filled by the Holy Spirit: You want to separate yourself from those other people who have sinned or simply have a different background. You want to think that you are not as bad as the rest of them. “You may think you can condemn such people, o man, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things” (Rom 2.1). You cannot escape this.
Paul is proclaiming universal need. We are all wanting the perfection God requires. The universal need in Romans 1 and 2 parallels God’s universal provision, which Paul also wrote about. “All who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.27-28). As difficult as passages like those from Romans 1 and 2 may be to read and take in, Paul declares them because they reveal a truth we desperately need to grasp. The identities of the Jew and the Greek, the American and the Iranian, the white and the black, the heterosexual and the homosexual, the male and the female, the mentally advanced and handicapped, the educated and the uneducated, the billionaire and the homeless are no different before the face of God. We are all in need. We share this need. The Maccabean Revolt and circumcision do not make a true Jew. Only the transformation of the Holy Spirit forms a Jew.
Paul is cleverly undermining the expectations of his readers. In verses 28 and 29, I think Paul is referring to the old Hebraic meaning of Jew (Gk. Ἰουδαιος), which is “praised” or “he/she who is praised.” The apostle writes, “No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people” (Rom 2.29). In other words, the people whom God chooses – not those who have claimed some particular identity apart from God – are those who are worthy of praise. They are the true Jews, the truly praised. Your value is imparted by God. When he praises you, you do not need the praise of any other. Just as much as it was a message for the Jewish and gentile Romans, this is a message for us today. GOD claims us for relationship with himself. GOD is our heritage. GOD is the worker of our new circumcision, “a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit.”
We must give up our claims to particularity and privilege. We have no room for pride. Nothing inherently separates us from the atheist at work. Nothing inherently separates us from the destitute druggie across the street. We are just as bankrupt as they are, and there is only one lender, He who has lent to everyone: “Then he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. Then he said, ‘Take this [cup] and share it among yourselves.’ [I give this to fulfill your every need.] … ‘This cup is the new covenant [agreement] between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you’” (Luke 22.17, 20).
One of the things I love about Paul’s writings is his use paradox. He knew so well how unfathomable God is and was fascinated by the ways in which God works. In Romans 2.6, Paul writes to the Romans, “He [God] will judge everyone according to what they have done,” which sounds so much like we have to prove ourselves to God. Not only does the letter of Romans as a whole testify otherwise, but Paul is quoting Psalm 62 when he writes this sentence. He is giving us a foreshadowing of his greater point, while telling us how serious sin is. Psalm 62 is all about the ability of God alone to save and protect his people. It begins, “I wait quietly before God, for my victory comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will never be shaken” (vv 1-2). It ends, “God has spoken plainly, and I have heard it many times: Power, O God, belongs to you; unfailing love, O Lord, is yours. Surely you repay all people according to what they have done” (vv 11-12). Both the Psalmist, David, and the apostle, Paul, are reminding that us our good work, as well as the core of who we are, are first and foremost the recreative work of God. Power belongs to God. Love belongs to God. In his great, unfathomable love for you, he has given you his son, Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the mercy of God that allows you to do what is pleasing to God. It is the mercy of God that makes of you someone who is “praised.” Like any true Jew, God chooses you to be praised with his Son, Jesus, because of his Son, Jesus. You, despite all the sin that Paul honestly tells you that you are steeped in, have been chosen by God. He loves you.
“You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault” (Col 1.21-22).