First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 3

William Loader

Pentecost 3: 25 June  Romans 6:1b-11

Paul needs to combat the view that his gospel leads not to goodness but to people simply doing as they like. Perhaps his opponents were aware of the problems Paul faced in Corinth. Surely, they might have argued, the problems were largely of Paul's own making. He taught them that they need only Christ and the Spirit and can set aside the Law. What was the result? All kinds of immorality and disorder. People need commandments. They need the Law, especially when we acknowledge that the Law is the Word of God. Paul, they argued, had abandoned scripture and produced chaos in the church. Who would want to welcome him in Rome, let alone in Jerusalem!

But Paul will not be cowered. Unlike many in his time and later who tried to out-power opponents by abuse, Paul engages reality. He tries to explain. He has already explained that he is not in the least bit hesitant about the value of the gospel he has been proclaiming. It comes right from the heart of God and is based alone in God's goodness (righteousness; 1:16-17). It is not a novel idea that faith is the primary response for which God calls. People acknowledged this was true of foreigners (Romans 2); it was also true of Abraham. This did not mean discarding scripture, but rather interpreting it in a new way. It is not to be seen as the basis for becoming and remaining right with God. Rather it points towards the way of faith. Even if in the process Paul holds that we should disregard much of scripture, especially where it gets in the road of including both Gentile and Jew in such a relationship on an equal footing, he nevertheless argues that the way of faith is at the heart of scripture (3:21-31).

In Romans 4 he celebrates Abraham as the prime example. In Romans 5 he celebrates hope based entirely on God's love (5:1-11) and then turns to depict the change which Christ brought as a reversal of the human condition (5:12-21). Throughout its history (which Paul the first century Jew takes literally as beginning with Adam) humanity has been contaminated by sin and its powerful effects enmeshing people in death and debilitating dynamics which subvert what is good. Now in Christ a new dynamic has emerged which can reverse the trend and lead instead to life and goodness. Surely that already shows that his gospel is about the generation of goodness not evil and sin. It happens not by telling people to be more careful and to try harder to be good, but by drawing them into a generative process which works dynamically and sets them free to generate goodness in themselves and the world. Love generates love. Love reigns instead of death and sin (5:21)

But in Romans 6 he begins again. As in 3:8 he seems to be directly addressing one of the accusations levelled against him: Paul's gospel of free grace, they say, offers no incentive for people to change their ways; on the contrary it rewards sin by promising free grace. Paul protests that this is absurd (it is also grossly unfair to Paul - but Paul isn't reacting out of a hurt ego here). He brings the hearers back to what most of them experienced as adults when they converted. Their personal response of faith was celebrated in a communal event, baptism, in which they joined themselves not only to the community of faith but also to its central story.

In a manner which might have reminded some of the mystery religions but which had different origins Paul interprets the rite as an act of identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. As Christ died and was raised to life, so the believer died to one life and rose to another. The fit is not perfect. Unlike some Christians of his day Paul is reluctant to say that Christians have also now been raised from the dead. We find this view in John and in the later Colossians and Ephesians. But Paul does not want believers to think they have arrived and he wants to hold onto a future resurrection because he looks to a transformation in the future that will involve everyone and everything. He won't let Christianity be reduced to individual salvation. So, we see here how he holds back from saying we have been raised, but instead says we are to live a new life (6:4).

The other difficulty is that Christ's dying and our dying are not really the same. For Paul Christ did not need to die to a life of sin. On the contrary he shares the view that in dying he was dying for others, including in their interests, in cultic terms, to help remove their sin. Yet despite the mismatch, it remains true: his life began anew and so too did ours. The point in Paul's argument is that the rite of baptism celebrates the birth to a new life and that life is lived in unity with God. If that is the case, then it makes no sense at all to argue that it does not matter how you live. Of course it does! Because now you live "in Christ", incorporated into Christ, open to be and become within the new power sphere of his influence, his body. You are finished with the old destructive dynamic which he has just described in Romans 5 and have embarked on a new kind of humanity in which love and goodness is generated. So it is a complete misreading of his gospel to imagine that how you live does not matter.

This does not, however, happen automatically. People need to become aware of their new identity and reinforce it. They also need to bring their behaviour and attitudes into line with the new life. Some of that will happen automatically. When love becomes the centre of your life and you become freed from fear and guilt, your behaviour will change. But Paul is not so naive as to imagine that this happens overnight. Paul is very grounded. There are ruts of destructive behaviour which will need to be reformed. So Paul offers us the delightful paradox: you have died; so put those bits of yourself to death which are hangovers of the old life (6:11 and 12-14). People who don't do this are making themselves vulnerable to relapsing into the old dynamics of sin and death.

Paul's spirituality is focused on becoming what you can now be on the basis of this new foundation grounded in love and faith alone. He will go on to show that people who live from this source end up more than fulfilling what the biblical commandments require (8:4), but not on the basis of trying to keep commandments, but rather on the basis of letting the love which set them on their feet continue to generate its life in them. That dynamic process is possible because of the changed relationship. It is a back-door way of keeping the Law, but really it has no basis at all in the Law except that the Law, at least in its ethical part codifies what now become spontaneous fruits of goodness in the person living the new life based on love. That's why it works! And that's why it strikes fear into those who want the controls and security which sets of laws and commandments apparently give.

Gospel: 25 June Matthew 10:24-39

Return to Home Page