First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Advent 4

William Loader

Advent 4: 20 December  Romans 16:25-27

These last words of Romans are an acclamation of God. They have probably been added to Paul's letter as a fitting climax for its use in the liturgical context of the community of faith. Many ancient manuscripts do not have them or have them earlier. It is interesting that the primary benefit at the receiving end of this great bow of praise that touches humanity and reaches up to God is strengthening. One might even use the word, enabling, which has become much loved in recent years. This enabling comes from the good news which Paul proclaimed. If this is not Paul's own statement, it coheres with Paul's assertiveness to recognise that what he is doing is something which brings life. Paul has not learned that form of Christian piety which will not own strength, but must play at humility. Paul's message stands beside and is derived from Christ's kerygma or proclamation. Communities which treasured and carefully edited Paul's letters acknowledged his leadership and his role in bringing to them and their forebears the good news. As in Ephesians and Colossians we are viewing a deep respect for Paul and his mission. It is one which we might want modelled if people were to assess our own assertive faithfulness to the good news.

The acclamation lifts our sights even higher. Not only was this the good news from Christ (and about Christ); it was also a mystery (another echo of Colossians and Ephesians). The term was a favourite in some circles to describe a future event or revelation which came from the heart of God and is pictured as being suspended in divine care until its release, like the release of doves at occasions of great celebration. We seem to be hearing the reflection of a generation which could rejoice in biblical witness to Christ in writings. The 'prophetic scriptures' may even be the gospels. We may have a first hint of a rudimentary canon of scripture. Akin to the emphasis in Ephesians (once more), the acclamation celebrates the inclusion of the Gentiles. The acclamation has doubtless arisen in a predominantly Gentile context. The theme of inclusiveness is at the heart of this good news. It remains a difficult attitude to sustain. Here it is the heart of the good news, the core of faith, the wisdom and compassion of God.

The 'obedience of faith' is a term Paul uses in Romans 1:5, which finds its echo here. It underlines that faith is more than cognitive assent or 'making a decision' to believe at some point in time. It suggests rather an ongoing relationship which includes involvement in God's life and compassion reaching out into the world. Lofty as the acclamation sounds, its ground is in the human experience of God's love embracing all. In Christ that love touched the dust and through Paul flowed across the cities of the eastern Mediterranean and into the countryside. It is large and generous. It is also ongoing and enabling. It is the strength of those who are immersed in its nourishment. The upward thrust of the acclamation might have us soaring high in ecstasy until we see the divine flow is really in the other direction: not drawing us away, but sending us out - to all, for all, without discrimination. Its poetry disguises the profound religious struggle which is embodied in the letter to which it is attached. It hymns what Paul saw as God's initiative of love poured out, of goodness (righteousness) generating reconciliation, of liberation offered to all who want it and without prerequisites. All this was over against the notion of a God needing protection and against other followers of Jesus worried about stepping on divine toes.

Gospel: Advent 4: 20 December Luke 1:26-38

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