First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Trinity

William Loader

Trinity:  22 May Romans 5:1-5

In 2 Corinthians Paul had to argue that his adversities, far from being an indication of failure, were in fact what one might expect of a life lived in unity with Christ. Christ suffered from opposition. Paul suffered from opposition. In that letter Paul seems to be dealing with believers who stood under the influence of a spirituality which highlighted success and impressiveness, and called Paul's status and authority into question because he did not measure up. It upset Paul. The final chapters of that letter are among the most personal of all his writings. Against a barrage of criticism, he has to argue that what counts is not impressiveness and power but one's consistency with Christ and Christ's ministry and above all with God's grace which we have come to know uniquely in Christ.

Here in our Romans passage we hear echoes of these concerns of Paul's. In a calmer setting he reiterates that the life lived in solidarity with Christ will often look like Christ's life - including hardship. The difficulties and defeats will not drive us into shame but be something we can be proud of, because it is about being real, being really in touch with Christ's way. Paul touches this theme while asserting that being set right with God (justification - 5:1) brings us peace with God. This is about reconciliation. Almost by definition, to have our relationship with God right is to have our relationship with ourselves right - and our relationship with others. When our relationship with God, ourselves and others is not right, we are troubled, stressed, and at worst alienated - from God, ourselves and others and we are destructive.

Paul has been emphasising that nothing should clutter the simplicity of our relationship with God. There are no hidden hurdles we must jump or qualifications we must achieve. It is an unconditional love which greets us - long before we are even able to assess ourselves. Of course, when someone offers you that kind of relationship, it can be very threatening, because the invitation is to be loved for who we are, not for who we are trying to be or for the image we are trying to hide behind. Dropping the mask and the coping strategies can be a long and difficult process. Trusting ourselves to let ourselves be loved is a choice to be vulnerable where we may have collected many bad experiences. It is often hard allowing ourselves to be loved. Paul has been demolishing every claim to add something as a condition on the basis of which the love would flow. Nothing is required, but acceptance of the love offered: faith. In the previous chapter he has argued that Abraham showed such faith and God declared: that's the right kind of relationship; that's what counts as righteousness or goodness.

It also makes sense that Paul claims that this kind of relationship brings peace. If we were dependent on constant renegotiation, like a continuing quality appraisal exercise to keep the same level of funding, we would be far from peace. The peace would end up being our own achievement. Not so for Paul. The ground of the peace of which he speaks is access (5:2). It is access to God and that means access to God's grace or compassion. It is full and generous and adequate. It is, of course, not the meaningless smile of one who just doesn't care what we do or who we are. It is the grace and compassion which addresses our true self - so it is not only forgiving and comforting, but also encouraging and challenging. We will find ourselves sometimes rejecting such grace and choosing our old strategies to establish our self worth. It is possible to hate love - even kill it, precisely because it addresses us as we really are.

Paul's spirituality stands and falls by this understanding of God's compassion. It is the basis of his present confidence and also of his hope for the future (5:2). For Paul one's sense of self is closely connected to one's relationship with God and also one's relationship with others (we might call that ministry, but it is wider than ministry). So Paul sees through the manipulations of ministers of his own time to claim authority and status for themselves. It would have been very frustrating to find them turning up in the congregations you had founded and especially when they went on to try to undermine your ministry.

In 5:2 and 3 Paul uses a word, sometimes translated, "boast". It sits uneasily in some anglo-celtic Christian cultures (not all!), especially where boasting is seen as inappropriate behaviour. At worst in such cultures we can see people playing a little game: "I hope people will value me; perhaps if I say I'm no good at things, people will say I am." The suppression of honest self-evaluation and of assertion of one's strengths is not self denial. Self denial is abandonment of our constructed selves and returning to our true selves as people loved and valued. Paul is never hesitant to boast of his strengths and the value of what he does - but always on a value scale which rates love as the highest value. Fortunately, from one of earlier letters to Corinth we have his marvellous excurse about love which makes this clear (1 Cor 13).

Rather than be ashamed of hardship (assuming a shaming culture), Paul asserts the opposite. He began the substance of his address to the Romans with just such a claim: "I am not ashamed" (1:16). Not only is he not ashamed; he also sees value in hardship. Here he doubtless draws on the wisdom of his time, which could also sometimes value the benefits of harsh experience. Surrounding the mention of hardship in 5:3-4 is the word, "hope" (5:2 and 5:4b and 5). A positive attitude informs Paul's self-understanding. Whatever the circumstances he looks to the future without despair - even in the worst crises. That hope is founded not in promises of things or a place, but in the person of God.

5:5 brings us back to the starting point of the passage, but in different language and using different ideas. The common factors are love in 5:5 and grace in 5:2. For Paul peace and hope are not simply founded on a past event, much as he highlights the cross and resurrection of Jesus as something into which we enter in solidarity. They are also founded in something which is ongoing: the love which comes from God and enters into us through God's intimate presence with us, the Spirit. That love keeps on flowing into us and out through us into the world. Elsewhere Paul speaks of love as a fruit of the Spirit.

So for Paul peace is about being in a right relationship with God, not as some distant judge nor as someone who is trying to draw us up into himself, but as one who is expansively living love out into the universe. We will have peace as we ride the flow of God's compassion out into the universe in our world and context. This is not a matter of following carefully defined oughts, ancient or modern, but of being inwardly connected in such a way that we have an orientation which unites our joy, our intentions and attitudes and our actions. The more we allow ourselves to be loved the more we are free to ride the flow.

Gospel: Trinity: 22 May John 16:12-15

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