by Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.

I.  United We Stand?

Last week we were privileged to hear from one of America’s preeminent preachers, Dr. James Forbes.  Both at Darkwood Brew and our Center for Faith Studies event, Forbes spoke with great passion and eloquence about an issue sharply dividing the Christian community: homosexuality.

This week, we remember another of America’s great preachers: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his day, too, King spoke passionately and eloquently about an issue dividing Christians: race.

While our scripture focus this week (Romans 1) was written well before our time, here we find another great preacher – the apostle Paul – addressing yet another issue sharply dividing the Christian community.  In the opening chapters of Romans, Paul speaks passionately and eloquently about inclusion of Gentiles (i.e. people like most of us) in the Christian community.

You might have thought that over the course of two thousand years, Christians would have run out of groups to bicker over!  One wonders what group Christians will be bickering about 2,000 years from now … or 40?

On the one hand, this picture of endless bickering seems depressing.  And of course, it is depressing on a number of levels – especially if your group is the subject of the bickering.  Yet seen from another angle, the endless bickering of Christians may actually play a positive role.

You see, there’s a curious pattern that stands out if you look over large stretches of time: Christians bicker, and when they resolve their bickering, society not only moves on, but moves ahead.  We could take some time to see how this has played out at various points of human history, such as the Renaissance or the Reformation, but we need not look any further back than last week to find what I mean.

Last week, in his morning sermons at Countryside Church, Dr. Forbes asked us to consider how we are going to overcome the sharp divisions that are tearing apart the fabric of our nation.  He asked us, “Will political leaders lead us in bridging the divide?”  We all groaned.  Fat chance.  Politicians have worked quite hard in recent years to demolish bridges, not build them.  As we look ahead, the divisions are likely to get worse before they get better.

No, if unity is going to be restored, it will come either through experiencing some sort of cataclysmic catastrophe that will make 9/11, the economic collapse, and the recent super-storms look like warm-up acts or, as Forbes asserted, the faith community is going to have to find a way to bridge the divide.  Are there any realistic alternatives?

Personally, I’m not willing to wait around for a catastrophe.  Nor do I believe that the Holy Spirit is willing to wait, either.  No, I believe that in every age, the Holy Spirit has used religious controversy to drill through the walls that divide human civilization and allow it to move forward.  In this sense, our squabbling ultimately plays a positive role.  We flail around and fight, then we find our way through the controversy, and that new consensus becomes the consensus by which society at large heals its wounds and moves on.

II.  Heaven in the Struggle

If Jesus was right, it is actually in the midst of such controversies that we experience clear tastes of heaven.  You may recall what we’ve learned in the past about the first words out of Jesus’ mouth during his public ministry in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels.  Properly translated they are, “Heaven is now!  Change your whole way of thinking and believe the good news!”  [Inferior translation: “The Kingdom of Heaven/God has drawn near.  Repent and believe the good news.” – Matthew 4:17 // Mark 1:15]

If heaven is truly now, this must mean that heaven may be found in the heart of struggle.  Jesus says so much in his Sermon on the Mount where he insists that those who are poor in spirit, or mourning, or are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, or are persecuted (and so on …) are blessed.

What he seems to be saying is that we need to totally redefine what it means to experience heaven, at least in this world.  “Change your whole way of thinking and believe the good news,” says Jesus.

A clue to how we find heaven in the “now” of our struggles is found in the opening chapters of Romans.  Romans starts with Paul’s address to the Jewish Christian community in Rome.  You may recall that the earliest Christians were entirely Jewish.  Christianity was simply a sect within Judaism made up of those who believed that their anticipated Messiah had come in Jesus.  Gentiles were expressly forbidden from joining unless they followed Jewish law, including eating kosher and being circumcised.  In the eyes of good, God-fearing Jewish-Christians of much of the First Century, the Gentiles were viewed with the same disdain that people of color were viewed by many white Christians in the 1950s, or as homosexuals have been viewed in recent decades.  In other words, not all Christians were prejudiced against them, but there were enough that their prejudices were considered the definitive Christian position.

After some initial pleasantries in the opening verses of Romans, Paul seems to buy right in to Jewish Christian prejudices against Gentiles.  Paul claims that the Gentiles have turned their backs on God and that their lifestyle proves it.  He says:

For what can be known about God is plain to [the Gentiles], because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. [Rom 1:19-21]

You can hear those who held prejudices against the Gentiles shouting an “Amen!” – especially as Paul rattles off a cascading list of errors of judgment that resulted in turning their backs on God.  Paul’s argument has a definite structure to it, which becomes especially apparent in the Greek, but is also reflected in the NRSV text where certain English words and phrases appear repeatedly (i.e. “gave them over” and “exchanged”) where certain Greek words and phrases appear (i.e., paredōken and ēllaxan).  Years ago, I created a diagram of Paul’s logic structure, which looks like this:

The diagram traces Paul’s logic structure, which is anchored by those key words (in gray).  According to Paul, the Greeks turned their backs on God.  As a result, god “gave them over” (the first instance of this phrase is not written but implied) to the nonsense they were seeking.  As a result, the Greeks “exchanged” the worship of the immortal and invisible God for the worship of mortal images.  When they began worshipping images, God “gave them over” to following the lusts and impurities they were seeking, by which the Greeks “exchanged” the truth for lies, and exchanged worshiping and serving the Creator for worshiping and serving other gods.

Are you sensing a sinking ship here?  As a result of these “exchanges” made by the Greeks, God “gave them over” to their degrading passions by which they “exchanged” what Paul considers “natural” sex with “unnatural” sex (i.e., same-sex intimacy.  Bear in mind here that if we reject everything Paul considered “unnatural,” no males would be allowed to have long hair and women would not be allowed to teach in church).

Finally, says Paul, as the Greeks continued to sink into depravity, God “gave them over” to having debased minds which resulted in the debasing of all their actions.  In essence, they “exchanged” doing all manner of good with doing all manner of evil.  And here we get Paul’s laundry list:

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. [Rom 1:29-31]

Finally, Paul repeats his original premise about the root of the problem with the Gentiles: “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them, but they applaud others who practice them.” In other words, the Gentiles have turned their backs on what they clearly know to be good and true, and this has caused them to sink down into the depths of depravity.

Here Paul has just confirmed the Jewish-Christians’ prejudices against the Gentiles!  Of course, some of the more self-aware among them may have gotten a bit nervous when Paul reaches that laundry list of sins that he considers the “bottom of the barrel.”  They may have wondered, “Are these sins found only among the Gentiles?  Surely we can find them among our own congregation!”  Sins like envy, covetousness, malice, strife, boastfulness, pride, rebellion toward parents, and so on.

III.  The Root of the Root

Well, the self-aware were certainly right.  For Paul is actually setting them up for a major fall.  Just when he’s got most of the congregation practically foaming at the mouth in their invective against the Gentiles, Paul pulls the rug right out from under them in Chapter 2.

But before we get to Chapter 2, let’s picture a modern-day scenario.  Imagine an evangelist coming to town getting the congregation all lathered up about a particular group of people: “You know, SUCH-AND-SUCH community has turned their backs on God, and this has resulted in all kinds of problems for them and for us.  These people are corrupting our youth.  They have no fear of God.  In fact, they’re flaunting God’s law.  They shouldn’t be allowed to be part of the Christian community! ”  But then, imagine the evangelist silencing the “Amens” and applause and saying what Paul says in Romans 2.  I’m going to simply highlight selections from The Message version of Romans 2, and where Paul uses the words “Jews” and “Jewish,” I’m going to insert the word “Christian”:

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors …

Being a [Christian] won’t give you an automatic stamp of approval. God pays no attention to what others say (or what you think) about you. He makes up his own mind. If you sin without knowing what you’re doing, God takes that into account. But if you sin knowing full well what you’re doing, that’s a different story entirely. Merely hearing God’s law is a waste of your time if you don’t do what he commands. Doing, not hearing, is what makes the difference with God …

If you’re brought up [Christian], don’t assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you’re an insider to God’s revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines! I have a special word of caution for you who are sure that you have it all together yourselves and, because you know God’s revealed Word inside and out, feel qualified to guide others through their blind alleys and dark nights and confused emotions to God. While you are guiding others, who is going to guide you? I’m quite serious. While preaching “Don’t steal!” are you going to rob people blind? Who would suspect you?  The same with adultery. The same with idolatry. You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law. The line from Scripture, “It’s because of you [Christians] that the outsiders are down on God,” shows it’s an old problem that isn’t going to go away.

Are you starting to pick up on what Paul’s real issue is?  Ultimately, there is something concerning Paul far more than people’s sin.  He’s concerned with their self-righteousness. 

Self-righteousness is what causes one group to set itself against another.

Self-righteousness is what causes one group to scapegoat others, pretending that the “in” group’s problems are all the result of the “out” group.

Self-righteousness is what allows the “in” group to exploit the “out” group, placing them in the service of the “in” group without feeling any moral or ethical obligation to return any benefit to the “out” group.

Self-righteousness will, in fact, convince the “in” group that it is their moral duty to deprive the “out” group of these same benefits so that they may “learn their lesson” and “suffer for their sin.”

Self-righteousness is what allows the “in” group to get away with a whole raft of sins while pretending to hold the high ground.  Have you ever noticed how the leaders who seem to be most concerned with other people’s sinfulness tend to be the very ones who are caught up in the worst of scandals?  This tactic has been going on for a very long time!

 In Romans 1, the root of all evil as Paul articulates it is turning one’s back on God.  But what causes us to turn our backs on God to begin with?  In Romans 2, Paul uncovers the root of the root.  Self-righteousness is what causes us to turn our backs on God.  Self-righteousness is what leads to the whole laundry list of sins he identifies.

Kind of ironic, don’t you think?  Self-righteousness as the root of sin!  Those who place themselves high in the heavens above everyone else are actually the ones who turn the world into a living hell.

Now that we have two thousand years of history to look back upon, we see that Paul’s claim has some merit.  Looking at our own United States history, we can ask what has stood in the way of every major social advance our country has ever encountered?  Self-righteousness.

Who promoted slavery and fought its abolition in our country?   Southerners?  No, not all southerners promoted slavery, and many northerners supported it.  It was the self-righteous who saw blacks as inferior beings.

Who kept women out of pulpits and voting booths?  The self-righteous.

Who made divorcees feel like inferior human beings and blocked them from membership in Christian churches?  The self-righteous.

Who applauded Jim Crow laws, and who made interracial marriage illegal clear up until 1967?  The self-righteous.

Shall I stop here or keep on going until we get to issues where we start pointing fingers at ourselves (the self-righteous)?

The fact of the matter is that if you look at the macro level at social issues in wider society, or you bring the focus way down to struggles within our own families, or with friends or co-workers, at the heart of most conflicts can be found one or both sides utterly convinced that “I am more righteous than you”; “I have a monopoly on truth”; “I am more intelligent and enlightened”; “I am more deserving” … it’s all about self-righteousness in one guise or another.

So what do we do about it, you may ask.  How do we address our own sense of self-righteousness and that of others?  Many people think that the way not to act self-righteous is to refrain from naming other people’s sins. But that gets us nowhere.  Where would we be if we failed to name the sin of slavery, or the sin of misogyny, or racism, or homophobia?  Where would we be if we never named the sin of Hitler, or Stalin?

Paul certainly didn’t refrain from naming human sin in his diatribe against self-righteousness.  No, if we are to take Paul seriously, what we must do is two things: first, we must acknowledge our own participation in sin.

The second thing we do is acknowledge what God has done in response to the fact that we’re all in this together as sinners.  Here are a few excerpts from what Paul says in Romans 3 (The Message version again):

So where does that put us? Do we [Christians] get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it: “There’s nobody living right, not even one, nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God. They’ve all taken the wrong turn; they’ve all wandered down blind alleys. No one’s living right; I can’t find a single one …

 This makes it clear, doesn’t it, that whatever is written in these Scriptures is not what God says about others but to us to whom these Scriptures were addressed in the first place! …

Our involvement with God’s revelation doesn’t put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else’s sin.

IV.  The Heart of the Heart

 And now Paul gets to the heart of the matter – the heart of his message:

Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself.  A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

When Paul looks upon the Cross and Empty Tomb, Paul sees a God who desires relationship over rule-following; a God who would sooner die than write us off as hopeless.  This is a God who has cancelled all our debts, and with it, cancelled all our claims against others.   God has cancelled the racists’ debts as well as the debts of the activist for racial equality.  God has cancelled the homophobic Christian’s debts as well as the debts of the Christian who fights for LGBT equality.

There’s only one caveat, it would seem, if we are to take Paul (and Jesus) with perfect seriousness:  While God may have cancelled your debts, this fact will do you no good at all unless you forgive to the extent that you’ve been forgiven.  Put another way, you can experience only about as much grace for yourself as you are willing to give away to others.

Paul concludes:

So where does that leave our proud [Christian] insider claims and counterclaims? Canceled? Yes, canceled. What we’ve learned is this: God does not respond to what we do; we respond to what God does. We’ve finally figured it out. Our lives get in step with God and all others by letting him set the pace, not by proudly or anxiously trying to run the parade.

And where does that leave our proud [Christian] claim of having a corner on God? Also canceled. God is the God of outsider [non-Christians] as well as insider [Christians]. How could it be otherwise since there is only one God? God sets right all who welcome his action and enter into it, both those who follow our religious system and those who have never heard of our religion.

This is where we find the heaven-in-the-now that Jesus talks about.  Christians on either side of the homosexuality debate will not experience heaven within their struggle once they have vanquished their opponents, but when grace as vanquished them.

V. Bridge Building

Finally, remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, I am also reminded of how King reflected the basic insight of Paul and Romans, and used it to help God’s ever expanding ripples become waves of love rather than merely a destructive tsunami.  In so doing, he taught us how heaven may be found in the heart of our struggles – and how our civilization moves forward by God’s grace.

Writing in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Phillip Yancey opens a window allowing us to see how heaven may be found in the heart of struggle even for the oppressor, at least when their opponents act as ambassadors of heaven rather than merely ambassadors for Truth.

Martin Luther King Jr. had some weaknesses, but one thing he got right.  Against all odds, against all instincts of self-preservation, he stayed true to the principle of peacemaking.  He did not strike back.  Where others called for revenge, he called for love.  The civil rights marchers put their bodies on the line before sheriffs with nightsticks and fire hoses and snarling German shepherds.  That, in fact, was what brought them the victory they had been seeking so long.  Historians point to one event as the single moment in which the movement attained a critical mass of public support for its cause.  It occurred on a bridge outside Selma, Alabama, when Sheriff Jim Clark turned his policemen loose on unarmed black demonstrators.  The American public, horrified by the scene of violent injustice, at last gave assent to passage of a civil rights bill.

I grew up in Atlanta, across town from Martin Luther King Jr., and I confess with some shame that while he was leading marches in places like Selma and Montgomery and Memphis, I was on the side of the white sheriffs with the nightsticks and German shepherds.  I was quick to pounce on his moral flaws and slow to recognize my own blind sin.  But because he stayed faithful, by offering his body as a target but never as a weapon, he broke through my moral calluses.

The real goal, King used to say, was not to defeat the white man, but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority … The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”  And that is what Martin Luther King Jr. finally set into motion, even in racists like me.

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