Reflection on Romans 1:16-25
Wine Before Breakfast
September 25, 2012
by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
I’ve always thought Paul was a little off.
This used car salesman of an apostle going at it, time and again, over and over, with just one more audacious pitch, one more bill of goods to sell, and the naïve expectation that maybe this time he’ll seal the deal.
I can sort of imagine him, cowboy hat and bolo tie, with one sweet bargain and prices slashed again and again and again.
But on my better days, I’m not sure I buy it.
He’s a delusional fool if he thinks he can sell anyone on that. Not here. We’re not in some backwards town anymore. This is Rome. This is the Capital. And – here at least – this story doesn’t even compete.
Paul talks a good game, but his stories of a minor leader of a minor sect of a minor people will do no good here. This is Rome. The Capital. And in this knowledge economy, people know better than that.
Here he goes reviving stories of yet another so-called messiah with yet another set of audacious truth claims. But they took care of it, the Capital did – or so we’d been told. The bastard child of Mary is dead.
And yet. And yet. In face of all the evidence, and the stories continually rebroadcast on state television, Paul dares to proclaim this so-called gospel, whose good news – if you were to believe it – had overthrown the powers of death and the grave. This so-called gospel that calls into question the authority of Caesar, the prince of the Pax Romana, into whose gated community, this missile of a missal was being read.
Pussy Riot takes the Cathedral by storm. Doctors commandeer government press conferences and The Musqueam First Nation blocks commuter traffic on its way into Vancouver.
In the midst of uncertainty. Under threat of the oppressive ruling authority, Crazy Paul, slave to a pretender Messiah, proclaims a victory story unlike all others.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel,” the apostle declares. “For it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”
Salvation for all. For all who have faith. For those who dare remain faithful. Even here, on the oppressor’s home turf; even here in the Cathedral of the patriarch, even here in mighty Gotham; even here within stone’s throw of Bay Street. Salvation is proclaimed for all. Yet in the face of the Capital’s promises of power and wisdom, of stature and personal freedom, who of us will remain faithful?
This salvation story was first heard as a soft whisper, carried on the song of the bird, passed on by the cry of the rocks, so that even the bricks and timbers of the houses echo with the news.
A salvation story so bold and so audacious that you have to wonder at its truth.
Is this even possible?
This is not the salvation story being proclaimed by the Roman legions, reinforced by the images of empire on every column, statue and coin. Coins exchanging hands, bearing images of the emperor, of reptiles, and horses and birds. Images of the gods and idols decried by the Psalmist centuries before:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools. Worshipping idols, they purchased all after which they lusted, breaking faith with the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all. Acting on every desire. Giving in to every lust. Gorging on food and wine. Prancing around in ridiculous garb, they failed to receive it all as it is – gracious, divine, gift.
Israel breaks faith and worships the golden calf. Adam & Eve trade communion with God for fruit and a promise, only later discovering that all Apple’s directions will do is get you lost.
Into this world, Paul’s crazy, fanatical, passionate gospel rings out. It’s a salvation story that spreads slowly at first. Not with force, not at the point of a sword, but with a deep and profound authority unheard in recent days.
A salvation story that begins with a public spectacle shaming the powers, and is now subversively proclaimed throughout the 12 Tribes of Israel. The 12 Districts of Panem. A gospel that spread like brushfire, and whose very target, if such a treasonous thing were possible, was the Capital.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel,” the apostle proclaims.
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of a different war.
It resonates through the room. Hangs in the air as the words are read aloud. “I am not ashamed of a gospel, not ashamed of a salvation, not ashamed of a justice that is indeed for all people, a salvation meant for all of creation.” No holds barred. No one left behind. A gospel and a gospeler indebted to all. Unashamed in the face of those whose power is nothing more than a façade and a sham.
Paul preaches I and Thou in a world of objectification. Deep mutuality in a culture of institutionalized oppression and domination. A gospel calling one and all to the Bread of Life, the manna in the wilderness. To deep communion with the Lord and Maker of us all.
A call, and a prayer for daily bread when all the Capital wants, when all we’re trained to desire are Bread and Circuses. Where mob mentality cheers the victory of the one left standing, all the while chanting from sneering lips, “May the odds be ever in your favour.”
But this gospel, this gospel, this powerful gospel is the possession of no one. It’s not yours, not mine. It is not the possession of the global economy, of scientific discovery or technical wizardry. It is not the possession of the movie stars, major banks, global leaders or technological pioneers.
Into this world, a world proclaiming the majesty of lesser gods in the liturgy of the shopping mall and infinite choice, we unashamedly proclaim, with Paul, the gospel of One Lord. One faith. One baptism.
It may be first for the Jew, but it doesn’t stop there. A blessing to all nations. Horde the gift, fail to share, and like the manna of the exodus, it will rot. To win these hunger games, we, like Jesus, have got to give it away.
It’s here that this gospel proclamation comes into sharper focus. Paul isn’t selling us a bill of goods. He isn’t hocking anything at all. And how can he when it’s all free?
Freely, freely, you have received. Freely, freely give.
This is the power of the gospel. Even in the face of our deep addiction. Even in our faithless wanderings. In things done and left undone. Trading all we have and all we are for one more hit.
Even down the grand boulevards of the Capital. Even in its palaces and marble halls. And yes, even along the parade routes of our own hearts.
There will always be facades down all our avenues.
But in the alleys and in love,
In the alleys and in love,
In the alleys and in love, there is the truth.
(Jon Brooks “In The Alleys” from Moth nor Rust, 2009)
Freely, freely we have received. Freely, freely give.
This is the gospel of the one in whom all things hold together. The gospel of the one from whom all blessings flow. And this gospel, if you were to believe it, is good news for one and all.