Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Read-along of Romans, Chapter 12: The Rubber Meets the Road!

It was the autumn of 2003, and the Episcopal Church had just emerged from a particularly difficult and contentious General Convention at which the debate around the issues of human sexuality had crescendo-ed when the GC was asked to consent to the election of the bishop-elect of New Hampshire, one Rev. Gene Robinson. Robinson, if confirmed, would then become the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Robinson, and the affirmation of his election tendered at that gathering, quickly became a lightning rod for any number of controversies in the wider Church.

It was not the cause of controversy or conflict, nor was there any real, "durable" resolution to the issues being presented by the very human, and prayerful, discernment of the people of New Hampshire to call Gene as their Bishop. What erupted was, like any "civil" war was the realization that people who call themselves members of a community could, have and continue to have radically different interpretations of the scriptures and traditions by which our faith life is accomplished in community. This was a moment, though, that went beyond us "agreeing to disagree." We were either going to find new ways to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, or choose to depart from this particular fellowship.

I am not taking one position, or another, on the controversies around these deliberations and decisions on the part of my Church. This post is NOT about the issue...rather, it is about a particular moment I experienced  at a clergy gathering that accusations of rogue biblical interpretations were being leveled between colleagues and communities.....The question at that gathering: "How does scripture govern our lives?"

And that brings me to my thoughts on Chapter 12 of Paul's letter to the Romans, today. The speaker at our clergy day was my seminary New Testament professor. He spoke, eloquently and firmly, to the mutual call we have to look to scripture as a primary focus for us on life, Church and our relationship with God....and, this particular chapter is the one he pointed to in order for us to perceive and accept his point.

Chapter 12 is of a type found in several of Paul's letters. He has worked very hard up to this point to get everyone on board, to get them to a point of mutual understanding and perspective. By his quite masterful rhetoric in his letter to the Romans, he has united Jew and Gentile to such an extent that they might willingly accept that we are really all one in God's love. That love is exemplified by the Promise, the Covenant and Law and finally (and ultimately) in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now that we are all here at this particular point, Paul drives home what a life in Christ really looks like: It is filled to the brim with the virtues and practices he enumerates. Moreover, he shows how to deal with people both within and without the community of faith with whom we are at odds....

And it was to this passage that my former professor guided us. When it comes to espousing a biblical interpretation of how we might live, even in the face of controversy, then this is it.

Chapter 12 of Paul's letter to the Romans...our Church begins to heal-from any controversy, really-at this very point. We remember just who we are, why we are here...and by extension, what we are to do.

Go ahead. Read it again and pray over how in your own church....and perhaps Church...we can find ways to outdo one another in showing honor...etc., etc.


  1. There's much to embrace in Chapter 12; v5 "...we, who are many, are one body in Christ..." is a continual reminder that we are all in this together. Literally. I also find comfort in that we all have our own gifts to offer and none is better than another. But then I get tripped up at the end, v20 "No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.'" Where did that come from? My annotated bible offers that is to make them feel ashamed or remorseful, but that still seems contrary to everything that came before. How does that fit with “bless and do not curse”? – Laura B

    1. That seems a tripwire to either resentment or triumphalism over "enemies" or those who wish us harm in conflict. My commentary search notes that Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:21. Giving an enemy food in order to assuage hunger, drink in order to assuage thirst, is seen as provoking in us an active display of mercy (even care, or love) for those who are opposed to us. "Love your neighbor as yourself..." Yes?

      But as to the heaping coals? I confess I struggle with that...and so latched on to one opinion that the image is akin to a forge. Metals are refined and purified in such a place. Rather than thinking of it in a pejorative case, can those coals be seen as fueling a crucible of transformation? A bit of a stretch...but more favorable than rejoicing in causing discomfort and deriving joy from it.

      The truth of experience? When someone is "an enemy" it usually means that they have invested a lot of energy in either provoking or sustaining a state of conflict with the intent to harm you or your reputation. By demonstrating the mercy noted in verse 20, I find the outcome seldom leads to their finding peace or joy. The first reaction is actually as if they are reacting to being "burned" by those heaped coals. "How dare you be kind...."

      Hence the conclusion....let judgment be reserved to God. Our job, as enumerated in the verses leading up to this crux direct us to showing mercy, honor, love, mutual respect....through service, care, witness.....