The rumors are true: this Sunday we will offer our first in-person (outdoor) worship service at our physical site since Sunday, March 8. Today, I’m just writing with the details for what that will look like. (Never fear: our 10am Live Stream service will continue as usual!) I’ll say it again below, but we’ll be socially distant and wearing masks at all times.
What time? 7:30am for outdoor, in-person worship. This early we avoid the heat.
Where? In the big yard by the Mission Hall. Being outside minimizes a lot of the risk of aerosol transmission of the coronavirus. At no point during the service will we be entering the buildings.
Where will we sit? Three options: in the grass in open air, inside your cars, or tailgate style in the beds of trucks, hatchbacks, etc. If you plan to sit in the grass, please bring a blanket or camping chair. There will be a square area roped off just for folks who plan to sit on camping chairs or picnic blankets instead of remaining at their cars.
Where should we park? You can park anywhere in the main parking lot or in the grass except for the roped off area mentioned above. If you plan to picnic it inside the roped off square closest to the porch, please park farther away in order to leave the parking spots closest to the square available for ‘tailgaters’ and folks who will be remaining in automobiles.
Will we be able to hear if we’re tailgating or sitting in our cars? Yep! We have a gadget that will send audio to car radios. Tune in to 89.3FM. We’ve roped off a square close to the porch for folks to sit picnic-style so that they’re close enough to hear.
Do we need to bring anything? To minimize risk, we won’t be handing out physical bulletins or prayer books. You’ll need either a device where you can pull up the bulletin from the weekly newsletter or a Book of Common Prayer and a bible. I’ll be preaching on Romans 12:9-21. This outdoor service will be a bit shorter than our 10am Live Stream but will follow a similar rhythm. You may also bring camping chairs, picnic blankets, etc.
What if it rains? If it’s thundering and lightening, stay home. If it’s just drizzling, or ‘might rain,’ we’ll likely go ahead and keep the AV equipment under the porch and use the FM station. Pay attention to text messages for any weather updates. (If you don’t get text reminders and updates, text STLIZ to 71441. Usually only two or three texts per week.)
What are the special pandemic rules? The two big ones are social distancing and masks. Social distancing means that, other than the folks in our own households, we will not be closer than 6’ to each other at any point. (To our huggers, I know this will be a struggle, but I believe in you!) If you remain in your own car throughout and are listening to the radio, then you don’t need a mask. For everyone else—picnic style folks, tailgate style folks, folks parked close with all the car windows down—masks are required.
How many people will be there? I have no idea!
What if I really want to come, but even being outside I’m still nervous about being around so many folks? You are welcome to come and remain in your car. You’re also welcome to come and park on a different, farther away part of our property and tune in via radio from there. And finally, we will still Live Stream at 10am!
Anything else? If you’ve got Sunshine Mail letters you haven’t brought to the church yet, you can do so! Also, while we won’t pass an offering basket, one will be available for offerings.
Today I want to answer some questions about Youth Confirmation, worship, Godly Play, and adult formation. Most of this will also go out in a print letter this week, with a handy and concise ‘refrigerator friendly’ calendar card. We will also send out reminders via Facebook, text, etc. as we usually do for events of various kinds.
Youth Confirmation: For a variety of reasons, we will not have youth confirmation this fall. Needless to say, this is a big disappointment. While we have several families ready for confirmation, many of them affirmed that an online format just loses a lot, particularly when so much of everything else is already happening online. Plus, we were scheduled to have a visiting bishop this year (not Bp Reed), and our visit was scheduled fairly early, too (October). Given the pandemic, and that the Diocese was unable to hire an assisting bishop as planned, it seems to me to be a good ‘team player’ move for us to wait. I am happy to talk more about this with anyone who would like further conversation.
Worship: Our primary worship service will continue to be live streamed on Sunday morning at 10am. In addition to our live stream service, we will hold outdoor, in-person worship on the Sundays of August 30 and September 20. To avoid the heat, these will be ‘not-quite-sunrise’ services at 7:30am. We plan to broadcast via radio into cars, but you are welcome to bring a blanket or camping chairs to sit in the open air. Masks and social distancing are required at all times. Outdoor, in-person worship on these two Sundays will include prayer, readings, and a sermon, but not communion. If these go well, we will continue outdoor, in-person services through the fall. Once it cools off, hopefully we will not have to gather quite so early. I am grateful to your Bishop’s Committee for their support, questions, vision, and wisdom in discerning with me this small but significant ‘next step.’
Godly Play: Godly Play will begin on Sunday, September 13th and will meet every other week through November. Godly Play will gather via Zoom at 9am on Sundays, lasting roughly 30 minutes. The Zoom platform (as opposed to prerecorded YouTube videos) allows kids to experience the Story together rather than individually. Parents are encouraged to participate.
Godly Play will begin on an every other week schedule for two main reasons. First, we’re all learning new ways of being Church right now, and it’s important to me that St. Liz only make commitments we are confident we can uphold. An online, biweekly schedule is manageable. Second, we’re maximizing flexibility. Much still remains unknown about the fall, and an every other week schedule gives us additional space to change directions and adapt programming as needed. Plus, if it goes well, we can easily shift to an every week schedule.
Godly Play Sundays for the fall are 9/13, 9/27, 10/11, 10/25, 11/8, and 11/22.
Adult Formation: This summer we began a midweek bible study on Romans, meeting Wednesdays at 7pm via Zoom. When we finish Romans, I (and possibly others) will continue to lead at least one midweek adult formation group/class throughout the fall. Topic is TBD, but I hope to invite the whole congregation into a study of some kind. To keep everyone safe and to prevent hosts and participants from feeling pressured into awkward situations, St. Liz’s normal Life Group calendar is suspended for the fall. Having said that, if you want to invite your neighbors over to your porch to pray or talk about God, well, that’s your business J
Baptisms, etc.: Bishop Reed has given congregations permission to handle baptisms, funerals, and other unique pastoral occasions on an as-needed basis. While we cannot celebrate baptisms as fully as we normally would, I am happy to schedule them in smaller groups outside of a Sunday morning.
St Liz is beginning a special outreach to the residents of Buda’s two Assisted Living facilities, Sodalis and Buda Oaks. We hope to gift them a break from isolation and loneliness with Sunshine Mail. Making a true difference can be simple, yet so impactful. At this time there are 65 residents, so we need lots and lots of letters! There will be a mailbox on the porch at church where it will be easy for you to drop them off. Our deadline is Grandparent’s Day: Sunday September 13. New deadline: 12/6
How it works:
Handwrite a letter. No typing. Make it legible with large writing.
Introduce yourself. Maybe tell a story about yourself. Tell what you are doing now. Maybe tell a riddle or a joke.
Express that they are loved. That they are important. Give them a unique message that comes from your heart. Make them feel special. Tell them something that will make them happy.
Avoid writing dates in case there is a delay in getting the mail there.
Avoid religious comments so it will be appropriate for all recipients.
Sign your first name only with no address. This is a one-way conversation.
Put it in an envelope addressed to “Dear Friend”, “For a special person”, “A happy day to you”, “Sunshine Mail”, or the like.
Use bright colors
Draw a picture or use stickers
Use your own personal touches
Let your inner child or preteen out to decorate the letter and envelope
Make it personal, detailed, thoughtful, and heartfelt
We are storied and storytelling creatures. When we get to know somebody, we learn their story: how did they come to be here, now, this particular person standing before us? How they tell their story is fundamental to who they are. Is the main character of this story a hero, a victim, a survivor, a romantic, a wise fool?
There’s an important distinction at work here: a biographical account is not the same thing as a story. To get to know a person, we want story, not biography (though to be fair to biographers, this distinction is simplistic). The person standing before me has a past, but her identity is not the inevitable conclusion of her past events and relationships. Instead, who she is here and now—her identity, the person with whom I’m having a conversation—is the story she tells about that past.
When I narrate the story of my life, I leave things out, emphasize other things, and take a particular perspective. All of this is part of who I am. My story is not objective; nor is it morally neutral. I should not expect it to be. I exhibit a certain character, certain foibles and pleasures and capacities and biases. My story is not simply a collection of historical facts. A collection of facts is incapable of real change; it can only add more facts. But someone living a story can change, love, repent, share the same memories in a new way.
This is fundamental to the Christian life: when we experience God’s forgiveness, for example, it is not simply that a new event is added to the others, but that our fundamental understanding of our entire past changes. The story changes from, “Oh my God, what have I done?” to maybe something like, “If I had never made such a bad mistake, I never would’ve found God.”
What is true of individuals is no less true of communities. To get to know a community, we do not simply need to learn a series of events, but how the community narrates that series of events. What details are included or excluded? Which perspective does the story come from? Who are the community’s heroes, and why are they remembered as such?
The same distinction between biography and story is at work here. For a community, we might better use words like history and public memory. Just as getting to know an individual means hearing her story and not simply learning a biographical account, getting to know a community means not simply learning the historical events behind a place, but understanding its public memory of itself. To belong to that community means embracing that public memory as our own: belonging means being able to say to some extent, “the story of this place is also my story.”
Ancient Rome was masterful at controlling public memory, particularly in the imperial capital. One way Rome told its story, its ‘public memory’ of itself, was through architecture and sculpture, especially statues. As noted a couple weeks ago, a major example was the forum built by Caesar Augustus a couple generations before Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. Caesar Augustus built his forum to commemorate his rule, the ‘Roman Peace’ (or Pax Romana), and Rome’s hegemony in the known world.
The forum of Augustus included two significant pieces of public memory: a temple to Mars and a series of statues of Caesar Augustus and his ancestors. Mars was the Roman god of war, and by including a temple to Mars in the forum, Caesar Augustus called attention not only to the importance of war for Rome’s identity and power, but to the divine favor (of Mars) that must be perpetuating Rome’s power. “We are who we are because of war, and because of Mars’ divine favor.”
The statues of Caesar Augustus and his ancestors are even more telling. In the forum of Augustus, there was a big statue of him wearing armor and looking powerfully serene. Nearby was a line of statues depicting Caesar’s ancestors going all the way back to a mythical figure named Aeneas. Aeneas was Rome’s legendary founding father. Oh, and by the way, Aeneas’ mom was also a goddess: Venus, who had a statue near Caesar’s. For Rome, Aeneas was sort of like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and every pilgrim aboard the Mayflower all rolled up into one.
We might articulate Rome’s public memory like this: “Rome is divinely favored to rule and conquer. We know that because our founder Aeneas was the son of a god, and Caesar is his descendant. In accepting Caesar’s lordship, you are accepting divine favor and praising the gods! Because Rome is divinely favored, as our empire spreads, so does justice.” The key intermediary figures between the gods and the citizens of Rome in Paul’s day are Aeneas and Caesar.
As you can imagine, the statues depicting these figures were strong, noble, and grand. There are surely other characteristics of Caesar, but these were not foregrounded. Just as anyone telling a story tells that story selectively, the statue of Caesar Augustus tells the story of Rome selectively: there is strength, nobility, and greatness, but the arrogance and autocratic violence are left out, regardless of whether those would also be historical. Again, a public statue like Caesar’s is about public memory, not history.
If you are a Jew living in Rome, or a slave captured in one of Rome’s many wars and forced into servitude in the imperial capital, then this public memory is not your memory: you see the grand nobility of the statue, but your people’s memory is of Caesar’s blasphemy, idolatry, and violence. Rome’s story is not your story; there’s no room for you in it. In Rome’s story, Caesar’s victories are divinely ordained and bring about justice. In the story of Judeans like you, however, Caesar’s victories are oppression and bring suffering. Aeneas is not your legendary ancestor, nor is Caesar your triumphant lord. All those statues and temples in the forum of Augustus offer a public memory that actively excludes you and that you cannot embrace.
You are an alien in the very city in which you sleep and eat and raise your children.
Paul offers the Roman believers an alternative. He offers a new kind of community identity in the form of a different ‘public memory,’ one without the hierarchies created and enforced by Roman swords and coinage. In this new story, this new public memory, the legendary ancestor is not Aeneas, but Abraham, and the triumphant Lord is not Caesar but Jesus Christ. In this triumphant Lord Jesus, all people of faith are made Abraham’s descendants, not through the false justice of the Roman sword but through the justice of faithful obedience in Christ. The key intermediary figures between God and the Roman Christians are Abraham and Jesus.
For us, looking back on the public memory practices of Rome as compared to the approach of Paul in Romans is, morally speaking, pretty straightforward: Roman Empire is bad, Church is good! But the fact that Rome erected statues as a way of communicating public memory is better described as morally neutral. We all need a sense of belonging to something bigger and more longstanding than we are, a kind of anchor in history that exceeds our own lives. We want to be able to say, “The story of this people and this place is also my story.” There’s no reason a statue or monument can’t be the focal point of this public belonging.
The sense of belonging is key. When a community erects a statue or monument, we are not concerning ourselves primarily with historical facts because facts do not create belonging; the shared experience of human hearts creates belonging. Thus, in erecting monuments to figures or events of the past, we are celebrating, mourning, or maybe repenting. We are saying, “Who we are is a people who celebrates/mourns/repents of this part of our past.” Again, we are telling a story.
Thus, figures we celebrate are usually portrayed with nobility. Generals on horseback, imposing judges in robes, the grand strength of Caesar Augustus flanked by the gods. Figures we mourn may also be depicted that way—they recall a bygone era we still aspire to, for example. When the story is one of anguish or of repentance, like many Civil Rights monuments in Alabama are, for example, monuments can be disturbing to see. Why? Because we’re not supposed to want this; we are reminded of cruelty we should reject and want to reject. Who we are today is a people who are no longer that.
In the midst of our current controversies over Confederate monuments, what can we learn from this? First, the distinction between history and public memory allows for communities to change in regards to how they understand themselves and their past. Individual persons change through time, and as we change, the story we tell about ourselves also changes. This is reflected in the pictures on our desks and the posters on our walls: we don’t value the same things in the same way for our whole lives. Likewise, a community must be allowed to change, and we should allow the monuments and statues in its parks and public squares to change, too. To cast this in a theological light: Pilate’s soldiers, traditionally minded Israelites, and Paul’s churches in the Mediterranean world would all agree on the history that ‘Jesus was crucified.’ But their public memory would vary widely: only one of those groups would erect a stone cross commemorating Jesus.
Second, as we saw with the example of Caesar Augustus’s statue in the forum, a community’s public memory can be so one-sided that it alienates many of the very folks who live there. Rome’s public memory of divinely favored victory and justice is, to the Jewish slaves and their descendants, a perpetual reminder of suffering and oppression. Jewish folks living in Rome were not just seeing a statue of an oppressor; they were seeing their oppressor celebrated, as evidenced by the statue’s nobility and close physical proximity to Rome’s religious architecture. Likewise, when our cities display monuments to Confederate leaders portrayed nobly and prominently in town squares and parks, we have to ask if we are publicly celebrating or mourning our neighbor’s oppressor.
A word of caution is necessary here, particularly in an environment as divided as ours. None of us belongs to only one community: none of us is only black or only white, only Texan or only American. We belong to different groups simultaneously. For Christians, we are always residents of a particular city, state and country, and are also members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Because of this complexity, movements seeking to reshape public memory cannot presume uncritically or unilaterally to apply the same principles in the same way everywhere. What is life-giving in one community is not necessarily so in another. Without this caution, any movement, however virtuous in its genesis and stated values, risks becoming an ideological empire of its own. For example, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez recently suggested that a statue of St. Damien of Molokai in the U.S. Capitol might be better replaced by a statue of a native Hawaiian. This is certainly possible, and there are worthy principles that might give rise to such a suggestion. However, surely the public memory of native Hawaiians is theirs to tell. If native Hawaiians choose to embrace a Roman Catholic saint who dedicated his life to caring for lepers, we can hardly blame them.
Finally, and most important, if we take our cue from Paul, then the figures we hold up as focal points for our public memory should be ones whose significance increases belonging. Paul’s choice of Abraham is not accidental. Remember, one of the pastoral issues Paul is addressing in his letter to the Romans is conflict between Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. In choosing Abraham as the storied ancestor, Paul chooses a figure of fundamental importance to Israelites: the patriarch by whom God begins to set apart a people for Himself. The Israelites believed God’s call to Abraham was a call for the patriarch to leave Gentile idolatry behind. Abraham would also therefore resonate as a storied ancestor for Gentiles joining the Church, believers who would be quite literally leaving idolatry behind. Furthermore, in Abraham, Paul chooses a figure whose life predates the giving of the Law, the keeping of which was a point of contention for Christians in Rome.
We see, then, how Paul creates a sense of belonging for the whole Roman church by resituating their diverse experiences into a shared public memory focused on Abraham. The ancestral Abraham anchors the Roman believers in a shared past, thereby providing a foundation on which they can constructed a shared present. Through Abraham, their histories are retold as a shared story. Thus, the diverse believers of the Roman church are better able understand themselves as one people.
As communities cross our country continue to raise monuments and to tear others down, we could do worse than follow Paul’s example as we discern whom and what to celebrate, mourn, and repent of.
Last week, our Sunday lectionary gave us the powerful concluding verses of Romans 8. A major theme of that passage is Paul’s unshakeable confidence and our own security in the love of God in Jesus Christ. One of the ways Paul communicates this theme is by using the language of predestination. Paul writes, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Romans 8:29). Paul’s pastoral goal with the predestined talk in Romans 8 is to affirm for the Roman church God’s sovereignty over the world on behalf of the followers of Jesus. But the theological ‘how’ of God’s predestining things is far from clear. Moreover, for us today, that word predestined can come with a lot of baggage. I want to unpack some of it for us today.
Nowadays, when Christians talk about predestination, we are usually talking about whether it is predestined by God that someone goes to heaven or hell. If it is predestined by God whether someone goes to heaven or hell, is that predestination essentially random, or is it the continuation and result of how we lived our lives on earth? And if that predestination is the continuation and result of how we lived our lives on earth—heavenly reward for the righteous and infernal condemnation for the wicked—wouldn’t it follow that whether we lived our lives on earth righteously or wickedly was also predestined?
All that baggage in that one little word! But it’s important baggage. If God has predestined some folks to be conformed to the image of Jesus, as Paul says, then what are we to make of free will? If predestination is how things go, then is free will a myth? Are my choices real choices or not? If God is all knowing, then God knows the future. And if God knows the future, then God already knows my choices before I make them, right? But if my choices are known before I make them, well, are they really choices?
There are three ideas that can help us make sense of this. The first is philosophical and has to do with God’s transcendence in regards to time. The second is historical and has to do with proclaiming God’s sovereignty in Paul’s particular context. The third is about relationships and has to do with how we only really know what we love.
First, the philosophical. As we’ve noted, the basic tension here is between our belief in an all-knowing God and our own experience of free will: if God knows the future, are my choices really free? Some of this tension dissolves, however, if we keep in mind that God is not bound by time in the way that we are. To predestine something is to determine beforehand that it will happen later. When I light the fuse on the bottle rocket, say, I am predestining a tiny explosion in the sky a few seconds later. There’s a sequence of events: I do X now and make Y happen later. When we talk about predestination, we usually imagine God doing something similar: God decrees X (either now or before the world began), and sure enough, Y happens later.
In this view, we’re imagining a God who sets the world going, and then watches it as a predetermined series of events unfolds in sequence. And because God is the one who lit the world’s fuse, so to speak, God knows ahead of time who is going to heaven and who is going to hell and all the rest.
But notice what we’ve done: we’ve assumed that God lives in a sequence of before and after, now and later just like we do; we’ve forgotten that God transcends categories like before and after. Maybe one of the ways God is present to history is analogous to the way you or I might look at a mural on a wall, everything all at once. Maybe God sees my lighting the fuse and the bottle rocket exploding, not one event after the other, but ‘next to’ each other, like panels on a mural.
When we talk about predestination, maybe we’re not talking about a God who decrees ahead of time the inevitable result of our lives but are simply affirming that God is not bound to time as a sequence of events. Perhaps Paul is simply affirming God’s sovereignty: it is God’s prerogative to view my whole life as something like a mural rather than the unfolding of a play. In this light, perhaps our language about free will is a way of saying that I have real agency in painting the mural God sees: time is one of the colors we humans use to paint. In short, a philosophical idea that might help us make sense of this predestination language is that it’s only problematic if we imagine that time, with its categories of before and after, is bigger than God and not the other way around.
The second idea that might help us make sense of this predestination stuff is historical. Simply put, at our point in history, we take certain things for granted that Paul couldn’t take for granted.
Here’s an example of what I mean: in our own day in the United States, the overwhelming number of people who believe in God believe in the God of Abraham. Jews believe in the God of Abraham; Christians believe in the God of Abraham; Muslims believe in the God of Abraham. Now there are lots of things those three great religions disagree about, but we all believe that there is only one God, and that this God is God of all the earth. The American imagination from the beginning has been fundamentally monotheistic. We take monotheism for granted; Paul’s contemporaries don’t.
In ancient Rome, there are lots of gods on offer. And moreover, even folks who were devoted to only one god still believed that other gods existed. The Roman Empire knew this: when they conquered a territory, they usually let that region keep worshipping whatever gods they had and simply insisted that they now also participate in the worship cult of Rome focused on the emperor. What this communicated was, “Your gods are real, sure, but they are not as powerful as the gods of Rome and we know that because we beat you in battle.”
So, if you’re going to be a monotheistic Israelite in the ancient world, you are not going to say that the Jewish people are suffering because God lost a fight with some invading empire’s gods, and you’re not going to say that God has broken his side of the Covenant. Instead, you’re going to say things that make us 21st century Episcopalians squirm, things like the prophet Jeremiah says: God is punishing his people for idolatry, etc. If you’re going to be a monotheist surrounded by pagan polytheism and henotheism, maintaining your own God’s sovereignty meant sometimes affirming that your own misfortune was the will of the One True God. It makes us squirm because it makes God sound bloodthirsty and mean. But if we did not take monotheism for granted, we might also hear an affirmation of our core belief: only our God is God; the Romans (or Assyrians or Babylonians or Persians or Medes) are wrong.
For Paul, however, there’s an added layer. Because his historical context does not take monotheism for granted, not only does he have to continue affirming the sovereignty of the God of Abraham and this God’s utter faithfulness to his covenant with the Israelites, but he also has to show that this Jesus is guy is intimately connected to the God of Abraham they’ve believed in all along. He has to guard against folks thinking that Jesus is a new god, or that God has been divided, or that this Jesus guy somehow represents the God of Abraham ‘changing His mind’ about things. Paul can’t take for granted that everyone is a monotheist, and Paul can’t take for granted that everyone will see Jesus as a fulfillment God’s eternal purpose.
We contemporary Christians usually take all this for granted. But Paul can’t, and one of the ways he resolves the tension is by using the language of predestination: God predestined the coming of Jesus and that some would be conformed to the image of Jesus, His Son. The same God who called Abraham is at work in Jesus, Paul says, and the division we’re seeing within Israel—about whether Jesus is the Messiah, about the inclusion of the Gentiles—all of this is part of God’s predestined purpose. In short, a historical idea that might help us make sense of this predestination talk is that we take for granted some of the values and truths Paul is trying to push in this portion of Romans. It is possible that Paul’s predestination language is answering different questions than the ones we usually ask.
Finally, the relational idea. This one is the simplest. In Romans 8:29, God’s predestining of some persons to be conformed to the image of His Son is connected to God’s foreknowledge of those same persons. When we have a long and intimate relationship with someone, whether a best friend or a family member, we gain deep knowledge about them. Sometimes, this knowledge is so deep and intuitive that we can tell ahead of time what they’re going to do or say or feel in a certain situation.
Here is an example: when Lucy and I used to go to the rock climbing gym together, Lucy knew ahead of time that I was going to put my climbing shoes on fast and start stretching pretty quickly, that I would want to climb for longer than she most likely would, and that if we had time, I’d want to grab a beer afterwards at the brewery down the sidewalk. Lucy knows all that the moment we show up at the climbing gym, but her knowledge that it will happen does not cause it to happen. Rather, because she has intimate foreknowledge of who I am and what I am like at the climbing gym, it is ‘predestined’ in her mind how I am going to behave.
We have a key insight here: we only really know what we love. The predestination of the afternoon’s events in Lucy’s mind are the result of her foreknowledge of me, and her foreknowledge is the fruit of her love. How much more intimate must be God’s foreknowledge of us, His daughters and sons adopted by the Holy Spirit? In short, a relational idea that can help us make sense of predestination is that God knows us so intimately that God knows the decisions we are going to make before we ourselves have even chosen them. We are predestined by God not because God causes us to choose this or that life, but because God has loved us into being, and therefore his foreknowledge of our pilgrimage is entire. If it is true that real knowledge is the fruit of love, how could a Love as deep as God’s not know what you, His beloved, will say, do, or feel at any given moment, even though you are still entirely free to choose it or not?
Thank you for reading.
 Henotheism is adherence or devotion to one god above, or against, many other gods. This is in contrast to monotheism, which is better characterized as a belief that one’s religious devotion belongs only to one divinity because only that divinity exists. Polytheism could be characterized as a belief in, and at least potential devotion to, numerous gods.
This week, I’m taking a break from our Romans series to attend to some business.
First, thank y’all for your patience with Sunday morning worship. We’re still learning the ins and outs of live streaming and plan to continue with this method for the foreseeable future. We’ve got a couple ideas for improving sound and lighting quality, and hopefully we’ll be in a position to try some of those this week. My intention is to continue live streaming for folks at home even after we’ve begun reopening for in-person worship.
Second, I continue to work mostly from home. Lucy is, as well. The reasons for this are the same as they have been: health and safety, both ours and yours. Now that Lucy and I are both in parish ministry, we’ve realized that any exposure risk one of us encounters also impacts the other’s ability to attend to in-person pastoral or administrative matters at their church. From a pandemic perspective, two church communities intersect in the Strandlund house. Working from home minimizes our exposure risk, and helps keep us able to attend to critical ministries like Sunday worship, acute pastoral concerns, and the like without our presence posing an undue risk to our church members.
Having said that, I have scheduled in person pastoral meetings on the church front porch. There’s open air, wind, and space enough to distance ourselves easily. It’s also shaded and in the morning is not too hot. So, as a reminder, while I am not doing casual home visits or meeting for lunch as I normally would, if you need to sit down together, that can still happen and please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Finally, a financial update. The short version is that St. Liz is not where we’d hoped to be, but all things considered, we’re doing okay. There are three primary reasons for this: first and most important, y’all continue to be generous. This spring we had several folks move their financial giving to our Clover online app. In a recent conversation with Canon Caroline Mowen at the diocese, she said our embrace of online giving was wonderful: “I wish I could pack y’all up and take you everywhere in the diocese!” If you’re not yet giving online and would like to, there are instructions for “Give via text” at the bottom of this newsletter. You can give online at our website. Just scroll down for the “Give Online” button.
The second reason is that the Diocese has offered relief on congregational apportionments. (Just as each household pledges to St. Liz, so too does each congregation in the diocese give an apportionment to the diocese. The amount is based on the size and financial status of each congregation.) In April, the diocese forgave all apportionment payments across the board. This summer, they have offered further apportionment forgiveness based on congregational need. The Bishop’s Committee finance and admin team applied for and received apportionment forgiveness for May and June. If needed, we have the opportunity to apply for July and August, as well.
Third, as of this month Lucy is working fulltime at St. John’s in New Braunfels. Thus, St. Liz is now responsible for only one half of the clergy health insurance costs we had been paying. Needless to say, this is a timely easing of our congregation’s monthly expenses.
Again, all that is to say that we’re doing okay, though we’re not in the position we’d like to be in. In April, the Bishop’s Committee voted unanimously to continue paying all our staff at regular rates, regardless of whether the pandemic has prevented them from doing work they would normally do. This is a small but significant way St. Liz has remained generous during what is for many a financially unsettling time. I was and continue to be a strong supporter of this practice. For the reasons listed above, it continues to be possible.
We have experienced a financial drop, however. This is partly due to the realities of individual households dealing with slimmer bank accounts during the pandemic. Thus, on the one hand, some of this financial drop is faithful and right: spiritual disciplines like giving must adapt to the reality in which we live. God does not want you giving to your church if it means jeopardizing groceries or the mortgage; a decrease in giving can therefore simply be a faithful response to unexpected change. On the other hand, however, many of us whose financial realities have remained unchanged through the pandemic have simply not made the necessary adjustment to online giving or to mailing in a check. If that’s you, please remember that spiritual disciplines like giving must adapt to the reality in which we live.
We’ll get through this, but getting through this means precisely that we must be willing to be in it for a while. Being in it means adapting accordingly. We’ve all adapted in numerous ways already. Let your giving be one of them. It’s just part of what faithfulness looks like right now.
Romans is arguably the most influential letter ever written and, rightly or wrongly, possibly the single most influential book in the New Testament. For example, the great reformer Martin Luther had this to say of Romans: “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel.” Luther’s assertion provokes a fundamental question for Christians: are some parts of scripture more important than others? With some mischief, we might rephrase that question: is there a bible within the bible? Today I want to consider three possible answers: No, Strong Yes, and Gentle Yes.
Before getting to our answers, however, let’s take another look at our question. What do I mean by a asking, ‘is there a bible within the bible?’ In simplest terms, I am asking whether it is possible to take the whole, giant book of the Christian Bible and make it smaller without losing anything essential. As I will show below, it is not easy to say No, but neither is it a simple thing to say Yes. If we answer yes, we also run into the question of how one might distill the bible to its core message, though this question will not be our primary concern here.
So: is there a bible within the bible?
I will say up front that I want very badly to say No. Picking and choosing verses, over-emphasizing certain themes, ignoring particular passages and figures—all of this has done far too much damage. We human beings are diverse in our experiences, and we need at least the whole of scripture to be our common language. The problem, however, is a practical one: if we say No, then let’s face it, we’re probably lying.
The reality is that we do value some portions of scripture over others, and we use the pieces that seem to us most important to interpret the others. To put it bluntly: does any of us actually think 2 Chronicles is as important as the Gospel of Luke? Do we really spend as much time reading the real estate bits of the book of Joshua as we do poring over the love passage of 1 Corinthians? Even more to the point: if you had a non-believing friend who asked you for something to read that would help them get to know God, something that would really help them get the gist of Christianity, would you hand them Revelation, or would you reach for John’s Gospel?
If it’s true that each of us in practice prioritizes some parts of the bible over others, maybe it’s worth considering whether there really is a bible within the bible. This is certainly Martin Luther’s position, which we might call a Strong Yes. For him, Romans (Romans 3 in particular) was “purest Gospel” and “truly the most important piece in the New Testament.” But how do we choose which ones are the most important?
Let’s see how Luther arrives at Romans. One of Luther’s big takeaways from Romans is the primacy of faith over works. The theme of faith over works is an important one for Christians because it’s a way of always privileging the action and initiative of God over our own action and initiative. A big concern for Luther was that the Church of his day had too much authority; it seemed to Luther (and others) that the Church was claiming for itself power that only belonged properly to God. Because this is of paramount importance for Luther, the theology of privileging faith over works is also paramount. Finally, because in Romans Luther finds so much good stuff on faith over works, he arrives at his Strong Yes: Romans is the “purest Gospel.”
A full treatment of all this is far beyond this little newsletter. I raise this example because Luther’s Strong Yes raises a major problem of identifying a bible within the bible. In short, if there’s a bible within the bible, what do we do with the rest of scripture once we’ve found it?
This is where Luther goes wrong: Luther explicitly demotes texts that seem to him not to jive with his reading of Romans. When Luther translates the New Testament into his own vernacular language—a feat which all of us non-Latin readers should celebrate!—he writes an introduction to go with it. In his introduction, Luther brackets out four books of the New Testament that seem to him to be contradictory to the ‘purest Gospel’ of a letter like Romans. Thus, when Luther lists the books of the New Testament, James, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation are listed separately and are not numbered with the other twenty-three books. It is also worth noting that Luther explicitly describes John’s Gospel as far above Matthew, Mark and Luke because, in Luther’s mind, John gives so much more attention to Jesus’ words (i.e. preaching of faith) than to his works.
We might forgive Luther’s extremes given his context and that, in practice, everyone who reads the bible has a ‘bible within the bible’ in some way. I spend so much time on Luther’s example for two reasons. First, Luther’s Strong Yes still impacts us to a huge degree. For example, I run into folks regularly who do not think twice about reading the whole of the New Testament through the lens of ‘faith vs. works’ as Luther saw in Romans. But we miss a lot if we try to cram the Gospel of Jesus Christ into these two categories. This is particularly true when many of the core themes of Romans—sin and justification, for example—just aren’t that important in other letters written by Paul himself.
Second, Luther’s reading of Romans is not the only way of approaching Romans, let alone the whole of the New Testament. Our own Wednesday bible study is deliberately trying to be looser and more attentive to Paul’s context, but without trying to arrive too confidently at an alternative reading. This is difficult to do, not only because of the long history of Christians like Luther who have interpreted Romans for us in the past, whose voices still ring in our ears, but because Romans is just hard. When we meet something that is as complex as Romans is, we begin grasping for ways to simplify it that we might hold on to it better. Resisting this temptation is itself a kind of work, but it’s also one of the ways the Spirit gets in.
As noted, the problem with Luther’s Strong Yes is that it involved demoting, or even trying to remove from the field of inquiry entirely, other scriptural books that might call his bible within the bible into question: Hebrews, Jude, Revelation and, most of all, James don’t obviously chime with Luther’s core theme. But what if we try a Gentle Yes? What if there might be a bible within the bible, but it’s not so much about finding the most important book amongst all of them so much as it is about distilling a summary of the whole.
We’re on surer footing here. We’re also in good and ancient company. For example, there were 613 commandments in the Law, the Torah of the Israelites, and the rabbis debated and discussed how best to fulfill all of them. One of the most common, and most successful, tactics was to offer a summary. For example, a rabbi named Hillel, who would’ve been an old man when Jesus was a young boy, said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and do this.”
Another example in the same spirit might be the prophet Micah’s famous words: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8). Jesus himself, in good rabbinical fashion, when asked about the greatest commandment, replied with a combination of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 for his summary:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39)
Paul may have something like a summary in mind when he writes about the Law in the early chapters of Romans. Paul has this to say:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles [non-Jews], who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. (2:13-14)
There’s a tension here. It is clear that the Law is important, but it’s also clear that there is some kind of core purpose to the Law that not everybody understands. Some people only hear it, but some people do it. Moreover, because Gentiles who don’t even have the Law are sometimes able to do what the Law requires anyway, it seems that this core purpose of the Law is deeper even than the text itself! In other words, it at least sounds like Paul is saying there’s a bible within the bible, an essential spirit of the scriptures that can be distilled or summarized without losing anything necessary.
So, is there a bible within the bible? For my own part, I am just not sure. I am certainly not a Strong Yes. I do not have Luther’s confidence that I could identify the specific texts or books that are to be the rule against which I judge the rest, and to take the further step of trying to isolate our chosen core themes at the expense of potentially contradictory texts seems to me to be squarely out of bounds.
As noted above, I want to say No, but if I am honest, the actual practices of my life suggest I’m a Gentle Yes. To discern a ‘bible within the bible’ is almost natural in any process of learning. Plus, the examples of Micah, Rabbi Hillel, Paul, and Jesus himself suggest that a distilled summary of scripture is both possible and to be desired.
But even a Gentle Yes must come with a strong word of caution. For people of faith to identify a summary, core theme or key text as a ‘bible within the bible,’ for either dogmatic or practical reasons, is not the same thing as saying God deliberately placed it there for us to find. Therefore, whatever ‘bible within the bible’ we identify, we cannot cling to it too tightly, but must instead hold it gently.
Finally, if it is true that a certain degree of adopting a ‘bible within the bible’ is inevitable, perhaps we can take our cue from the summary examples noted above. Pauls’ emphasis on doing the Law; Rabbi Hillel’s final “Go and do this;” Micah’s do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God; Jesus’ own emphasis on loving God and neighbor—each of these is simple, expansive and active. As bible-reading people, we could do worse than to test our own scriptural learning with these questions: is this simple? Is this expansive? Is this active? We need all three. Simple as daily bread, expansive enough for the whole human community, and active in the little particulars of our actual days and weeks.
 Of the 23 books of the NT he takes no issue with, he says, “Thus far we have had the right knowledge of the books of the New Testament, but these next four have a different look to them.” He highlights places where Hebrews seems to disagree with the Gospels and St. Paul. Luther goes so far as to call the letter of James an “epistle of straw.”
 These examples do not seem to me quite clinching entirely simply because for each of these figures, “the bible” was at most the Old Testament in its entirety, and none of them had a bible that included the New Testament. Thus, our own position as bible readers has significant differences.
Last week I wrote about the people behind the letter to the Romans: the Apostle Paul and the community of Christians in Rome to whom he is writing. This week, our focus is on the other main ingredient in this letter: words.
These two ingredients are related. When we study a New Testament letter, we are ‘overhearing’ one side of a conversation. To a large extent, the people having that conversation determine the meaning of the words they use. For example, if I overhear someone say the word port in conversation, it matters a great deal whether that conversation is between sailors on a ship, sommeliers at a wine tasting, or owners of rival shipping companies arguing on a pier. A word like port can mean different things depending on the tongues that speak it and the ears that hear it.
I bring this up because for us 21st century Christians in the United States, words like slave, gospel, righteousness, wickedness, faith, son, and atonement mean and conjure certain things. But if we overhear those words being used by a group of 1st century Christians like Paul and the Roman church to whom he’s writing, those words may change: their meanings get thicker, thinner, or even a bit slippery compared to how we normally use them. I’m going to go through these words one at a time and offer a little bit of nuance as to what they mean in Paul’s day as compared to what they tend to mean in a church like ours in 21st century America. Hopefully, this will help make Romans strange to us again so that we can hear God speaking to us through it with newer ears.
Slave: If you’re using the NRSV bible translation, then lots of times in Romans you will see the word “servant.” Usually, when you see the word “servant” in Romans, you should read it as slave. As we saw last week, there are likely slaves who are hearing Paul’s letter read aloud. Paul, a free Roman citizen, opens his letter by referring to himself as the slave of Jesus Christ. In Rome, slaves were considered to belong to their master’s household. Unlike slavery in American history, slavery in Rome was not racialized. A slave could be a Jew, a Greek, or something else entirely. Often slaves in Rome were ‘war prizes’ Rome brought back as captives from one of its many wars and battles. Slaves belonged to their master’s household and were effectively severed entirely from their own families. While slaves could exercise a degree of power and influence—a slave could be a steward in charge of a vast household with lots of resources, for example—slaves nonetheless had to obey their master’s. If a master was violent, lustful, greedy, etc. (as was frequently the case), then the slaves in that household likely suffered constantly.
Gospel: When you see this word, you might read it as “good news of the victory.” The word literally means, “good news.” The Greek form of this gives us our word, evangelism. For us 21st century Christians, the phrase “good news” automatically conjures in our minds the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we are evangelizing someone, we are telling them this good news about Jesus. But in Rome, good news was proclaimed whenever Caesar (or another general) returned victorious from a battle or war. The good news of the general’s victory would spread and folks would celebrate Rome’s greatness. So when Paul uses the phrase “the gospel of God…the gospel concerning his Son,” we might read it as something like, “the good news of the victory of God…the good news of the victory of his Son.” Just as a Roman general might go out to conquer in the name of the emperor, Rome and its gods, and then return victorious to the imperial capital, Jesus ‘goes out’ into sin and death and returns victorious over the death and hell by the power of God—and the victorious Jesus brings with Him his ‘war prizes’: slaves to the Lord Jesus Christ, slaves like the apostle Paul.
Righteousness: When you see “righteousness,” try reading it as justice. The reason for this is that nowadays “righteousness” is a word we use almost exclusively in a religious context, and we use this word primarily to talk about our relationship to God. For Paul and his interlocutors, however, there isn’t a clear divide between religious contexts and non-religious contexts. This word we see as “righteousness” therefore has both a ‘vertical’ reference to God and a ‘horizontal’ reference to human communities like cities, empires, and religious assemblies. ‘Righteousness’ for Paul is what happens when God puts the world back together as it should be; it has a civic connotation as well as a religious one. Therefore, justice works better for us because in our ears justice makes sense both at church and in the wider world of economics, the legal system, politics, etc. The NRSV sometimes translates it this way for us, too.
Wickedness: When you see “wickedness,” try reading it as injustice. In Greek, this word is literally just the negated form of the noun the NRSV translates as “righteousness.” In Greek, it’s literally “unrighteousness.” Since we’re reading “righteousness” as justice, this one is injustice.
Faith: Faith is a pretty good translation, but we need to thicken it a little. Nowadays, when we say faith, we are normally talking about belief. If I say, “I have faith in Jesus Christ,” I am saying that I believe in Jesus and that my belief leads me to (or helps me to) trust Jesus. If we’re going to overhear Paul using this word, however, we need to add a layer. This word also has the connotation of faithfulness. This is important because faithfulness has an active, relational nuance to it. Here is what I mean: If I am faithful in my role as a husband, then I don’t just believe that Lucy is my wife and that I trust her; I also care for Lucy, take out the trash, wash the dishes, and things like that. We have to keep both in mind when we see this word. Notice that this fits with how we are translating “righteousness.” In Romans 1:17, Paul quotes the prophet Habbakuk and says, “the one who is righteous will live by faith.” We might shift this to, “the one who is just will live by faithfulness.” Just as justice has a ‘horizontal’ dynamic that involves human communities, so too does faithfulness imply an active fidelity in some kind of relationship or role. This word can also communicate something like integrity.
Son: This word has some weight to it for two reasons. First, in the Greco-Roman world, the relationship between fathers and sons had all the weight that it does in contemporary households and then some. The son was the chief inheritor of whatever household or kingdom belonged to the father, and the son was seen as doing his father’s work. This was of major importance in a Roman household. It also had resonances across the Roman Empire more broadly: Caesar was seen as the Pater Patriae, the ‘Father of the Fatherland.’ The whole empire was like a household of which Caesar was the father. Second, and relatedly, Caesar was also considered the divine son of the gods. The big national myth Rome told about itself was that Caesar was descended from a mythical hero named Aeneas. Because Aeneas’ mother was the goddess Venus, in Rome’s mind, Caesar was quite literally descended from gods. There was even a big public forum (kind of like a city park) in Rome where there was a massive statue of Caesar Augustus, with his goddess mother standing behind him!
Now, throw the Christian story into this: Jesus is the real Son of the real God, and even more astonishing, God’s Holy Spirit is busy adopting people into God’s family (Romans 8:15-16)! In Romans 8:14 and 17, the NRSV says “children [of God],” but it’s really sons. Moreover, the phrase “spirit of adoption” in 8:15 is more literally made sons. This emphasis on sons is not about the exclusion of daughters but about the Holy Spirit bringing believers (male and female) into a relationship with God that is like the relationship Jesus has as God’s Son. The baptized are adopted by God as sons—with all the ancient Roman contextual weight of that gendered word—and therefore do God the Father’s work and inherit God the Father’s household kingdom.
Atonement: This one has a very particular place it shows up in the NRSV, and that’s Romans 3:25 where Paul says that God put Jesus Christ forward “as a sacrifice of atonement.” When we talk about Jesus atoning for our sins nowadays, we usually mean something like Jesus paying the price for our transgressions. To get a better sense of how Paul is using this phrase, and how his Roman interlocutors are hearing it (especially the Jewish ones), we need to trim a little of the ‘paying the price’ bits and then thicken this word with some Jewish Temple ritual. When Paul describes Jesus as a “sacrifice of atonement,” he is evoking the image of the Yom Kippur ritual. Yom Kippur is the big “Day of Atonement” (or “Day of Purifications”) in the Jewish liturgical calendar. The details of the ritual are described in detail in Leviticus 16. What is important is that the Yom Kippur ritual is sort of a big ‘reset button’ on all the sins and impurities that have ‘contaminated’ the Jewish community and the Temple over the preceding year. It involves (amongst other things) the high priest going into the holy of holies and sprinkling sacrificial blood on the Ark of the Covenant. The covering or lid of the Ark where the blood is sprinkled is called the “mercy seat,” and above the mercy seat, in the cloud of incense, is where God appears (Leviticus 16:2). In the Greek bible Paul would have read, the word we see as “mercy seat” is the same word he uses to refer to the “sacrifice of atonement” in Romans 3.
The Yom Kippur “Day of Atonement” sacrifice is a very big deal. Again, it cleaned the slate, so to speak, and by wiping out all the sins of the Israelites it allowed the right relationship between them and God to continue. By using this language in Romans, Paul is effectively saying, “What the Yom Kippur sacrifice does for Israelites is what Jesus’ death on the cross does for Gentiles who have faith in Jesus.”
Of all the metaphors and rhetorical brilliance in Romans, this may be the single greatest stroke of Paul’s genius. There is nothing about’ Jesus crucifixion that is at all like a Yom Kippur festival. Golgotha was not the innermost sanctum of the Temple; Roman soldiers are not Temple priests; Jesus is a person, not an animal; the cross of imperial execution is not a Jewish altar of devotion to God. What Paul communicates to the Romans by using this ‘atonement’ language in this letter is the utter freedom and grace of God: when humanity crucified Jesus, God—in all his freedom and love—received it as though it were a Yom Kippur sacrifice, wiping out all of our sins. The imaginative leap Paul invites his readers and hearers to make is stunning. One might even say, inspired.
We had another good bible study this past Wednesday, and we’ll be at it again this Wednesday evening at 7pm via Zoom. We’ll pick up with Romans 2:12 and get as far as we get!
 Exceptions are 13:6 and possibly 14:4. In 13:6, the NRSV uses “servants” to denote worldly authorities. ‘Servants’ here should be more nearly ‘public servants.’ In 14:4, the NRSV uses “servant” to denote a domestic slave, only in Greek this word can connote a level of intimacy or affection.)
 The ancient world of Greece and Rome did have a hierarchy of skin color which was heavily based on Aristotle’s work with ‘categories.’ But this preference for Mediterranean skin tones (as opposed to black Africans or pale Eastern Europeans) was not about race as we understand it. For a concise and helpful history of this history, see the opening chapters of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (New York: Bold Type Books, 2017).
Last week I used a restaurant/food metaphor to talk about ways we engage with scripture. We said that bible study is learning the historical and cultural ‘recipe’ by which a particular biblical text came to be. The two main ingredients for the ‘Romans recipe’ are people and words. Today, I want to focus on people: who wrote this letter, and who received it? The first question is easier to answer than the second. Fair warning: I’m going to give us a lot of background today. I’ll finish with suggesting some questions that we should keep in mind as we read.
First, the Apostle Paul wrote Romans. Paul is a Jewish Christian missionary with a rhetorical education and deep Israelite street cred. (See Philippians 3:4-6.) Once a persecutor of the Church, Paul had an intense spiritual experience in which he was confronted by the Lord Jesus. Soon after this ‘conversion’ Paul became an energetic traveling missionary bringing the Gospel of Christ to the Mediterranean Gentile world. This transformation from persecutor to apostle is so total that Paul’s name actually changes from Saul-the-persecutor to Paul-the-Apostle. (See Acts 9.)
Paul’s specific mission to the non-Jewish Gentiles sometimes leads to conflict between Paul and other early Church leaders who feel that Paul is being reckless or unfaithful to the Church’s Jewish heritage. In the New Testament, this conflict is most pronounced in the background of Galatians 2:10-15, which recounts a conflict between Paul and Peter, but it pops up in several places, including Romans. By the time Paul writes the letter to the Romans in the mid-to-late 50s CE, he is well-known amongst Christians. The Roman church communities would know him by reputation, but they have not met Paul in person yet (Prisca, Aquila, and possibly one or two others excepted).
Second, now that we know a little about the author of Romans, who are the recipients of this letter? We don’t have letters or other texts written by them, so most of what we know we have to piece together from other sources, including Paul’s letter itself, pagan Roman texts, and some archaeological evidence.
In his opening salutation, Paul says of the Romans that their “faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (1:8). This suggests a church community that has been around for a while and is known to other churches. We don’t know exactly when the Gospel first reached Rome, nor do we know who first preached it in the imperial capital, but given Rome’s importance as a cultural and economic hub, travelers of all kinds would’ve come and gone regularly. Thus, it’s easy to imagine that word of Jesus’ death and resurrection spread from Jerusalem, or the surrounding area, to Rome fairly early.
Around the year 49 CE, however, the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome. A Roman historian tells us that Claudius does this because the Jews were “constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” The similarity between Chrestus and Christos (Greek for “Christ”) is hard to miss.
A reminder is important here: Jesus was Jewish, as were virtually all of his very first followers. Thus, in the 1st century CE, a likely place to find followers of Jesus is as a subgroup of a Jewish synagogue. Over time, however, the competing claims of ‘Jewish Jews’ and ‘Jewish Christians’ became harder and harder to reconcile within synagogues, especially in regard to the inclusion of Gentiles.
To folks within the synagogue, this is a major conflict about identity: has the God of Israel acted definitively in the person of Jesus Christ for everyone, including Gentiles, or not? Is this Christ the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, or not? Do Gentile believers in Christ have to become Jewish first, or not? This tension escalates as more and more Gentiles begin hearing the Gospel and seek to belong to communities of early Christians. This is one reason Paul’s ministry, and his letter to the Romans in particular, is so important: he speaks directly to a community composed of differing backgrounds, and he does so with an eye towards making one community of them.
To an outsider like our Roman historian, however, all this is simply Jews getting riled up by some guy named Chrestus. Our Roman historian hears a name like Christ connected with riots and simply assumes there’s a physical, historical Chrestus somewhere starting fires and encouraging violence in Jewish neighborhoods.
That the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome around 49 CE is attested in scripture, as well. In Acts 18:2, Paul is in Corinth and meets two Jewish Christians named Prisca and Aquila who were recently expelled from Rome by Claudius. The three form a ministry team, traveling to Syria, and eventually parting ways in Ephesus (Acts 18:19). Eventually, the Emperor Claudius dies and the expelled Jews begin to return, including Prisca and Aquila. Thus, in the final chapter of Romans, Paul will greet them as folks “who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house.” (16:3-5a).
In a string of greetings to various folks in chapter 16, it is significant that Paul greets both Prisca and Aquila and the church that meets in their house. This matters for three reasons: it means that there are multiple church communities in Rome; it reminds us that this letter is addressed to all of them; and finally, by splitting this greeting into a.) Prisca and Aquila and b.) the folks who meet in their house, we get a historical clue that says, “the owners of the house and the folks who live in it are different categories of people.” In other words, it’s possible that included in the recipients of Paul’s letter are folks who are followers of Jesus but who live in a household where that is not okay.
For example: “greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus” (16:11). In this greeting, it’s significant that Narcissus is not greeted. It could be that Narcissus is a Gentile head of household who does not follow Jesus, but who has slaves or even relatives who are Christians and have snuck away to hear Paul’s letter read. Narcissus’ slaves and relatives would be considered the “family of Narcissus;” Paul greets them but not Narcissus himself, who is absent from the church assembly as a non-believer. This is a contrast to the household of Prisca and Aquila where the heads of household and the folks who meet in it are both greeted and therefore presumably believers.
This divide is not unusual, but it’s important for us to keep in mind that Paul is writing to “all God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Some are financially secure, but most are not. Some are free, but many are slaves. Some understand themselves as Jewish, some as Gentile. Some were exiled by Claudius, some were not.
These last two are important because when we read Romans carefully, we can hear Paul modulating between audiences: sometimes he seems to be talking directly to Christians who understand themselves as Jews, and other times he seems to be talking directly to Christians who understand themselves as Gentiles. Remember, Paul is writing in the mid to late 50s CE, which means he is writing after many exiled Jews (including Jewish Christians) have returned to Rome.
This is a significant piece of this community’s history. As noted above, the Roman Church probably started early on when evangelists from Jerusalem began to preach there. This means that there’s a good possibility that the Roman Church started with a strong sense of its Jewishness and connection to the region of Judea. But when all the Jews are exiled from Rome in 49 CE, these Jewish Christians are kicked out, too, and suddenly the Roman Church is primarily led by and composed of more Gentile Christians.
A few years later, the power dynamics shift again: Claudius dies and all the exiled Jewish Christians like Prisca and Aquila return. Now, the Church in Rome reflects (at least) two groups of Christians, each of which is used to being leaders of the Roman Christian community. This is one of the main pastoral challenges Paul is addressing: how does a community coexist and thrive as a single community when they’ve had years of major leadership swings from one side of the Jewish-Gentile spectrum to the other?
What do I mean by “leadership swing?” We know the Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, but in reality, given Rome’s size, it was probably Jews of a certain ‘visible’ social and financial standing who were driven out, folks like Prisca and Aquila. Chances are that a large number of poorer Jews living in slum neighborhoods remained and stayed out of the imperial eye. Many of these Jews would’ve come from slave ancestry, folks whose parents or grandparents had either been freed or somehow purchased their freedom. Jewish slaves would likely also have stayed if they had Gentile masters.
In Rome, these poorer Christians would have relied on folks like Prisca and Aquila not only for a degree of leadership and material support, but also for a physical place in which to gather. Most likely, artisans like Prisca and Aquila could have hosted up to thirty folks at a time. It is in a household like theirs where significant events would most likely occur (events like the arrival of a letter from Paul).
So, when Prisca and Aquila are exiled, not only does the Roman community lose that pair of leaders, but they also lose one of their principal meeting places. If there are no other Christians in that area of the city who have the resources to host a larger gathering, then everyone is forced to drift back into the smaller networks of relationships that geography and status afford them.
This is doubly true for the poor and for slaves whose daily schedules were almost entirely determined by patrons or masters. Thus, when Claudius exiles all the Jews, all of the Jewish-Christian households that were emotional and physical hubs for Roman believers are closed. Poorer and enslaved Christians in Rome in certain neighborhoods—perhaps especially certain Jewish neighborhoods—may have gone a few years gathering only in twos and threes. When Prisca and Aquila return, these folks may have felt that they were ‘getting their church back’—only now, the Christian scene in Rome has a more Gentile feel to it, particularly in regards to important things like food.
When Paul writes his letter, he is trying to be sensitive to all of these factors, and there’s some reason to believe that his primary pastoral objective in writing is to call to humility some of the Gentile believers who have most recently had the upper hand, so to speak. But we’ll get to that later.
If your head is spinning, don’t worry! I give us all this info up front because we’re just starting out. This context should can help us navigate Romans. Specifically, we should notice how Paul uses the language of slavery, freedom, and obedience. We should also pay attention to Paul’s language of family, ancestry, and household. Finally, we should ask ourselves, “how would a Gentile audience hear this? How about a Jewish audience?” I’ll tackle some of these language concerns next week when we focus on the other main ingredient of our Romans recipe: words.
 I’ve written about this elsewhere. There are thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, though it is probably that only seven were written by the historical figure himself. The remaining six were likely written by followers of Paul. You can read more on ancient notions of authorship here. For distinguishing characteristics of Pauline letters whose authorship is ‘disputed’ or ‘undisputed,’ visit here. Finally, the very act of composing and ‘mailing’ a letter in the ancient world was not a simple one.
 She is called “Priscilla” in Acts, but I’ll use the (likely more accurate) spelling from Romans.
 This last is particularly important for the size of households, the layout of Rome as a city, etc.
 There is an early tradition that has Peter evangelizing Rome, though many doubt this tradition rises to contemporary standards of historical evidence. Personally, I see no reason why this should not be considered a real possibility, though from a strictly historical perspective, it’s far from certain.
 Suetonius, who likely couldn’t have cared less about the specifics of what was going on in the Roman Jewish community.
 Quoted in Brendan Byrne, S.J.’s Romans commentary in the Sacra Pagina series, ed. by Daniel Harrington, S.J. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), pg. 11 of the introduction.
 It’s possible that these riots weren’t about Jesus at all but were instead about Roman oppression. But if you’re a Roman historian, you wouldn’t write that!
As I mentioned in our Wednesday update this past week, we’re starting a bible study on Romans. (Wednesday at 7pm; details in the newsletter below!) Today, I want to create a sense of what we’re doing when we study the bible, particularly a New Testament letter, and I want to distinguish bible study from two other kinds of engaging with scripture: what I will call daily bread and contemplation.
Imagine that you are at a restaurant to get some food. Maybe you’re just getting off work and grabbing something quick on your way home. Maybe you’re on a date. Maybe you just had to get out of the house by yourself for a bit. Maybe you’re celebrating a graduation or a wedding. Regardless, you are hungry, and you need some food. Depending on the situation, your physical hunger could be mixed with weariness, anticipation, desire, joy, sadness, feeling lost—any number of things.
The bible is like spiritual food. Our souls are hungry for it; the soul’s metabolism needs this kind of sustenance. As we saw with the restaurant example, this hunger could come alongside weariness, anticipation, desire, joy, sadness, or feeling lost. It is fitting, therefore, that the bible contains within it stories, poems, teaching, and instructions to respond to all these different experiences of spiritual hunger. The bible is big, powerful, and diverse enough in its language to feed us wherever we might be.
As is the case with healthy food, what is most important is that we eat it so that it can nourish us. This is the first and probably most important way of engaging with scripture: let it feed you. Read it. Day in and day out, read, mark and inwardly digest our scriptures. Whether in the midst of weariness, anticipation, desire, joy, sadness, feeling lost—or even in a matter-of-fact, get some calories in me ‘grab a breakfast bar’ kind of snack, let the bible sustain you. It’s why we have it.
This first kind of engagement with scripture I’ll just call ‘daily bread.’ It requires no specialized training or saintly disposition: it just requires that you be a human being doing your best to get by. ‘Daily bread’ takes seriously the fact that we’re not God, that we are God’s creatures, that we are finite and flawed and in need of ongoing help and support. ‘Daily bread’ takes for granted that God is caring for us. It is a posture of faith that is humble, simple, and wise enough to let first things be first.
Let’s return to our metaphorical restaurant. Let’s say you get your food, and you’re enjoying it. Whether you’re inhaling a cheeseburger in between your too many engagements or savoring risotto across from your beloved on date night, you’re doing what a body does and replenishing yourself with this much needed food.
At some point you ask yourself, “I wonder what the chef was like who made this?” If you’re having a cheeseburger-in-the-car kind of day, maybe the chef is a no nonsense, plainspoken man who is capable of handling a lot of orders on the fly, whose great culinary virtue is being reliably present in your hectic schedule. If you’re relishing a particularly delicious dish out on a candlelit evening, maybe the chef is a woman who has an artist’s flair and attention to detail, someone who pours beauty into everything that pleasure might linger a while.
Likewise, when we read the bible, sometimes we find ourselves lifted to contemplate the Author behind these words. What sort of God is it who might say something like this? What sort of Storyteller would talk about prodigal sons and waiting fathers? What sort of Poet would describe Jesus as a mother hen trying to gather up her chicks? What sort of Visionary would reveal to us the throne and the lamb?
This second kind of engagement with scripture I will call contemplation. Here, our focus does not remain on the words themselves, but rises to consider the God who is offering them to us: not what is said but Who might be saying it. Contemplation takes seriously the fact that the bible is always a means to an end, that what God wants is for us to become more like Him and in so doing to enjoy Him, and that we will always be hungry and restless until we rest in Him. It is a posture of faith that is appetitive, patient, and unwilling to settle for anything less than God.
One final return to our metaphorical restaurant. Once again, your food has arrived, and you’re getting ready to eat. Maybe suddenly you lose your appetite and do little more than pick at your plate. Maybe you love your meal so much you can’t help but pass your plate to your sister-in-law so she can try it. Maybe it’s not particularly good or bad on your palate, but you’re just glad for the calories.
However the food tastes, at some point you begin to wonder how the chef actually made it. What is it about a P. Terry’s burger that tastes so much better than other fast food ones? Why are there peanuts in Pad Thai—I thought peanuts came from Georgia! This steak is too well done, so what’s going on here? How is it that all those different ingredients in mole combine so perfectly into this mysteriously perfect sauce?
This is what bible study is like. If daily bread is about what our souls are eating, and contemplation is about who did the cooking, then bible study is about the how and why the food actually got made and brought to our table. Bible study is primarily about recipes and waiters. It requires that we get up from the table and go to the kitchen to find out what’s going on.
Study is a posture of faith that is curious, analytical, and maybe even a little adventurous. It can be aided by learning and honing certain skills, but what is really important is a willingness to get up from our tables and actually enter the kitchen where the food was made: a place where the lighting and sounds are different, where people move at a different pace, where ovens ding and industrial dishwashers steam and where we might hear new words or phrases, or familiar ones used in a new way. (Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows that eighty-six salmon does not mean that we have eighty-six salmon left, but that salmon is actually no longer on the menu!)
When we study the New Testament in this way, the kitchen is the first century world of the Roman Empire. When we study the letter of Paul to the Romans specifically, the kitchen is the mid-to-late 50s CE and a very particular long-distance relationship between an apostle and a church in the imperial capital he’s never visited. It’s a long, two thousand year journey from our 21st century table to this kitchen.
Study takes this fact seriously: the world in which the bible was written is not our world. When we read a letter like Romans, we are overhearing a conversation that did not include us when it was first had. Furthermore, there are lots of intervening generations of Christians who have read and interpreted Romans for their own place and time (folks like Martin Luther, for example) and we will likely bump into them on our way to the kitchen!
This is the kind of bible study I am hoping to lead. We will enjoy a good bit of daily bread and contemplation along the way—why go to a restaurant if you’re not going to eat?—but my hope is to help us spend some time in the kitchen.