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Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time
Today we bring our series on Romans to an end. As we do, reflecting on this momentous theological letter, one that has formed the thinking of Christians for millenia, we need to look back on what we have been taught by St. Paul so far. The question Romans has been seeking to answer is whether God rejected Israel in embracing the Gentiles? Does his embrace of the Gentiles mean God is unrighteous? The answer has been, no, God has not rejected Israel, no, he is not unrighteous for bringing in the Gentiles.
We have been taught that all are unrighteous, all sin, and therefore all are enslaved to the flesh and subject to death. Paul argues that Abraham was not an ancestor of just those descended genetically from him, but that his descendants are those who have faith. Because we have faith, we are justified because of the work of Jesus Christ, who is the second Adam, the one human who represents us all to God not in failure but in success, in holiness and perfect sacrifice. We are united to Jesus by the Holy Spirit working through baptism, and through this gift of new life in Christ through this union, we are able to have victory over the flesh, as the partial fulfillment of the promised New Creation becoming real in us. This promise to be made fully human, new creations, is not just for us Gentiles, but to Jews and Gentiles both, all who call on God in Jesus’ name. That Holy Spirit, New Creation work begun and continually transforming us is expected to result in people who do not take vengeance, who seek the good for others around them, even those governing authorities who may be hostile to them. All of this, Paul says, is for our mutual upbuilding, our love for one another, “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.”
This “pleasing others” doesn’t mean pandering or catering to others’ whims, but doing that which is edifying and loving to them, which can be much harder and certainly more costly at times. It can mean taking a meal when they are sick, or holding them accountable if they have harmed another. It can mean encouraging them when they mourn, or correcting them if they have acted hypocritically or judgmentally. It is telling them the truth, even if it may mean they may hate you for it, or even if it means you are confessing a sin of your own. We don’t do this simply because it’s nice to do, or because if we don’t we will be punished.
Rather, it flows directly from the transformation happening within us, that which is conforming us into the image of Jesus Christ. “For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God grant us to live in harmonious love, not because it’s “nice,” but because self-sacrificial lives offered up for the good of each other is precisely what Christ did, and it is into his image that we are being conformed. God grant us to live in harmonious love, because when we do, we are then able to do what we were made to do: Glorify him with one voice.
Theology and ethics are not divisible to Paul. The exalted theology he has preached is the ground and basis for the truth that we are transformed beings, continually being conformed to the image of Christ. Think of astronauts. STEM M.A., have 2 years of experience flying after completing jet training, and a highly rigorous physical testing. Astronauts are not born; they are made. So it is with us. We are not born perfect, holy, ready to be in God’s presence. However, by his work in us, his faithfulness to us, we are made into the people he designed us to be.
I want to suggest, humbly, that this passage in Romans 15 is the point of the whole letter: God is glorified when his people live in unified love, rooted in the Gospel that embraces us all in the love of God.
The letter to the Romans is pointing towards our telos: that which we were made to be. The letter is about how people become new creations in Christ, and how the grace of God extended to all people, the Jew first and then the Gentile, transforms us into those who will see the Lord face-to-face and dwell in his presence forever. The whole letter is oriented, I believe, towards that end. The whole letter is about the new creation, and what our end as transformed beings in Christ looks like. The conclusion Paul has been driving towards is simply verse 5-6: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is what the gospel is meant to achieve. That is what life in the Spirit looks like. The praising, glorifying, worship of God, as a people united in love, conformed to the image of Christ, the self-giving one.
As we end this series on this momentous book, let us simply note that the passages listed at the end, praising God for the inclusion of the Gentiles, glorifying him for making one people of all the people of the earth, comes from the Law, the Wisdom Writings, and the Prophets. This was the goal all along, not an afterthought; that God would be all-in-all, that all people would be invited into the blessedness of his New Creation, united in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, forever and ever. Amen.
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