Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of those books of the Bible that often puts people off a bit. The language is a bit stuffy and confusing. This is because, unlike with his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians where he had helped establish those churches, Paul had never met most of the people in Rome to whom he was writing. This was a more formal letter of introduction he sent ahead while he was waiting to travel there. He was also hoping the Roman churches would be willing to fund his planned mission to Spain, so he wanted to make a good impression!
Paul might not have known all the individuals he was writing to, but he did know a great deal about Roman culture and the prevailing beliefs of the day. He knew, for example, that there was an underlying belief in the Roman culture that if you were rich and successful, that was a sign that the gods favoured you and you somehow deserved your wealth and privilege. If you were poor, even if you were simply born into a poor family, the gods didn’t like you much, so you deserved your poverty and suffering. Paul knew that it was a radical challenge to this understanding of wealth and power to call a poor crucified Jewish carpenter’s son “Lord Jesus”.
Another radical Christian concept was the idea of God’s peace as being grounded in love and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Roman peace, or “Pax Romana” was grounded in war. The Romans brought “peace” by crushing all opposition until the conquered people had no fight left in them. Peace treaties were really terms of surrender. The conquered were expected to accept the conqueror’s ways as superior and become subject to them. Paul spoke of a different kind of peace, a lasting peace with shared glory – God’s peace.
We have seen a little of these Roman-style attitudes going on around us lately, haven’t we? We have seen governments trying to quell protests using militarized police forces to force demonstrators into submission, to create some sort of ordered “peace,” dishing out more of the very sorts of violence that drew protestors out in the first place, instead of dealing with the systemic injustice behind the problem. We have seen groups of people marginalized and others privileged and have had their marginalization or privilege used as evidence as to why they “deserve” what they get. We have seen good people suffer.
Imagine what would happen if everyone who called Jesus “Lord” today actually followed his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount? Imagine if we put the needs of the poor and oppressed first instead of last! “The last shall be first.” What if we prioritized bringing comfort to those mourning the loss of loved ones, such as indigenous families whose mothers and daughters have been murdered or gone missing, or the families of black men, women and children harassed and killed because of the colour of their skin? Or the families of transgendered folk, particularly those of colour, who have been bullied to the point of suicide or murdered. “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” What if we brought them comfort by bringing about an end to the violence and seeking God’s peace for all? What if we hungered and thirsted for a world where all were fed in body and spirit, instead of pursuing an endless consumption of goods that never completely satisfies?
God’s peace is not a peace of imposed law and order. God’s peace is a peace where everyone has their needs met. That’s what the Ten Commandments are about – that we approach our lives from a place of God’s love, that everyone is given time to rest, that we not seek more than is our share, that we speak truthfully, keep our promises and treat one another with dignity, that we never deny people their share or their ability to simply live. Getting to this divine peace is not an easy road, however, given the tendency of human beings to try and dominate one another.
Paul does not suggest that the peace of God is without suffering, but rather he argues that the suffering is worth it and we should even be proud of it. knowing that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Seeking God’s peace and justice in our world means being in the struggle for the long haul. There’s no quick fix to our problems. Like Sarah and Abraham, we may have a long wait ahead that needs patience and endurance, the strength of character and hope
On Thursday this week, the Stillspeaking Online Devotional from the United Church of Christ really struck home for me. In it, Rev. Mary Luti cautioned against getting the start line confused with the finish line in regards to efforts towards racial justice. Perhaps it is because my ordination is coming up and I see a sort of finish line there, perhaps it is because my heart is with our Graduating Class of 2020, but I found both weariness and inspiration in the realization that what looks like a finish line, is really a starting line. We have worked hard, only to find ourselves with a whole new journey ahead – a whole new chance to help build the kingdom of God.
In giving all he had, Jesus has turned our world upside down and shown us that the powers of death and destruction will never have the last word. Oppression and violence will not win. God reached out to us through Jesus even though we did not understand, even though we lashed out in fear and crucified him. Still, God showed us love. And now God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. May we lean into that love, even when the wait is long and the journey difficult. May we always seek God’s peace for our world.
May it be so.