When in Rome…

Romans 3:21-31

 The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II

Thursday, November 9, 2006

J. Herbert Nelson, II, is pastor of Liberation Community Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, a tent-making new church development that evangelizes the poor into PC(USA) membership. Dr. Nelson, who was recently the Associate Director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis, is the founding coordinator of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance. He is a noted ecumenical preacher, consultant, writer and workshop leader.

Let us bow our heads in prayer:

Eternal God our dwelling place, we ask that you guide this word.  It is yours.  You’ve written the letter, you’ve given it to us.  We now ask you to preach it.  Use me as an instrument of your will, and use all of us here as an abiding source of your power.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray – Amen.

I want to first give a word of greeting from Liberation Community Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Memphis, Tennessee, where we invite the poor into membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  We’ve been at our work almost nine years in January.  It is a ministry that has been exciting, but it has also helped me understand as a pastor the depths of poverty and pain and brokenness in society and how they debilitate the spirit of those who live on the margins, as they try to give their lives to Christ, many finding him for the first time.

And I’ve spent the past two days at the meeting of the National Council of Churches of Christ in Orlando, Florida. Presbyterians were well represented in the deliberations of that ecumenical gathering. Our delegation was led by Reverend Robina Winbush and Stated Clerk Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, who preached powerfully on the day after the 100th birthday of Eugene Carson Blake.  It is amazing the work the church is doing through the National Council of Churches, and the leadership Presbyterians are giving, theologically and in active participation – we ought to be proud.  And we can take pride in Reverend Michael Livingston, formerly Dean of the Chapel at Princeton, who is serving as President of the organization and in Reverend Eileen Linder who is the Associate General Secretary.

I lift up these words from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans:

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference.” (Romans 3:22)

I ask you to consider with me the sermon topic, “When in Rome.” In preparation for this occasion, prayer led me to Paul’s letter to the Roman Church. Romans is a mixed theological bag of hard-line Christian doctrine, and good “ole time” fire and brimstone preaching can come out of this particular letter. Most biblical scholars agree that Galatians is the Magna Carta of the Christian faith. However, I contend that Romans represents a powerful, prolific and passionate appeal to acknowledge the centrality of our faith in Jesus Christ’s redemptive love for humanity.

Paul offers an extraordinary theological rendering on our Reformed understanding of Justification. Paul addresses both justification by grace and justification by faith as hallmarks of the certainty of God’s love affair with humankind. Furthermore, these topics serve as the standard for our initiation into the household of faith.   Paul declares that one must come in faith, one must abide in faith, and one must be willing to leave this world with a faithful response to God’s triumphant love. It is here that Paul writes to the Roman Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, that:

“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus”  (Romans 3:23-24)

The Larger Catechism explains justification as “an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which [God] pardoneth all their sin, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in [God’s] sight; not for anything wrought of humankind, or done by us, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them and received by faith alone” (7.180).  We are justified by faith.  Paul highlights the sinfulness of all humanity and uses the phrase that we are placed in a right relationship with God through “a righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

I am appalled that many of us in the Presbyterian Church are not reading Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. Amid our conservative, moderate and liberal debates, theological conjecture over who inherits the kingdom, in what conditions are we deemed worthy of God’s redemptive love, we have become a fractured family of God. New Wineskins, PFR, Confessing Churches, More Light, Covenant Network – and the list goes on and on, the factions of denominational split over lesbian and gay ordination. But we must be frank with ourselves – it is a split over power, and control, and dominance.  We know that our Book of Order clarifies that Jesus Christ is the head of the church.  But I wonder, do we really believe that good news?

Recently I attended a meeting of my Presbytery. During a debate regarding the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, which included the right of churches to leave the denomination with their property, a retired Presbyter stood in a stern manner while proclaiming “If [and he named a person] were here today, he would not vote for ordaining lesbian and gay people.” And he sat down with a kind of forcefulness as though the statement he made said it all.  I was not so shocked about the sentiment towards lesbians and gays, because of the high drama that occurs around this issue in our presbytery each and every time we meet.  However, I was taken aback by the fact that the person on whose authority this Presbyter’s opposition was raised was not Jesus Christ, but a dead pastor.

Who is the authority in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? What do we and who do we look to for our guidance, for our direction?  What is the theological framework out of which we operate?  Has the word “Reformed” just simply become a word meaning “do it as it always has been done”?  Does the word Reformed now become the expedient way of pushing whatever view or doctrine we declare is worthy at a given time?  Does the word Reformed carry a real meaning in the context of faith and theology today for our church?

Paul declares authority originates with Almighty God through the grace extended by Jesus Christ’s death on Calvary’s cross, “the righteousness,” Paul says, “of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction.” (Romans 3:22) There is no difference, there is no demarcation, there is no line drawn in the sand.

Our denomination is not simply struggling with lesbian and gay ordination. I want to suggest today that we are suffering from an ecclesiastical pathology of alienation derived from historical white male domination and control. In this sickness that impedes inclusivity while co-opting power for the privileged race and class, there is always at least one outcast group or one category labeled as “them.” It has always been that way.  Historically, in this country the “them”s have been and remain the Native Americans, the African Americans, women, the LGBT community, and immigrants of color, most notably now Hispanic and Latino immigrants. Somebody has to be the “them.” That is how power and dominance and control work.  Historical white male dominance and privilege have alienated these groups from power relationships through demonization – “three-fifths human”; claims of inferiority – “you’re too weak, you’re too emotional, you can’t measure up”; violence and assault against their person, fear mongering and even death.

The church has lived out this pathology by constructing similar versions of these gender, racial and sexual orientation barriers which are still lodged in the psyche of our denominational culture.  This is why, although we celebrate the 50th year of the ordination of women, we still have too many vacant churches that will not call a women pastor, based solely on gender. Next year will represent the 40th anniversary of the Confession of 1967.  However, our denomination still struggles over issues of representation among women and minorities serving higher governing bodies in decision-making positions.

Despite declaring that we are called to peace, we are still too slow to speak out against a war whose foundation is based on bogus intelligence and debts being paid for a fraudulent election to Texas oil barons. Our historical societal power relationships are bleeding through the fabric of our church today.

We are witnessing the manifestation of God’s call for love and grace and faith, being reduced to legal maneuvering. Paul declares that the law is not the device of choice for God when he writes,

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the law and the prophets testify” (Romans 3:21).

Paul is trying to push the church at Rome to bar the door to barriers leading to beleaguered beneficiaries of the Paraclete’s promise. Bar that door and give light and reason to all of those who would come calling upon the precious name of a Savior who redeems, who loves the lost and who gives life and license to those who desire to serve through faith.  Let faith in Jesus Christ be the bedrock, says Paul, let that be the bedrock of our seal and communion with one another.  I hear that song, the first solo I ever had a chance to sing in the Presbyterian Church, as nervous as I could be – I remember it and it is etched now in my spirit, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of God throughout the whole wide world.” 

Don’t you hear this apostle who knew the alienation of Gentiles, who stood with them when they were scorned by Jews, when they didn’t meet the standards of legality and the law, the dietary laws?  When they were deemed unclean, Paul stood amid them, even as a Jew he stood with them, declaring that they ought to enter into the faith of Jesus Christ because their alienation was a reflection of his own by the Jerusalem church.  He too had been rejected because of his life as a persecutor of those who were followers of the way of Jesus, and later, advocating for the Gentiles, he asked that the only standard that he be measured by was his faith in Jesus Christ.  Don’t measure me by what I used to do.  Don’t measure me by how the world may categorize or label me.  Don’t measure me by the demonization of society and power mongers.  Measure me by my faith in Jesus Christ, my calling to serve the Lord.  Measure me by what I’m willing to do for the Lord in making this world a better place, in serving humanity, in continuing the hope and possibilities that were seen not only on Calvary’s cross of sacrifice and the redemptive love of Jesus, but at the empty tomb.  It sent a message to the world that Jesus lives.  Yes, Jesus lives in me too, says Paul.  He was saying to these Gentiles that Jesus lives in you, no matter what they say about you, no matter how they respond to you, no matter how many barriers they place in your way.Paul is on a rampage to dissipate the allocation of false standards that prohibit the work of Christ from being accomplished.

Now, I know what is dancing around in some of your minds right now. And, I must admit that there was a need for me to wrestle with this text in view of Romans 1:24:

“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen.

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”(Romans 1:24-27)

I want to suggest that the scripture is clear. Paul is declaring direct opposition to homosexuality and is labeling it as sin. He also labels heterosexual impropriety and other actions unrelated to sex as sin in this section of his letter. I believe Paul was attempting to correct the church out of his view of sin and the information that was available to him. I don’t try to defend Paul’s understanding at that particular period in history. 

However, in my spiritual journey it has become clear that the gospel is relevant in the context in which we exist. I believe that this is why the shapers of our church constitution wrote that we “the Church reformed, always reforming.”  And that is how we understand theology.  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever; but if you live in this world more than a week you’ll see that it changes every day. How do we contextualize God amid the annihilation and death and struggle of our children in our schools today?  Who would ever have thought that I would have been worried about a child going to school and coming back without losing her life?  Who would have thought that twenty years ago?  And if we don’t begin to fashion and shape the gospel as a church around what it really means to live in the 21st century and not the 19th century, we will find ourselves surely, surely and continually a tired denomination.  I want to suggest that’s probably a part of what we are experiencing even today, not being able to relate to the existential transitions and changes in this world in which we live.

So Paul, yes, labels it as sin.  But you see, I am convinced Paul had not seen the chromosomal evidence that leads us to the recognition that our traditional classification of maleness and femaleness is now held hostage. Medical evidence reveals that the xx and xy formula for determining gender is subject to some freak of genetics. Mary McClintock Fulkerson shares in her section of the book Frequently Asked Questions About Sexuality, the Bible, and the Church that 5.5 million persons are not male or female according to our traditional standards of chromosomal classification. Paul knew nothing of this xx/xy formula. Certainly he was not privy to knowing that! If he had known, could it have a made a difference in his assessment of pleasure as opposed to chromosomal predisposition?

Paul probably had not been with a family that had a child born with two different sex organs and watched parents make the wrong decision as to which one to eliminate. Later these parents would discover and be filled with guilt that they made the wrong choice. I doubt that Paul had that kind of experience.

I am not clear whether Paul preached the funeral of a deceased church member who had lived in a lesbian or gay relationship for thirty-four years. In their older years together one partner comforted the other in a hospice unit of a hospital. There was no act of sex to judge. The death was not subject to condemnation as in the case of HIV/Aids. No, it was the result of old age and a stroke. Paul missed the loving-kindness that was demonstrated in that hospice unit as one was dying and the other comforting a lifetime partner. He missed the last words shared by these two who had shared a life together, balanced a checkbook together, purchased a home together, and supported one another in the best and worst of circumstances.  I don’t think Paul had a chance to witness that.

I am not clear that Paul shared an experience where one had come to ask his pastor, “Do you think I want to live this way, or would choose this lifestyle?  Reverend, who would choose to go through the scrutiny and the pain and the alienation and the distancing, even from my own family?  Who would choose that?”  I don’t know if Paul had that kind of conversation.  But if he did, I am convinced that this evangelist would somehow or another have experienced this theology in another way, maybe in an uncertainty, maybe in a lack of clarity, maybe in a change of mind.  Or maybe he would have stayed where he was.  We will never know. 

But you see I have to read not just these verses. I believe Paul experienced things and that his pastoral zeal had much more sensitivity than the scripture reveals.  But despite Paul’s limitations, what is our excuse?  Why are we not more aware?  Why are we not attempting to frame and reframe and be open today to the issue of faith? 

You see, I don’t feel that we have to know all of the answers.  Paul in his maturity, continued writing and growth and development, shares with that church in Corinth where people were all excited and asking him about the afterlife.  What happens when we die, Paul?  What will we look like?  How will we come back?  Is it true we will be raised together one day?  Tell us, Paul, tell us – what will happen?  He says this to the church in Corinth, he says, “Behold I tell you a mystery.  We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at he last trumpet”  (I Cor. 15:51-52)  Paul is saying I don’t know what we’ll look like.  I’m not quite clear how we will come back.  Nobody has ever gone and come back and shared with me what death and resurrection is all about. 

We live in a mystery, in a mystery.  And maybe this is the fault of education, or maybe it is the fault of domination and control.  Or maybe, just maybe, it is the fault of simple ego.  We are not God, and we don’t know all of the answers, and what God requires of us, not a faction of us, or a section of us, or a portion of us, or a clan, but all of us who are in faith – what God requires of us is to live through the mystery.  Live in the mystery.  Be willing to be armed with our faith as we live through the changing and moving parts of life’s existence.  God calls us to not be so quick to have the answer, because God’s knowledge is so high we cannot attain it.  Paul in maturity finally realized and came to the understanding that the closer I draw to God, the more uncertain I become of who God really is, and the more ignorant I become of what God is really trying to do.

So I give it all up, I give up trying to label, I give up trying to categorize, I give up trying to demonize, I give up trying to make these strong statements of judgment, I give up trying to be Mr. Theologian of the Year.  I’m simply going to be God’s faithful vessel, willing to be used, and walk through the mystery.  Use me, for I am available to you, use me.  Use me.  Just as I am, just as I am. 

We’ve wasted too much time being a single-issue denomination.  Our hope is in learning to love the Lord again, and through learning to love the Lord again, learning to love one another, and also recognizing that in the midst of all of our doing, our responsibility is to remain faithful to the call to serve.  We have examples of that – Margaret Towner and Katie Cannon.  We have examples of that – Eugene Carson Blake, Thelma Adair, Edler Hawkins – we have examples of sojourners who just plowed through the mystery.  “We will never ordain women in the church”: God’s mystery was still unfolding.  “We will never really make any statement around the ecumenical movement”: God’s mystery was unfolding.  “We will never move towards African-American leadership in this denomination”: God’s mystery was unfolding.  You see, my friends, we ought to do it, not because those of the past did it, but we ought to do it, to reclaim the faith that leads to courage, because God requires it. 

And there’s one other thing, when we look at the mysteries of God.  I’ve only lived a few years, only been through a few experiences.  But I’m here to tell you, the plan that God unfolds in the mysteries will occur either with us or without us.  And the graveyard is the greatest indicator that God’s truth marches on despite us. 

When in Rome, what is required is faith, the faith to live in the light of a mysterious God, who upholds us and gives us faith.  Friends, live in the mystery; pursue the truth of God.  And know, as Paul writes, we are justified by faith, and there is no difference, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, we are all one in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Thanks be to God.

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