Delivered at Ames UCC on Easter Sunday, May 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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NOTHING TO SELL
Recently a UCC-er told me that their child left the UCC as an adult because we have nothing to sell. Someone who had been raised in our tradition walked away from it for another mainline Protestant church because we appeared not to offer anything worth buying.
And maybe they are right.
Two weeks ago as I drove east on Highway 30 to preach at the Newton UCC church, I saw a huge line of cars queued up to turn north and onto the campuses of two mega-churches. Those churches hold thousands of worshipers at a time, and I understand they do so regularly.
There were fewer than 30 people with me in Newton; we range from 120 to 180 here in Ames. Going on the numbers alone, maybe that former UCC-er was right. Maybe we don’t have anything to sell, anything worth buying with the precious hours of a Sunday morning.
Which makes our turn today to Paul, the super-evangelist and church planter, feel that much more meaningful.
PAUL AND ROME
You’ll remember Paul from last week when he and Barnabas tried to convert a crowd to the new Way of Jesus only to have them worship Zeus instead. That isn’t the first time we meet Paul in scripture, though. In the Acts of the Apostles he is introduced as Saul, a Jewish man and citizen of the Roman Empire. Scholars suggest that Saul would have begun his study of Torah, the first five books of what we now call the Bible, as young as age five, and may even have been sent to Jerusalem for more education as a teenager.1 Whatever his upbringing and education, Saul reacts to the Jesus Way movement violently, serving as a persecutor of Jesus’s disciples.
Then, on his way to extradite followers of the Way from Damascus to Jerusalem, Saul is visited by the risen Christ. Saul is struck blind, healed by another man faithful to Jesus, is baptized, and has a little to eat. He then permanently Romanizes his name to Paul and commits the rest of his life to sharing the story of Jesus.
Paul travels constantly and far, about 10,000 miles by one estimate, yet manages to stays in touch with the new communities he helped to form, called “churches.” This includes one in Rome, the recipients of the letter we are studying but a small portion of today.
The Roman church is a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus. It is restless over the question of whether being a follower of Jesus means following all of the Jewish religious practices as Jesus himself did, or if the non-Jewish, or Gentile, followers get a pass. That’s a question, though, for people already on board with the holiness evinced by Jesus Christ. Disagreements over how to follow Jesus requires choosing to do so in the first place.
So how did Paul do that? What did Paul have to sell that these diverse Romans bought?
Paul offers love. In a world rife with war and hunger, Paul offers love.
To all God’s beloved in Rome…I thank God for all of you…without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers…For I am longing to see you.
Paul offers the same hesed, loving kindness, that we see in the story of Ruth and Naomi, of Jesus and the Magdalene. Though Paul can be quite harsh and absolutist in his letters, he grounds his words and work in care and relationship. These people matter to him, and being mattered, being seen, those are compelling commodities.
But they are commodities that would require Paul’s ongoing physical presence and personality for the churches to last. The attentive love of one man cannot hold new congregations together across thousands of miles, particularly if they are so bold as to allow women in leadership and to bridge worship practices, as these did. There had to be something else he offered, and that remained in his absence. That something else is in the last two verses we heard:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for healing to everyone who has faith… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’
Or, as New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine suggests, faithfulness.
Six times in these seven verses we hear the word faith. Dr. Levine notes in her commentary on this letter that Paul’s Biblical Greek reads as pistis, which translates better as faithfulness than faith. The difference, she argues, is between a truth claim about God—and whether you believe it or not—and a loyalty to, a trust in God and the behaviors that loyalty and trust engender.2 It is not rigid adherence to a concept that Paul promotes and praises, it is a responsive relationship to the holiness he urges people to know.
Do you hear the difference? The difference between faith and faithfulness is between being asked to say yes once and saying “yes, and” every day. It is between God as a gatekeeper with a secret key and God as the open source key that blows open all of the gates we put up between each other and God.
Faithfulness is not a slick route to redemption, just three easy steps, buy one, get one free. It is a process with the only certainty being that for all of the grace and glory we may experience there will also be real doubt and unasked-for burdens.
Faithfulness in the God of the Exodus brings us out of what binds but into a wilderness seemingly without end. Faithfulness in the God of the empty tomb will not protect us from humanity’s crosses. Yet the righteousness—not right-ness, this isn’t about being right—the righteousness born of that faithfulness, its refusal of slavery and silencing, is worthy of our trust and worth our active, ongoing reshaping of how we live our lives.
NOTHING TO SELL
So, no, we do not have anything to sell here. In a denomination that takes the Bible seriously, but not literally, one that receives testimonies to faith rather than setting up wall-like tests of faith, we do not offer any easy answers or the guarantee that God will make everything OK. And that will never draw in thousands.
Instead, like Paul, Paul who is so long gone from us now, we are shameless in proclaiming the ministry, murder, and mystery of Jesus Christ as holiness incarnate. In that contradictory intersection of weakness as strength, the profane as the sacred, all the lies of human kingdoms are reveals and the truth of God’s beloved kin-dom is made clear.
The outcome of that revelation and clarity is like being suddenly struck down on a road, only to be revived by baptismal waters and then be sustained by a feast at a table we are joyous to set larger still.
Our time is limited, making the spending of these hours of a Sunday precious, indeed. Yet we are grateful not for what we get in return for them, but what we get to be because of them: Deeply in love with God and each other, trusting and trusted to witness to each other’s doubts and God’s wonders loyal to the work of ending of bondage, whatever graves may threaten.
It is in faithfulness, unafraid of the unpredictable answer, that we turn to God in Christ to ask, “And where shall we walk now?”
1Longenecker, R. N. “Paul,” The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 4 (M–P). Merrill C. Tenney, General Editor, and Moises Silva, Revision Editor. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009, pp. 698–733.
2Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 287.