“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested… Even the righteousness of God which is by the faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God…”
I have heard, for the most of my life, only one view of Romans and that view is one of themes extracted from recurring words like righteousness and unrighteousness, justification, promise, law, blood and faith. Those themes were then set in the context of a court of law in which I have been found guilty and sentenced to death. But in this reading, the righteous judge himself, Jesus Christ, takes my place of condemnation and I am declared not guilty. I am not saying that that model is entirely wrong in itself, but I am saying that it does not lead to an understanding of what Paul was doing in Romans, much less does it lead to an understanding and authentic appropriation of the gift of God in Jesus Christ. One thing I want you to see is that St. Paul is not merely making an argument with concepts or theological abstractions like justification, sin, grace, and righteousness. One can go to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and look up the definition of those words, but I think that St. Paul would find that, in itself alone, misleading. He is not working with nonconcrete ideas, setting up syllogisms with concepts and drawing conclusions that he then issues as gospel truths though that is the way Romans is mostly approached. If he is not doing that then what is he doing?
It is a literary convention that good detective stories frequently involve a hand written note that helps solve the mystery. It is also a convention that the note was taken from a note pad. The careful detective looks closely not only at that note, but also at the paper it is written on where he frequently discovers the faint impressions of a previously written note. Those imprints upon the paper contextualize the note the detective holds in his hand. Both notes tell a story and both stories must come to light in order to solve the mystery. What does that have to do with Romans?
Much in every way, as Paul might have said. I am suggesting that behind the text of Romans there is another text we must first grasp or else we will largely miss the message Romans and furthermore that text that is behind Romans is not a set of abstract ideas, it is not a theological system, but rather it is a narrative, a sacred story. Indeed, rather than behind Romans, there is within Romans what we have come to know in our day as the prequel. Additionally, the big words like law, faith, righteousness, justification, and promise that occur over and over again through out the epistle are not abstract concepts, but instead they are allusions, insinuations, intimations, inklings of a sacred story that every Christian of that day would have known. I do not mean that they would have the insight and mind of the Apostle himself – that would have made the epistle redundant – but I do mean that what Paul says in Romans would have built upon a story common to Christians all over the world. Roman Christians did not need the shelves of commentaries and expository dictionaries of the Old and New Testaments that I need. Why didn’t they need them? Why, for them, was there more light than darkness, less the riddle and more the acquainted, the old familiar story?
I am suggesting that in order for us to understand and appropriate Romans we must try as Eliot put it to “recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again.” What we need to recover then is the narrative within Romans that Paul is able to assume all his readers have in common. Last week the epistle lesson was taken from Galatians and its focus was on Abraham and what Paul referred to as the promise. In that passage Paul asserts that God cut a covenant with Abraham and his seed and he frequently refers to that covenant as the promise. Next week we will move into chapter 4 of Romans where once again St. Paul will cites Abraham and the covenant God made with him on the basis of Abraham’s faith.
So before we go any further and yield to the temptation to treat these words like righteousness, justification, promise and faith like abstract concepts we need to look at the narrative St. Paul has in mind concerning the promise. According to Genesis chapter 15 this is what happened: When Abraham was 99 years old God Almighty revealed himself to him and called him to be his friend and God made a covenant, a promise to Abraham. In fact this is when he is called Abraham for the first time. God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and he changed his wife’s name to Sarah. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and that he would be a blessing to the whole human race and according to Genesis 15: 6 are told:
“And he (Abraham) believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
It is on the basis of that narrative and that verse that St. Paul will proclaim that righteousness comes from God and not by works. Abraham believed God’s promise and God established that promise as an everlasting covenant. When Abraham asked God how he would know the promise God spoke again:
“Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat, a ram, a turtle dove, and a pigeon” and Abraham brought them before the Lord and the cut them in two and laid each half over against the other – all but the birds. Abraham knew exactly what God was doing at that point, that he was cutting a covenant with Abraham and that is how he would know the promise of God. A blood covenant was an agreement between two parties and it was sealed, ratified, finalized by cutting the covenant – by shedding blood. (In the days of the Old Testament men would occasionally make a covenant and cut into one another’s arm and mingle their blood as a seal of their covenant.) Once the sacrificial animals were cut in half the two covenanters would then walk together between the two halves showing that they were bound to each other. Jeremiah indicates that the bond is so profound that the covenanters are proclaiming symbolically that it would be better for them to be like these animals split in two than break the covenant. Furthermore a blood covenant was a bond of life-fellowship that was made not only with the persons involved, but with the children that were within their bodies, with their seed as well. The cutting of the blood covenant ended with the covenanters sharing a meal.
So when God told Abraham to bring these animals to him he knew exactly what was occurring. According to the text Abraham fell into a deep sleep as the sun went down and a great dread fell upon him. A thick darkness came upon that place and Abraham had a revelation:
“When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham…”
Imagine that scene: The terrible darkness. Abraham quivered at the knowledge that he was in the presence of God Almighty. Imagine something like the thurible full of a fire and smoke and a blazing torch processing between the dead animals. And then imagine the voice of God coming to you declaring that he has cut an everlasting covenant with you and all of your future children. The smoking pot of fire and the flaming touch that passed between the pieces were symbolic of God himself passing through the pieces alone without Abraham. In this revelatory vision God established the reality of his covenant with Abraham. As a rule a covenant always established reciprocal relations between two persons, but in this covenant reciprocity was impossible since no one stands equal with God. No one could cut a covenant with God Almighty. This was all of God’s doing, God’s work, God’s promise, as St. Paul is forever reminding the Church.
This is part of the narrative that Romans is built on but it is only part of it. Like the faint impressions upon the note paper that I used as an illustration at the beginning, impressions that disclosed a narrative that solved the mystery so the story of God’s promise to Abraham will help us understand what Paul was saying in the epistle to the Romans. One immediate take away based on the scene of the covenant is that once again Paul is placing before the Church the continuing need of all creation to know God as God and not our own projection.
By his day Israel’s history had culminated in the great apostasy, in her final rejection of the True Seed of Abraham, their Messiah Jesus Christ. It is not unreasonable to ask, would not their rejection bring an end to salvation altogether since it breaks the covenant? “No. By no means,” Paul says. Israel has rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but that has not brought an end to God’s covenant faithfulness. God is not ambivalent, nor utilitarian, nor pragmatic, nor does he need enlightening. God is God and he is the Lord of Creation and God is trustworthy, unfailing, and unswerving. And as a matter of fact Jewish and non-Jewish ambivalence and unfaithfulness only make God’s faithfulness and surety all the more brilliant, all the more full of life and all the more wonderful. Here, in the midst of human betrayal, is the definitive revelation of God’s deity itself!
God’s faithfulness to Israel is a special instance and occasion of his faithfulness to his whole creation, the clean and the unclean. Those who brought accusations against Paul and his theology that he was a radical did in fact understand what he was preaching and it turned their world upside down: God is justifying the ungodly! The pious man is offended by God’s justification of the impious. This is exactly the point of the Gospel two weeks ago: in that case it was the publican, the sinner that knew he was lost and accepts God’s Lordship who went home justified – who is found not guilty. The pious Pharisee in the story, the righteous man who actually believed that he had earned the right to walk with God between the split animals is lost. Only God is God and Lord of creation: