Paul's story and ours

Paul wanted to write a letter to the church in Rome, and he knew how to do that, just like you know how to put the name and address on the front of the envelope with the stamp, and your own name with the return address on the back. In Paul’s day, you’d write your own name first and then the name of the intended recipient. It was simple, like, “Paul, to the church of God which is at Rome, greetings!”

What did he do? He wrote the letter in preparation for an upcoming visit, to a congregation he hadn’t founded, so he introduced himself. Paul, he wrote, a servant of Jesus Christ, he wrote, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, and then it was like he couldn’t stop: the opening sentence, Paul’s address line, as it were, is six verses long!

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ—to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.[1]

Paul couldn’t introduce himself without telling a story—not just any story, but the gospel of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, the story that had become so central to his own life that it was in a sense what made him who he was, Paul.[2]

When I met David the other day, he said, “Hi, I’m David!”—“Pleasure to meet you, David. I’m Thomas.”— there was that very brief moment when we were shaking hands, both of us quickly determining if it was OK to chat a little. You know how these things go, one of us will ask the other, “So, what brought you here?” or, “What do you do?” And then it’s on to “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” and before long comes the question, “I detect a slight accent. Where are you from?” … “Oh, Germany? What brought you here?” I remember the days when it took me ten minutes to answer that one; the current version is much shorter.

We build relationships by telling little pieces of our story, beginning with our name. I get the sense that Paul didn’t have much patience for chit-chat; the story that made him who he was was too urgent to be revealed only in bits and pieces. I imagine he was the kind of man who doesn’t move around much at a cocktail party; you introduce yourself and he tells you the story of his life—and in Paul’s case, that’s the story of life, the story of the new creation, the story of sinful humanity embraced by God’s grace and redeemed.

We all live from within a unique story, the narrative of how we became who we are. It’s a story of ancestors and places, of a language and a culture, or a mix of languages and cultures, a story shared to some degree with a particular generation and the experiences that shaped it, but always our story of our childhood with our family, for good or ill. It’s a story we tell others and ourselves, a story we have composed from the bits and pieces that seemed most important to us, our own memories along with stories others have told us about ourselves, and we keep braiding the strands into a whole as we get olderthe parts we love to share, the parts we tell only reluctantly, and the parts we’d rather forget but can’t.

The story Paul tells us is cosmic in scale. It’s so big, it contains all the stories of humankind. And it only has five characters. It begins with God who makes Adam. “Adam” means “ground” or “dust” and so also “the human creature made of dust,” something like “earthling,” the ancestor and representative of us all. Adam’s name speaks of our origin and our destiny as dust creatures who desire to be human without God“you are dust and to dust you shall return,” God said; you remember that line.[3] Something fractured the communion between humankind and Creator, between humans and our fellow creatures, something introduced by the human creature made of dust. The third character in Paul’s story is sin.[4]

In chapters 5-8 of his letter to the Romans, the noun “sin” occurs 42 times, often as a subject of a verb: sin entered the world (5:12), sin increased (5:20), sin exercised dominion (5:21), sin produced (7:8), sin revived (7:9), sin dwells (7:17). “Sin,” writes Beverly Gaventa, “clearly has a leading role in this letter.” And not just in this letter. Paul has a story to tell, and in it, Sin is the third character. Sin is not a lower-case transgression, not even a human disposition or flaw in human nature—in the story Paul tells, Sin is an upper-case Power that enslaves humankind and stands over against God. Humanity’s refusal of God’s lordship meant that God conceded humanity to the lordship of another—upper-case Sin, the personification of our desire to be human without God, to live self-centered, rather than God-centered, lives. If Paul had written a comic book, Sin would be the supervillain, the Dark Lord of Doom, who, like a cosmic terrorist, unleashed Death, the fourth character in Paul’s story. No one could escape from Sin’s dominion of death.

Until the fifth character entered Sin’s dominion, and in obedience and faithfulness to God bore the full weight of Sin’s oppressive rule, was crucified and died—and on the third day God raised him from the dead. The power of Sin and Death was broken, shattered by the power of God, shattered by love. And just as many were enslaved by sin through the disobedience of one, Adam, so the many were set free for righteousness through the obedience of one, Christ Jesus. That is the story that made Paul who he was, the story of humanity’s exodus in Christ from slavery under sin to freedom in the dominion of grace. As Pharaoh’s power was broken when Israel passed through the sea, so sin’s power was broken when we passed through the waters of baptism. Paul speaks of it as our immersion into Christ’s death, our burial with him. Christ’s solidarity with us means that our lives are so intertwined with his, that his death becomes ours, and when we are raised from the waters, we no longer belong in the Adam-world, but begin to walk in newness of life. Set free from all other lordships, we live in complete and trusting surrender to God.

Paul tells us his story, the gospel of our redemption, to invite us into it so we recognize it as the story of our life, a story big enough for all of us, empowering us to give up, abandon, and renounce other stories as well as bits of our own story that have shaped our lives in false or distorting ways.[5] In the ancient church, new believers who wished to be baptized into Christ, took off their clothes as symbols of their former life and, leaving them in a pile somewhere near the baptistery, entered the water naked as they were when they were born. When they emerged from the water, a deacon dressed them in a white robe – but not silk for some and scratchy wool for the rest; no, the same white robe for all. In the new creation, the former divisions of humanity along ethnic or gender lines, or by class and status no longer apply. Or as Paul put it, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[6] We are one in Christ, because he has made us his own. In the deep solidarity of God’s love he has embraced us, never to let go, to free us from the perverse solidarity of sin that makes us one in Adam.

When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the moment and the place or who it was that lowered us into the water. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you are dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.  It is a way of saying: Be who you are. And: Remember to whom you belong. In Paul’s story, everyone belongs. But we are not meant to belong to Sin and be slaves to Sin while fancying ourselves to belong to no one but ourselves. We are meant to live in the covenant of Love that binds us to God and to each other, serving the One whose kingdom has no end.

 

[1] Romans 1:1-7

[2] See Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, xix.

[3] Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, p. 58

[4] See Beverly Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin …,” Interpretation 58, no. 3 (2004), 229-240.

[5] See Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 10.

[6] Galatians 3:27-28

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