Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The arc of the universe (Proper 12A; July 27, 2008)

Paul’s letter to the Romans was one of the last letters that Paul wrote, and by just about any standard, it was his most important letter. Why was that? First, Paul was writing to introduce himself to a Christian community that did not know him. All of his other letters are either to churches he had a part in founding or to individuals he knew. But the church in Rome predated Paul. We do not know who started the Christian community in Rome, but we do know that Paul had no part in starting it. Secondly, the church in Rome had great significance because it was in the city that ruled the world. That is why the bishop of Rome (whom we know today as the pope) became the most important bishop in the western church. As the emperor’s power diminished and eventually disappeared, the bishop of Rome’s power increased, but that is a topic for another time. Thirdly, Romans is Paul’s longest letter. It had to be lengthy because Paul was summing up all that he had learned and taught. And fourthly, the church at Rome may have been a little suspicious of Paul because he had not been among the twelve apostles whom Jesus called during his earthly ministry. Paul describes himself in 1 Cor. 15 as “the least of the apostles.” Paul had been a fierce critic and persecutor of Christians and their beliefs who was suddenly and unexpectedly confronted by the risen Christ.

Halfway through the sixteen chapters of Romans, Paul reaches his main point. What comes before and what comes after chapter 8 are important, but I believe that the last few verses of chapter 8 are the pivot about which Paul’s letter turns. Indeed, I would say that they are the pivot about which Paul’s theology turns. And it would not be overstating it to say that these verses are the heart and soul of the New Testament. So what is that pivot? In a word: love. Does it seem strange to say that love is at the very heart of Paul’s theology? If so, that is because Paul has unjustly acquired a reputation for harshness. Make no mistake: Paul was undoubtedly a difficult person. He was proud and perhaps a little insecure. Remember that Paul was not a part of the “inner circle”. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul seems a little overly proud of his Jewish heritage. Comparing himself to some so-called apostles who were undermining his teaching, Paul wrote, “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I? Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I? Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one!” One wants to say, “OK, Paul, we get the point. Now chill out!”

However, if we filter out Paul’s personal quirks and foibles, we find his letters suffused with love. When Paul writes to the Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit, he lists love first (Gal. 5.22). When he writes to the Ephesians, he prays that they may be “rooted and grounded in love.” (Eph. 3.17) When he writes to the Philippians, he says, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Phil. 2.2) And above all, there is the 13th chapter of First Corinthians. The greatest of the Spirit’s gifts, the “more excellent” way, is love that “hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things.”

But I think it is in Romans 8 that Paul explains both the character of love and the nature of the Christian faith more fully than anywhere else in his letters. “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” the “who” is misleading; it could just as easily be translated “what”. So Paul answers his own rhetorical question, one by one checking off the things that try but cannot separate us from the love of Christ: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword, death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth… And finally Paul sums it all up: nothing “in all creation” can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It’s the climax of Paul’s theolo gy; it’s the sun breaking through the clouds after a week of rain; it’s the New York Philharmonic and a chorus of hundreds singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

Paul is saying that at the very heart of the universe there are two competing forces: a force for disintegration that tears things apart and a force for integration that holds things together. There is a name for this force for integration; we call it love. Love is the gravity that draws us toward one another and toward God. But there is always a competing force that tries to separate us from each other and from God. And here in Romans 8, Paul is telling us which of those forces will win in the long run.

This week in England the bishops of the Anglican communion are meeting. There is much talk of schism, break up and separation. Just a few weeks ago conservative bishops met and more or less declared that if they did not get their way, if they did not win, they would separate themselves from the Anglican communion. About one fourth of the bishops of the Anglican communion are boycotting the Lambeth conference. I cannot and do not believe that any good can come from this conservative movement. I believe that they have aligned themselves with the forces of disintegration, rather than the forces of integration. I believe that they have taken sides against the love, which (as Paul says in Colossians) “ binds all things together in perfect harmony.” (Col. 3.14)

I understand that they are troubled by the election of Gene Robinson to serve as bishop of New Hampshire. I understand that a few are still troubled by the ordination of women to serve as priests and bishops. I understand that many are troubled by what they perceive to be unorthodox beliefs held and taught by some Anglican leaders. None of these are small issues. All of them deserve prayerful and thoughtful consideration. But I do not believe that any of them is so momentous that it should break up the Anglican communion.

No one is calling for us to tear up the Bible. No one is saying that we should abandon the creeds. No one is suggesting that we should toss the Ten Commandments in the waste paper basket. We can and should discuss, deliberate, even argue about many things, but at the end of the day, Anglicans still believe that Jesus is Lord. And because of that we believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God that took human form, was born in Bethlehem, taught in parables, took the side of the poor and marginalized, was betrayed by one friend and abandoned by the rest, was nailed to a cross and died, rose again on the third, and reigns forever at the right hand of the Eternal Majesty, the love we name as Jesus of Nazareth.

In his last sermon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We shall ov ercome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would like to paraphrase Dr. King’s remark: “We shall overcome, because the arc of the universe bends toward love”

But Paul said it even better than Dr. King, “…I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”