Anglican Church of Canada
August 4, 2019 Proper 18
When I was at General Synod a couple of weeks back, I picked up an interesting book. (I can never resist a book table!) It is a fascinating reading of the epistle to the Romans. (Yeah, I know, and I even got to take it to the beach!) It is written by two Canadian theologians who have been writing some very good stuff in the lead-up to the marriage canon debate at General Synod, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, a husband and wife team from the Toronto area.
What is so interesting about this book is the way they approach Romans. We tend to think of Paul’s letters as these massive, abstract, dense theological arguments, which are pretty impenetrable to us; more material for academic theologians to make sense of. This book I’m reading takes a different approach: it invites us to approach Paul’s letters by imagining in detail the people it was addressed to, the very disparate group of working folk, slaves, and the occasional well-to-do citizen, men and women, Jews, Romans, Greeks, and people from two dozen nations all over the empire.
These are people who have come together, against all expectation, into a radical new community that breaks down all the social boundaries. They have been captivated by the gospel that Paul preached: there is something in the story of Jesus that promises them a freedom and dignity that the society around them has denied them.
When we start by thinking about these people and what caught their imagination, we see Paul’s letters in a different light: we read them not so much as abstract theological treatises, and more as a voice that offers concrete comfort and hope to people in a particular historical context.
The book is specifically about the letter to the Romans, but the principle applies to any of the New Testament epistles, like today’s reading from Colossians. The context of any of the churches that Paul wrote letters to was a context of empire. The Roman empire, a massive military, economic, political, and ideological machine, dominated the lives of its people. For some, for the Roman middle class, for those who made a successful career as army officers or traders, it was a benevolent system. For very many others, particularly the swarming masses of these imperial cities, where the gospel found such willing ears and hearts, the empire was anything but benevolent.
There would have been many slaves in these first Christian communities. Slavery was a by-product of empire: slaves were captured in the constant wars on the empire’s borders, and shipped back for sale to the cities. As slaves they were completely the property of their owners, their human dignity stripped from them and turned into a commodity. They could be whipped or killed at their master’s whim. They were displaced people, torn from their homeland, but with no hope of making a real home for themselves among this foreign people. Their children could be taken from them and sold. They could be subject to sexual exploitation; and in a patriarchal, hyper-sexualized culture, this would not have been uncommon.
The early church would have contained country people, small farmers forced off their land by the growth of big estates who grew wine and olive oil for export. Just like today, they would move to the city to try to survive with low wage, insecure jobs, living in crowded tenements.
There were the Jews, dispersed from their homeland by war and economic need. The Jews were distrusted as fanatical, violent people, known as disloyal for a history of revolting against Roman power, and refusing to sacrifice to the gods. They faced prejudice similar to what Muslims face today.
And so on. A diverse, rag-tag group of people who had only one thing in common: they had been left out of the great success story of empire, displaced from their homes and left without a home. People very different from our experience – and yet we don’t have to look far in our world to see how very modern their experience was.
Walsh and Keesmaat, the authors of this book, are connected with ministry in Toronto that does church with some of the most marginalized people in our imperial capital. With First Nations people, whose culture and dignity have been taken by the forces of colonialism, left displaced and homeless on the streets of the city. Refugees, facing prejudice as they try to make a living in a new place, where they don’t understand the language or the culture, while carrying the trauma of the violence they left behind. Kids from abusive homes, deeply wounded by sexual exploitation, trapped in the dehumanizing world of the sex industry. We need to imagine the letters of Paul written to people like that; and if we do, they can begin to make sense in a new way.
So let us try to listen to the words of our reading from Colossians with people like that, marginalized, displaced, homeless, in mind.
The passage begins with difficult words:
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
It is a reference to baptism: in baptism we have shared in the death of Christ. How deeply Paul’s message of the crucified Saviour must have resonated with people in such pain, as it still does today. Here was a different kind of Saviour: not a brutal warrior, like Caesar, but one who shared the suffering of the most vulnerable. And in their baptism they in turn became one with him, one with the divine, suffering love. Their life, their real life full of promise and meaning and dignity, is now with him. There may not be much visible in their daily lives here, as they have to continue with the drudgery of their exploitation; but they have a secret identity hidden in Christ, the identity of a beloved child of God. And someday, when Christ is revealed to the world, this new identity of theirs will shine.
The letter goes on to speak of the evil ways they must put behind them:
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
I think I have tended to read a list like this as a bit of Victorian moralizing. It is true that this list may not seem so terribly applicable to us most of the time, except to make us feel guilty about having sexual feelings. In the context of empire, however, we see that it is much more sinister. The vices listed here outline the very contours of empire: the greed, exploitation, selfishness, and contempt for the other that would have been so evident in the life of the powerful in the Roman Empire.
In place of the ways of empire, then, Christians are called to a new identity:
“. . .you have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
And it goes on to one of the most beautiful descriptions of Christian life in the New Testament:
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. “
Notice how, when we look to the context of the people to whom this letter was addressed, these words becomes more than just some general feel-good sentiments about being kind to one another. Against the backdrop of empire, this kind of community becomes an act of resistance, of protest and subversion of the violence and contempt and greed that seems to rule in this world.
It can be that for us today. This is where I see the promise of this book, and the way it is teaching us to read the Bible, looking to the oppressed and broken people. It can remind us anew of what we know already: that our faith is a brave and subversive act of resistance in this world, an act that can give us hope and clarity and passionate conviction in the face of the daily news cycle that wears us down.