In the Absence of God

My forty-second day in the New Testament begins with the Paul’s letter to the Romans, and specifically the first three chapters. Thank you for joining me this summer. I also encourage you, too, to leave any comment you would like, on any post.

Here’s where we are, with Paul.

He wrote this letter to the five Roman house churches listed in Romans 16. It is also the last letter he wrote before he was imprisoned, which means he probably wrote this from Corinth around AD 56. Which may or may not matter to you. But historically, it matters a great deal.

In AD 49, Roman emperor Claudius expelled all Jews living in Rome because of the heated disputes between Orthodox Jews and Jewish Christians. The public disturbances must have been great. Rome had a population of between 500,000 and 1 million people, with about 40,000 of them being Jews.

A very small segment of the population had the rest of the population upset.

But when Claudius died, Nero became emperor, and Jewish people began to trickle back into Rome.

The Gentile Christians seemed to have developed a church style that was markedly different from what the Jewish Christians had left, though. Because the church climate was different, both groups had some pretty extreme difficulties accepting each other when they were reunited.

Sounds like our own family reunions, doesn’t it?

Anyway, this could only result in a crisis point in Rome for the church. Paul wrote this letter within a couple of years of this reunion — the disagreements happened quick, then, and they were sharp.

So Paul, who had plans to visit this city, penned a letter to them. He needed the size and importance of Rome to better move God’s message of grace across the Roman empire, but he also needed a safe landing when he arrived. He had no authority there, though. He had not planted that church. But he knew several believers, so he wrote his appeal, and letter, to them.

And so this is what gets us to the opening chapters of this book. And the first three chapters, even though they are a little wordy, will preach.

Because everyone is the same.

We are made to worship. Even those who do not believe in Jesus will worship something. Saviors come in a variety of ways, and Paul, in Romans 1, writes that, usually, any savior other than Jesus will look like something we make with our hands. We make our own visible god.

We like doing that. We like accepting and worshiping visible gods because visible gods do not convict our hearts. We prefer gods we can see, because we prefer gods we can control. We build these visible gods with our passion, our money, and our time, and choose the terms of our relationship.

But when we worship visible gods, we begin a pattern of destroying our lives. We destroy our intimacy with others. We destroy our own identity. And we destroy our relationships with others.

And this is how Paul opens this letter.

These first few verses in Romans 1 enrage us, though. And we typically use them most as a treatise against homosexuality. At least that’s what I learned growing up. That is allowable, from the text, and the language, though. But before we isolate one sinful behavior, we must give equal time to speaking against the other things in this passage, too:

  • Greed
  • Envy
  • Murder
  • Strife
  • Deceit
  • Malice
  • Gossip
  • Slander
  • God-haters
  • Insolence
  • Arrogance
  • Boasting
  • Disobedience to parents
  • Senseless
  • Faithless
  • Heartless
  • Ruthless

But we don’t do that, because most of us struggle with any one the other sins, I suspect. We may not struggle with homosexuality, but greed, on the other hand, can go hand in hand with the American dream, and our want of more and more. Quite a few of us, at least in America, probably struggle with greed.

So see the danger in picking just one sin to exploit? It’s no wonder that those who practice homosexuality generally do not like the practice of Christianity — we miss the forest because of the trees. Any of these destructive behaviors can be adopted by anyone who walks away from God.

Here’s one of the most powerful verses in these three chapters:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Romans 2:1)

We have no right to speak against anyone. And while we give special weight to the verses of homosexuality, we generally refuse to even mention the other behaviors — even while we bring any, or all, of these very same behaviors to the table of communion and fellowship.

How many of us suffer from arrogance?

How many of us abhor people who have much less than us?

Or how many of us seethe, and are envious, at the success of others?

How many of us readily participate in the gossip Facebook easily affords? Maybe we don’t share it, or “like” it, but we are all too ready to read it.

Do we lie, and lie often?

Are we dishonest on our tax returns, to have a bigger refund?

Maybe some of us even engage in homosexual behaviors.

Go ahead and lump all of those behaviors into one big group. They are the behaviors and patterns of our life, when we live any part of our life in the absence of God.

Paul knows this. You know this. He says as much:

… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … (Romans 3:23)

Paul isn’t leveling his audience with guilt. Nor should these words level us with guilt.

We live like non-believers, and we live like them all the time. It’s an obvious statement.

No one is morally superior.

Man, that’s heavy this morning. I must admit, I didn’t know what this post would look like. Reading these three chapters and some outside resources left my head spinning. But this is how Paul opens his most amazing letter.

He exalts God at our expense.

Here is what Paul writes, right before he tells us we all sin all the time:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference … (Romans 3:22)

And I love that. God makes us all right, even though we are all sinners. Lives can be different. The behaviors in Romans 1 can stop. While we share the very same sinful behaviors in the absence of God, we all share the very same forgiveness in a life lived for God.

Because, you see, Romans is about grace. And I can’t wait to read the rest of it.

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