How churches go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 2

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—January 11, 2015—Romans 2:1-29

The Bible at times, can be pretty, um, shall we say, “realistic” or “earthy,” sometimes embarrassingly so. For example, what’s going on with Lot and his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? Or the way King David coped when he was “old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes he could not get warm” (1 Kings 1:2). Not to mention the story after story of gruesome violence that all too often goes into very bloody detail. I won’t give more detailed examples, that would too embarrassing….

An “earthy” ritual

And then there is one of the central rituals in the entire story—one with enormous symbolic power in both the Old and New Testaments—the ritual of circumcision, a ritual I generally prefer not to think about too explicitly. It seems to me that this ritual, both in the Bible and in contemporary life, is problematic on several levels. But the Bible obviously sees circumcision as extraordinarily meaningful. And it remains present throughout the story—often on the deeper metaphorical level.

The Apostle Paul thought about circumcision a great deal. He makes it a key image in his wrestling with the life of faith. It’s in the middle of the discernment work as his community of Jesus followers sought to relate their Jewish tradition to the influx of new believers who weren’t Jews.

Paul could be pretty earthy himself on occasion, such as when he wrote about conflicts concerning circumcision and its weighty symbolic legacy. In his letter to the Galatians, he gets salty when he writes about people he believed were disastrous teachers. They legalistically tried to impose circumcision on new, non-Jewish converts to Christianity. This is what Paul wrote: “Whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty…. If I were still preaching legalistic circumcision I would not be persecuted by other Jews like I am…. I wish those who unsettle you, instead of just circumcising, would castrate themselves” (Gal 5:11-12).

Circumcision also plays a major role in Romans 2, our passage for today. Let me read a condensed version of that passage now. As I read, think about what associations circumcision might have for you. We’ll take a few moments to talk about those before I go on with my reflections.

When you are judgmental toward others, you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, tend to do the very same things. Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do unjust things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? God will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing justice seek for shalom, God will give eternal life; while for those who obey not the truth but injustice, there will be wrath

It is not the hearers of the law who are just in God’s sight, but the doers of the law. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do naturely what the law requires, they show that the law’s expectations are written on their hearts. But if you call yourself a Jewish Christian and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God, and if you are sure that you are a light to those who are in darkness, having in the law all knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against violence, do you act violently? You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are physically uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Such law-keepers will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. A person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not physical. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:1-29)

So, what words or thoughts come to mind as you think about circumision?

An ambivalent symbol

In my view, circumcision is at best an ambivalent act and an ambivalent metaphor. It conveys important truths about faith and witness and identity—and it serves as a symbol for much that is problematic in religious communities.

On the one hand, the ritual itself seems exclusive and patriarchal. It leaves out an entire gender. It’s also violent toward children. Because it is an obvious, external marker, it works well as a basis for boundary maintenance, for determining who is in and who is out—and, as such, circumcision can become an occasion for what Paul calls “boasting,” taking a pride in one’s insider status that is enhanced by having “outsiders” to look down on. On the other hand, though, circumcision plays a crucial role in the sustenance of the biblical faith community. It helps the community maintain its identity and sustain its call to bless all the families of the earth.

I am interested, in these sermons, in thinking about the book of Romans as an anti-empire text. Paul’s theological reflections center on a concern that followers of Jesus at the heart of the Roman Empire stand for genuine justice, for genuine peace, for genuine salvation, for genuine security. Paul poses Jesus and Caesar as two opposing sources for these things. As I think about Romans and empire, I am struck with the sense that the history of circumcision—at least, the history of circumcision when it works as it is intended by God—is a history of resisting empire.

Circumcision was a clear way for believers to say, to remember: we are different. We are not simply a citizen of empire. We have a different calling, a different loyalty, a different identity. Circumcision could help the faith community focus on blessing and shalom and healing justice.

The basic idea, and we see this in Paul’s words in Romans 2, is that “circumcision is of value if you obey the law.” Paul makes clear later in Romans that he agrees with Jesus. He defines what it means to “obey the law”—love your neighbor as yourself (13:8-10). So, circumcision (or, I want to suggest, any religious ritual or practice or doctrine or expectation) is of value if it helps us to love our neighbors. When authentic, these practices symbolize this call.

How churches go wrong

At the same time, circumcision also symbolizes how churches go wrong—when they make the practices legalistic, when they make the practices boundary markers that separate them from outsiders in ways that become rigid and lead to violence when those boundaries must be defended. So, it can be something life giving or not. Circumcision can symbolize why churches have such a positive role to play in the world. It can show how important sustaining a sense of identity and vocation are for empowering people of faith to be agents for healing in the world.

Maybe we could see some parallels between circumcision and the American flag. I have a close friend who was teaching at a Mennonite college (not EMU) when the September 11, 2001, attacks happened. To the chagrin of many of his colleagues, my friend put a picture of the American flag on his office door in the immediate aftermath. He wanted to express solidarity with those who lost their lives, especially the first response emergency workers. He also wanted to evoke the best in the American tradition—democratic values, generosity toward those in need, providing a welcome for the world’s “tired, hungry, and poor.” The American flag can be an inspiration to seek peace and pursue justice.

Within a few days, though, my friend took his flag picture down. The sense of the symbol changed. President Bush ordered immediate war on Afghanistan. The flag became a call to arms. The flag became a symbol for violent revenge to be visited on a poverty-stricken, defenseless people half way across the world.

Likewise, circumcision can symbolize a kind of sacred violence against those who threaten the purity of the community. Circumcision can symbolize a sense of superiority and arrogance about being part of the one people of God who will stand victorious over all the heathen and unbelievers.

All too often, maybe not evoking circumcision but some other practice or doctrine, Christians hypocritically condemn another faith. Just the other day on Facebook, a friend wrote about how different Christianity is from Islam. Islam is violent and terrorist; Christianity is peaceable, he wrote. As if our “Christian” empire is not profoundly violent! Still, circumcision can symbolize the call to bless instead of curse, the call to welcome instead of judge, the call to serve rather than lord it over.

The biblical story

The Bible as a whole can be seen as a story about resisting empire. In the exodus, when the Egyptian empire under the God-king Pharaoh sought to crush the enslaved Hebrews—God liberated the slaves, and gave them the law codes, including an emphasis on circumcision, to empower a way of life that would be a witness against empire. Circumcision meant: We are different from those that enslave and oppress. Circumcision helps us remember that; it helps us remember, as the law code in Leviticus stated: “You shall love the aliens, the strangers, the immigrants, in your midst; they shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love them as yourselves, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34).

Israel’s prophets also gave this kind of call. Live as a counterculture that critiques empire and offer a positive alternative to the ways of empire. And the same call stands at the center of Jesus’s message: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:42-43).

Paul’s critique of religion

I talked in my last sermon about how in Romans 1 Paul critiques the ways of empire, the lust and injustice, the spiral of violence that follows from refusing to live in gratitude and from trusting in human creations (such as nation states) instead of God.

Partly, though, Paul, along with his heartfelt critique and warning—do not trust in Rome or any other empire—Paul sets his readers up. Yes, his critique is genuine. But also, he uses such strong language in describing Rome, and evokes such disgust at the out of control lust of the Roman elite, in order to get his readers to nod their heads in emphatic agreement.

But then Paul drops the other shoe—you too, insofar as you are judgmental toward others while engaged in your own forms of injustice and idolatry, are just as bad. Talk about taking the wind out of the sails of the emphatic nodding! Paul has in mind his own past life where he resisted empire by enforcing strict purity in his own religious community. But he did so through violence toward the new community of followers of Jesus. In the name of obeying God, and in the name of resisting empire—resisting Jewish acculturation to Roman culture—Paul had himself been filled with every kind of injustice, malice and ruthlessness (just like the Roman elite).

Religious communities, churches, can (and do) indeed go wrong by not resisting empires. They can believe too uncritically in the ultimate rightness and indispensability of their own nation-states. But, Paul now says, they also can go wrong in the opposite direction, in how they try to resist empire. They can mirror the empire they hate and become just like it.

Paul despised Rome and feared his Jewish community being absorbed into that culture. So he fought, hard, zealously, using death-dealing violence, to protect the boundaries. His words at the beginning of Romans 2 describe himself in his zealot days: “In passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing.”

So, churches should resist empire. As we resist, our rituals, doctrines, and other practices can be crucial. They help the community retain a sense of identity that is different from the empire, different from our surrounding society insofar as it is not committed to genuine shalom for all people. The practices, often expressed when the community gathers to worship and when the community articulates its expectations of its members, the practices can remind us of what matters most. As Paul writes here in Romans 2, circumcision is of value when it helps one obey the law (of love of neighbor). Likewise with communion, with baptism, with sermons, with confessions of faith, with communal singing, with potlucks.

The appropriate purpose of Christian practices

Where churches go wrong, though, is when the practices, the distinctives, the rituals do not serve the ultimate calling—to bless, to love, to welcome, to heal all the families of the earth. It is too easy for these practices to be ends in themselves. Communion and baptism can become self-contained ways for the individual to get right with God, regardless of the life that accompanies them. Confessions of faith become ways to enforce conformity and exclude dissent. Even worship music can become simply a performance or an exercise of the elite that reinforces a sense of separation not a sense of participation.

I remember one congregation that had marvelous choirs and a majestic organ. Then I realized during congregational singing, most people had their mouths closed and detached looks on their faces. This part of worship was for someone else, not for them.

Paul’s comments about circumcision get right to the heart of the matter. Circumcision (or any other religious practice) can become a curse if you think it in itself is what connects you with God. “If you break the law, if you practice injustice, if you refuse to love your neighbor, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” Paul insists. He evokes the sharp words of the prophet Amos—when you go to your worship services while you practice injustice, you sin, that worship becomes blasphemy. Take communion while disdaining your sister or brother and it’s an act of rebellion against God, not an act of obedience.

Who’s actually “circumcised”?

“Note, too, the other side—those who are not physically circumcised but who follow the law, those who are not physically circumcised but do love their neighbors, those who are not physically circumcised but do resist empire in healing ways—these actually are circumcised in the way that matters. They have circumcised hearts. Praise God for such people.

I remember a friend of ours from years ago named Bob. Bob was an agnostic, religiously unaffiliated. We had a great study group together, reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Bob was a humanist—not a theist. But he gave his life to serving the poor in our community through the local free clinic. Talk about a circumcised heart!

Still, the church is important, even necessary. That is what I think Paul teaches in Romans. The empire must be resisted, and the church is a crucial place where this can happen. Rituals. Worship. Teaching. Encouragement. Friendship. Communal prayer. All these practices are meant to be powerful tools for resisting empire. They can be a constant reminder of where our loyalty lies—the New Jerusalem, not Babylon.

Even more, to focus on the positive, these practices are meant to be powerful tools that manifest on earth here and now something of the New Jerusalem, something of the fullness of human life as it is meant to be. These practices are meant to remind us of the greatest commandment—love the Lord your God with all your heart—and the second commandment that links inextricably with the first—love your neighbor as yourself.

Churches go wrong when their special practices echo what Paul says can happen with circumcision: “If you break the law, if you don’t love your neighbor, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (2:26). Keep the priorities straight, and the churches’ practices will serve life. So be it.

This is the third in a series of sermons on the book of Romans—Here is the home page for these sermons.

1 thought on “How churches go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 2

  1. Berry Friesen

    Ted, thank you for your description of Paul as a zealous opponent of empire even before he became convinced of the Way of Jesus. It helps us understand that the basic posture of faith is anti-imperial, and then further helps us understand one of the important additional differences the Way of Jesus introduced into Paul’s life.

    Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all anti-imperial. In and of itself, that anti-imperial stance contributes to the world’s violence by its pursuit of justice. In his opposition to imperial structures, Jesus stepped out of that spiral of violence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s