Category Archives: Romans

Sin: What it is and what to do about it—Paul’s message in Romans 6

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA, June 14, 2015, Romans 6:1-23

Sometimes little things are powerful—the most dangerous spiders are those little brown recluses. The hottest chili peppers are the tiny Carolina creepers. And the word “sin”—with only three letters—has all kinds of significance for religious people, and those who know religious people.

Problems with “sin”

One of the problems in North American Christianity is that the word sin is used mainly by people on one side of the theological spectrum. It feels like a harsh and finger pointing kind of word. So good peaceable progressives tend to avoid it. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where everybody cedes the meaning of sin to those who do use it in hurtful ways.

We all do know that to call something a sin is to say it’s very bad. It’s like the famous story about President Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s. He was notoriously a man of few words. One Sunday he went to church and later met with some reporters. “What was the sermon about,” he was asked. “It was about sin.” “What did the preacher say about sin?” “He said he was agin it.” … What more is there to say?

Well, a few decades later, the Louvin Brothers, one of the great country music brother singing acts , recorded a song called “Broadminded” that did say a little more: “That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n. I read in my Bible, they shall not enter in. Depart, I never knew you. That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n.” The song goes on to list the really bad sins—to “gamble now and then for pleasure,” to “drink a little whisky to please a friend,” and to go “dancing with friends.”

Of course we can think of even more hurtful ways the label sin is used. If it’s people others want to exclude or silence or marginalize, they can be accused of being sinful, of “living in sin.” One of the reasons this hurtful use of sin language is too bad is that many of us tend to react against using it at all then—and that makes for a challenge when we want to find language to use to talk about things that are genuinely wrong—like war and environmental exploitation and racism. We don’t find it meaningful to say those things are sinful—but we don’t have other words that work, either.

But there is another problem with the way “sin” is used among Christians. If it’s used as a word for the evils of “broadmindedness” or if it’s a word we refuse to use—in both cases we think of “sin” mainly as rule violations or moralistically objectionable behavior. To think of sin in these ways makes it harder to understand one of the Apostle Paul’s use of sin language—and we miss Paul’s helpful contributions to how we might approach life in healing and creative ways. Continue reading

It all starts with love: Paul’s message in Romans 5

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite, May 17, 2015, Romans 5:1-21 

You know, growing older is a crazy thing. On my birthday a bit more than a week ago my sister posted on Facebook a picture of me when I was about one year old. I looked at that picture (which I don’t remember having seen before) with wonder. That happy, chubby little kid was me—sixty years ago! Then I realized that I am as far from that picture now as I would have been then from a picture taken in 1895.

Or, as I put this sermon together I was thinking of a popular song I remember by folksinger Joan Baez called “Love is Just a Four Letter Word.” Written by Bob Dylan, it was a song I liked when it was new. Well, it came out in 1969. Back then, a song as old as that one is now would have been released in 1923—before country music was invented, and about thirty years before rock and roll.

As is typical with Dylan songs, the lyrics are a bit cryptic, unclear, oblique, and obscure. But the title, repeated many times as a chorus, has stuck with me. Is love “just a four letter word”? We Christians would say, no way. Love is one of our most important positive words—love is the opposite of an obscenity. God is all about love. If we believe in God, we believe in love, right?

God is all about love

But what do we actually mean when we say “God is all about love”? We might even say, quoting one of the letters of John, “God is love”—I certainly believe that. I think the Apostle Paul did, too. And I think this statement, “God is love” is an important clue for understanding Paul’s letter to the Romans.

It’s interesting, though, that sometimes it seems difficult to articulate what we actually mean by love—both when we attribute it to God and when we think about what exactly it is in human experience. I think more than ever, it is important to think carefully about love. Like the British poet W. H. Auden famously wrote at the outset of World War II, “we must love one another or die.”

The fifth chapter of Romans is an important love chapter—maybe not quite as potent at 1 Corinthians 13 (“These three remain, faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love”) yet potent enough, if we can get a sense of what Paul is saying. Continue reading

Abraham’s gospel: Paul’s message in Romans 4

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite, April 19, 2015, Romans 4:1-25

Kathleen and I love to go on road trips. We’ve been all over the United States and seen some amazing views. We especially love mountains and oceans. We don’t agree with our friends from Winnipeg who say they don’t like mountains because they block the scenery. Although in our time in South Dakota we came to love the prairie too.

In my mind, the greatest viewing experience we ever had came in the mountains of western North Carolina. We were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. In general, we believe the west is best, but the Parkway, especially in North Carolina, is probably about our favorite drive ever. A few years ago we spent the night in Little Switzerland and greatly anticipated the next morning when we would drive by Mt. Mitchell, the highest spot east of the Rockies, and then see points west.

But when we got up, it was totally foggy. As thick a fog as we’ve ever seen. Now, the forest has its own eerie beauty when you can barely see the white lines on the highway. Still, we were uneasy when we drove twenty miles or so and never saw another car. But then came the moment. We turned a corner and without any warning the fog was gone. We had the most incredible vista, in the bright sunlight, mountains, valleys, forests. It was amazing. Then, we were back in the fog for several more miles. It was just those few moments, but the picture is still vivid in my memory.

Embracing the entire Bible

This experience came to mind as I was thinking about Romans four, believe it or not. A lot of Christians, maybe especially a lot of Mennonites, are pretty suspicious of the Old Testament. And pretty suspicious of the Apostle Paul. And, deeply suspicious of the book of Revelation. There is the great bright light of Jesus, his picture of a God of love and mercy—and much of the rest of the Bible is kind of foggy, wars and rumors of war, legalistic religion, abstract doctrine, with the finale of Revelation’s unspeakable bloody judgment.

This is the analogy; the Bible can seem like that foggy drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is but one spot of incredible beauty. It can redeem the whole thing—but the rest isn’t of much value. I want to say: No! The Bible is actually more like our return trip coming back home. Then the Parkway was clear and sunny all the way and we had one beautiful scene after another. Likewise the whole Bible has great beauty. Continue reading

Mercy all the way down: Paul’s message in Romans 3

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite—April 12, 2015—Romans 3:9-31

There is a famous story that almost for sure didn’t really happen. But it’s kind of funny and it provides a metaphor I want to adapt for this sermon. Some big time philosopher (or maybe it’s a scientist) lectures about the infinite cosmos and is challenged by an elderly woman in the audience. “What you are telling us about the universe is rubbish. The earth rests on the back of a huge turtle.” “Oh yes,” the philosopher says, “and pray tell, what holds up the turtle?” “Why, another turtle, of course.” “And what holds up that turtle?” “Ah, I get where you’re going. But sir, it is turtles, all the way down!” Turtles all the way down, we don’t need anything more.

Now, I don’t want to make any claims about the infinity or not of the physical universe this morning. My concern is the Apostle Paul’s account of the gospel. However, I want to use this metaphor of “turtles all the way down” to think of the moral universe. In many readings of Paul—and, hence, many understandings of the gospel—we have something like this: God can forgive only because God’s justice has been satisfied by Jesus’s sacrificial death. Or, maybe it’s God’s holiness or God’s honor.

The point is that God can’t simply forgive—the moral nature of the universe requires some kind of satisfaction, some kind of payment, to balance out the enormity of human sin. Reciprocity. Retribution. Tit for tat. It can’t be mercy all the way down. The moral universe rests on something else—retributive justice or justice as fairness. Mercy is possible only in ways that account for this kind of justice—which means salvation is not truly based on mercy. Rather, salvation is based on an adequate payment of the universe’s moral price tag placed on human sin.

Today’s Romans 3 passage has often been cited to support what has been called the “satisfaction view of the atonement.” This view sees the meaning of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice of a sinless victim that satisfies God’s need for a payment for human sin. This payment allows God to offer us forgiveness if we accept Jesus as our savior. I’m going to offer a different reading this morning. Continue reading

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). Continue reading

How empires go wrong: Paul’s message in Romans 1

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 16, 2014—Romans 1:16-32

The Apostle Paul was a pretty passionate and opinionated guy. He was also a pretty deep thinker. I have come to conclude that he’s a friend of peacemakers, a friend of justice-seekers. Of course, not everyone agrees….

I argue for a peaceable Paul in these sermons on Romans. Today is the second of maybe sixteen I will do over the next couple of years. A big hurdle in understanding Paul peaceably is today’s passage—the second half of Romans, chapter one.

Before I make my case on Paul’s behalf, I want to read the verses—a bit of a condensed version. As I read, listen and think of a word or two you can share about how Paul’s thoughts here strike you.

I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful. In it the justice of God is revealed; as it is written, “The one who is just will live by trust.” At the same time, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth.

What can be known about God is plain to all people, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s divine nature has been understood and seen through the things God has made. Unjust people are without excuse; for though they can know God, they do not honor or give thanks to God. They become futile in their thinking, and their minds are darkened. Though they claim to be wise, they become fools. They exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.  Continue reading

Paul’s antidote to empire

Ted Grimsrud

Sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—October 12, 2014—Romans 1:1-17

One of the arguments I have had with several of my friends over the years concerns the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. The issue, in essence, has been whether Paul is a friend or enemy for radical, social gospel type Christians. I’d say “friend!”; they would say “enemy!” And on we’d go.

Concerns about Paul

Part of the problem for me has been that many of Paul’s biggest supporters have not been people I necessarily would want to be allied with—those who oppose welcoming gays into the church, those who support patriotic wars, those who teach a gospel of human depravity and the need for an individualistic kind of personal conversion (what I was taught years ago as the “Romans road to salvation”).

Just the other day, in one of my classes a student talked about the kind of deep pleasure he gets when he hears people speak against Paul. And that’s not surprising—Paul’s most famous piece of writing, his letter to the Romans, contains what are surely two of the most hurtful, destructive passages in all of the Bible.

I’m thinking of the part of chapter one that seems to condemn gays and lesbians. These verses are almost always cited when Bible-believers speak against Christians taking a welcoming stance. And I’m thinking of the verses in chapter 13 that begin, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” I know from “my scientific research” that Romans 13 is by far the most important part of the Bible for those who argue against pacifism and in favor of “necessary” war.

Yet, still, I want to say, to paraphrase Paul’s own words: “I am not ashamed of the Apostle Paul and his letter to the Romans.” And, beginning today, I want to use my “bully pulpit” here at Shalom to make a case for why this is so. I’m starting another series, this one on the book of Romans. I will show why the typical uses of Romans to support hostility toward gays and to support going to war are misuses (you’ll have to come back for those, though; I won’t get there today).

More than refuting misuses of Romans, though, I want to show how Romans can a powerful resource for peace in our broken world. I want to show how Paul gives us an “antidote to empire.” Paul presents a story that is meant to subvert, counter, even overturn the story the Roman Empire told about what matters most in life. And, sadly, we need this subversion, countering, and overturning of the story of Empire as much today as ever. Continue reading