All Sin and All Grace

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God: they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . .

Romans 3:21-24a

The gospel according to Romans . . . that can make for some interesting reflections. Reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Romans might prove interesting because this particular letter is unique among the Pauline corpus as a letter written by Paul to a group of people he did not directly know; because this letter is the longest of Paul’s letter; or because this letter represents—it appears—Paul’s last, most robust, and systematic theological articulations, the culmination of a life in ministry and its musings. All of these possibilities may help explain why reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Romans proves interesting. Yet, here, I am more curious to explore how Paul uses theology to attempt to resolve an internal, social tension within the Roman churches. His deployment of theology in this reconciling task seems both useful and a summary of the good news permeating this letter.

To understand why Paul wrote this letter to address some social tension within the Roman churches, it is helpful to establish when he wrote this letter, focusing the scope of our speculation on the particular circumstances that prompted Paul putting his apostolic pen to epistolary paper, as it were. Christians seemed to have arrived in Rome sometime before 49 CE. We do not have an exact date for the initial establishment of the churches in Rome. Some scholars use the date of 49 CE as a marker for the presence of the church in Rome because in that year that emperor Claudius expels all the Jews from the city. But, what does the emperor’s expulsion of the Jews have to do with the our knowing that the church is in Rome?

The answer to that question revolves around the letter “e.”

The Roman historian Suetonious records the reason for the expulsion to be because of regular “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Lives of Caesars, Claudius, 25). Both James Edwards and Leander Keck speak for a school of biblical scholars who hold that “Chrestus” is simply a misreporting of the as-yet-little-known Christ (or Christus in Latin). If the Jews are expelled by the Emperor in 49 CE because of a cult of Christ and the subsequent tension and tumult caused by his new gospel’s arrival to the Jewish congregations in Rome, then that helps explain (1) a date by which we may confirm the Jewish church’s presence in Rome and the impetus for the imperial expulsions, (2) the meetings with expelled Romans Jews found in the book of Acts, and (3) Paul’s subsequent writing of a letter to Roman Christians. I will take each of these explanations in turn.

First, since the early Jesus movement was—for good reason—indistinguishable from Judaism and the Jewish communities in which it initially operated, it is not an unreasonable leap to believe that Claudius is unfamiliar with Judaism as one of the many cults within the Empire and most likely unaware of the internal squabbling around the role of Jesus within this minor sect. Moreover, it seems equally likely that the emperor would broadly categorize all Jews as problematic because of the “Christus issue” and send the Jews away from his city in an effort to remove the problem and restore order. Hence, we have our date and our rational for expulsion. Yet, his removing of all the Jews from the city creates the very problem that Paul seems to be addressing in his letter, written several years after the expulsion edict was rescinded. I will return to that emergent problem shortly.

Second, in Acts 18, Paul meets with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth. Aquila and Priscilla had been expelled from their home in Rome “because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” It is the same married couple that Paul offers particular greetings in his letter to the Romans. After several years in exile, this couple had returned to Rome following Claudius’ death and the lifting of his banishment edict. This direct address in Romans 16 to both Aquila and Prisca—as Paul calls her—adds a personal dimension to Paul’s letter and offers some insight into the potential impetus for his writing this letter.

Third, Paul seems to have both a general and personal motivation for writing this note to the Roman congregations. Generally, as I alluded to above, with the expulsion of the Jews, including the Jewish Christians from Rome, a radical shift in the character and composition of Roman congregations develops. During the expulsion, congregations that had previously been either predominantly Jewish or mixed between Jews and Gentile converts became exclusively Gentile in both demographics and leadership. Now, with the return of the Jewish constituency, those congregations experience considerable flux. Such significant flux seems regularly to bring about tension, mistrust, and posturing. It is this posturing that Paul seems to address directly in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Personally, Paul is concerned for the reintegration of his friends, family, and fellow apostles who have returned. Consider his extensive greetings at the end of the letter to Prisca and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, etc.

Ultimately, Paul is addressing the congregations in Rome, reminding them that the gospel has a universal character; everyone is equal within it. Or, as the excerpt from Romans cited at the beginning of this reflection emphasizes, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God: they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . .” In other words, all have sinned and all have been saved. All are equal in the eyes of God and within the church. There is no inherent hierarchy. While the Jews received God’s election and the gospel first, that primacy is only chronological not administrative or ecclesiastical. Equally, while the election of God initially afforded solely to the Jews has been expanded to everyone, this does not mean that the Jews have been usurped or displaced within God’s kingdom. Again, all are equal not because of what any of us have done or because of who any of us are but because the righteousness of God has come not through us but “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” It is God’s gracious work that makes us equal, not one group’s primacy nor another’s addition. The emphasis always remains on God not on us and our political, sociological, or other “temporally” important statuses. By redirecting the attention of his readers away from themselves and toward God, Paul hopes to remind them of the relative lack of importance of the transient taxonomies about which they are so concerned.

Here, in Romans, Paul deploys a theological conviction for practical purposes. Paul wants all the people of God to be one, and he offers a theological justification for his claims.

For our contemporary context, I am sure we are never subject to the same internal squabblings and perplexities as afflicted the Roman church. Our churches and communities never have troubles resolving issues between the old with the new, the political left and right, our notions of traditional and modern, posturing of liberals and conservatives, the perceptions of conflicting interests of town and gown, or the complaints of natives and newcomers. On the other hand, do we seem to be afflicted with the similar troublesome maladies as our ancient brothers and sisters? I think we might.

For Paul, the solution is simple: once we stop looking toward ourselves to define what is essential, we will begin to see the greater commonalities we all share. Do not get me wrong, I think individuality and particularities are very interesting and important, possibly even essential. I simply think Paul imagines that by being reminded to look beyond ourselves we will find the opportunity to appreciate both our particularities and our commonalities concurrently.

That just might be the good news we need to hear.

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