Hear Ye, Philadelphia! Christ Was Born to Save…Us All!
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 1:1-7 (NRSV)
“One day, every member of this congregation will die,” a preacher proclaimed when she noticed a man in his congregation break into a grin. Thinking the worshipper may not have heard him, the preacher repeated, “Yes, one day, every single member of this church will die.” Upon hearing this, the same man in the pews started giggling. At the end of the service as she greeted the congregation, the minister stopped the giggler and asked, “Excuse me sir, but could you share why you were laughing when I said that every member of the church would die?” The man answered, “Because I’m not a member of this church!”
We laugh because we know that visitor will have a rude awakening if he truly believed he had found an escape clause around death. Yet, as sure as the maxim that there is a kernel of truth in humor, at times don’t we all act as if there must be a loophole to this “all have sinned and deserving of death” business.
This more obscure lectionary passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans may seem like an innocuously wrapped Christmas gift covering the scripture equivalent of a milk-toast colored sweater inside. Ah, but don’t be fooled my friends! The verses that follow Paul’s salutation have been some of the most charged chapters in the Bible to anyone who has been part of the Church’s culture war discussions in recent decades. I will not go into detail regarding the specifics of those verses for fear of being tagged the Grinch who stole Christmas, but suffice it to say once we get beyond the glisten of Paul’s greeting, there are many other layers to unwrap before we get to the promised gift of grace, peace, and joy inside. There are verses within this epistle that have caused schism in our time and sent people love careening away from the Church altogether.
Thankfully, the letter does not end there, but goes on to take all of us willing to hang in there with him from the valley of conviction to the pinnacle of blessed assurance, “There is therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 8:1) and “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
So, to ALL God’s beloved in Philadelphia, called to be saints- the straight, the LGBTQ, the red and blue state voters, those of every shade and economic status, the sober and the addicted, the incarcerated and those carrying badges, the self-righteous and the tormented, suburban and inner-city dwellers of every age and ability, those who are keenly aware of their need of a savior and those who doubt whether God exists- nothing will ever separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This Christmas, my prayer is that whenever we find ourselves in the disquieting realization that one day we will die, or this day something within each of us needs to die, may God grant us the grace to stay among the hearers of Paul and the others through whom God gave us the scriptures. May God grant us the mutual forbearance and patience to speak our truth in love as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Then, on the far-side of the journey such a vulnerable and oft-times uncomfortable life of faith represents, may we find ourselves blessed with the gift of joy and peace inexpressible as we behold the same face the wise men beheld that first Christmas.