Reading Paul in Epiphanytide with The Episcopal Church

Romans 1: 1-7

As a gay man who was raised in a very conservative and traditional Southern Baptist home, I was not a huge fan of Saint Paul in my childhood. I was also struggling to come to terms with my own sexual orientation at the very moment when Anita Bryant caused Southern Baptists to lose interest in drunks—the primary sin we heard about until that time—and to become fixated on gay sex! Well, having been raised in an alcoholic home, I felt as if though I had left the frying pan and had jumped into the fire. Sadly, that was exactly what I thought God wanted for me—to be damned to hell for all eternity because I was evil and sinful and flawed.

Years later, in seminary, I was blessed to understand that even conservative Roman Catholics had to accept that many of those problematic passages had either been mis-translated or else poorly applied. So, I became willing to give Saint Paul another chance! Just after I was ordained to the Priesthood, I presided at a Mass of Thanksgiving in my home parish of Saint Elizabeth of the Hill Country in Boone, North Carolina. The pastor, a Jesuit, told a funny story. At a recent wedding someone complained that the “wives be submissive” passage was used. The Pastor replied, “I did not write it and I did not choose it for this Liturgy. Go complain to someone else.”

I am actually delighted that our Presiding Bishop and Primate has invited us to read together and to share about Saint Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome. I look forward, in the days to come, to re-reading this text in its entirety. That is something which I have not done in years.

Today I choose to focus on the greeting which Paul so often uses in his “authentic” writings. “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.” Paul uses this greeting to those whom he knows well—and in the case of the Letter to the Romans, to those he does not know at all, but hopes to come to know. Charis kai irene. Grace and peace. What fascinating words.

Grace brings to mind other words—charis, charity (or caritas in Latin) sounds much like love. What is grace anyway? One way might be something like “the freely given love which is bestowed by God on everyone.” Of course, it only has an impact if one chooses to receive it and allows it to take root in the garden of our heart. Not given to us because we are good, not withheld from us because of our mistakes, failings or defects. Simply given because God loves us. The very antithesis of that Calvinist idea of limited atonement. It might also call into question the theory of total depravity. After all, if God said that creation was good, that we were created in God’s image and likeness, and that God freely showers grace on us—that makes us pretty special.

It is interesting that the same Paul who waxes eloquent about faith, hope and love, here begins by wishing his readers peace. Irenic from the Greek irene is a word we know so well. And yet, we live in a world of chaos and division. A world of violence, hatred, prejudice, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, injustice and xenophobia. Peace is the opposite of all that. Peace is what happens in God’s kingdom. Peace is a bridge across chasms and rivers which divide people. Peace is the righteous mob that tears down the wall.

Paul then uses these two wishes to center us, to comfort and assure us, to engage in dialogue with us–from the very beginning. Grace and Peace from God and from Jesus Christ. Yes, what a wonderful way to begin this letter to us and to invite us to enter ever more fully into the mystery of God’s love—more to come in the passages ahead.

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