Friday, August 13, 2010

Der Romerbrief: St Paul to the Romans

The pen is mightier than the sword.

About the year A.D. 57, a Jew from Tarsus wrote one letter to a fledgling church community in Rome. A few years later the Romans would execute its author, and subject that church to withering persecution -- to no avail. The church would survive, and would preserve, copy and transmit the letter across the world. Rome, the biggest and baddest sword-bearer the world had yet seen, would die and leave behind its artifacts, while the one letter sent to the Roman church would change the lives of millions of men and women and alter the course of world history more than once.

For example, over three hundred years after the letter was first published, a thirty-year-old African teacher of rhetoric named Augustine took it up and read from it in a garden in Milan, Italy. Reading one exhortation from the letter -- "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires" -- he passed from death to life. The western world would never be the same.

Over a thousand years after that, a tormented Augustinian monk in Germany pondered the letter for many painful hours until he realized that "the righteousness of God" was not the terrible threat he'd supposed, before which he had long cowered, but a precious spring of comfort and confidence. Scales fell from his eyes, and before long he was nailing ninety-five theses to a door in Wittenberg. Europe would never be the same.

About four hundred years after that, a young Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, would expound this letter in a way that signaled a clear break with his theologically liberal teachers: he rather audaciously said that God is there and he is not silent. Barth's exposition, Der Romerbrief, would provide theological seed which would later produce the Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church -- the faithful German Protestant resistance to the most ruthless sword-bearer of its day, Nazi Germany.

The Maker of the heavens and the earth has many tools at his disposal to shape the world. His most enduring marks have been left by the live coal from the heavenly altar, by which he sanctified the lips of his prophets and the writing hands of his apostles. Their words, in turn, have left deep and lasting marks in the course of history, compared to which the marks of the mighty sword-bearers proved faint and fleeting.

One letter the Apostle Paul sent to the church in Rome -- about, of all things, the righteousness of God revealed in the life, passion, death and resurrection of a man born in the small town of Bethlehem and raised in the smaller one of Nazareth, about God's faithfulness to his people Israel and his generosity in drawing Gentiles to share in his faithful promises to Israel -- soon proved mightier than the Roman sword.

And that epistle is the appointed nightly reading for the middle weeks of Trinity season. Happy weeks lay ahead.

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