Something for Sunday

This piece about Paul’s letter to the Romans uses the imagined voice of one of the minor but nevertheless important characters in the story of the letters composition.

It’s an old piece of writing from my files but I thought it deserved another outing. I hope you like it.

You probably haven’t heard of me before. It’s not surprising. I don’t really count. My name’s Tertius and I was right there when Paul composed his letter to the Romans. I took it all down at his dictation. Just imagine there he was pacing up and down the room and there I was pen in hand, papyrus before me on the desk, scratching away as fast as I could. It was hard to keep up believe me but I don’t think I missed anything. I got my bit in right at the end. In your way of counting its chapter 16 verse 22. “I Tertius who took this letter down add my Christian greetings”.

It wasn’t easy taking dictation from a man like Paul. He goes at quite a pace and his ideas are quite difficult. I’m not the only one to think that. You look up 2 Peter C3 v 16 and see what the author of that says about Paul’s thought. But say what you like about Paul he’s a kind man, a true pastor, think of that letter he wrote to Philemon. He didn’t bother with a secretary that time. Wrote it in his own hand he did.

So anyway when we’d finished we had a cup or two of wine and some bread and olives. I plucked up courage and asked him about some of the difficult points. About halfway through he seemed to be getting really excited, sweat pouring off him it was, to say nothing of me as I struggled to keep up. It’s the bit you call Chapter 8 the first few verses. That phrase: it seemed to mean such a lot to him-in Christ-he kept saying it-in Christ. The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. Tell me Paul I said how would you explain it. How can I explain it to the wife and kids?

Well, said Paul, let me put it this way. What’s your ruling principle? Well I said there’s my concern for my livelihood and my family. That’s pretty important. Perhaps that’s my ruling principle.

Are you sure? said Paul. After all you’ve become a Christian and that’s not always an easy thing to be in this city. This is Corinth after all and we Christians are a small minority here. Master’s don’t like their slaves becoming Christians. The Jews are thought to be bad enough but the Christians are worse.

True enough I replied. I do follow the Christian way and it does mean a lot to me. I believe in love and God’s way of righting wrong. The world seems so brutal and cruel. There has to be a better way-Christ’s way.

Yes, he said, I feel the same. Being a Christian is about following his way. We are as it were incorporated in him. We belong to him. We become part of his household-one of his slaves. You Tertius, as a slave, should understand what that means.

But let’s go deeper, said Paul. What actually is God’s way of righting wrong? Some people say that what God has done to make the world right is to give us commandments to follow. If we follow God’s commandments in a spirit of faithful obedience then this world will be a better place and we will be happier and more fulfilled people. Faithfulness to Gods commands that’s what really counts.

Well I replied, what’s wrong with that.

The problem is replied Paul is that I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. You get trapped. You are constantly under pressure watching every move, every thought, and every motive. The pressure comes from inside and that’s the worst pressure of all. You end up not loving your neighbour as yourself but hating yourself and loathing your neighbour who grinds you down because you feel you haven’t loved him enough. You can make a pretty good stab at living that way and to be honest I did but there’s no real life in it. No joy and peace.

Sin is always there. Always accusing you of not being perfect. It’s what I call the law of sin and death. I contrast it with the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

I wasn’t entirely convinced. After all what’s wrong with people doing good. Mind you he’s right about one thing. A lot of do gooders do look pretty miserable.

So I asked once more. If this isn’t God’s new way of righting wrong what is. At this Paul got really excited-almost choked on an olive. I could see we were getting very close to the heart of his gospel.

For me said Paul the real significance of Jesus is not so much what he did or said but what happened to him People think that I neglect the teachings of Jesus and as you’ll have observed there’s scarcely any reference to them in the letter we’ve written together. The real key to Jesus is the cross and the resurrection.

God sent Jesus to share our earthly life In that life we are subject to all kinds of pressure-temptations-demands that we should live in a particular way and kow tow to all the earthly powers. You and I know how powerful these pressures are. I call them sin because they prevent us from knowing about and sharing in God’s way of righting wrong.

Jesus took all that pressure on himself. He offered himself as a sacrifice for sin. All the earthly powers confronted Jesus on the cross but they couldn’t break him. If Jesus had started a revolt, come down from the cross and then crucified the Romans and the Jews sin would’ve won. You remember the story of Spartacus who led the slave revolt. He was a liberator and he won many victories but in the end he was as much a part of the system of sin and earthly domination as the Romans. They got him in the end and nailed his whole army to crosses all the way down the Appian Way. Here their bodies rotted for three months until they took them down. Sin’s victory!

God’s way of righting wrong is love’s victory not sin’s victory. Jesus free offering of himself is love’s victory and God set’s the seal on that victory by raising Jesus from the dead. Those who belong to Christ’s body as you do Tertius can share that victory. In our lives the ruling principle is no longer fear and sin but the life giving spirit of God whose common name is love.

Paul relaxed. Well Tertius he said. That’s two questions. A question about the law of sin and death and a question about the spirit of life in Christ Jesus. Now is that enough do you know what it means now to be in Christ or have you joined the Methodists and everything has to be in threes. OK I said, two’s enough. I’ve got it.

As I hurried home afterwards through the streets of Corinth I looked at the people I passed. Corinth, well you know Corinth, sea port town, full of traders and sailors, prostitutes and pagan priests, slaves and free folk. In truth though none of them are really free any more are you. All of us are slaves to some ruling principle or other. It could be greed or power, fame or lust. People are driven by all sorts of things. One understands that. Some are controlled by their codes of laws and customs some by their desire to appear virtuous in their own eyes and the eyes of others. Some of those are in the Church. At times I’m a bit like that myself.

Paul showed me that for Christians like us our ruling principle needs to be Christ, Christ alone. Christ and his victory which we can share. His spirit has given us new life, new joy and peace. We’re slaves of Christ, we belong to him. Not only humble secretarial slaves like me but Paul as well. We’re all slaves of Christ-part of his household. There wouldn’t be much point in freedom unless it was freedom for a purpose and the gospel gives us that purpose. Love that’s our ruling principle. Not the law of sin and death which grinds us down by constantly accusing us of not being perfect but love.

I felt so glad I’d played my part in bringing the gospel to the sisters and brothers in Rome. Perhaps one day the gospel might reach even further, even, who knows, to the foggy islands of the North West Coast of Europe where the savage barbarians live.

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