Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Stay Awake. Keep Watch.
The Apostle Paul thought Jesus would be coming back any minute. He wanted to make sure that he was prepared, and that other followers of Jesus were prepared, for this divine eventuality. When he wrote to various Christian communities, he often wrote to them about how to prepare themselves for Christ's return. The preparation was not simply watching, quietly, and not moving. No, preparation was about doing something... it was about living differently... it was about marking time according to God's counting, not Caesar's. Remember, Jesus changes people, or, better still, allows people to change themselves. How we wait for God's new revelation in the world matters because it is how we practice being transformed by Jesus and it is how Jesus transforms the world through us while we wait. When Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church, he wanted to help them wait better because he believed that right at that very moment was the precise moment for them to awaken from the sleep that was their lives before they knew Jesus. I think now might also be a moment for us in our modern church to waken. Christ is coming. We must also prepare.
This letter is probably one of the last letters Paul wrote. He was not writing to a church he had helped found. He was writing to Christians that he had never met, hoping they would help support him on an upcoming mission to Spain. They do have some acquaintances in common, particularly Prisca and Aquila, whom he describes as colleagues working for Jesus Christ and whom he said risked their own safety to preserve his life. They were Jewish Christians who had been exiled, with all other Jews, from the city of Rome by emperor Claudius in the year 49 CE. Nero, who followed Claudius, reversed this edict, and some, like Prisca and Aquila, chose to return. We should also remember that about eight years prior to the Jewish exile from Rome, there had also been severe anti-Jewish riots in the Roman-Egyptian city of Alexandria. Many Jews were murdered. The ones who lived were cordoned off into one quarter of the city. According to scholars, there was already a tendency towards anti-Judaism among elite Roman citizens. That bias was trickling into Christian communities as Jews were forced to leave, and churches began to be predominantly Gentile. Once Jews began to return, there was bound to be tension. Paul addressed that tension in his letter to the Romans.
What, you may ask, does this history of ethnic tension have to do with preparing for the return of Christ? A couple of scholars I read this week think quite a lot. While Paul was definitely concerned with helping individuals live lives according to their faith, he was also concerned with creating communities of faith.Paul understood that salvation was not simply for individuals but for all people. He paid great attention to how members of communities of faith engaged with one another across social and ethnic difference. He saw the diversity of the Roman church as evidence of God's work in the worl. To see Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, poor and wealthy, all worshiping together, was an amazing testimony to God's hope for the world in Christ. In Christ, social distinctions that the culture understood to be tools for dividing people would be crossed, evidence of the power of the Gospel to bring people together. Paul believed that when you see a diverse community of people living and worshiping and praying and serving together, you see people who have been transformed by the Gospel. As one scholar put it, this is salvation lived out socially, the Gospel practiced in community.
Because Jesus' work reset the world, re-ordered our relationships and priorities, the life we live while we prepare for yet another divine entry into this world must reflect the new priorities of Christ. In the portions of the letter leading up to today's reading, Paul outlined several activities that stand out as behavioral testimonies to the call of Jesus Christ. He called this "presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice" and also behaving in a way that was not "conformed to this world" but instead is transformed by Christ's renewal. Many, if not most of these exhortations are related to how a Christian is called to treat other people. Beginning in chapter 12, Paul wrote do not think of yourself as better than other people simply because you have different gifts, or are of a specific ethnicity, or because you have more money. Honor those who have different gifts than you. Let your love of one another be genuine. Don't show off in order to embarrass others. Share what you have with others who do not have enough. Be hospitable to strangers. He goes on to compel other Christians to bless the ones who persecute them. Imagine hearing that after you've been run out of your home city because of your ethnicity. Imagine hearing that after you've supported running some people out of the city because of their ethnicity.
Paul holds up empathy as a primary characteristic of a Christian community. He says that you will know that people follow Christ because, in their community, when people mourn, others join them in their mourning. When people rejoice, others join in their joy. People of high social class will gladly associate themselves with people of lower class. Christians work hard to live in peace and not to indulge in revenge, but, instead commit to listening, dialogue, and honesty. Christians will also take on the difficult and holy task of repaying evil with good. When helping Christians figure out how to live well with one another, he calls upon Jewish scripture, citing the 10 Commandments as models for empathy and compassion. He said that these commandments showed the centrality of love to God's instruction. Paul said, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." How does Paul believe a Christian prepares for Jesus? Live in love. Act in love. Worship in love. This is how you can be transformed by Christ. This is how you then transform the world around you.
Knowing that Paul's exhortation to love is the lead up to today's reading certainly enlivens the call to stay awake because salvation is near to this very moment. All of the love we live out becomes our preparation for God's next step in the world. Right now, in our modern word, it seems like we are once again at a moment when we need to stay awake and prepare. Paul's description of this holy moment in today's reading is both apt and lovely. He said that this moment is like the time in the early morning when the night is finally shifting into the day. You can see the new day creeping it's way in because the sky is shifting from a fertile, haunting black but is not quite yet the brilliant blue of a clear day. This current moment somewhere in between the previous night and the new day, kind of purpley-bluish-not-quite-pink, filled with holy potential. So, we wait, and we prepare for what is coming. In today's reading, at times like these, Paul counsels us to avoid behaviors that draw us away from one another and away from God- we don't party to distract ourselves from our responsibilities, we don't hide away in unfulfilling, disrespectful relationships, we don't numb ourselves with excess, or compete with one another in jealousy. No, we lay that all that aside for love. He says to clothe ourselves in Christ so that when we look around, all we can see is his presence in the faces that surround us. We put on God's love like armor and wield God's love like a tool for building the Gospel. We live and work in that love. And, we wait. The new day is coming.
This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, a kind of New Year's Day for the church. It is our regular reminder that God is not yet through with us and our world. It reminds us that God once radically changed the world through Jesus and God is still changing the world with us everyday. Advent asks us to remember what it means to wait, not passively, but actively, preparing the way to God's next radical entry into our lives. There is great hope in this kind of waiting, a hope that draws us forward into God's possibilities... a hope that invites to into prayerful, thoughtful action. I invite to you to consider how you personally, and this church communally, is called again to act in Christ's love. Because Jesus is coming again. How will we prepare his way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources when writing this sermon:
On the Epistle to the Romans:
This is a lovely and helpful read about Advent by Diana Butler Bass: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?postshare=5071480174858728&tid=ss_tw
Some more infromation about anti-jewish riots in Ancient Alexandria:http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0001_0_00765.html
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.