17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 26, 2020
Our readings from Romans for the last two weeks emphasized “groaning”. All of Creation, the Christian, and indeed the Holy Spirit, experienced frustration. In Paul’s terms, human beings lived “in the flesh;” our activities directed to “saving” ourselves. This is impossible and so we were never fulfilled. Jesus offers us the opportunity to “live in the Spirit,” living so that all our actions flow from our relationship with Him.
Thus Paul can say in today’s reading:
We know that all things work for good
for those who love God,
who are called according to his purpose
Paul assures us that we were not created for frustration but fulfillment. Yet he goes further and shows us what that fulfillment is. Before looking at this, let us remember two things we mentioned at the very beginning of our study of Romans.
The letter to the Romans is addressed to first century people who were born Jews. As Jews, they would have seen words like “predestined or preordained” and “justified” as first pertaining to the entire community. Paul will build on this to lead them to a radical conclusion. They also lived in the first century. Predestination as the decision of God to send one person to heaven and another hell was raised as a possibility in the 5th century and then again most famously in the Protestant reformation. There are serious questions here but they would not have been what Paul intended nor the Romans heard.
Paul’s intent was to show how God’s grace was offered to all and the trajectory of its implementation.
He gives us a step by step unfolding of what life in the Spirit means. This is a technique of Roman rhetoric and his audience would have appreciated his skill and understood, if perhaps somewhat unwilling, his meaning.
“… those whom he chose beforehand,
he also preordained
that they should becomes sharers in the image of his Son,
so that he might become the firstborn among many brothers (and sisters).
And those whom he preordained,
these he also called,
and those whom he called,
these he also justified,
and those whom he justified,
these he has also glorified
This is carefully structured. each term is connected to the next reaching its conclusion: glory. As in all ancient rhetoric any break in the pattern is key and needs to be examined in greater depth.
The most basic reality of faith for Jews and Christians is that God calls us. We are Christians because we respond to an action of God not because we desired it.
He chose them for a purpose “pre-ordained.” The Jews knew themselves to have a role a mission. Isaiah puts it simply “to be a light to the nations” But Paul is saying that all who are baptized are chosen and given a role as well.
This is where the pattern is broken and Paul makes his key assertion. All Christians become “sharers in the image of his son”. The Greek word translated here as “sharers” (Symmorhos) is more than some kind of looking like Jesus. It means “participating in the way of being.” The Greek word translated here as “image” (eikon) is of a likeness reveals the inner presence and reality. Thus all who are called participate in the inner reality of Jesus. They receive the new life that Jesus offers
Jesus was the first to have this new life making him the “Firstborn” but it is given to all Christians. This is an idea that Paul has expressed before:
But each in his own order:
Christ the first fruits,
then at his coming
those who belong to Christ.
(1 Cor. 15:23–24)
Here, however, he is gently reminding the Romans that those born Gentiles will also receive this new life. Yet they, and all of us, need to see this as an expansion of Judaism not its diminishment much less its elimination.
What they are preordained to do is made clear by “call”. God’s call makes us a people:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
Here his people is the “expanded Israel” of Jews and Gentiles. For Jews of this time and place, “justified” meant begin accepted by God when he established his kingdom. Yet the kingdom has begun and Paul’s knows the consequences:
But you were washed,
you were sanctified,
you were justified
in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ
and in the Spirit of our God.
(1 Cor. 6:11)
The kingdom is already here but not yet fully established. Paul never loses sight of heaven but his eyes are focused on this world that needs new life. Therefore, this chain ends with being glorified.
The Hebrew word for glory (kabod) originally meant weight. The glory of God was always felt and experienced as powerful and immediate.
“Look, the Lord our God has shown us
his glory and greatness, and
we have heard his voice
out of the fire
To be glorified is to make the weight of God, his presence real in this world. This is a process and we are expected to become more “weighty” more effective as know Jesus better.
And all of us, with unveiled faces,
seeing the glory of the Lord
as though reflected in a mirror,
are being transformed into the same image
from one degree of glory to another;
for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
(2 Cor. 3:18)
This idea was beautifully expressed by the second century writer St Irenaeus: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” When we are living the new life that God has given us we are living in glory.
To understand the full effect of this, we must again recall the specific situation of the Church in Rome. A decade earlier than this writing, the Roman authorities banished many of the Jews from the city of Rome because of disputes between followers of Christ and the Jews who rejected him. The Christians who remained kept a low religious profile and were no doubt happy that their community was not “mixed.” Paul is telling them that Gentile believers are not at best an inconvenience but part of God’s plan. Their call was pre-ordained. It would be impossible to keep Gentile Christians away from the center of the world and the Roman church would need to know how to welcome them.
Furthermore, this was not a new revelation from God but the fulfillment of their entire history. Paul has guided them back through fundamental Jewish concepts to remind them of their true meaning. They may have known that Isaiah revealed that God wanted them to be a “Light to the Nations” but what did that mean to most of them? It was interpreted away into a truism. Paul has revived it and expected it to be lived.
As we emerge into the mystery of the new normal we can learn much from Paul. Like the Roman church to whom he first spoke, St. Charles was doing fine and it would be a temptation to attempt a reset to March 2020. Yet even if it were possible, we would miss an opportunity. Let us open our eyes to see who is there to greet.
Also, we need to explore what is deepest in our tradition as Roman Catholic Christians. I think we will need to explore as a Parish: the Bible, the Eucharist, and the Social Teachings of our Church.
If we seek to recognize all the people Jesus has called and fill them with the solid meat of God’s word, his sacrifice, and his community then our reopening will be a real re-establishment and it will be more than successful, it will be glorious.