The partisan political divide in our country is ugly and it also runs through our churches. We’re complicit in the sexual violence and other forms of brokenness that feed this acrimony. We therefore enter the process of reconciliation with a sense of our own sin and limitations. It forces us to recognize the ways we depersonalize “others” in situations of conflict. We cannot achieve reconciliation through our own resources; it’s God who initiates and brings about reconciliation. In that sense, it’s something we discover rather than achieve, and it’s more of a spirituality than a strategy.
Paul’s understanding of being saved by faith needs to be disentangled from the Protestant understanding of being saved by faith “alone.” Paul’s concern in his letter to the Romans was not about being judged by an angry God when we die. It was rather about God’s purpose in repairing the earth and about healing the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. He paints the human condition of sin in dark hues and, as a counterpoint, he paints our new life in Christ in vivid colors. This speaks powerfully to congregations in our day that recognize that there is something profoundly wrong with civilization as we know it. Our communal life and our faith in action is the vanguard of God’s new world coming.
Unity is not uniformity; it is instead negotiating the essentials and non-essentials in a diverse fellowship. For Paul, one of those essentials was a fellowship where Gentiles are not forced to be Jews and vice versa. How is such unity in diversity expressed in our American society and in our American churches? According to Iris De León-Hartshorn, God’s Spirit is blowing things together that don’t naturally belong together and we now need to figure out how to live together as part of God’s reconciling mission for the world.
We now take the role of a woman as a pastor for granted but that has only changed in our lifetime. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus was the first woman to be ordained by Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1989. I still remember those heated debates about the ordination of women when I was a seminary student in the 80s. Paul’s letters were at the center of that controversy. Several questions predominate. How do we make sense of the contrasting views in the letters attributed to Paul? How did Paul relate to women in the church? Finally, what can we learn from this as we strive for gender equality on the church today?
Paul’s teaching that there is no longer slave or free is part of an early baptismal rite. Slavery in the Roman Empire, as in the American South, was brutal and afforded slaves no legal rights. In this respect, Paul’s appeal to Philemon to do his duty and receive his former slave Onesimus back as a brother was a radical claim that slavery had no place in a fellowship where being one in Christ transforms all social relationships.