Having introduced himself and his various themes with elaborate rhetoric, Paul then goes on to state his main theme, lest anyone forget it: the good news of Jesus Christ “is the power of salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
He then moves into describing how the wrath of God will come to the ungodly and evil. For a born Jew like Paul the biggest difference between Jews and non-Jews was that the Jews worshipped a God of whom no image could be made, whereas the Gentiles worshipped images and idols that looked like humans or snakes or other beasties. Paul believes that all human beings have a knowledge of God that is shown in creation and in the dynamism of the world, as well as revealed in the history of the Jews. Paul believes that it is equally evident that this God is invisible. Instead of worshipping an invisible deity obvious to them through natural theology, they imagine the divine creator to look like the creature. They missed what Karl Barth called “the wholly other” – that the creator is utterly different from the creation, and cannot be represented.
In Paul’s mind idolatry is so awful and such a fundamental mistake that it leads to further wickedness. For an otherwise conservative Jew like Paul this manifests itself in what he sees as degrading unnatural relations.
Romans 1.16 – 24 (25-26)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
[For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.]
Two things stand out for me. First, there is a sense that the gospel is somehow shameful in the eyes of the world, a kind of foolishness. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that it proclaimed that a crucified peasant had been raised from the dead and was proclaimed as kurios or Lord. This was a bizarre claim to make in the context of the Roman Empire, and somewhat subversive of the true lords, the Roman Empire and its leaders. As well, the followers of Jesus came out of Judaism, and that was viewed as a strange cult in the Empire with its refusal to worship the Emperor and its hatred of divine images, as well as customs around food, Sabbath days, and circumcision. But Paul is clear that he is not ashamed of the gospel – indeed, he celebrates the death of Jesus, and has a well developed theology of the cross. To follow Jesus is a topsy-turvey experience, where what is approved of in the world is rejected by Christians, and what is considered wisdom is treated as foolishness.
Second, Paul assumes the sexual norms of Judaism and so sees any kind of same-sex sexual activity as contrary to the will of God. He links in the passage that is read today (and in the paragraph that is not included in the lectionary) that idolatry leads to such behaviour. What he is probably incapable of imagining is a devout follower of Jesus who is also in a same-sex sexual relationship. In fact, he so does not imagine it that he does not mention the possibility.
We are today a long way away from the first century. Over the past generations we have developed concepts of identity, sexuality, and gender. We have reflected on all of these as having a range and variations. When we see the committed love between two persons, we hold it up and see little difference between the commitment of different-sex couples and same-sex couples. When we see problems in sexual relations this is due less to the sexual identity of the partners and more to do with how they treat each other. Are they loving or antagonistic? Do they show affection or is one or both of them violent and abusive? Do they build each other up or tear each other down? Are they faithful or are they breaking the trust and vows established in marriage?
Clearly I am not a person who reads propositions out of scripture and then literally applies it out of context into my own situation. Paul was a first-century Jewish male, and the things he did and said were nevertheless radical for his times. In some respects he may not have been radical for us now in the 21st century, but behind his cultural assumptions we see radical principles. In his letter to the Galatians 3.27-28 he wrote,
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
What appears to be cosmic categories of difference become irrelevant in the light of he resurrection of Christ, and incorporation in Christ takes them and reveals them to be the cultural conditions they are, due to pass away in time. They are not unimportant, but they just don’t have the importance we so often give to them.
God gave us minds with which to think, and so we are called to examine and reflect on everything, including the Holy Scriptures. The challenge is to see how it applies to us now. I suspect that when people look back a century from now Christians will wonder about how people could denigrate gays and lesbians and how it was that the church was so divided over this issue. However, we were equally divided in the 19th century over slavery, as incomprehensible as that seems.
We don’t make idols of God – but we do have other idols that lead us into corruption, such as belief and kneeling down before the gods of the free market and the “invisible hand of God”. Marxism was “the God that failed”. Nationalism and “race” were gods for the German National Socialists, and we are seeing those ugly demons rise again. These are the things upon which the wrath of God will be visited, as markets crumble, walls fall down, and wars come to bigoted, hateful peoples. More on this tomorrow.