Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
First of all, this has to be the king of run-on sentences. Perhaps Paul was not one for taking lots of breaths. Or was he almost in a panic-state trying to get the words out? It was as if his audience was somehow drifting away, heading down a road that he did not think was good, leaving Paul behind in a sense. So, Paul, with more words than a sentence could hold, went chasing after them. Whatever it is, Paul is reminding his hearers to whom they belong. Maybe it was his way of trying to call them away from the lure of the world, from what Paul saw as an almost competing society, a competing way of living and being. See, these people probably had no problem seeing themselves as belonging to Christ, as part of Christ’s kingdom. I mean, they were new believers. They were excited. They were still pumped up from that first evangelical moment that they had experienced. And yet, there was the Roman Empire looming large around them. It was hard to refuse. Who are we kidding? It was dangerous to refuse. One could quickly lose everything.
Now I don’t think Paul really wanted them to leave it all behind. After all, his own identity as a Jew in the Roman Empire was important to him. He just wanted them to see something different. He wanted them to see something bigger. He wanted them to realize that it was not that the Roman Empire was where they belonged now and the Kingdom of God was where they were going; rather, the two existed together. He wanted people to understand that the Kingdom of God was not the “other way”, not the veritable opposite of the way they were living but rather the “Thing” that encompassed the “thing”. And maybe they belonged to both things. (I mean, in our own context, patriotism is not anti-God; it just has the possibility of developing into sort of a misplaced devotion that competes with our spiritual selves.) All that we are and all that we have and all to which we belong belongs to God. It is the way God lays claim on us, bursting into our lives as we know them, pouring the very Godself into each and every crevice of our lives until all (yes, ALL) is recreated in the Name of Christ. We are called not to choose between Christ and the world but to bring Christ to the world.
The other day I baptized a young child that was eating a Ritz cracker through the whole thing. Now, we don’t usually pass out hor’dourves with the Sacraments, but, really, did that change God’s Presence in that moment? For that matter, who’s to say that it didn’t make that Presence more real? (OK, so maybe I’m not as much of a sacramental purist as you thought!) God’s presence and God’s promise comes wherever one is. Our calling is to respond to that presence in the midst of the lives we lead. But that entails learning to see and listen in a way that many of us do not. We need to appreciate how God calls others into being so that we might be able to better discern our own unique way that God is entering our lives. And the Ritz? Well, who hasn’t eaten a Ritz? (And, for me, a little peanut butter) It is not part of the “other” way of living. All that we have and all that we are belongs to God. And, you know, that little bit of water that I sprinkled onto that child’s head does not exist in a vacuum. The choice is not to choose the water or the Ritz. The choice is not to choose God or empire. The choice is to follow God through all that is and all that we encounter, to open oneself to becoming new not instead of the old but as even it is made new.
In this Advent season, we have walked in the wilderness. We have encountered darkness. We have waited and waited for God to make the Godself known to us. Maybe that for which we’ve waited was here all along–in the wilderness, in the darkness, in the Empire. Maybe God’s Presence is found in all of it when we learn to see, when we learn to open ourselves to possibilities. Maybe God’s Presence is not some big, flashy extravaganza like we’ve been expecting. Maybe it’s been there all along, sort of like a little bit of water and a Ritz cracker, or maybe more like a baby born into a world that was not ready, that was never ready, a world that couldn’t move over and make room. Advent is not about welcoming a King; Advent is about making room for a God who comes into our ordinary lives as an ordinary person into an ordinary place and makes it all extraordinary. Advent is a lot like eating a Ritz cracker through a Holy Sacrament.
Reflection: What are you expecting God’s Presence to be? What is the most ordinary thing that you see right now? Where might God’s Presence in it?
Grace and Peace,