We’ve been paying close attention to Paul’s letter to the Romans this summer, taking our cues from the lectionary which includes readings from that great letter for thirteen consecutive weeks. Still, we are barely scratching the surface. The lectionary omits significant chunks of Paul’s writing, including some of his most challenging and important themes. For example, chapters 9-11, where Paul talks about the doctrine of election and seeks to explain how God includes both Jews and Gentiles in God’s providence, are largely ignored. We had a few verses from chapter 9 last week; this week we read from chapter 10; and next week we’ll hear a few verses from the beginning and the end of chapter 11.
As I’ve been studying Romans this summer, and trying to think about how to bring this letter to life for the twenty-first century. So much of what concerns Paul the most is so alien to our lives and our world. Not just here, where Paul struggles to understand the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in light of Jesus Christ, but the very way Paul looks at the world. In addition, Paul’s own experience as a Jewish persecutor of those who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah who has become an apostle of that very same Jesus Christ is beyond our comprehension. It’s not just that the relationship between Jew and Gentile, between Jew and Christian has morphed over the last nearly two thousand years. The history of Christian persecution of Jews and anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, loom over everything we might say about Jew and Christian in the first century. And today, with the ongoing violence in Gaza at the forefront of our concerns, thinking with Paul becomes even more difficult.
But there’s something else. Paul’s experience—that “Road to Damascus” moment, that has become paradigmatic for Christians also works on us. The sense of call, the certainty of his experience of the Risen Christ, is not something most of us know. Even if we hope for such certainty and personal transformation in our own lives, most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to abandon one’s former life, passions, and ideals for something quite new, quite different, and quite dangerous.
So for the most part, I think, we remain rather detached from the experience and ideas of Romans. We may find what Paul has to say curious in an intellectual way, the sort of thing we might explore like we might click on a link on a website that suddenly catches our attention. But do his arguments, does his depiction of God, Jesus Christ and the experience of faith in Jesus Christ grab us existentially? Do his words connect with our own experience; do his words convey the power of good news, power to change our lives and the way we look at the world?
I suppose I could ask the same question of today’s gospel story which is familiar as it is strange. The story of Jesus walking on the water has been told thousands of times; for those of us raised in church, we remember it from our childhood. But encountering it now, even with that familiarity, brings out its eeriness. First of all, a little context again. This story occurs immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. You’ll recall that Jesus had crossed the sea in the first place in order to get some “alone time” after hearing that John the Baptist had been killed. But the crowds followed him and he healed, taught, and fed them. Now he sends both the crowds and his disciples away, and goes up a mountain to pray. I’ll also point out that sea crossings are boundary moments in the gospels. Usually they signal that Jesus is leaving territory largely populated by Jews and entering Gentile territory. The sea represents danger and chaos in biblical literature and earlier in the gospel, Jesus had calmed a storm while he and his disciples were crossing.
This time, the storm kept the disciples from making it across the sea and in the midst of their struggles, Jesus appeared to them. It’s interesting that the text doesn’t say the disciples are afraid because of the storm; rather it’s only when they see Jesus, who they take for a ghost, that they become fearful. Typically, they didn’t recognize him—he’s a ghost, but when he spoke to them, using the language or greeting angelic messengers often use in the bible, saying, Do not be afraid; and then identifying himself, “It is I.”—or “I am. The disciples were reassured but Peter seems to want proof. “If it’s really you, command me to come out.”
Peter wants to join Jesus on the sea, and as he walks toward him on the water, it’s as if he suddenly realizes what’s happening. He notices the wind and begins to sink.
“Save me,” he pleads, and Jesus reaches out his hand and helps him. When they return to the boat, the disciples become aware of just who Jesus is. They worship him and say, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
This symbolically rich story captures our imagination even though we might be inclined to dismiss its veracity. The raging sea, the spectral appearance of Jesus, Peter’s impetuosity, and his cry, “Save me!” These are all powerfully evocative and may speak to us in ways that Paul’s language and imagery do not. We can imagine ourselves, we may remember moments when we were in danger like Peter, threatened with personal destruction, either real or figurative, and we cried out to Jesus, “Save me!” And perhaps we sensed or felt his hand reaching out to pull us to safety.
Among everything else Paul is doing in these verses from Romans, one thing is clear. He is trying to explain to his readers something about salvation. Now remember, the key issue for Paul in the relationship between Jew and Gentile was the Torah, whether Gentiles were obligated to keep the commandments of the law—circumcision, kosher—and the like. Paul says a loud no to that question. The coming of the Messiah, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection have brought the law to its completion and salvation is available to Gentiles through, as he says here, “the righteousness of faith.”
What is the righteousness of faith? J. Daniel Kirk explains it this way:
The righteousness of faith says that God has been righteous in sending the Messiah, and God has been faithful to this Messiah in raising him from the dead. If God saves through the resurrection of Jesus, then the scriptures bespeaking God’s faithful provision for God’s people must be read as pointing beyond the Torah itself to the Christ who has now come.
Paul goes still further. Salvation, he says, is very near to us. We do not need to search for it in the abyss (the depths of the sea) or in the heavens. The word is near us, in our lips and in our hearts. This should be good news for us and for the world. But too often, we may erect barriers that prevent us or others from experiencing that good news.
We may think we need to get it right—either following the right set of rules or believing the right set of doctrines. We may worry that if we don’t, there’s no room for us in church, or in Christian community, no room for us in God’s love. But that’s not right. Salvation is nearer to us than that, it is on our lips and in our heart. Peter may have cried, “Save me!” and Jesus stretched out his hand. When we cry “Save me!” Jesus is already here, wrapping us in his loving embrace.