Read Romans 2
Romans has been described as Paul’s most systematic and comprehensive theological treatise. It is sometimes referred to as the Gospel according to Paul. While it was composed in the format of a letter and delivered as a letter, it very much resembles a theology textbook.
Paul had not yet been to Rome. He wrote this epistle from Corinth and he would arrive in Rome courtesy of the Empire in a few short years. He did know many who were associated with the congregation in Rome so these people were not complete strangers.
But the letter is written to someone who needed to start close to the beginning. Paul started at a different beginning than he would have had he been writing to an entirely Jewish audience. He started with God and creation in their most evident form. There is no Adam and Eve, no fall in the Garden of Eden, no first murder, no Noah or Abraham; Paul just starts with God and everyone knowing—or at least should have known--that there was and is a God.
Paul does know that the folks in the Roman congregation do know about the Jewish people and their fixation on circumcision and being sons of Abraham. There were surely Jews among this congregation in the heart of the pagan world.
The second chapter continues this same discourse. It can seem like an admonishment, but this is where we need to go into our textbook reading mode. I don’t think that Paul is chewing out this congregation such as he did in his letter to the Galatians. He is admonishing all of humankind with a keen awareness that people of that age were categorized—at least by God’s people—as Jew and Gentile.
Keep in mind that Paul is working his way up to introducing Christ. He is writing to a “Christian” congregation but presuming very little about their foundation.
The Jews had the law and some thought that by that fact alone, they were right with God. Paul noted that they had the law but did not live by it. They judged others who did not have the law but would not keep the complete law themselves.
That could be ancient history or it could hit too close to home today. We are saved by grace and have God’s word to guide us. We have the Spirit to lead us. We have direct access to God himself with Jesus interceding for us.
And what do we do?
Too often we pick the parts of the Bible that we like and live by them but also judge others by them. We ignore or skip over or conveniently forget other parts of God’s word that don’t float our boat. Sometimes we have filters to screen out where the Holy Spirit might be leading us.
Paul’s point was that people in general don’t always do what God tells them to do even when they know exactly what it is. In that day, the law prescribed how people were to live.
But the Gentile world didn’t have the law, so were they just out of luck?
No. Some were directed by something of an inward compass and did what the law would have required in some circumstance even though they did not have the law or know what it said.
People with and without God’s law have tried to live good lives. They—and that includes us—we can never quite get it right. If you jump ahead just a little, Paul spells it out.
All have sinned. We have all fallen short. Nobody is pitching a perfect game here.
So you can’t claim to be blameless because you have the law and you are not condemned because you never heard of the law.
This should be no surprise to anyone here but Paul introduced the Romans to something that we know from when the prophet Samuel was selecting a king from among Jesse’s sons. God looks at the inside. People judge by outward appearance but God sees the heart.
We know that God’s word judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. God sees a different person that we see. God sees the heart. God sees the true person that he made.
Paul hit the Jews pretty hard in this chapter. They boasted in the lineage and in their circumcision and in having the law. Paul said that they dishonored God in knowing who they were and what they should have done and they disobeyed God’s law.
It is sort of like when we send our kids to camp. We don’t just send our kids to camp to have fun and learn about God. They are charged to remember who they are and live that way. They represent this church body and they need to be setting the best examples in the entire camp.
God’s people should have been a light in the darkness for the gentile world. Instead, they often became the laughing stock of that world.
Paul wrote that the real mark of a Jew—of God’s Chosen People—is not a sign in the flesh but a sign in the Spirit. It is a circumcised heart—the ungodliness of our human nature cut away and our divine nature that we have received from our creator revealed.
In the context of the letter, Paul is still working up to Jesus and grace, but he gives us this reminder about the condition of our hearts. He reminds us that God sees our true nature.
Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees many times. One time he used the examples of cups and tombs. You clean the outside of the cup but leave the inside a mess. You whitewash the outside of a tomb but inside are just a bunch of dead bones.
Outwardly you may appear righteous but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Paul is telling the church in Rome, “You can’t fool God. He knows what is going on in your heart.”
We will get to where Paul is taking us over the next several weeks but let’s pause for a moment and think about what’s going on with us on the outside and on the inside.
Do we log our time in the pews as a duty—something you gotta do so everyone will know I was there? And I sure hope that I get extra credit for staying awake. Or do we sing along with Johnny Russell and sing, “There’s no place that I’d rather be than right here?”
Do we show up for the Walk A Block for Jesus thinking, “There are 20 other things that I could be doing with my Saturday morning but I better show up so the preacher will see me?” Or do we long to do something like this once a month? Do we love taking God’s love into the community?
Do we smile at our coworkers so they don’t ask us how it’s going and we have to lie? Or do we truly have the joy of the Lord in our heart? Is our joy in the Lord or in our circumstances?
I have filled in at some churches where the service ends at noon and at 12:03 the doors are being locked. Two people are there to thank me for filling their pulpit but people have places to be and things to do and this Sunday morning thing has been checked off.
Almost every week I am witness to a congregation that has places to go and they just happen to be in one of them and are not in a hurry to be somewhere else. The service might end at a little before noon or a quarter after, but as 1:00 p.m. rolls around, people are still enjoying the fellowship of one another.
There is joy and peace and fellowship and these gatherings conclude gradually and not abruptly. Sometimes I head out reminding the last group of folks to turn the lights out when they leave. Depending who it is, sometimes I also add, “Aim and flush” just in case they need a pit stop before they hit the road.
What is going on in our hearts? Do we really love being God’s people?
You can fake it on the outside but if you really want to live this life to the full, you need joy and peace in your heart.
You need to believe that God loves you and that he has reconciled you to himself. You are his and that will not change.
Regardless of what is going on around us, God’s love for us will never end.
Some of us have dissonance of the heart. There is no such condition, at least officially. Dissonance occurs in the mind, right? Unresolved and conflicting beliefs that won’t be reconciled are all cognitive, right?
Do we long for God’s peace and hope and acceptance and unconditional love; yet want to be a friend with the ways of the world at the same time? What does our heart long for?
What are the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts?
Are we keeping scorecards of our outward actions and appearance and judging the same in others? Are we still trying to see how we stack up against everyone else?
Paul has some more writing to do before he gets to the part about God’s grace but we are people who know and should live in and grow in God’s grace.
That means that the condition of our hearts should be good. Our spiritual cardiologist should be giving us a thumbs up. But if we really examine our hearts what would we find?
If we find anxiety, we need to scope it out.
If we find condemnation, we need a stint or two to let generosity flow out from our hearts.
If we have despair, we might just need a heart transplant.
We need to remember that Jesus said that we must be born again to enter the Kingdom of heaven. In that rebirth, we need a new heart. We need a heart governed by love and joy and peace and understanding and compassion. We need a heart that is more divine than it is human.
We need a heart that says my smile on the outside truly does reflect my heart’s thoughts and attitudes on the inside. We need fidelity between what’s going on inside of us and what we portray on the outside—and that should be joy and hope and peace and love.
Paul’s letter will get to grace in due time, but we should be fully living in and growing in God’s grace now.
Our selfish human nature has been cut away and God’s divine heart is revealed. Let God’s heart rule in our lives.
Let’s truly be born again by living by God’s heart that is within us.