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01 November 2011

Living the text

Living the text

Reading, studying and knowing the word of God is a good start. The fruit, however, is to be found in how we collectively live out the meaning of the text. We are, after all, a letter of Christ, to be known and read by all (2 Corinthians 3:3).

In his letter to the Romans, Paul elaborately describes salvation, justification, the gift of the Spirit, the sacrifice of Christ, and more. He then appeals that in view of such divine mercy, we become a living sacrifice. In the original Greek, he moves from the individual to the corporate: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular), holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship" (12:1). 

Our corporate 'spiritual act of worship' takes place in the everyday-ness of life in the sanctuary that is this world. It involves our jobs, families, relationships, time, finance, creativity, desires, minds, homes and hearts. This is how we communicate the gospel. So, we need to see the texts shape the community, and the community embody the meaning of the text, writes Richard Hays in The Moral Vision of the New Testament

In the next verse Paul moves to the theme of communal transformation. Aware of the danger to conform to the pattern of the world, he calls for a transformation by the renewing of our mind so that we can discern God's will. Understanding God's good, pleasing and perfect will follows the renewal of the mind. 

The Church, being transformed into the image of Christ, becomes a living metaphor for the power of God (8:29). In Paul's writings, the image we have of Christ comes to expression in his death. It refers to his love, obedience, self-giving and suffering. God's intent is that the image of the firstborn is reproduced in the siblings. This shared sonship demonstrates the corporate nature of God's plan in which He is raising a family. 

At the time, the family structure formed the bedrock in society. Siblings constituted the longest-lasting relationship in the social structures and fulfilled a crucial function. The sibling relationship contributed to the experience of identity and belonging. Siblings shared the economic responsibility and upheld the honour of the father's house. For Paul, the 'sibling' metaphor has a central place in the formation of God's family, the Christian identity and ethical behaviour. 

Communicating the gospel 

Paul did not speak in a vacuum but connected with themes and claims in the world in order to communicate the gospel. One example is the adoption metaphor in Romans 8. In Roman legal practice and law, adoption concerned adults. Paul contrasts the newly acquired sonship with the former slavery (8:15). At the time, a person was completely dependent upon the powerful to gain freedom from slavery. The new freedom was often associated with becoming part of a family and societal structures. A new status, legal position, household, name, values and a new hereditary succession indicate the radical break with the old family, gods, and debts. 

Following the adoption, the development of the adoptee takes place in a new set of relations and is highly dependent on the family environment in order to succeed. So, Paul adapts a theme in Roman society to communicate the radical and comprehensive nature of salvation. Adoption causes a new individual and a new community identity that is very different to existing social classifications and religious understanding about who constituted the people of God.

The adoption theme is carefully chosen to emphasise a prevalent argument in his letter that God is creating one people made up of Jew and Gentile. All are adopted in the Father's household, all are siblings of the firstborn Son and all will be heirs. This family that lives under a new rule proves to be a powerful display of the Spirit's liberating and restorative presence. Rays of the redemptive reign of God already invade the world. 

A first century Roman citizen would have been surrounded by images that celebrated the cosmic reign of Roman rule. In the household of the Emperor, the adoption of sons had at times guaranteed the continuity of the imperial family and reign. Subversively, Paul claims that in this powerful Empire an image is being formed in this adoptive family of God that accords with the likeness, the reign of Christ. His overcoming reign (8:37). 

So, Paul presents a matrix of ideas that resonates with the world around him. If we are to incarnate the gospel in our time, we do well to engage in the "double listening" John Stott advocated; listening to the world in order to understand and feel its predicament and listening to God's word to communicate timeless truths.

'Dysfunctional families' and 'fatherlessness' feature prominently in our time. While much attention is given to the role of the nuclear family, it also invites us to connect the discussions with the idea of the family of God, thus resonating with the ache to belong, to be included, to share a future.

Paul sees the central role of the Church in responding to the groans and dysfunction of the world. Connecting with current themes enables us to imaginatively communicate timeless truths and subversively engage with some dominant stories in our culture. And, ultimately, we communicate the meaning of these beautiful texts best in how we live. 

Marijke Hoek is the Alliance's Forum for Change co-ordinator.

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