“… the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” Romans 8:7
Sometimes I wish I had paid more attention at school. All that stuff about ancient civilisations went over my head. Only in later years have I come to realize how important the Greeks and the Romans were in our lives – without them, the world would be a different place.
The presence of the Roman Empire, the establishment of Roman law and order, the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) as it was called, was vital to the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church.
The sophistication of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, a letter which we still find extraordinarily hard to understand, was made possible through the sophistication of the society in which he lived. Visit the remains of Roman towns and you are left with no doubt as to what an advanced society they were compared to the 1500 years that were to follow. The Romans achieved extraordinary things; the Roman Army had just 30 legions. They held the Empire together with a standing army of just 180,000 men. It was that Empire that allowed the Church as we know it to emerge.
The Church grew during the days of the Roman Empire and when the Roman Empire collapsed much of the Church disappeared with it. Europe sank into frequent anarchy and chaos, life became nasty, brutish and short. The past was gone and could not be recovered.
Where the Church survived it was through the personal faith of individuals and small communities. These were the centuries of the Celtic Church, the times when faithful monks and priests and isolated communities kept alive the story of Jesus. There was no support, no encouragement, no protection from the rulers around about. The churches were often plundered and burned. Those who followed Jesus often died for their faith. The complete collapse of authority and the rule of law left the Church to stand or fall by its faith in the risen Lord. Those Celtic saints that are remembered today are remembered because of their tremendous courage and powerful faith.
We live in a time when order and authority are being undermined, when the largest armies in the world are no guarantee of peace and security. Even within our own society, there are no rules anymore, people do what they feel to be good for themselves and if the Church dares speak it is accused of being moralistic and out of touch.
We are moving into times without law. Paul, writing in the Second Letter to the Church at Thessalonica, sees lawlessness as standing against Christ. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, ‘the secret power of lawlessness is already at work”. Paul had told his readers that they knew what was holding lawlessness back. Paul would have been clear himself that the Roman authorities were the guardian against lawlessness, repeatedly the Roman authorities rescue Paul from the hands of mobs. Had Paul lived five centuries, we don’t know what he would have made of the anarchy that was to sweep across Europe.
Moving into the times without law in which we live, we are faced with the situation Paul describes in this morning’s Epistle. In Romans 8;7, he writes, ‘the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so’. Paul recognizes that our human nature left to its own devices would head off in its own self-seeking direction. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit can we live the life that God wants.
One of the depressing things in listening to the unfolding tales of financial wrongdoings in our country has been that there has been no voice saying, this was morally wrong behaviour—the people involved are regarded as having been caught out rather than morally sinful. Paul writes in Romans 13:7, ‘Give everyone what you owe him; If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour’. Paul would have roundly condemned breaches of the law, but he would also have condemned those who used legal loopholes to avoid their duty to the authorities. Paying what was due for Paul wasn’t just a matter of law, it was a matter of honour.
There is a general feeling that the rule of law is simply not applicable to certain people and that leads to the feeling that if rich, powerful, influential people don’t obey the law, then why should anyone else?
How do we respond to this world without law? What will not work is trying to recover the past, we can say ‘the Church says this is wrong’ or ‘the bishops say this is wrong’ and people and people will say. ‘so what?’ The Church no longer has any authority, it no longer has any power. We are left in the situation faced by Christians in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire – we stand or fall by our faith alone.
The churches that have learned that they must stand on their faith in Jesus Christ alone are the churches that are growing – the community churches, the house churches. These churches are those who seek to live in accordance with what the Spirit desires. Those churches which depend on the old ideas of authority and the old structures are fading away, that includes most traditional Irish churches.
To have been a Christian in the Fifth Century, in the days after the fall of Rome, would have been frightening. Big changes had to be made, the church had to become something different. We have to think about what is required of us.
What does it mean for us to have our minds set on what the Spirit desires? We cannot turn the clock back to the times of stability and order any more than anyone could have rebuilt the Roman Empire. The Celtic monks that went across Europe with the Good News of Jesus went through difficult and turbulent times. Evangelizing our country demands learning the lessons from fifteen centuries ago – it demands commitment to Christ, it demands a thirst for the Scriptures, and it demands living our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.