For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
Paul found, in Jesus, new life, meaning, and understanding of his faith. A good preacher – today’s passage is part of a sermon as Paul’s letters were written to be read aloud. His Jewish listeners would feel smug – critiquing pagans was always good for that!
Rome was the heart of the Empire where most lived lives of desperation surrounded by the wealthy few with their riches, slaves, and decadence. Roman sexual mores were rather more complex than our own, being defined by roles and actions not identity. The Imperial family wasn’t a shining example of restraint. Augustus’ wife, Livia, was rumoured to have killed various relations. Tiberius’ wife, Julia, publicly flaunted her infidelities whilst he was rumoured to have rather distasteful sexual appetites. Caligula lived life to such excess that he was killed by his own guards – but not before declaring himself to be a god. Claudius’ wife, Messalina seemed to follow the family custom of wanton abandon.
Paul saw Roman sexual mores as depraved – a punishment by God on pagans who who worshipped creation rather than the Creator. We, however, have a different (though changing) understanding of sexuality. We see sexuality as a given facet of human nature and identity – not a reward, or punishment, for idolatry. We know of faithful Christians whose love and witness would have been unthinkable to Paul.
This doesn’t mean we can ignore or write off this passage – there is much here for us. It’s always tempting to be dazzled by created things rather than the Creator, to ignore God in the midst of life, to see our foolishness as wisdom, and to treat others as objects for our own ends. Selfishness and self-centredness manifest themselves over and over again through the centuries, taking on new forms and identities, tempting us to new patterns of idolatry. Pray that we see it in ourselves, have the courage to act, and not distract ourselves by using this passage as a weapon against others.
O God, you call us from darkness into light, to turn from our idols of technology, status and wealth, and worship you, our Creator. Give us the wisdom to discern you at work in our world, recognise your image in our diversity, and understand, not weaponize, the Word. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston, a minister in the Synod of Scotland’s Southside Cluster working with Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs.