The God of peace be with you all. Amen.
The Apostles didn’t always see eye-to-eye. The Acts of the Apostles and references to conflict in several epistles attest to this. Beyond their commitment to Christ, though, one of the finer qualities they shared was their irrepressible kindness as well-wishers. From Romans to Revelation, New Testament writers repeatedly, almost compulsively, bless their readers. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” or its variation appears over 25 times in letters from Paul, Peter, John, the Hebrews author, and John of Patmos. Other salutations wish readers peace, love, health, and prosperity.
We’d breeze by these phrases as letter-writing formalities were it not for two things. First, while most common in the epistles’ greetings and closing lines, they’re not confined to them. They often surface after dense passages or rushes of admonition. Second, “Amen” follows many of these expressions. Again, we’d view this as a convention if it weren’t for “Amen’s” meaning. Before our liturgies affixed it to recited creeds, transitions, and prayers, “Amen” held more weight. The Early Church enthusiastically adapted the Hebrew adverb “truly” as its imperative declaration, “Let it be.” Thus, “Amen” surpassed ritual utterance or, at the other end of the spectrum, boisterous approval. It turned wishes into prayers.
The “Amen” Tag
The “Amen” tag attached to “The God of peace be with you all,” adds gravity to Romans 15.33. Ending the letter’s general content in this way suggests Paul precisely chooses these words for this audience. Since he habitually closes every other letter with a blessing of grace, we’ve every reason to think there’s much more happening here than a prolific, avidly read writer applying a fresh touch. There is. Paul invokes the God of peace to abide with Roman believers—sealing it with “Amen”—because no congregation stands in greater want of peace than they. By the time his letter reaches the Romans, they’re entering their second decade of complete chaos. Going back to the beginning helps to grasp why Paul’s sign-off in Romans differs so markedly from his other letters.
Christianity rapidly takes root and thrives in Rome, starting in synagogues before reaching Gentile districts. Contrary to myth, Christians aren’t targeted for persecution due to conflicts with the pagan majority. Like any ethnically diverse city, Rome relies on cultural and religious tolerance to preserve order. Roman believers actually bring on their own suffering when heated debates about Christian entitlement kindle fierce public riots between Jewish and Gentile converts. Christian-on-Christian violence becomes so disruptive that Claudius deports Jewish Christians en masse in 49 AD to restore calm. With their opponents out of the picture, however, Gentile believers find they’ve wasted so much time arguing with fellow believers they’re not too sure what they believe or even what they’re supposed to believe.
Not yet having visited the Roman church, Paul writes them his most powerful, theologically astute letter on record. He returns to square one—where dissatisfaction with idolatry and licentiousness led them to Christ—and methodically guides them through the fundamentals: reconciliation with God through faith in Christ; Jews’ and non-Jews’ equal rights to grace and eternal life; freedom from religious conformity through personal accountability; spiritually renewed life via death to carnal desires; and the transformative nature of Christ’s love that enables us to love. Finally, before he segues to a lengthy roll call of personal recognition and greetings, Paul calls on God’s present peace to dwell with the Romans. Let it be, he prays. Amen.
Of course, most of us hear the phrase “let it be” and associate it with another Paul, the boyish-looking songwriter whose sensitivity to his times closely matches the Apostle’s. “Let It Be” and “The God peace be with you. Amen.” are two sides of the same record speaking to the same issue. McCartney says inspiration for his song came by way of his late mother’s visit in a dream. After acknowledging Paul’s distress over The Beatles’ mounting internal conflicts and power struggles, she told him, “It will be alright. Just let it be.” As with the Roman church, the band fell apart. Yet I somehow believe they were able to exit quietly without humiliating displays of animosity like the Roman church’s simply because Mary McCartney’s “Amen” reached the band much sooner than St. Paul’s got to Rome.
Whether reading Romans or listening to The Beatles, “let it be” soothes our spirits and lifts our hopes. We hear the God of peace drawing us from selfish arguments, foolish conflicts, and dangerous pride. And to that we say, “Amen.” Any time we presume to speak for God—as both sides of the Roman conflict did—we inevitably fall into noisy disputes that embarrass and defeat us. Shouldn’t it strike us the least bit strange when we dare to tell others “what God says,” He always says they’re wrong and we’re right? How is it we’re not so comfortable filling His mouth with similarly condemning words for us? But more important than such bald-faced audacity, speaking for God pumps up the volume until we can’t hear Him. The moment we feel compelled to say what God says is the moment to stop saying anything and start listening closely. When we find ourselves in times of trouble, the God of peace comes to us, speaking words of wisdom, “Let it be.”
(Tomorrow: God Smiles)