Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Let It Be

The God of peace be with you all. Amen.

                        Romans 15.33 


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.

Another Paul

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.”

There will be an answer. Let it be.

(Tomorrow: God Smiles)


claire bangasser said...

I did not know the story about the song Let It Be. Always thought it was John Lennon's somehow. And, for some strange reason, Mother Mary being Virgin Mary. Ah! How did I twist this one around!
Thank you for straightening me out.

Tim said...

Hi Claire--it's great to hear from you!

In the spirit of total disclosure, before I started looking into it, I thought the same thing. I also thought the song wasn't as personal as it turned out to be. I believed it was more about the world's turmoil than the what was happening in the Abbey Road studios. Of course, it was, but I didn't know it sprang from a situation closer to home.

Here's an extra bit of McCartney songwriting trivia you may or may not know. (He told this at a concert I attended several years back.) He wrote "Blackbird" while watching footage of the mid-Sixties race riots in Birmingham, AL. He said he was profoundly moved by one neatly dressed African-American woman who got blown to the ground by Bull Connor's fire hoses. The tragedy of it felt like "the dead of the night" and he wrote the song as a letter to her--"you were only waiting for this moment to be free." Now I cry every time I hear it.

I sometimes wonder who this lady was/is and if she knows/knew it.

It's a great joy to hear from you, Claire. Thanks for commenting (and following!).

Be blessed always,

genevieve said...

Arguing about unimportant things is a waste of our time and God's time. One thing I have learned is that this is what breaks up churches and wounds people.

I remember the song so well. Great advice to leave things alone that are unimportant or unedifying.

Tim said...

What so many fail to consider, Genevieve, is how their determination to prove they're right and others are wrong affects so many who happen to overhear the argument.

Just last night a young friend told me he'd been raised in the Church but left because of all the harm the people in it had done to one another and the wars religion has caused. Naturally, I did my best to point him away from looking at people to see Christ. But when someone's seen too many Christians in conflict and heard too much condemnation between alleged brothers and sisters, it's hard to penetrate his/her misgivings.

I wonder how many Romans were drawn to Christ, entered the Church, saw nothing but a group of people attacking each other, and walked away. I wonder how many times this happens on any given day around the world.

We need to spend more time with the God of peace and less time with our opinions. We need to let it be.

Thanks, dear friend, for your thoughts. It's always a joy to hear your thoughts.

Peace and love,