Rev Sharon Hollis, President of the Uniting Church in Australia, led the Bible Study at the 45th Annual Meeting of the Synod of Western Australia.
Sharon joined the Synod meeting via Zoom and used the Moderator’s theme of Romans 15: 13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” as a base of her study.
In looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans, in particular Romans 15:7-13, Sharon pulled two key themes out – the trustworthiness of God and the idea of hope.
Sharon explained that Paul’s trusting in God is founded not only in our believing or trusting, but in the worthiness of God.
“God is the ground of trust, of hope, because God is the guarantor of all that God has promised,” Sharon said.
The other key component, hope, is at the heart of the gospel of salvation for Paul, Sharon said.
“Hope for Paul is not primarily an emotion or wishful thinking,” she said. “Rather it is a gift of a generous, gracious God.”
Paul writes about hope having himself suffered imprisonment for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. His understanding of hope is grounded in the painful realities of life, Sharon explained.
Paul also knows that he is writing to people who know despair and suffering and know that despair is met with God’s goodness.
Sharon then introduced the Synod Meeting to Titus, a character from the book ‘Phoebe: A Story’ by biblical scholar Paula Gooder, an imaginative retelling of the arrival of Paul’s letter in Rome and how it impacts different members of the community.
Titus comes from one of the most aristocratic families in Rome. After coming to faith, Titus asks Peter to baptise him, however Titus wants to be baptised privately in his own villa. But Peter insists it must be done in public, where everyone will see or hear about it.
Titus agrees and is baptised. Afterwards, he finds himself cut off from all his contacts and loses his standing, his status and his business. Yet, he finds joy and hope in serving God.
“This hope gives us courage to look into the deepest recesses of our own life and to know ourselves as most profoundly loved and accepted by God,” Sharon said.
Sharon concluded her first session by posing the question “What is it about God and how you have experienced God that makes you trust God?”
“How can you find a language about the trustworthiness of God so it might then become clear to those who have not yet encountered or met it?”
In her second Bible study on Sunday afternoon, Sharon focused on the ethical implications of God’s trustworthiness, particular in the areas of hospitality and harmony.
Sharon focused on Romans 15:7, where Paul writes “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Paul calls Christians to another way of living – a model of gracious reciprocity, Sharon said.
“God has already welcomed all and in the love of God there is no more Jew or Gentile, slave or free.”
“The admonishment to welcome one another has become almost glib in the life of the contemporary church.
“It’s one of the claims most often made by church in mission statements and in signs out the front of the building – we are a welcoming church.”
But to be welcoming, we are required to overcome the very real divides we put up, Sharon said. For Paul, it was Jew and Gentile, slave or free.
“For us, it may be race, class, culture, gender or sexuality.
“The call to welcome requires us to examine the life of the world around us and how that is shaping who we see as included and excluded.
“Barriers and lack of welcome that stop people from joining us and hearing the good news of Jesus Christ have no place in the life of the church.”
Sharon then looked at the previous chapter where Paul urges the Romans to “Welcome the one who is weak in faith, but not simply for disputes about opinions. One the side is the one who has faith to eat anything, on the other side the weak person eats only vegetables.”
Sharon looked to the scholar Beverley Roberts Gaventa to examine this passage. Gaventa explains that the church at Rome probably consisted of several small groups of people, each of which had its own character, leadership and interpretations. These group lines were not crossed very often, but when they did, the shared meal which usually resulted in some dispute.
For example, food laws are customary for Jews. In 14:2 Paul says that these people “eat only vegetables,” which may reflect their extreme concern about avoiding unclean food but could also be a sort of slur: “These folks are so ‘pure’ that they eat only lettuce,” Sharon said.
Other people, as Paul puts it in 14:2, “have faith to eat everything”. We customarily speak of these people as “the strong”, Sharon said.
But Paul throws elbows in both directions: he elbows those who are squeamish by calling them “weak” in faith (“lettuce-eaters”), but he also takes a jab at those who eat anything (“garbage-bellies”).
“Everyone gets along just fine, so long as everyone is eating in isolation or in small groups of the like-minded,” Sharon said.
“But without a unified gathering, is there a church at Rome?
“The quest for harmony is about paying attention to that which unites us in order that we might keep our boundaries to the external world porous so that others might enter.
“Harmony is important so that the scope of the welcome can be expanded, the church can face the world together and communities of faith can be open to the newcomer.”
Sharon then asked the question “When have you had to rethink what you thought was true to seek hospitality and harmony?”
“In living as a community that welcomes the other, we will encounter God again and again and find that the trustworthy God is calling us to mercy, hope and trust.”