It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep,
for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.
The night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Paul to the Romans, 13:11
Paul is writing to the great Roman Church. His letter is unusual in this respect. It is a work of inspired and creative genius, in which he describes in dramatic terms the descent of Godless man into an attack on nature itself. “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to base mind and improper conduct” (1:28). He describes his struggle for that holiness which pleases God and its resolution in faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit (7:21–25, 8:9–11). Paul tells the story of the created order in its relation to the human story of sin and redemption (8:18–25). But he does not refer to any particular scandal such as the incestuous behavior of a certain Corinthian or the wrong-headed theological speculations of certain members of that Church regarding the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:12–25).
Paul’s failure to find public scandal or a Laodicean weakening of faith would justify Saint Ignatius’ description of the Roman Church as preeminent in faith. But at the same time Paul believes the Romans stand in need of his preaching, and he writes as though the Roman Christians are at least liable to all the characteristic follies of which human nature is capable: drunkenness, promiscuity, lust, rivalry, and jealousy. But always there is that remarkable note of optimism that appears alongside this list of failures and weaknesses, for Paul urges the Romans to put off these works of darkness and not to answer the enticements of the flesh, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” “Throwing off the works of darkness” means more than moral reform, for it means putting on Christ and living in Him.
It is characteristic of the faith that the possibility of a renewed nature occurs in the context of warnings against behavior that belongs to the old man. As Paul would say in Second Corinthians, “If one is in Christ, he has become a new creature, the former things have passed away, you see he has become something new” (5:17). Paul will later describe this new condition as one in which by the cross of Christ “I have been crucified to the world and the world to me.” Thus that “putting aside” of the works of darkness by “putting on Christ” that Paul describes in Romans.
How then can it be that this new creature must be warned in hopeful tones to put away the most obvious, damaging and tawdry of sins? Why, if we are new creatures, must every celebration of the Great Thanksgiving begin with the confession of our grievous sins of thought, word, and deed? For this there are good reasons. In the waters of baptism the root of original sin is severed in us, and there we indeed do put on Christ, being given His character, His Holy Spirit, the great powers of faith, hope, and love. But although the power of sin to dominate our lives is done away, the marks of the great rebellion remain upon us, to be finally erased in death. But the perfecting of the gift once given in fullness at baptism is in the battle-arena that is the world a work of such time as God gives us. The good news that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good in very many ways but perhaps its fundamental goodness is its optimism, optimism being a word formed on the noun optimas, one of the best, a member of the aristocratic party. We are in the world, which is our enemy, but we are always, at every moment in our pilgrimage, in Jesus Christ, set on the way toward what is truly best.
Historically, Christianity was never the property of a class or rank, for from the beginning it lived in the hearts of slaves and high-born, of the un-lettered and philosophers, but it offers always membership in that moral aristocracy called the Church, which is the work of God not of man. That aristocracy could never be a nobility, because to be noble was to be well-known, and it was the particular characteristic of the communion of believers that the names of those who shared in this aristocracy were written in God’s book but were, save for the educated and ever uncertain guesses intimated by the testimony of their works, unknown among men.
Yet it was this hope that man could achieve not only freedom from sin, but the best, the truly good life, which is life in Christ that inspired the Christian revolution. This is what Paul, who like his Master “knew what was in man” could nevertheless tell his readers that the darkness must pass because the day was breaking, so that now was the time to awake from darkness, to throw off the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light, that the destiny and high hope of everyman was not to be favored among men but to be welcomed into the presence of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The bar was set high but mercy was great; Christians were to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect. Paul commands: “Put on Jesus Christ; take no forethought for satisfying the yearnings of the flesh.” And in Colossians: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above where Christ is seated in the glory of God the Father. Think on what is above, not on the things on earth. For you have died and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life shall appear, then you shall appear with Him in glory” (3:3). We already share in what is highest and best. We are already given the power to be free of the things that tie the eye of the heart to things below, and are empowered to live in the light of the glory that belongs to the things that are above, but on the way to glory there are challenges. So the pilgrim lives in the light of the highest things, things eye has not imagined, but moves along a path that runs among the things that are below, where failure is an ever-present possibility and repentance an ever-present necessity, which is why Paul must warn those who are in Christ to avoid in humility and with care the degradation of drunkenness, lust and jealousy. As pilgrims move toward the realization of that character given when water was poured and the name of God was recited over each one, the great apostle’s exhortation stands: “This, this day, is the time to wake up.”