16 June 2019 Coming to Rome Martin Baker
1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9 For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10 asking that by God's will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15 —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
Our reading today from Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, seems quite technical. A lot of words, in fact the first 7 verses written without even a full stop.
Paul needs to convey in these dense opening words something about who he is and his purpose in coming to Rome. One of the really important things Paul wants the Christian Romans, and us, to understand is that this thing called the Gospel is the thing that defines not just what we say but who we are and our purpose, or our calling.
So even in these opening verses we learn an important lesson about Paul. I wonder if this is a hard lesson for us to hear?
Often it seems that in the culture we live in, we separate these things of purpose and identity. We separate what we do from who we are. We perhaps live more fragmented lives. A kind of breakdown in this understanding of our Gospel identity that was so fundamentally important to Paul.
For example, In contrast to what we hear Paul writing about, one of the strange things that has happened in our media seems to be the often false connection we make between, say, being famous and being intelligent. Or the connection between being well known and knowing a lot. Or being a star and having well informed opinions. A well-known actor or a rugby player, or a popular weather presenter, can give their views on anything from vaccines or the benefits of vitamins or a particular diet or the values of a particular political party or even on what the Bible says. And those views are given a particular credibility.
So let’s contrast this modern perspective with what Paul is saying. He says our identity comes from being in relationship to the God in whose image we have each been created. And that there is a call on each of our lives. How many of today understand our value first of all, by what we do? But that is not what Paul is saying.
So, let’s just step back for a moment and look at the situation here. Paul is writing to this early group of Christians scattered through the city of Rome. They’re likely to be persecuted, some executed, and they meet in believers home. But the thing is that unlike other towns and cities, Paul has never been to Rome. He didn’t found the church there. Some people will have heard of him but he is likely to be a somewhat unknown figure.
So in this dense piece of writing, Paul first says to these people in Rome, that his faith his calling his identity are the reasons why his words can be trusted and have an authority. When you are faced with decisions about holding on to your faith in the face of possible torture and death, you do not want the person who is teaching you to be a fake. This person can’t first of all motivated by likes on Facebook or Instagram, or their desire to be famous, or wealthy. The person, Paul, is teaching you something which is real, about Jesus and about the faith that will enable you to endure.
Paul later says to the people in Rome, that neither death nor life nor angels or principalities can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
When things are looking really bad, these words are really important, but what makes them important is not only what they say but where there have come from, their authority. And remember at that point, no one has a Bible. There is no text to look up. These, Paul tells us are words of an apostle.
What are the stories we listen to? A special discernment for us in a world full of false stories and false news. Listening for the Gospel.
Paul describes himself as a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle set apart for the Gospel of God. So he wants to say who he is and then he wants to speak about the nature of the message he brings. And he says a little later on, 7 To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. Famous, not for being famous, or rich or beautiful, but because of their faith.
Then he concludes this introduction with these wonderful words. And remember this was likely a time when Emperor Nero was burning Christians alive. Later Nero would blame the Christians for the fire in Rome and Paul himself would be executed there.
Paul says 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
Not an easy thing to hear.
But we learn in these first few verses a great deal about what it means to be see yourself, as a follower of Christ.
Our gender, our race, our backgrounds, whether we have been Jews or Gentiles whether we are citizens or not whether we were slaves or wealthy. All that is set side.
In Western culture we would what?; identify ourselves by our jobs, qualifications, achievements, income, where we lived. Who we voted for. What we thought about Jacinda or Donald. Is he or she one of us?
And we might place a real value on all those things.
But Paul goes way beyond this in talking about first who he is, and then the identity of all who would follow Christ.
He says these things. He says you are apostles. He says you all called to belong to Jesus Christ. You are all beloved. You are all called to be saints. God loves you and you are special. Not just special as individuals, but also special together.
And he says that being wise or foolish, being a Jew or a Barbarian, those designations become irrelevant when we encounter the God of salvation revealed to us in Jesus.
Then towards the end of the introduction, he talks about the Gospel as the power of God’s salvation.
The power of this passage lies in Paul's assurance that God so desires to be in relationship with us, that there is nothing we can do to escape the grasp of God's love. We might have forgotten or stopped believing in God but God never forgets us or stops believing in us.
One Biblical scholar tells us that for a broken people (and we all have brokenness), Paul's assurance of God's faithfulness to us is like a letter from an old friend that we can pull out when we need to be reminded that we are loved.
At the end of this introduction Paul says 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
We read a verse like this but it too easy to get lost in the words and not understand that Paul is saying something central to this whole letter. When he says God is revealed through faith he uses the word apokaluptai. We get the word apocalypse from it. And the way the word is used here, this apocalypse, this colossal revealing has not just happened once, but continues to happen.
And the theology around this is a bit head spinning. Not only that we receive God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, as a gift, but our very ability to receive this gift, our faith is also a gift from God.
We have to find analogies to speak about this - and perhaps the best is the human reality of a loving parent who continues to love their child simply because that is their child and not as a result of anything the child had done. But at the same time the child experiences the unconditional love of the parent and in doing so learns about loving and being loved. The parent, by loving the child in this unconditional way, gives the child the ability to return that love.
And if we stick with that example, when we read about God’s righteousness, it is more helpful to think of righteousness as the divine justice of a loving God. What needs to happen to make things right? To restore a broken relationship with a child that has become distant, a child that has done the wrong things, forgotten their identity, has forgotten or doesn’t realise that they’re loved. Parents sometimes face some really tough choices, but in scripture we hear of God who says I will do anything to restore this relationship, and so we read that God so loves the world, that he gives us his Son.
We speak about the cross being central. The symbol of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In him we discover what it means to live in a restored relationship with one another and with God.
When Paul here writes to the Romans about this whole package of love, forgiveness, sacrifice, the cross, restoration, justice - this whole thing together Paul talks about as the power of the Gospel. He says 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.
The choices for those people in Rome are really stark. A person who could so easily live in fear of oppression, of torture of death. We stand with people of faith through the centuries who have faced these stark realties. Even in Hong Kong now so many of those protestors challenging the power of China are singing hymns. With the tear gas and the rubber bullets. Those first Christians in Rome, it would be so easy to go back and start worshiping Caesar or Zeus or Aphrodite. With the Christians in Hong Kong so easy to just go home and watch sport of play a video game.
So this morning, Paul reminds us of this new identity made possible by Jesus. We are empowered through the work of his spirt, his continuing presence amongst us. To overcome the forces, the powers and principalities that undermine our identity as Gospel people. To confront even our deepest fears of suffering and death.
This morning Paul encourages us, to claim this identity, where we are neither Jew Greek or barbarian, to claim this identity as Gospel people, sons and daughter of the living God. AMEN
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