+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Last week, we encountered the Apostle Paul in the midst of one of his missionary trips, preaching the gospel to the people of Lystra. That account was typical of Paul’s ministry throughout the Mediterranean world. He thrived on the opportunity to travel to new cities, to meet new people, and to share with them the good news of God in Christ. Paul did this to much success, establishing communities of faith all over Asia Minor and Greece. Once those communities were on solid footing, Paul moved on, but he tried to follow up regularly by means of his extensive letter writing. The New Testament contains thirteen letters that bear Paul’s name, but this one – the Letter to the Romans – is unique among Paul’s writings because it is the only one addressed to a community that wasn’t founded by the apostle or one of his associates. Acts tells us that Paul did eventually make it to Rome, but he arrived in the custody of Roman soldiers who were charged with guarding him as he awaited trial on charges of disturbing the peace. Tradition states that the apostle was martyred in Rome around the year 67, apparently without ever being able to visit the community that he so fervently wished to meet.
In the letter to the Romans, then, we have Paul’s attempt to introduce himself to the Christians of that city and to share with them his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its significance for the life of faith. The section before us today is that letter’s opening, in which Paul presents his credentials as an apostle and begins the process of teaching the Romans at a distance. Now, if Paul didn’t have anything to do with the establishment of this community, why did he think it necessary to write to them, and why did he want to meet them so badly? That’s somewhat difficult to say. One of the problems we have with decoding Paul’s letters is that they represent one half of a conversation or relationship, and unfortunately we are missing the other half. If you’ve ever waited nervously next to someone who was on the phone and wanted desperately to know what they were talking about, you can understand the issue we have in trying to identify what’s going on in Rome without having any information from the Romans. Here’s a good guess at what was happening when Paul sent this letter from Corinth to Rome: Paul was looking for a new base of support as he pushed to the west. It appears that his ultimate goal was to proclaim the Gospel in Spain, but his earlier base of support had been compromised by rival preachers, and he needed to find people who were willing to help him expand his mission westward. Beyond his own interests, signs point to the presence of conflict within the Roman community between Jewish and Gentile Christians. In the year 49, the Jews had been expelled from Rome by order of the emperor Claudius, and at least some of the Gentile Christians in that community had apparently viewed that expulsion as evidence of Gentile superiority, leading to friction within the church when the ban was lifted some five years later. Part of Paul’s project, then, is to remind both groups of the surpassing greatness of God in Christ and to remove any cause for boasting or bitterness within the church.
With that in mind, I’d like to focus today on what many have called the thesis or main idea of this letter, found in verses 16 and 17: 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. 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.” (Romans 1:16-17, NRSV) These verses are filled to overflowing with significance, and we could spend a lot of time unpacking them in their entirety, but for today it’s enough to focus on a few of the most important convictions expressed by the apostle, ideas that set the stage for the rest of this letter.
First, it is significant that Paul states clearly that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Among both Jews and Gentiles, the story of Jesus was often met with ridicule. Who could conceive of anyone revering, much less worshipping, a man who had been convicted by the Roman authorities and sentenced to death by crucifixion? The shame associated with the cross was so great that it was a wonder that the gospel of Jesus was ever able to spread as far as it did. In our own day, Christianity is often associated with anti-intellectual attitudes, with an opposition to science, with judgmentalism and hypocrisy, and some people continue to dismiss the gospel as a fairy tale – and not a very good one at that. At its base, this message about Jesus is a message that often defies human logic, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept what others say about the church and the story that forms our identity. As Christians we are called, like Paul, to be bold before those who would seek to shame us for our trust in the God whose love was revealed in the cross of Christ.
One of the reasons we can stand strong in the face of opposition is Paul’s second conviction: that the Gospel is no mere story, but the very power of God that brings salvation to those who hear it. The good news of Jesus does more than remind us of who he was and what he did for us. The good news is the means by which God in Christ continues to be present to us, reminds us of the depth of God’s love for us, and draws us into the life that God shares with Jesus in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Proclaiming what God has done in Christ accomplishes something – it is a means of extending the grace of God anew, healing us and renewing us each new day.
In the end, what makes this introduction so powerful is its insistence on the role of faith in our relationship with God, though not the way we so often think about it as American Christians. Paul’s use of “faith” is grounded in God’s character and God’s relationship with the world. When Paul says “For in it [the gospel], the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith,” he most likely means something like this: “For in the gospel, God’s saving covenant faithfulness is revealed through the faithfulness of Christ to generate faithfulness among those who hear it.” [Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2004), 350.] We are so quick to make faith about us, and wonder about the strength or sufficiency of our faith, but Paul isn’t talking about that – at least not here. Paul is making the case that our trust is God is generated by the faithful love that God has displayed toward Israel – and then, in Christ, toward humanity. The whole story of Scripture is the story of God pursuing people so that we might be in relationship with God, and in Jesus we have all been given the opportunity to experience God’s faithful love so that we can respond with our own faithful obedience in thought, word, and deed. How we live is undoubtedly important, but the ability to live rightly before God is first and foremost about God bringing about reconciliation in Jesus and freeing us to live in obedience to God’s will for our lives. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like good news!
Brothers and sisters, in the weeks to come we’ll hear more of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome and gain insight into Paul’s understanding of how God is continuing to move in our lives in the person of Jesus. For this week, let us all reflect on those powerful words and what they teach us about the good news of God in Christ: 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. 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.” Thanks be to God for God’s faithfulness to, and for the opportunity to be God’s faithful people today and every day. Amen.