Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 24, 2017
Romans 16:25-27 Commentary
How does one say goodbye? Paul faced that in every letter he wrote but perhaps his most curious—and in its own way most moving—farewell comes at the end of Romans 16. Actually all of chapter 16 is an extended farewell. In fact, for this sermon commentary I am going to widen out the Lectionary text and suggest you preach on the whole chapter. You absolutely need verses 1-24 really to “get” this chapter. The important part here is not simply the doxological ending but the warm and personal run up to it.
Because in these verses Paul did what he so often did when signing off on a letter: he got very personal. Most of the time Paul’s letters seem impersonal–in fact, they don’t even seem like letters most of the time. But the conclusions are good reminders that this is correspondence addressed to specific individuals the same as all our letters and emails are today. In Romans 16 Paul names not less than thirty-three people in Rome to whom he wanted a special personal greeting to be extended. As Fred Craddock once observed, Paul asks that the letter receiver say “Hello” to all those folks but in his heart, Paul knew he was just as likely saying “Goodbye.”
On this Fourth Year B Lectionary Sunday in Advent we have a curious combination: in the Gospel reading from Luke 1 we have the angel Gabriel saying “Hello” to the young girl Mary. Now in the Epistle reading for this same day we have Paul saying “Goodbye” to a lot of people who came to faith because of Mary’s son, Jesus. Maybe taken together these passages remind us that Advent and Christmas are never just about generic humanity. It’s always personal. It was for Mary. It was for Paul when he wrote his letters.
Indeed, if ever you needed a reminder that Paul had a pastor’s heart, his ability to name so many specific people ought to provide it. So when in Romans 3 he wrote, “Righteousness comes from God through faith to all who believe,” he was thinking of real people whom he loved. When he famously wrote in chapter 8, “There is now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ,” he was rejoicing over the salvation of not a faceless, anonymous mass of humanity but over the salvation of Priscilla and Aquilla, of Mary and Julia, of Rufus and Urbanus, of dearly loved people Paul could call by name.
Sometimes when reading Paul’s letters it’s easy to see this as dry theology. But the personal way by which Paul concluded his letters reminds us that this was not the case–even as he wrote, Paul was visualizing the faces of real people whom he loved. That may also be why Paul apparently concluded some of his letters in his own handwriting. Scholars believe Paul had a problem with his vision and so it is very obvious in almost every letter that he utilized the services of an “amanuensis” or secretary who took dictation from Paul. In Romans 16:22 Paul’s scribe for this particular letter–someone named Tertius–inserted his own greeting to the Christians at Rome. But at times Paul took the quill himself. “See,” he sometimes wrote, “this is in my own hand now as a sign that this all comes from also my own heart.”
Even the diciest and most complicated of Paul’s thoughts were always in the service of pastoral care for real people whom he loved. That’s also why he frequently concluded with encouragement that the people of God be united, as in Romans 16:16 when he urges them to share “a holy kiss” with one another as a sign of mutual love. But always, always he came back to grace, to a reminder of why these people had an never-ending reason to give God the praise in the best doxology they could muster.
When Romans opened, Paul declared, “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God that saves all who believe.” Now he bookends this letter by returning to that precious gospel, which is the proclamation of a great mystery revealed in Christ. And what is that mystery? It is the mystery of grace. It is the gospel truth that when it is all said and done, God saves people not according to their merits, not because of their background, piety, skin color, ethnicity, or high moral standards but just by grace alone and against all odds.
This was a mystery so great that God had to literally knock Paul flat on his back one bright afternoon to get it through his thick skull. He had been known as Saul in those days and was the most-feared persecutor of the early church. No one had broken up as many churches as had Saul. No one had ever dragged as many women away by their hair as had Saul. No one had arrested more Christians than had Saul and he had even been a consenting participant in the dreadful murder of the church’s first deacon, Stephen. What was behind all that vitriol and violence? A firm belief that Saul knew exactly who was who in God’s grand scheme of things. Pious, observant, highly moral Jews like the Pharisees (and Saul was a chief Pharisee) were the good guys going straight to heaven. Everyone else (starting with that shabby and morally sloppy rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth) were the bad guys who needed to be rooted out like a cancer.
That’s how Saul thought until one day God crashed into his life with a truth so profound as to qualify as a kind of mystery: it’s all by grace, Saul. And just to prove it–and to show that God has a sense of humor–Saul was renamed Paul and was then given the life-long commission of proclaiming the utterly free nature of salvation to Gentiles, to non-Jews, to the very people Saul had once deemed to be the unsalvageable scum of the earth. As Frederick Buechner so deftly put it, “Paul set out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ!” Paul had to eat crow the rest of his days, proclaiming that everything he had believed once upon a time was bogus, a lie, the opposite of what he now knew to be the truth of grace.
Saul had always pictured the kingdom of God as a highly exclusive “Members Only” club with a restricted membership. Paul concluded Romans by hoping that nothing less than “all nations” on the earth would believe God’s gospel. Saul saw salvation as a simple, straightforward formula, as sensible as 2+2=4. Add up your merit points, subtract your demerits, and if you came out ahead, you were in. Paul saw salvation as so sublime he could only fall back in wonder at what he ended up calling the “mystery” of it all.
Saul saw God as kind of the senior partner in a firm in which Saul was himself a key player whom God needed to keep everything tidy and in order. God as senior partner surely garnered Saul’s respect but their relationship was pretty much all business. Paul saw God as the font of such a supreme grace that he knew he would never be finished in singing doxologies to him. When you see your senior partner, you greet him with due decorum. When you see the God of all grace, you fall down to your knees and begin to sputter glad thoughts that are finally too exuberant for rational speech!
When Paul wrote about the gospel, he did so with the eagerness of a parent who couldn’t wait to give a gift to his child. Have you ever experienced that? You buy a present for someone and you become so eager to see his or her reaction that you regret that Christmas Day is still a while off. But when the day comes when the wrapping paper comes off, you discover that it is your heart that is racing in your chest. You just can’t wait to give the gift. That’s how Paul wrote and that’s what I’ve wanted to do all along–eagerly to give and re-give and then give yet again the gift of grace as it comes through the proclamation of the gospel.
Paul is so exuberant that he actually leaves this passage somewhat incomplete, at least grammatically. Verses 25-27 are just one long Greek sentence. Grammatically speaking, however, it is technically a sentence fragment: “God” is the subject but there is no verb to go with it. It’s the equivalent of saying something like, “The mailman, whom we all know . . .” It’s not a complete thought.
Of course, Romans 16:25-27 does make sense but I like that it’s technically incomplete. The very incompleteness of the sentence is like an indication that the work of praising God in lives of doxology never ends–it goes on and on and on. And it goes on and on and on in the lives or real people with real names. Rufus, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Julia, Hermes, Olympas: all of them.
All of it is doxology. All of it constitutes praise. All of it flows from the one grace of God in which each of us has been established in Christ.
“Don’t call it a list!” That is the refrain from a classic Fred Craddock sermon on this passage from Romans 16. It is filled with Craddock’s signature wit, humor, and keen pastoral insight. I highly recommend taking the 20 minutes to give it a listen.
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