Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 22, 2019
Romans 1:1-7 Commentary
God saves God’s adopted children by grace alone that we can only receive with our faith in Jesus Christ. However, God always calls those whom God loves to express that faith with our obedience.
Someone once said, “Make a good beginning and you’re half the way to winning.” Certainly, then, Paul seems halfway to winning in what’s arguably his most famous and theologically substantial letter. He begins his letter to the Romans, after all, very well.
It’s important, however, to note that it’s Paul himself who claims to make this good beginning. After all, while he often mentions other people at the beginning of his letters, he mentions no one else at Romans’ beginning. So why is it so important that the Romans know that Paul personally writes this letter?
Scholars suggest that much of what the Roman Christians knew about Paul’s theology was second-hand, that it came from his acquaintances that lived among them. As he writes this letter, however, he wants to do mission work in the western part of his world, including Spain. Since the apostle wants the Romans to support that outreach, he realizes they need to know more about his theology.
Contemporary missionaries often still do something similar. They often want to visit supporting churches partly because they realize that their supporters want to know something not just about what they’re doing, but also about their theology, about their views of what they’re doing.
Paul almost immediately identifies himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ,” or, more accurately translated, “a slave of Jesus Christ.” Some Roman slaves called themselves “slaves of Caesar.” By doing so, they were claiming to represent Caesar. So by calling himself Christ’s “slave,” the apostle is claiming that is he represents an even greater power, the living God.
His view of the nature of his calling as an apostle also forms part of Paul’s theology. As Fleming Rutledge, who lent me some ideas for this Commentary, notes, when people think of people who are set apart, we usually think of those who have set themselves apart. So we may think, for instance, of monks who separate themselves from the rest of society.
Paul, however, hasn’t set himself apart to be an apostle. In fact, he did nearly everything in his power to avoid being one of Jesus’ messengers. God had to derail Saul’s plans to get rid of Christianity by knocking him off his high horse and blinding him for three days. It’s no wonder, then, that the apostle insists he doesn’t deserve to be called an apostle. Clearly God called Paul to that holy task.
Romans 1’s proclaimers might invite our hearers to contemplate God’s transforming call in our own lives. We might explore together how were it up to us, for instance, we’d be self-indulgent people who cared little about anyone but ourselves. We might also explore how God’s call on us transformed us into God’s “slaves.”
God did similar work in freeing Paul from Satan’s grip and sending him to the very Gentiles he’d once despised. That mission sent him throughout the Mediterranean world in conditions that would appall most of us today. His mission trips got him persecuted, imprisoned and threatened with death.
God’s beloved children owe so much to this man whom God set apart to be an apostle. Without him, after all, there would be, humanly speaking, no worldwide Christian church. Without God’s work through Paul, gentiles would still be sitting in spiritual darkness that’s deeper than the physical darkness that dominates the northern hemisphere at this time of year.
As the well-traveled Paul writes the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for today, he’s preparing for his biggest trip of all: to imperial Rome. The apostle’s coming to its tiny band of Christians that mighty Rome dwarfs in every conceivable way. Rutledge compares Christ’s followers in Rome to a handful of ants over which the mighty Coliseum towers. The Romans are, in fact, so mighty that Paul realizes that his visit may result in them squashing him like a bug.
The apostle, however, also knows that his message and mission are important enough to make that risk worthwhile. He brings a crucial word, after all, of salvation through Jesus Christ. Paul describes the whole majestic sweep of God’s dealings with not only people, but also God’s whole creation in three short but sparkling verses (3-6).
He speaks of the chosen Israelites to whom God promised a Messiah. Paul says this Savior, who was the Son of God, was born to parents who were descendants of Israel’s mighty king David. Even after people managed to crucify this Messiah, God raised him to life. Yet by resurrecting him God also made Jesus Lord over not just the Jews, but also all peoples.
Yet as one scholar notes, these three dramatic verses summarize the sweep not only of God’s salvation, but also of Paul’s entire letter to the Romans. In them he announces its central themes of human sin, God’s grace and faithful obedience that will dominate the rest of this letter.
However, Paul also insists God didn’t graciously save him merely to preach to the dispersed people of Israel. His message of sin, God’s grace and the need for faithful response is also for people “from among all the Gentiles” (5). Just as the scope of human sin is universal, so is the scope of God’s love in Jesus Christ. At the heart of Paul’s message for all people is verse 5’s call to the “obedience that comes from faith.” Essentially Paul calls God’s beloved people to demonstrate faith in Jesus Christ by, in part, obeying God.
We, however, naturally like rebels. Our culture often romanticizes those who don’t conform. Into this world that treasures disobedience comes Paul talking about the obedience that comes not from fear, or guilt, or compulsion, but from faith. He comes talking, quite simply, about what the Heidelberg Catechism calls the good that we do that “arises out of true faith.”
Of course, this obedience that grows out of genuine faith has a specific shape. Paul, after all, talks elsewhere about being “in Christ” and “having the mind of Christ.” He describes “dying and rising with Christ,” as well as “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, the obedience that comes from faith isn’t generic. It’s, instead, a very christological obedience that’s not only best modeled by Jesus Christ, but is also empowered by Christ, through his Holy Spirit.
After all, God has graciously given God’s adopted sons and daughters the gift of faith in order to produce not rebellion, but obedience to God. The way of rebellion is, as Rutledge notes, the way of death of the spirit and soul. And while obedience to God sometimes is the way of the death of the body, it’s also the way of life for every part of God’s people.
Of course, perhaps few who read this Sermon Commentary will have to give our lives for our faith. So the obedience that comes from faith displays itself for at least some of us, as Rutledge notes, in the ordinary rhythms of our lives. It reveals itself in daily dealings with friends and family members, students and classmates, neighbors and co-workers.
So Christians who want to live out our faith ask ourselves question like: “Will I reach out to that person to whom no one else reaches out? Will I protest against the unjust treatment of our society’s most vulnerable citizens? Will I spend as much time teaching children about God’s ways as I do bringing them to school and other activities?” Will, in other words, my faith, by God’s grace, produce Christ-like obedience?
The Romans Christians to whom Paul writes our text lived in some of Rome’s toughest neighborhoods that plagues often clobbered hardest. While pagan doctors didn’t know those diseases’ causes, they did know their contagion. They also believed that plagues were signs that the gods didn’t care whether the people they affected lived or died. So pagan doctors generally fled plague-infested slums.
Roman Christians, by contrast, recognized that God both loved them and called them to love each other. So they were often the only people who were willing to care for plague victims. Their house churches overcame the plagues’ difficulties and took in surviving neighbors as Christian converts. Such good grew out of Rome’s Christians’ true faith in Jesus Christ.
In 2006 Charles Carl Roberts massacred 5 people in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Among the victims whose Christian faith led to her obedience was 13 year-old Marian Fisher. She, after all, stepped forward and told Roberts, “Shoot just me, and leave the others go.” Quite simply, Marian offered to take the place of children who were younger, smaller and weaker.
Some couldn’t help but hear in her offer echoes of Jesus. He, after all, stepped forward to let God condemn him in the place of people who were smaller and weaker. Even more incredibly, Jesus died for people who are completely naturally capable of crucifying him.
Yet the Amish obedience that comes from faith didn’t end with Marian Fisher’s sacrificial offer. It also embraced the father, wife and children of the man who so callously murdered their children before killing himself. The Amish community donated some of the funds people sent them to Roberts’ family.
Amish people are no more perfect than any of Jesus’ followers. Their theology is somewhat unusual. Their interpretation of Jesus’ words, “Unless you forgive others, your Heavenly Father won’t forgive you” borders on legalism. What’s more, the Amish treat those who rebel against their strict morality quite harshly.
But when trouble came, the Spirit used their true faith to embolden Amish people to show the kind of obedience that comes from faith. They rooted their obedient forgiveness of and generosity toward the murderer’s family in their faith in Jesus Christ.
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