Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2022
Romans 1:1-7 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Paul basically frames this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with references to calling (1, 7a). What lies between those references forms the basis for those calls, both for the apostle and all of God’s dearly beloved people to whom the Spirit speaks through him.
However, preachers who wish to talk about calling need to clarify something relatively quickly. As the New Testament scholar Elizabeth Shively notes, Christians often think of calling in terms of vocation. We generally think of our work as something like being a parent or spouse, food service or lawn maintenance worker as our calling.
Uncertainty about one’s vocation seems to be one of the hallmarks of 21st century North American life. Christian young adults wonder what God is calling them to do with their lives, in other words, for what sorts of work God is equipping them. Even experienced workers sometimes wonder if God is calling them to continue to do the work they’re doing.
Shively points to the huge amount of resources that our society offers to help us discover our vocational calling. She refers to things like Oprah, Forbes, the Huffington Post, TED talks and even Christian websites and books. But one thing binds together nearly all of those resources: the assumption that in order to discover one’s calling, one must know one’s deepest desires.
Yet when Paul talks to the Romans about calling, he doesn’t explicitly refer to such passion. While the apostle displayed passion for his calling throughout his recorded minister, he doesn’t actually speak of it here. What’s more, he doesn’t even allude to passion as playing any role in God’s dearly beloved people’s calling.
On Romans’ ancient form of a “sender” line Paul speaks of his calling (kletos) to be “an apostle” (apostolos). It is grammatically interesting that kletos is an adjective that modifies the noun apostolos. That at least suggests that Paul thinks of himself as called only in relation to his more central identity as an apostle. He appears to think of himself more as an apostle than as called.
Yet by referring to himself as literally a “called apostle,” Paul is insisting that he did not somehow make himself an apostle. He is a called apostle. Even many fairly young Christians know the nature of Paul’s calling. Saul was, in fact, on his way to persecute Jesus’ followers when God graciously knocked him off his high horse and into the kingdom. Yet almost immediately God told his fellow Christian Ananias that God had chosen Paul to carry God’s name before the gentiles, in other words to be an apostle.
When this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul refers to himself as being “called to be an apostle,” we hear echoes of 1 Corinthians 12:28. There he writes that “In the church God has appointed first of all apostles.” Then the apostle goes on to rhetorically ask in verse 29, “Are all apostles?” in a way that anticipates a negative answer. It’s among the reasons most Protestants believe that the apostolic calling was limited to a certain group of early Christians.
So we’re not surprised when Paul speaks of Christians’ calling in verse 6, he doesn’t say that we’re called to be apostles. Instead, the apostle insists that we’re called (kletoi), first, Iesou Christou. It’s a grammatically strange phrase. The Greek form of “Jesus Christ” is in the genitive masculine case.
While most translations render it, “called to belong to Jesus Christ,” there is no Greek verb in the phrase. So some translations render it as “called of” or “by Jesus Christ.” Perhaps those who preach verse 6’s difficult phrase need to say little more than that Christians’ calling is to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Those whom God graciously calls no longer call our own shots. Every part of us belongs to Jesus Christ.
In verse 7, Paul adds a second calling to those to whom he writes. He notes that we are called to be “saints.” He uses the same word kletos that he uses to describe his own calling to be an apostle. However, Paul says that his adopted brothers and sisters in Christ are called to be “saints” (hagiois).
Preachers might point out that just as Paul refers to himself literally as a “called apostle,” and his brothers and sisters in Christ as “called of Jesus Christ,” he also refers to his fellow Christians as “called saints.” So just as Paul didn’t himself choose to be an apostle, so Christians can’t claim that they chose to be saints. It’s a status given to Jesus’ friends by God.
It’s fascinating that while English translators almost always translate hagiois as “saints,” it more literally refers to being “set apart by (or for) God,” “holy,” or “sacred.” This, however, runs contrary to our culture’s perception of what it means to be a saint.
When it talks at all about saintliness, society generally speaks of exceptionally kind behavior, especially that which is offered under some kind of duress. Yet in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul seems to refer more to the idea of saints as those whom God has set apart for a special purpose. So sainthood seems to the apostle to be less of an action than of a status. God, says the apostle, graciously gives to God’s beloved (7) people the status of those whom God has set apart for loving service to God and our neighbor.
This status, points out Shively, invites Jesus’ friends to see our siblings in Christ in a new way. They don’t just go to church with or near us. God has also graciously called our fellow Christians people who “belong to Jesus Christ.” Our friends in Christ don’t just share a common faith commitment to him. God also graciously calls them “saints.”
Those who preach this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may need to contemplate how it fits into the season of Advent as we prepare to proclaim Romans 1. We might think of our own calling as related to the three ways in which God in Christ comes to us and for which we prepare. By this Sunday most people’s attention will have turned toward the celebration of Christ’s first coming.
This offers preachers an opportunity to remind our hearers that we belong to this Jesus Christ who didn’t remain a baby in a manger, but grew up to be the world’s Savior. The Son of God became incarnate in order to offer himself as the meaning and purpose of our whole lives. His first Advent invites his both Jewish and non-Jewish followers to the kind of full-orbed “obedience that comes from faith” (5).
Our calling as saints reminds us that God didn’t just come once in Christ but is also is, in a real sense, always coming to us by the Holy Spirit. We are saints whom God calls to self-giving service to God and those around us. We are called to be Jesus’ friends in all of our diverse vocations and relationships.
But, of course, those who belong to Jesus and are set apart for service to him know that Jesus is coming again. So we always remember that while “apostle” was originally a term reserved for a certain set of early Christians, all of us fulfill the role of those who announce Jesus’ coming to a world (and even Church) that sometimes seems woefully underprepared for it.
Shively closes her fine commentary on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by pointing out that, “It is not wrong-headed to pursue the discovery of our particular calling or vocation. Indeed, we ought to be diligent and responsible and passionate about how we use our God-given gifts. But we are fundamentally called to be Christ’s and to be holy, and we express that holiness through a Spirit-empowered way of life marked by self-giving love, which drives every other pursuit.
In his book, Wishful Thinking (and later Beyond Words) Frederick Buechner writes, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.
“Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, ‘I am foremost among sinners’ (l Timothy 1:15), and Jesus himself prayed God to forgive his trespasses, and when the rich young man addressed him as ‘good Teacher,’ answered, ‘No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10:18).
“In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, ‘Give me chastity and continence, but not now,’ that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.”
The Holy Spirit has been called ‘the Lord, the giver of life’ and, drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive.”
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