First Romans sermon based on Romans 1:1-17, preached April 15, 2012
As a ten-year old boy, I visited London for the first time. I remember my wide-eyed amazement at the bustling life of the nation’s capital. As a twenty-year-old student, I visited New York City for the first time. It terrified me. In London, I’d been with my parents; in New York, I was on my own, staying in a sleazy hotel in a bad part of town. Talking of visiting great cities, the Apostle Paul introduces his Letter to the Romans by letting the church there know that he’s planning to visit Rome for the first time.‘I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you [but thus far have been prevented]’. Paul wasn’t going there as a kid or as a student, but as a preacher! The citizens of Rome may not have been excited by that prospect, but Paul was!
Rome, the mighty metropolis, the globe’s cultural capital, the seat of imperial power and wealth, the embodiment of the world’s most sophisticated arts and achievements. Paul dreamt of preaching in Rome, and of making Rome the strategic centre for the whole Christian enterprise. So he writes to the Roman church to introduce himself, to set out in some detail what he will preach when he gets there, and to prepare the way for his grand Christian mission to Europe in which he hopes for their support. Paul had confident plans. He had a confidence you can’t help admire and maybe envy
In beginning a sermon series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans this morning, we need to get Paul in focus. He was born in what we now call Turkey. Reared as a strict Jew, he was sent to Jerusalem to be educated by the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. As such, he was steeped in Jewish scripture, law, and tradition. But just as Paul graduated with his degree in Jewish Studies, Jesus was making headlines. The relative unconcern that Jesus showed for the Jewish temple, the Jewish sabbath, and Jewish tradition, shocked Paul, and so he determined to destroy the Jesus’ movement before it began. But on his way to arrest some of Jesus’ followers in Damascus, Paul had what he later described as an encounter with the risen Jesus. The Book of Acts three times refers to that experience. It transformed Paul. Thereafter, he was convinced not only that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but that he himself was called by God to be a missionary on Jesus’ behalf.
Not that Paul abandoned Judaism to move to a new religion called Christianity. On the contrary, he came to understand Jesus as having fulfilled Jewish scripture, law and tradition. After some years spent rethinking his Jewish upbringing, education, attitude to non-Jews, and interpretation of Scripture, Paul emerged as a major leader within the church. Most importantly, he convinced the original Jewish leaders of the Jerusalem church that Jesus was good news not only for Jews, but for Gentiles, indeed the whole world. At the centre of that world was Rome!
But what impact would Paul make on Rome? After all, he hailed from an imperial backwater. He was a Jew, and Jews were at best tolerated in Rome, at worst, despised. More shocking still, Paul was a Christian Jew, a disciple of a man whom Rome had crucified. How dare Paul head to Rome to preach Jesus! A sophisticated city like Rome would dismiss his preaching with contempt and treat him as a laughingstock.
We too live in a sort of ‘empire’. By that I mean that we live in a world and are part of a way of life that thinks itself progressively cosmopolitan. Our world tends to write Christianity off as a relic from an earlier time, when gullible people didn’t know any better. No one takes the faith seriously, it is assumed; certainly not educated, up-to-date people. We’re easily cowed by such assumptions. Which is why we’re content to believe what we believe within the doors of the church, but reluctant to express our faith beyond them. Jesus is our private religious thing while we’re here; but the world out there can carry on nicely without him. We’ve lost confidence in the gospel.
Not Paul! Listen to what he says in Romans 1:16: Having told the Roman church that he plans to visit Rome in order to preach, he adds, ‘...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’. In saying that he’s not ashamed of the gospel, Paul means that he’s not in the least embarrassed by it, or afraid of the reception it will receive in Rome. He’s confident. We’re not. People sometimes say to us: “You still go to church? Why?” They assume that churchgoing is an irrelevance. We worry that they may be right. I have to confess that when traveling, I often avoid revealing to strangers that I’m a minister. Why? Because I resent being blamed for everything the church has ever done wrong. And I don’t like having to defend John Calvin, the Pope, and every goofy TV evangelist that you could name. But deep down, I’m embarrassed that the gospel I preach may be thought silly.
Not Paul! He confidently looked forward to getting to Rome, and he proudly introduced himself in Romans 1:1 as ‘Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ’. The Greek word for servant is doulos; it could just as easily be translated as ‘slave’. ‘The first thing you need to know about me’, says Paul, is that I’m a servant/slave of Jesus Christ’. But in Rome, servant or slave talk was utterly abhorrent. Who in Rome, where an absolute fault line existed between those born free from those born as slaves, wanted to be known as a servant or slave? Paul glories in the identity. “Above everything’, he says, ‘above the fact of my Jewish birth, my Pharisaic education, my Roman citizenship, I’m a devoted servant of Jesus Christ. I’d do anything for him, and go anywhere.” What identity have you chosen for yourself? Family identity, national identity, racial identity, professional identity? Paul’s primary identity was that of servant of Christ.
Paul then explains that as Christ’s servant, he was given the task of being an apostle. The word apostle means messenger or delegate. It described a person in the ancient world who was sent to deliver a message on behalf of a king or ruler. “That’s me”, writes Paul. “I’m an apostle or messenger for the Lord Jesus Christ”. But what was the message he was to deliver? Repeatedly in Romans 1, the message is called the gospel. That word appears five times in our passage; ‘the gospel of God’ [verse 1]. ‘the gospel concerning his Son’, [verse 2], ‘the gospel of his Son [verse 9], or simply ‘the gospel’ [verses 15,16]. The word means an announcement of good news.
So what was the good news Paul wanted to announce in Rome? Romans 1 fills us in. First, says Paul, the good news is from God and about God. More specifically, the good news is about Jesus, who, he adds in verses 3 and 4, was descended from the royal house of David as far as his humanity was concerned, but was proven to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead. Paul’s gospel focused on Jesus, particularly his death and resurrection. Whoever Jesus was and had done, its good news not just for Jews, but Gentiles, and not just for people then, but people now.
Paul spells out the good news further at verse 16: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’.The word power in that sentence is the clue to Paul’s confidence. Paul was convinced that news of Jesus was dynamite. But what had Jesus done that was so powerful? Paul will use the rest of his Letter to the Romans to explain that; but he gives a hint of it in verse 17. He writes that in Jesus, the saving power of God was revealed as ‘the righteousness of God’. “What does that mean?” you ask; “Power, faith, salvation, and righteousness are religious terms I don’t get”. Well, let’s find equivalent words. Let power remain as power; we get that. But let’s substitute the word trust for faith. Okay. Let’s exchange the word salvation for rescue. And lets translate righteousness as ‘being in a right relationship with God’. Putting that together, Paul says that people like us, living at a distance from God, resistant to God, indeed guilty before God, can be put in a right relationship with God through faith in the work that Jesus did for us and so be powerfully changed.
So many try so hard to establish a right relationship with God and try to get their lives going on the right track. But it’s Jesus that does it, says Paul. Donald McCullough writes that when in seminary, he lived in an apartment building where his next-door neighbour was a criminal. The man’s “office” consisted of a table, two chairs, and a sink permanently full of water. “Do you know why I keep water in the sink?” the man asked McCullough. “... let me show you. See this paper? It’s special stuff. I import it from Japan. Watch what happens when I put it in water.” As McCullough watched, the paper disappeared in the water, leaving not a trace. “I keep my records on this paper”, explained the criminal neighbour. “When the cops break down the door, I...slide the paper into the water, and all the evidence vanishes”. Donald McCullough was impressed.
What evidence does God have against us? Plenty. It’s evidence that makes us uneasy with God and makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. But here’s the good news Paul wanted to announce in Rome. All the evidence, every shred of it, everything of whioch God could rightly accuse us, well, it’s as if it was all listed on sheets of the special paper used by Donald McCullough’s neighbour, and then dropped into a sink of water, only to disappear without a trace. The evidence against us has vanished; it’s been obliterated, wiped out by Jesus, who in his death, writes Donald McCullough, ‘carried it into the vast sea of God’s forgetfulness’. God’s judgment fell on his Son. What flows to us is what we could never have imagined, God’s love, grace, mercy, peace, and power, and the freedom to begin again. These and more are the words Paul will use to describe what God did for us in Jesus. Our response is to trust what Jesus has done. If we do, we will have discovered the source of Paul’s confidence as he headed to Rome.