Romans 1:1-7, 16-17
October 14, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
When Hurricane Michael swept into Lumberton, North Carolina only a few weeks after Hurricane Florence had left its trail of devastation through the town, how many Christians must have asked themselves, “How can we believe that God is faithful?”
And when a powerful tsunami hit Palu, Indonesia right on the heels of an earthquake, leaving at least 1,700 people dead and many more unaccounted for, Christians in that city came to worship last Sunday asking, “Is God still faithful?”
And last year when neo-Nazi’s chanted racial slurs as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville and politicians hesitated to condemn their white supremacist views, many Christians — black and white — asked ourselves, “When injustice persists, how can we believe that God is faithful?”
Maybe you yourself have gone through personal sorrows so great that you wept in your prayers, “God, are you still faithful?”
In a world when cruelty appears to be playing the winning hand, when tragedy follows upon tragedy, when grief becomes the standard instead of the exception, religious people grapple with the question, “Is God faithful? And if God is faithful, when will God act on our behalf and save us from this sorrow?”
This question is not a new one but it is as old as Christianity itself because it was asked by the disciples right after the crucifixion, and it was asked by the new churches enduring persecution from their neighbors and the Roman empire, and it is the question that Paul addresses in his letter to the churches of Rome: Is God faithful? And if God is faithful, when will God act on our behalf and save us from this sorrow?
I am going to be preaching on Paul’s letter to the Romans for the next few weeks in which he addresses this very question. It’s not an easy letter to understand because Paul’s language is dense and sometimes convoluted. He dictated the letter to a scribe named Tertius and as you read it, you can feel Paul thinking out loud, setting out problems, working out answers, and then circling back round to address the question from a new angle. Although I can’t hope to address everything that is in its sixteen chapters over the next few weeks, I will try to lay out some of its themes and talk about how they might apply to our own lives of faith today. As I do so, it will be important to keep the spontaneity of the letter format in mind. The modern church, especially the Protestant church, has often mistakenly tried to make Paul’s letter to the Romans into a theological treatise. In the 1500s, for example, the Protestant reformer Philip Melanchthon said that Romans was “a summary of all Christian doctrine,” and ever since, church people have poured over its pages in the hope of constructing a systematic theology based on the ideas they find there. You may have heard phrases like, “justification by faith alone,” or “Christ as the new Adam,” and while Paul certainly uses those phrases in his letter, he was not writing doctrine; he was writing a letter. He was addressing specific problems faced by the congregations in Rome. If we are to fully understand what those phrases mean and how they apply to our own lives, and particular to this question of whether God is faithful, we have to first understand why Paul felt they would help those Roman Christians with their problems two thousand years ago.
So begin to turn those specifics, I want to begin by filling in a little of the background that caused Paul to send this letter to be shared among the Roman churches. Paul wrote this letter in the mid to late 50s CE (AD). Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection took place around 30 CE, only about twenty years earlier, but already in those two intervening decades, the gospel had spread from Judea at the eastern end of the Mediterranean to the province of Italia, now called Italy. In those early years, the map of the new Christian church could be overlaid almost exactly on the map of Jewish communities in the ancient world. When a Christian apostle arrived in a new town, the first thing he or she did was go to the local synagogue to preach there about Christ — because they considered Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Jewish Messiah. As an aside, when I use the words “he or she” in reference to apostles, I’m being intentional because some of those earliest apostles were women. The word “apostle” means literally “to be sent” and was used not only for the original disciples after the resurrection but for all of those who worked to spread the gospel. In Romans 16, Paul sends greetings to Prisca (or Priscilla), a “fellow worker,” to Mary, who has “worked very hard among you,” and to Junia, a woman who was in prison with him and who he calls “prominent among the apostles.”
Anyway, those first churches usually began with a group of converted Jews from the local synagogues but from there the apostles reached out to the local Gentiles as well, to men and women who had previously worshipped the Roman gods or been involved in one of the pagan Temple cults, or maybe several. Pagans weren’t exclusive in their religious allegiance as Jews were but, kind of like modern day Americans, might practice a little of this and a little of that. This meant, of course, that Jews and Gentiles brought very different cultural backgrounds and very different religious experiences and expectations to the young Christian church and consequently, Paul spent a lot of his time advising congregations on how to bridge these tensions as they tried to worship together. It would be like Catholics and Mennonites trying to figure out a church practice that would make everyone happy. The tension was particularly keen in the Roman churches because for several years, previous to Paul’s letter, the Roman church had been made up of only Gentiles. In the 40s, 1 the Roman Emperor Claudius had expelled all of the Jews from the city, including the Jewish Christians, and so for quite a while, the Gentiles in the Roman churches had the run of things. They didn’t have to worry about the Jewish way of thinking about the Christian faith — all of those guys were gone — and the new converts were all Gentiles since there were no Jews left in the city to convert. You can imagine then that in 54 CE, when Nero became emperor and let the Jews back into Rome, and the Jewish Christians returned to their churches, things were a bit tense. The Jewish Christians found that everything had changed while they were gone. There were new faces in the churches, new ideas, and many of the old practices that had come out of Judaism had faded in importance. Moreover, everyone still felt like they were walking on eggshells under Rome’s rule; the Jewish Christians bore the emotional scars of their recent exile and some of the Gentile Christians were afraid to tie themselves too closely to the Jewish faith for fear they too would feel the fist of Rome. Add up all of these anxieties, all of those jealousies and suspicions of one another, and you have a recipe for grief. Life didn’t look at all like the new creation that they thought God had promised them.
“Is God faithful to God’s promises?” the churches cried out, “And if God is faithful, when will God act on our behalf and save us from this sorrow?”
Paul writes his letter to address this question and breaks down his answer to their struggle into four basic parts which we will look at over the next few weeks. In his letter, he will discuss the role of sin and God’s response of grace; he will talk about the continuity between Judaism and Christianity and the importance of the covenant, and finally he will paint a picture of the community of faith and how our inward faith affects our outward behavior. Before he gets to any of that, however, he makes an important declaration right here at the very beginning of the letter: You ask, he says if God is faithful, when will God act on our behalf and save us from this sorrow?”
My answer, Paul says, is that God has already acted on our behalf.
Let’s turn again to Paul’s opening statement in his letter. If you want, grab a Bible from a pew and turn to Romans 1:1-7.
I want you to look at the tense of Paul’s verbs in his opening statements. Remember, Paul is addressing the question, “When will God act to save us?” and so one might expect a lot of future tenses in the answer: “God will save us in just a short while,” or “God will save us when we get our act together…” We expect to hear Paul tell us when God will save us — future tense — but that’s not the verb tense we find here in the opening of his letter. Instead Paul uses the past tense over and over again: “Paul called to be an apostle, … his son who was declared to be Son of God… through whom we have received grace and apostleship…” and in verse 17, the gospel is the power of God for salvation … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” Past tense.
We cry out, “If God is faithful, when will God act on our behalf and save us from this sorrow?” and Paul declares, “God is faithful and God has already acted.” While everyone else is looking to the heavens for God to come thundering down and fix the world, Paul says that God has already intervened. In Christ, God brought us salvation from the cruelty and sorrow of human sinfulness, from bondage by unjust powers, from the acid of hateful hearts. God knew that we were broken and in need of a way out of our suffering and so God acted decisively by entering fully into our brokenness to teach us a new way of thinking about our suffering, to teach us a new way of living with one another and a new way of being in the world. In the cross, Christ took our suffering upon him and in the resurrection, broke the powers of death to free us from the worst that the world can do to us. Paul certainly realizes that the transformation of the world is not complete but instead of sitting in one place stewing in our despair and waiting for God to do something, Paul tells us to open our ears to the declaration that God has already acted on our behalf and to open our eyes to the new age that is breaking out all around us. Because of Christ, people have the courage to face the powers of injustice knowing that those powers cannot defeart the human heart when it is grounded in Christ. Through Christ, people have faith that their sorrows will not destroy them but there is light beyond the grave. In Christ, people find forgiveness for the worst that they have done and restoration for their broken lives. Earthquakes and tempests will still shake the earth, we will still know grief too deep for words, and bullies will still try to lord power over the weak, but God has already acted on our behalf to save us from our sorrow by sending us Christ to go before us and lead us from our darkness to light again.
We look for lightening bolts from heaven to save us; we look for a Superman from another world to come and throw out the oppressors, but God has already acted in a way that we never expected. God sent us a Savior whose sandals were caked with the dirt of the road, who sat and drank wine with prostitutes, who talked and laughed and wept with friends and then was nailed to a cross and died in an agony of suffering, and rose again to sit at the breakfast table with those friends and share a little fish and bread. We want superheroes and cataclysmic change, but God instead gave us a Savior who said that our salvation is right here, right now, among us in the small ways in which we become that Christ for the world.
Fred Craddock, preacher and author, said, “To give my life for Christ appears glorious… to pour myself out for others. . . to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom — I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking $l,000 bill and laying it on the table– ‘Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.’ But the reality for most of us is that God sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $l,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at at time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”
But it is a life of quarters and little acts of love that will save us, and that has the power to save the world. This is what God declared when he set us Christ to walk among us, to take on the grime of the world, and to love his way through the tomb and into new life again. When will God act on our behalf to save us? the churches of Rome asked, and Paul replied, “God has already acted. In Christ, we are made new, and through us, Christ re-makes the entire world.”
1. Scholars dispute the date but all agree it happened some time in the 40s with 49 being the latest possible date. The reason for the expulsion is also disputed. One early record states, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” Some scholars argue that Chrestus refers to Christ and thus the agitation among Jews about whether Jesus was the Messiah, while other scholars say that Chrestus was a common name at the time and refers to an unidentified Jewish agitator.