PASTOR DON PIEPER
WHEN IN ROME
ROMANS 1:1-7; 8-16a
JULY 17th, 2016
As we open the pages of Paul's letter to the churches in Rome, an immediate question springs to mind – what kind of letter is this? I mean, it's like no other letter Paul, or any of the other apostles, ever wrote. Unlike his other letters, Paul doesn't really address any specific concerns other save one... Moreover, it reads more like some kind of theological essay instead of a personal letter and he doesn't even get around to identifying who he's writing to until the very end of his opening greeting in verse seven whereas in all his other letters he identifies himself and the recipients...in the first two verses.
So what kind of letter is this? It's the same kind of question Calvin poses to his friend Hobbes...
Calvin: Hey, Hobbes, you got a letter.
Hobbes: A letter? For me? Wow, I never get letters! What fun! A letter for me!
I wonder who sent it? I wonder what it says? What could this possibly be?
Calvin: OPEN IT AND FIND OUT, YOU LUNATIC!
Hobbes: Don't get huffy. I want to savor this...
Calvin: Well? Well? What'd you get?
Hobbes: It looks like an invitation.
Calvin: So what does the invitation say, you dumb hairball?
Hobbes: Call me names, will you? I'll read it when I'm good and ready.
Calvin: AARGGHH! Oooohh! Mpf! Ggh! Rrghghmfmpf!
Hobbes: Ok, now I'm ready. ...Ahem.... “Dear................Hobbes...”
Hobbes: Well, well! It's an invitation to Susie Derkins' birthday party. How nice.
We get to go to a birthday party!
Calvin: That stupid Susie.
Hobbes: Maybe we'll play 'Spin the Bottle'!
Calvin: OH, GET REAL! (from The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, p. 202)
Okay, there are some major differences between Hobbes' letter and that of the Romans. There's no mystery who Paul's letter is from as Paul identifies himself immediately: “This letter is from Paul” (Romans 1:1).
His letter is sixteen chapters long as well, unlike a simple birthday invitation and he writes, in part, not to invite them to come to his home but to invite himself to theirs! “I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift...” (Romans 1:11) Kind of the opposite of Susie's invitation...
On the other hand, there are a couple of similarities. Paul's letter must've been a wonderful surprise. No other apostle had written them. Paul's letter was the first piece of Christian literature they'd seen: “A letter? For me? Wow, I never get letters!” It too contains unbelievably good news – a term that Paul uses repeatedly throughout the letter. And this Good News is also an invitation of sorts to a party – a kingdom of God party! And as we'll see next week, it's also a call to “get real”!
But what kind of letter is this, really? Perhaps its best to begin with a bit of context. We know from references to Paul's travels in the Book of Acts, and his references to bringing offerings to Jerusalem, that the letter is written from Corinth towards the end of the third of Paul's four missionary trips.
That means it follows his letters to the churches in Thessalonica, Galatia & Corinth and shortly before writing to the churches in Ephesus, Colossae and Phillippi. That places its writing in the year 57 A.D., year three of Nero's tumultious reign as emperor of Rome, and seven years before the great fire...
The church in Rome was born years earlier when Jews from Rome attending the Pentecost festi-val in Jerusalem returned home: “On the day of Pentecost all the believers present...were filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. At that time there were devout Jews from every nation in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers... (Among them were) visitors from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism...” (Acts 2:1,4-6,10-11)
Paul has obviously heard about them and is excited to visit them. As he puts it, “When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours.” (Romans 1:12)
This points to one reason this letter is so unique. All his other letters were written to churches he'd planted, but in this case, Paul is writing to a community that he's yet to visit. He writes to make sure they are being fed not only spiritual milk but spiritual meat, and because his long-anticipated visit there has been delayed again. He writes to articulate the Gospel for at this point the written gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not yet in circulation.
The word, 'gospel', or in the Greek, eu-ag-gay'-lion, means literally, “good news” and is the root for our English word, evangelism, 'the sharing of good news'. It is here in his greeting to the churches in Rome, that Paul articulates what this good news is exactly. He writes...:
“God promised this Good News long ago thru the prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about His Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David's family line, and was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Thru Christ, God has given us the grace and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them so that they will believe and obey him, bringing him glory.” (Romans 1:2-5)
Paul identifies this Good News with four markers. One, God sent his son as promised thru the prophets, meaning that the sending of God's Son was planned and prepared for long in advance..., and God put that promise in writing for us to verify! Reading those prophecies is like connecting the dots!
Two, this promise of old was confirmed in the fact that Jesus was born out of King David's fam-ily line, just as God promised David he would... That's good news – God keeps his promises...!
Three, Jesus is the only son of God, evident and confirmed in his being raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit – the same Holy Spirit that the Roman Christians experienced back in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Jesus lives. He is our Lord, Paul writes. That's present tense!
In a fractured, hurting world, he is our hope. He lives and by clinging to him we can not only survive, we can thrive. What's more, Paul refers to him as our Lord, which means, master. That's why Paul begins his letter by referring to himself as Paulos doulos Cristou Yesou – a slave of Christ Jesus! (Romans 1:1) It's good to be Jesus' slave...: “I came that you might have a rich, satisfying life!” (John 10:10)
Four, this Jesus, this risen one, gives life meaning to all who believe in him: “And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.” (Romans 1:6)
Jesus fulfills that deep human need to be loved and to belong. In doing so he brings meaning to our lives, a profound sense of identity and purpose, that surpasses anything this world has to offer. No longer do we have to prove our worth to those around us. Christ gives us that. He loves us as is!
Furthermore, we discover the meaning to life as we strive together to bring glory to his name. (Romans 1:5) Paul goes on to share how personal and surprising this Good News is when he shares that he's been praying for the opportunity to come and see them. He writes, “I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to visit you, but I was prevented.” (Romans 1:13)
Paul admits to being disappointed, even frustrated, in his being inhibited from coming sooner even though he prayed otherwise, and when he finally did make it to Rome it was as a prisoner – and then only after being accused, beaten, ship-wrecked and bitten by a poisonous snake. The fact that he was prevented led him to writing this letter, a letter that must've been like gold to the believers there in Rome, evident in it being passed down to us today. In fact, God has used this very letter to inspire faith among countless individuals down thru the ages not the least of which being Augustine, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, and Ralph Smith....
This is Good News – that God's ways of answering prayer can be so totally awesome and also utterly surprising, often surpassing what was initially prayed for – evidence of God's goodness & grace
Paul also gives witness to how this Good News, this gospel of salvation in Christ Jesus, cuts across all cultural, social, racial and economic lines, when he writes: “Through Christ, God has given us the grace and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for us... For I have a great sense of obligation to people in both the civilized world and beyond it, to the educated and uneducated alike... For I am not ashamed of the Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes...!” (Romans 1:5, 14, 16)
Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel because its message has life-changing power...and its for everyone! Paul was saying, in no uncertain terms, your life matters! Paul made it clear, this Good News, this gospel message, is for everyone, everywhere, regardless of status, age or race.
The summer I met Claudia at Holden I organized a worship service featuring the international guests in the village. That night people from Spain, Japan, Brazil, Hungary, South Africa, Cameroon, Canada, Italy, America and Germany worshipped side by side, at one point, praying the Lord's Prayer each in their own language. I experienced something similar at an Alpha Conference as folks from across the denominational spectrum and from across the globe joined in praise...and eu-angglezion!
There's an ancient saying that says, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. It sounds like a call to be chameleons, but what if those Romans are of the sort Paul wrote to, those for whom Paul gave thanks for even before meeting them, “because their faith in Christ was being talked about all over the world”? They lived lives that revealed that Jesus was Lord and master of their lives.
What would it take for us to be talked about like that? How might we follow Paul's lead, who declared, “I serve God with all my heart by spreading the Good News about his son...For I am not ashamed of the Good News about Christ. It's the power of God at work saving everyone who believes (Romans 1:9,16) How can we more visibly embody that Good News to those in need around us? What would it take for us to boldly, yet respectfully, share the Good News with everyone, everywhere?
Christopher and I would like to talk and pray about this with those so interested following worship the next 2-3 Sundays. We'd love to have you join us. Let's pray...