We’re going to spend a good part of the summer in Romans,
so it behooves us to take a few minutes here at the front end,
and remind ourselves what kind of writing this is.
Because our way of reading, depends entirely on the kind of writing.
How we engage the content,
how we think,
how we process information,
even our emotions and physical posture,
are vastly different if what we’re reading is the morning newspaper,
versus an email,
versus a novel,
versus a nutritional label on a soup can,
or the Sunday comics,
an academic textbook,
a fortune cookie,
a Greek lexicon . . .
I read all of the above, often.
They all involve English words imprinted on a surface,
But the way I read them,
and my manner of thinking and perceiving, as I read,
are as different as night and day.
Well, most of us know,
that like many other books in the New Testament,
the book of Romans is a letter.
But we don’t always take that fact into account when we read it.
This summer, I want us to.
It seems the more time passes,
the more that letter writing—traditional letter writing—
is getting to be old, and unfamiliar, history.
We of the generation of 140 characters,
instantly delivered, instantly responded to,
have very little to compare with, from personal experience,
when it comes to entering into the world
of an ancient letter writer.
We can whip out 100 or more texts in a day,
but rarely do we sit down for an hour or two
with pen and paper and deep thoughts,
and bare our soul in a long heart-felt letter to someone we love.
That’s what the apostle Paul did
when he wrote letters to the churches.
Paul loved these churches. Loved them. With a passion.
And his letters show it.
Gushing with praise and affection,
or agonizing when he had to speak with harsh words,
in all cases, Paul wrote out of deep love for the church.
His letter to the church in Rome is a bit different than some,
in that he did not yet have a face-to-face relationship with them.
He had never visited them.
Not unusual in the 1st-century Mediterranean world.
So this letter doesn’t have quite as many personal references,
and inside information that we have to decipher.
In some ways, Romans is a kind of theological essay.
But even as an essay, it is still first and foremost a letter.
It was written by a particular letter-writer,
to a particular group of people
living in a particular context.
Keeping that in mind makes a big difference in how we read it.
We simply must, to the best of our ability,
try to understand the culture into which this letter was sent,
and if possible, what specific circumstances prompted the letter.
A letter to the mother church in Jerusalem,
would be written very differently,
than a letter to the church in Rome,
the capital of the Roman Empire.
Likewise, we would read those letters very differently.
This letter is the latter.
It’s written to the church of Jesus Christ
that finds itself imbedded at the very center of power,
in a pagan Roman culture,
dealing with circumstances and issues every day,
that people back in Jerusalem could scarcely even imagine.
So what is the Roman context like?
At that time, Jews were fairly recent immigrants to Rome,
arriving in the last hundred years or so.
Some Jews were slaves. Some were former slaves.
Some had a profession or trade, successful business owners.
They were all part of the Jewish diaspora,
meaning, “spreading out” of Jews away from Jerusalem.
Synagogues were being established all over the known world.
Then when the early church—which was a Jewish movement—
also started spreading out in mission,
it went where the scattered Jews were.
It went to synagogues all over the Empire.
Then as these Jesus-followers
started opening up their communities to Gentiles,
Jews and Gentiles started worshiping together.
Since that could never happen in a Jewish synagogue,
the “house church” model developed.
In Rome, house churches were spread all over the city,
churches where Jew and Gentile sat in the same living room,
and sang and prayed together,
listened to the word together,
and ate the Lord’s Supper from the same table.
Just stop and think about this.
One relatively small church,
but made up of Jews,
some of whom were still living as slaves,
others who were successful entrepreneurs . . .
and Gentiles, some of whom were past or present slave-owners,
others who were in government posts,
or who were low-class laborers.
Even if you ignore these huge class differences,
the religious differences were nearly irreconcilable.
Roman Gentiles worshiped a whole pantheon of gods—
interesting and exotic deities.
They were just learning about Judaism, about One God and Creator.
but most held back from joining the synagogue,
because of all the ritual demands.
And now news arrived that Paul and other missionaries,
who were Jesus-following Jews,
now welcomed Gentiles as full members of their churches,
without requiring circumcision,
without enforcing dietary restrictions, ritual purity laws,
or much of the Jewish law for that matter.
So you can imagine the dynamics in the Roman church.
The Jewish members of the church,
feel like their heritage is being trampled on.
These religious practices go back thousands of years,
and now they’re told it doesn’t matter?
On the other hand, Gentile believers
find out the barrier holding them back has been removed.
They can be Christian
without having to join a completely foreign culture.
This is the context for this long letter,
written from the heart to Christians in Rome,
whom Paul loved, but never met.
“Grace to you, and peace,” he says.
Then with great love and affection, Paul tells them
how he has been praying for them,
how he has been longing to meet them,
but prevented from doing so.
He says, I’ve been busy proclaiming the Gospel (v. 14-15),
“both to Greeks and to barbarians, to the wise and to the foolish, hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also
who are in Rome.”
In essence, he’s saying, “I’ve traipsed all over the world,
and preached the gospel to all kinds of different people.
And you have them all in one church!
I can’t wait to meet you, and have some good fellowship.”
Right after those words, Paul writes verse 16,
one many of us have heard quoted since Sunday School days.
I should say it in the King James Version
for the benefit of those, like me,
who grew up going to church with a KJV tucked under our arms.
Verse 16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ:
for it is the power of God unto salvation
to every one that believeth;
to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
I can tell you almost precisely when this verse would get quoted.
It was on missionary Sunday,
or whenever we had a sermon on evangelism,
or in Sunday School when our teacher was talking to us
about witnessing for Christ to our friends at school.
This verse was always about being bold in our verbal witness.
Not being ashamed to speak up and give a good word for Christ.
Now this isn’t a wrong way to use the verse.
In those situations, it’s good to be encouraged
not to be ashamed of the Gospel.
Being bold in proclaiming our faith is a good thing.
But from what I can tell, that’s not what Paul was thinking about
when he wrote Romans 1:16.
Remember, this is a letter to a particular place and people.
I think Paul’s heart and mind was precisely
with the Christians in Rome when he wrote that.
I believe he was thinking about
the particular challenges to the gospel in that city.
Rome was at the center of it all.
Rome operated a vast political, military, and economic empire.
Rome was the heartbeat and power center of civilization.
So the Romans were a proud people, and not without reason.
Their influence spread far and wide.
They defined the culture of the known world.
That’s the proud context out of which the churches in Rome grew.
And at least for Gentile believers,
they identified with that context.
They were Roman citizens.
Most of the Jewish believers were cultural outsiders.
But still, Roman Jews had their own reason for pride.
They came into Rome as helpless immigrants, or slaves,
and many of them made something of themselves.
Furthermore, they carried the pride of their religion,
an ancient faith, with a rich history,
and they were born into it.
They knew themselves to be “God’s chosen people.”
And they prided themselves
on how they held to the tradition, even in Rome.
So, Christians in Rome had a proud heritage.
Jew or Gentile, Roman or Hebrew,
they all had something to be proud of,
something to point to and say,
“Look at who we are. Look at what we’ve done.”
But the message of the Gospel
that Paul has been preaching all over the Mediterranean,
confronts that proud heritage head on.
At the heart of it,
the gospel challenged life as Roman believers knew it.
And I have a hunch, some Roman Christians didn’t like it too much.
Jews were offended, no doubt,
that Gentiles were being let in too easily.
And Roman Gentiles, no doubt,
had trouble, as proud and powerful Roman citizens,
with this whole matter of the cross that Paul always harped on.
Paul was always going on about emptying yourselves,
being counted as foolish.
Romans believers enjoyed respect in their community,
and wanted to keep it that way.
Paul went around preaching a gospel of weakness and helplessness.
And I bet he was getting some flack from Roman Christians.
So he found it necessary to defend himself.
That’s why he wrote, in v. 16,
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel!”
It wasn’t the heathen masses Paul was concerned about,
when he told them the Gospel is nothing to be ashamed of.
He was trying to convince the Christians themselves,
that they need not be ashamed of the Gospel of the cross.
He was saying,
I am helpless, and I’m not ashamed.
The power of the Gospel is not in me, or you.
The power of the Gospel is the power of God.
And it’s for the salvation of all who have faith.
All who put their whole trust in God,
Jews and Gentiles alike.
To Roman Christians, it wasn’t honorable to appear weak.
Paul says to them, “I’m weak, and not ashamed.”
The gospel of Jesus will always undermine
a culture built on pride and power.
The gospel is subversive to a pride-based culture,
and to a power-obsessed culture.
The message of the Gospel is good news
only if you don’t have anything to prove!
And Roman believers seemed to have a lot to prove.
I wonder, if we are that different from the church in Rome.
We live in a proud and powerful nation,
with a global reach.
Our culture glories in that power and influence.
And to add to that,
we American Christians seem to have a lot to prove.
Christian churches are in decline.
Christianity has lost its dominant role in society.
Christian faith is being pushed to the margins,
the church is seen by the larger culture
as weak, and irrelevant.
And that gets our defenses up.
As American Christians,
we are uncomfortable in that weakened position.
So many are trying to restore Christendom,
using any and all power at our disposal—
politics, the court system, the marketplace—
in order to demand the respect of secular culture.
There is something wrong with this picture, I think.
Something is amiss with a Christian celebrity culture,
where super-pastors pride themselves
on having a direct hotline to the White House,
or being the star speaker at a political fund-raiser,
or having the most rapidly growing megachurch.
Is the heart of the Gospel still the cross?
Do the scriptures still hold true, which say
God’s power is made manifest in our weakness?
Is salvation still a free gift,
made available to those who least deserve it?
Do the poorest of the poor find themselves praising God
when they hear the average American preacher
holding forth on the Gospel?
Do the immigrants among us, documented or undocumented,
find joy in hearing the Gospel preached in our Empire?
Or have we become so enamored with power and influence,
so focused on obtaining success and wealth
and security and independence,
that we have, in fact, become ashamed of a Gospel
made perfect in weakness . . .
that we have, in fact, practically ignored the hard truth
that we are called to be utterly de-pendent
and not in-dependent . . .
that we have, in fact, been afraid to admit we are weak
and thus give God’s strength a chance to be revealed.
Have we been sold a bill of goods by our culture,
and a religion that has accommodated itself to our culture,
that so few are boldly embracing the weakness of the cross,
Are we now ashamed of a Gospel we can’t control,
and a salvation we can’t earn?
Are we ashamed of a Gospel where
the laborers who start work at 5 in the afternoon,
get paid the same as those who started at 7 in the morning?
Are we ashamed of Gospel where
we can’t impress God enough to save us,
a Gospel that has no magic formula to recite,
no test of strength or bravery or holiness or anything?
Are we ashamed of a Gospel where
the only question God asks is,
“Will you trust me? Will you trust only me?”
Will you give up self . . . in order to . . . take up me?
Will you take on the new identity I have for you?
Maybe someone should write the American church a letter,
calling us to embrace the weakness and dependency of the Gospel
but without any shame.
We have such a letter in the Epistle to the Romans.
This is the good news . . .
the Gospel of Jesus Christ as expressed
to Roman Christians in the first century,
is still the good news
to American Christians in the twenty-first century.
As grateful recipients of such a Gospel,
how can we be ashamed?
how can we be silent?
Let’s sing together #61 in the green book, Sing the Journey.
How can we be silent when we know our God is near,
bringing light to those in darkness, to the worthless endless worth?
How can we be silent when we are the voice of Christ,
speaking justice to the nations, breathing love to all the earth?
None can stop the Spirit burning now inside us.
We will shape the future. We will not be silent!
—Phil Kniss, June 15, 2014
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