Today we begin a series on Romans. The letter to the church at Rome is the theological highlight of the New Testament as it leads us along the pathway to salvation. Paul helps us to make sense of Jesus’ life and work. In essence Paul helps us to understand what it all means for us. Because of Paul’s training in the ancient texts, Paul was a prime candidate for this kind of Kingdom work. In the story of the early church in the writing entitled the Acts of the Apostles, we discover the conversion of a man named Saul/Paul who became the premiere church planter. Not only was he himself miraculously saved into the Kingdom of God, but he took his knowledge of God and used it to win many souls to the Kingdom. The story of Saul/Paul sets up the framework for our understanding the how we understand God in our lives.
The positioning of Romans in the New Testament is perfect for our reflection on God. If we were to begin by reading the Gospels, we would glean the reality of the life and work of the God-Man Jesus. The Gospels record the coming of the Messiah, the promised One of God, who would lead the Hebrews to freedom from captivity. Next, we would read the Acts of the Apostles. The story of the coming of the promised Holy Spirit enabled the transformation of many people who then established community groups that we call the Church. The church is very similar to the family groups we call tribes in the Old Testament stories. In the Acts of the Apostles God’s Kingdom on earth is best represented by the establishment of churches (tribes) across the land.
Discovering the word of God is like excavating ancient ruins. The word is under the surface of our culture throughout church history. If we follow general guidelines, we can excavate the text to find meeting beyond just the good story. There are many good stories in the Bible, and one of those stories begins with a man named Saul/Paul. Saul/Paul was a man who believes himself to be a Hebrew of Hebrews in other words a righteous man. You can read his story of conversation in Acts 9, Acts 22, and again in Philippians 3. The man Saul/Paul shows up in the New Testament stories at the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Saul/Paul is one of the leaders at the event as people placed their cloaks at his feet before taking up their stones to kill Stephen (Acts 7). Not long after this we find Saul/Paul on the road to the northern city of Damascus where Christianity had begun to take root. And, it is on this road that Saul/Paul meets the Ascended Jesus, hears his questioning voice, and finds himself blinded by his glory.
Our initial contact with Saul/Paul helps us to understand the gravity of Saul/Paul’s sinfulness as a murderer of Christians, the people who followed the way of Jesus. No doubt Saul/Paul would have undergone a huge shift in his thinking after his conversion. To be sure God works in and through people’s lives to bring about the breath of our understanding of who God is and what his Kingdom is all about for us.
Imagine with me for a moment that each of the little church communities begin established in the early days following Jesus’ life and work were like torches of light (hope in eternal life) dotting across the landscape in a dark world (eternal death). Saul/Paul was working his way across the terrain extinguishing the light of hope in those communities. He did not understand what he was doing. He did not understand that he was extinguishing God’s new work on earth. But he felt it was his duty to eradicate any upcoming community that would take away from the seat of political and national power at Jerusalem. And, the northern communities of Galilee were known to spark zealots. Saul/Paul was probably the best rising leader and no doubt had his sights on the role of high priest.
It is out of this rich testimony that Saul/Paul can write such a letter as the one we read today. (I urge you to read the whole of the letter stopping at chapter 12 to ponder your own transformed life story.) Every written piece begins with a purpose and the letter to the church at Rome is no different. It begins and ends with a greeting, blessing, and prayers to a familiar audience (Rom. 1, 16). But it soon finds its purpose of driving home the points of salvation. The road to salvation begins with our acknowledgement of sin (Rom. 1-2), and is highlighted best in our transformed life given over to the good life we are to lead in the Kingdom of God (Rom. 12). Sin and transformation at just concepts that we study, but behavior that is part of our everyday life. Initially, Saul/Paul does not go into the details of what sinfulness is, but later he will go into detail about what right living looks like. Saul/Paul’s parting comment is for the church to beware of divisions among them. Surely, sin is the most dividing culprit we can face.
Let’s dig deeper.
Paul is writing to the Church at Rome around 56-57 AD from the city of Corinth. It seems Jewish Christians established the Roman church, but seven years prior Rome exiled Jews and Jewish Christians (Acts 18.2) and the church was left to the Gentile believers. This is a season every unification as the Jewish Christian return home. The letter is divided into two parts: God’s righteousness provides a way for reunification to God and neighbor (1.1-11.36) and the Christian life is ours to behold through Jesus (12.1-16.27). There was a real divide between traditional Jewish converts and contemporary Gentile converts and this created tension in the congregation. We begin by looking at the first two chapters in Romans, which focuses on the human condition (division). Paul points out the guilt of the Gentiles, the righteous judgment of God, and in the inadequacy of the Jewish Law. The division between God and people is now restored in Jesus Christ, but we have to work at it. It doesn’t come easy.
To be sure we see that many years ago there were people who left the church and went into exile, but now they are returning. And, they have every right to be apart of the community but they are faced with opposition. They are not blending together very well. Both communities have grown but not in the same way. Saul/Paul is uniting them under the doctrine of preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace, i.e., we’ve all behaved badly (sinned), we accept Jesus for the atonement of our behavior (sins), and we grow-up into mature behaviors (righteous living). If there is division among us, you can bet it is rooted in sinful behaviors.
The letter opens with Paul’s statement that he is called apostle (Rom. 1.1, 1 Cor. 1.1, Gal. 1.1-5). He reminds the reader of his special call from God (Acts 9, 22, Phil. 3). Paul uses his own testimony to point out God’s initiative in the role of calling people to himself. Paul is a bondservant of continual holiness.
Now we can walk through Romans. The story begins with the need by all people for righteous provided in Jesus Christ for our sinfulness. Our personal sin separates us from God (Romans 3:23). Abraham and David believed God and God was pleased. Adam’s original sin has been overcome for those who believe in Christ. The price of our sin was paid in full by Jesus Christ (Romans 5:8). Jesus became our righteousness (2 Corinthians 5.21). The gift is Eternal Life in Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23). Eternal Life trumps death. The Law could never produce the inward holiness that now we attain by faith alone. Paul provides practical instruction and exhortations that guide us to holiness of life, consecrating our selves to God and giving him all the glory due his name. Love of God and neighbor fulfills the Law and the prophets. God offers the Jew and the Gentile salvation on the same terms, but the Jewish leadership rejected it.
Paul inspires us to confess, “…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10.9-10). Paul promises, “For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom. 10.13). We are saved not for ourselves, but to love one another as Christ has loved us. If we stop at the moment of our realization that Jesus has saved us, then we have not completed our purpose in life. We are designed to love one another. Paul concludes the letter to the church at Rome with a warning about divisions about the Christian teachings of our faith then blesses his people (Rom. 16.17-18).
Where once Paul hungered for national religion and political gain, now he hungers for the pursuit of holiness or righteous gain. To be sure Saul was the person who sought to eliminate (Acts 5) and exterminate (Acts 7) the Christian Way. Jesus took his heart that hungered for righteousness, and he maximized his hearts purpose for the Kingdom of God.
Paul points out that Jesus is the Son of God and the fulfillment how the Old Testament Law in prophets. The salutation is in the form of a creed that affirms both Jesus is humanity and divinity by acknowledging that he is a descendent of David as well as the Son of God. Jesus became truly the Son of God at his resurrection. Paul believes in the preexistence of the Son of God who descended to the earth and fully shares in the human experience then truly dies and on the third day is raised by God to ascend the throne in heaven.
Authentic obedience is grounded in faith not fear or the promise of eternal life. Authentic faith leads to obedience rather than passive in action. Obedience and faith are intertwined in such a way they are inseparable. The gospel story expects obedient faith from all people.
The little house churches scattered around the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East understood themselves as a part of the bigger community of churches. They were connectional in nature like Methodists. Even Paul’s prayer highlights the interdependence of the small churches on one another as he prays for people he is never seen. In fact Paul looks forward to sharing his spiritual gift to strengthen the church. Paul understands that he himself is connected to the wider body of Christendom. Paul believes the spiritual gifts and the gospel our treasure to be shared among all Christians. Sharing the good news is not an imposition but a gift that belongs the world. Our job is to share the news unashamedly. To be sure Christianity transcends all cultural differences, perhaps even Xenophobia.
Paul illustrates for us the importance of believers constantly renewing of their faith by hearing the gospel story proclaimed. The proclamation of the gospel is not just for unbelievers. Paul wants his hearers to understand that they do not have to be ashamed of the gospel. What he is implying is that the gospel will not disappoint one’s hope and trust. This gives us complete confidence and the good news of Jesus Christ who died on the cross and was resurrected by the power of Almighty God. Salvation is defined in the restoration of our relationship with God and others that leads to transformational living and complete hope of eternal life. Salvation is rooted in faith that believes in Jesus Christ. Salvation is available first to the Jewish people and then to the Gentiles as a matter of impartiality. Salvation comes by faith alone. God the righteous one provides a way for simple people to be righteous.
Jew and Gentile are both sinners saved by faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel story begins with the resurrection it works its way backward to reveal the sinful parts of humanity and the failure of the law to secure salvation. God did not turn his back on Jesus on the cross nor did he turn his steady gaze for he held both justification and judgment of humanity in his hands. Humanity in its ungodliness failed to see the created design within itself and the created purpose of humanity to worship God. Humanity by their own choices worshiped the material world rather than their Creator. Paul is being very firm in his understanding that sin is active rebellion by asserting one’s own rights and wrongs and replacing God.
Paul insists that humanities’ biggest vice is her refusal to honor God, instead living selfishly. Paul’s work implies the wrongness of judgmental attitude as well as tolerance for sin. According to Paul, God delays his punishment for sin but that does not mean that his forbearance means that he approves sin. To be sure to repentance for Paul is not simply sorrow for individual sins but a change of life. Paul desires for the hearer to understand the importance of saying no to sin, and saying yes to God. Selfishness must be dealt with daily and the life of the believer. To be sure Paul believes there will be a judgment in future where are all people well account for their behavior.
One of the best stories of Christian change of heart and life is the story of Saul/Paul (Acts 9). Saul was a God chaser. He had grown up in the faith. He sat at the heels of Gamaliel, a Hebrew of Hebrews. He studied the ancient texts and became a leading scholar in Jerusalem. Saul had grown up believing that he would carry the faith forward into the next generation. He was a budding leader in his community. He was well thought of in his religious circles. The Roman political way had been to eradicate to any uprising. When zealots would arise in Judea, Samaria, or Galilee, The Romans would pursue to eradicate the threat to the government. The Jewish leadership began the same process of eradicating national threats from within. Any threat that would jeopardize the community religious status quo was put down. In essence the Jews became the government to overthrow themselves. They became like their captors.
Saul/Paul was an important player to eradicate the Christian way. Well-intentioned people like Paul do the same thing. Whenever a movement of God arises in the way of change from the traditional experience of church in that particular church culture someone(s) will rise up to attempt to exterminate the flicker of the Holy Spirit. Others will attempt to “manage” the change thus extinguishing a fresh expression of the presence of God. Still others will try to malign the move of God by deconstructing it back to status quo. Sometimes we have to address the Xenophobia among us. Sometimes we like things the way we like things. And it creates problems we God’s presence has moved on but we still remain the same place. That was a difficult transition for Saul/Paul. He had to address his own fear of change.
Paul is a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. He was a Roman citizen by birth and his parents most likely were influential. We know he had a sister and nephew who saved his life. He was fluent in a number of languages, including Aramaic. Paul studied under Gamaliel having trained in the strictest of interpretation of the Law. Paul was passionately loyal to God, so much so that he harassed Christians by arresting them and putting them in prison and to their death. Paul had a relationship with the high priest and the Jerusalem Council to the extent that they gave him letters to eradicate the Christian movement.
Paul had an about face — a total change of heart and life in a moment’s notice. God’s fire was on the move and he found it! Paul would discover the Son of God on the road to Damascus, and would help the church by becoming its premier practical theologian. Because of Paul’s Jewish learning of the ancient texts under Gamaliel, he could reflect on the Scriptures deeply for our understanding of the events through his writings. Paul would also become a missionary, evangelist, and pastor who would go on to share the nature of the Jewish-Gentile Christian alliance. To be sure Paul answers deeply held questions and fears about God by people. Paul never dissected his face apart from experience. For Paul faith had to be lived out in community in light of the Son of God who died to become our righteousness and give us holy life that is everlasting.
The story of salvation remains for us today. All have sinned. Jesus died to restore us to right relationship with God and neighbor. When you believe in Jesus and confess him with our mouth we are saved for eternal life. But God doesn’t just save us to heaven because eternal life begins now. We are given the Holy Spirit to transform us from the inside out. He gives us a new spirit – His Spirit. He gives us a new body, and we will have a resurrected body at the end of time. Our body is transformed into his likeness as we are sanctified through and through. He gives us the mind of Christ and the will of the Father. He heals our emotions, and takes the sting of death out of our memories. He gives us the hope of eternal life and the blessed assurance that we are His forever. Now it is our job to surrender to this good work as he calls us into a new purpose and gifts us to accomplish his purposes. As we surrender to this new creation inside we bear the fruit of the Kingdom of God (Rom. 12).
When I first met the Methodist community at Asbury Theological Seminary, I had never heard about grace described quite the way the Methodists described it to me. It was so helpful for me to understand what I knew was missing in my life – an understanding of grace. In my journey of faith I knew God as the one who saved me from sin, but I didn’t know he loved me (preventing grace), and I didn’t know he cared about redeeming my life for the good (sanctifying grace). As I studied the letter to the church at Rome this week I discovered that John Wesley had a lot to say about this text (Sermons 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 34, 35, 36). His work on grace to be sure is not unlike Saul/Paul’s treatise here in Romans. Wesley’s emphasis on grace takes Saul/Paul’s writings to help me make sense of my own journey of faith. Join me on this journey of salvation along the Roman Road. Perhaps we can walk together in the light of God’s grace to grow a little more to look like him. Amen.
Hear the story of a modern day Paul/Saul.
I once met a man in the throes of grief when his baby died in the hospital, yet the hospital staff was able to recover a faint heartbeat. So the hospital staff placed the baby on a ventilator, however, the baby never recovered from the original trauma event. The man held out hope that God would rescue this baby and restore his life. The man was skeptical of Christianity. He had explored his father’s Christian faith and found it lacked power in his life to help overcome addiction and abuse issues in his life. The man had explored Buddism, Islam, and Judaism with his co-workers and friends, and found these belief systems to be equip people to live a good life. When the man met, me as his chaplain he questioned my motives. He inquired of my own personal beliefs, and asked why I believed in Jesus. I shared my conversion story with him in the presence of another chaplain to have a witness to the fact that I was not proselytizing him.
The man was having a very painful grief experience and so he began to wrestle with God. As the day wore on the hospital staff was in the process of removing the child from the ventilator so the baby could die peacefully, when the man became overwhelmed with his loss. I intervened with the situation and asked for a few more minutes for the man to find closure with his baby. I invited him to offer his baby into the arms of Jesus who promises eternal life for his baby. The man chose that day to surrender his baby and himself to the possibility of eternal life. It reminded me of the thief on the cross whom Jesus promised Paradise. The man later told me that directly after releasing his baby to Jesus he had vision of the man we call Jesus who said to him …everything was going to be all right. During that later conversation, the man asked how his other children might be baptized and taught the Christian way. You see, God is still in the business of making himself known to people just like he made himself known to Saul/Paul.
You see we all can have our doubts addressed not only in our thoughtful reflection of the Scriptures or in the Christian community that encourages us on our daily journey, but also in the depths of our hearts where no one knows our true beliefs about God but God himself. God can move our head knowledge about God to the heart knowledge that is necessary for a transformational life. Heart knowledge of God moves us into deeper awareness of how we might use our hands to care for the world around us. May the God of peace bless you with both the wow! and the aha! moments of faith along your journey this week, to bring you to sound beliefs in Jesus Christ.