The Narrative Lectionary points us to Romans 1:1-17 to begin a short series through the first part of Romans. This is, of course, theological t-bone steak. There is no milk of the Word here! That might be why some may shy away from Romans. It is rich and it is also very complex in places.
From the very beginning, Paul introduces himself as ‘a servant of Jesus Christ’. It is clear that this servant of Christ intends to emphasize the Gospel of Christ right away. His life purpose was uprooted and redirected on the road to Damascus. This Pharisee and Persecutor became a Disciple and Apostle in that experience. He was ‘set apart for the gospel of God’. This Gospel is not a new teaching that suddenly appeared, but is a fulfillment. God keeps his promises. The Jewish readers will want to know that God hasn’t changed his mind about them. The Gentile readers will want to know that they are not left out. I thought that The Bible Project’s video introduction to the first four chapters of Romans was excellent in setting up the book. I recommend reading it. I showed it to my Bible class.
Even from this introductory statement Paul is expertly weaving the story of God’s faithfulness in the Old Testament and connecting it to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. He proclaims this to be the Good News (Gospel) and it certainly is. Its news about was foreshadowed by the prophets, divinely transferred through David’s generations all the way to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This resurrection was the telling sign, the assurance of His divinity. He was “declared to be Son of God with power”. That is not just Good News for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles – to everyone who is “called to belong to Jesus Christ”. And all of that is just in the introduction!
We do not believe Paul had visited the Roman church, but he certainly knew of them. When Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, Paul had occasion to meet some of them. When they returned, he had instant contacts in the Roman church. He prays for them desires to come and visit them, and is eager to “proclaim the gospel” to them. Reading through chapter 16, it is evident that Paul feels a closeness to the people of this church.
If there is a pinnacle to this chapter, it is in verses 16-17. The boldness of this proclamation inspires us. I Am Not Ashamed! I even ordered some wrist bracelets like those above to pass out Sunday. I’ll make fun of those who are too ashamed to wear them. (OK, I wouldn’t do that!) Veteran gospel preacher, now with the Lord, Marvin Phillips once preached a sermon I still remember decades later. He talked about how he would be ashamed to be ashamed. After knowing all that Christ had done for us, how could WE be ashamed of HIM?
But there is some shame about the Gospel these days, isn’t there? It isn’t hard to notice that the world now mostly regards the church as old fashioned and full of phonies. Individualized religious search that involves openness to every world religion is preferred over going to ‘church’ and being told what to believe. Talking about the Gospel ought to be a part of the Christian’s everyday vocabulary, but that has been stifled by the reception that often receives. People sometimes work with fellow Christians for years without realizing the other is a Christian! Although all of that is anecdotal I would guess you ‘ve seen some version of it.
Paul wasn’t unashamed because he was an apostle and a missionary. He was unashamed because he was an unworthy chief of sinners that Jesus somehow thought should be saved! The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. It’s not reserved for superstars of morality and faith heritage. It’s for all who believe. The Gospel reveals the righteousness of God. It doesn’t reveal how good I am, nor how smart, nor how much I’ve overcome. The Gospel is about God, not about me. So when I believe the Gospel I’m not believing about my goodness, but His.
Verse 17 has that familiar itchy translation. “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Or is it, “The one who is righteous through faith will live.” Habakkuk 2:4 might help us when it says in part, “the righteous will live by their faith.” No, that didn’t clear it up. I think it would be an interesting lesson to use both of them and recognize that they are both correct.
There’s a lot to think about for the sermon this Sunday. How will the preacher apply this passage to the congregation? The Narrative Lectionary goes right to Romans 5 next week. So the highly debated sections at the end of chapter 1 are left for another day unless you’re just wanting to toss it in…like a hand grenade. Seriously, it is worthy of the study of course.
You are invited to join in the discussion and sharing of resources on my FB page Narrative Lectionarians.