After only two stories from the book of Acts, we move into Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome, and we will be spending the next few weeks on this letter. The good thing about exploring one of Paul’s letters is that, rather than hearing stories about Paul from a secondhand source, that is, the author of the book of Acts, we are now hearing from Paul himself: what his concerns are as he writes to the Roman Christians and even a few tantalizing details about who he is and what his life is like. The bad thing about going through one of Paul’s letters is that it is a letter, and it is not written directly to us. It was written to a community of Christians living in the first century of the Common Era, and so there are things that both Paul and this community would have understood that we have to struggle with, because we are not living in that time and in that culture. Furthermore, of all of Paul’s letters, Romans is probably the most densely packed with his theology, and it has been formative for the Christian faith, especially for Martin Luther and the other Reformers. So, during these weeks, we’ll try to move through this slowly and see what Paul still has to teach us about Jesus through this letter.
Let’s then start with the background of this letter. If you were to read the book of Acts from beginning to end, you would find that much of it is concerned with stories about Paul. However, Paul was not the only follower of Christ out there telling people about Jesus. Acts gives us stories of Peter, Stephen, and Philip, along with people like Priscilla and Aquila. And, there were many more Christians out there who traveled around spreading the good news. Some of those Christians ended up in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, and founded Christian communities there. At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had not yet been to Rome and he wanted to go, not only to visit the Christians there and impart some of his teaching, but also to ask for their financial help so he could make a journey to Spain to continue spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. So, if you were going to visit a community you had never before met and ask for their help, what would you do? Today we might send an email or make a phone call. In Paul’s day, they wrote letters. And this is what Romans is: a letter of introduction, telling the Roman Christians who he, Paul, is, what he is teaching about Jesus, giving them some direction based on what he has heard is going on in their communities, and then, at the end of the letter, making his plea for financial aid to go to Spain.
Just as our letters today have a certain form, or order, to them, so did letters that were written in the first century. Paul starts out by saying who he is and establishing his credentials: he tells the Romans what he preaches. Then he says who he is writing the letter to: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,” and then he greets them. The next section of our reading today is what is technically called an exordium, in other words, Paul is thanking God for the Roman Christians and complimenting them, saying that their “faith is proclaimed throughout the world”. As we go through this letter, try and remember that, because not only is Paul complimenting them on their faith, he is also putting them on notice that people are watching them. The behavior that other Christians and the rest of the world see in them will reflect how they live out what it means to be followers of Christ. Later in Paul’s letter, he will address some of the behaviors that he has heard about that are happening there.
Here I want to pause and reflect for a moment on Paul’s statement that the faith of the Christians in Rome is proclaimed throughout the world. The word used in Greek could also be translated as “faithfulness”, which gives the word a little different flavor than faith. Faith is not just a head knowledge. That is, faith does not mean only confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord with your mouth. Rather, faith, or faithfulness, also includes how our behavior is transformed by the good news of the gospel. How do our words and actions reflect the power of the Gospel for salvation to everyone? Can those around us see in both our words and our actions that we are Christians? If the apostle Paul were writing to us today, here at Salem and at St. John’s, would he say that our faith is proclaimed throughout the world? While it may not be necessary for someone to commend us for our faithfulness to the Gospel, I think it’s a good question for us to ask ourselves as we take stock of what we have been doing to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to our neighbors and what we might be able to do better.
St. Paul writes to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The fact is, we should not be ashamed of the gospel, for it is powerful. If you were here during our Lenten midweek series, you will know that I and the other pastors have been encouraging the four congregations to write out our faith statements. I have followed up on that by sharing my faith statement during a sermon several weeks ago and also by asking individual members of the council to share their faith statements in council meetings as a way of practicing it in a safe space. I have heard a few people share theirs now, and they have moved me as I hear in awesome wonder how God works among us. That is the power of God for salvation among us, here and now.
The idea of salvation is another thing that we church folks need to discuss as we share our faith with others. Salvation is one of those church speak words that doesn’t mean a whole lot to people outside of the church. Those of us inside the church will automatically say that salvation means Jesus has saved us from our sins so that we might go to heaven when we die and live with him forever. That is not wrong and that is a big part of our faith. But we also need to remember that some of the early Christians, Luke especially, believed that salvation happened here and now, in this life, just as much as it does in the next. And the Gospel can effect salvation in the real world, too. As I was studying this week in preparation for this sermon, I ran across a story in one of the commentaries about a woman who came into the office of her religion professor mystified about something. At a low point in her life, she determined that she was going to commit suicide, and just as she was about to jump into the river, a verse of Scripture popped into her mind, “My life is not my own. I have been bought with a price.” What was puzzling her was that she said she was not a Christian and had not attended church. When the professor probed a bit, she remembered that her grandmother had taken her to vacation Bible school, where she remembered memorizing some Bible verses. Her professor smiled and said, “You see, God stored that gospel word in your heart, so that one day it would save you.” In this case, the Gospel had literally saved a woman from death.
Last week, I mentioned in the sermon that people may not have the word “sin” in their vocabulary any longer. So, if salvation happens in the here and now as well as for eternity, what does that salvation look like? Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, that wee little man who climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and when Jesus went to his house to eat and the people complained, Zacchaeus vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone whom he had defrauded. And Jesus said that on that day, salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. So perhaps salvation today looks like those who have committed a crime working to restore what they have taken instead of languishing in prison, unable any longer to contribute to society. Or, perhaps if you are poor, salvation looks like having someone pay off all of your medical debt, as one church has done, so that you can climb out of poverty that much sooner. These are the kinds of things people in our society today want to be saved from: sentences in prison that don’t allow them to return to society easily; debts that cannot easily be paid off; illnesses that take a toll. And we have the power of God for salvation to everyone in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That wonderful, powerful gospel sets us free: free from sin and free from the power of death. When we no longer fear death, we can be bold in the actions that God calls us to in Christ. We can look to the example of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, who, faced with declining attendance and an aging building, decided to sell the property to make room for a multiuse building that will include a new space for worship, 173 units of affordable housing, and a nonprofit organization. Making affordable housing available is one way of proclaiming the gospel to those who are poor. Or, we can do things on a smaller scale: by sharing the good news of Jesus with the children who will come to Vacation Bible School, we may be giving these children what they need to withstand dark times in their lives, whether or not those children ever darken the door of our church on a Sunday morning. Even if our congregations eventually die, we still have the power of God—the gospel—for salvation to everyone, and God will use what we say and do to bring that salvation to all.
And so, I would like to close today with a short prayer written by Rose Tonkin for our evangelism efforts in Steelton, Oberlin, and Highspire. Let us pray:
He is Risen!! He is Risen Indeed!!!!
May the Power given to us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism, give us the courage to go into our neighborhoods proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen, Let it be so!