Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Romans 1:1-8 The Letter of Paul to the Romans
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.
Does anyone remember who wrote what we call the book of Romans? That’s right. Paul. Paul was not one of Jesus’ first 12 disciples or even one of Jesus’ first 100 followers, but he ended becoming one of the most important voices in the history of Christianity. We know about him from some of his own writings (letters that came to be known as books in our Bible) and from the book of Acts, which includes some his biography as gathered by that author.
There are also several letters-that-became-books that are credited to him that modern scholars think were actually written by someone who went to one of the churches Paul started. In his introduction to the New Testament, Bart Ehrman writes that six book that have been credited to Paul (Ephesians, Colossians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) have enough differences in writing style, vocabulary, and theology to be understood as either probably or likely not written by Paul. Romans is one of the books undisputedly written by Paul.
Ehrman argues that “No book of the New Testament has proven to be more influential in the history of Christian thought than Paul’s letter to the Romans.” From Paul himself to St. Augustine all the way through the Protestant Reformation up to today, this letter to Christians in Rome has come to be understood as probably the clearest articulation of Paul’s particular understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Of all the letters that are indisputably his, this was probably one of the last to be written. Paul hadn’t started the church in Rome. In fact, according to Ehrman, they didn’t seem to know him at all. Or, if they had heard of him, what they heard made them suspicious.
If Paul wanted their support as he began a mission to Spain, he needed to properly introduce himself. He needed to clarify his theology. And, he wanted to offer them teaching and encouragement to help them grow in their faith. In reading Romans, we get a sense of what were key issues in the church of this era: the relationship between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus, the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ identity as the fulfillment of God’s promises set forth in the law, and a discussion of what it means to live a life shaped by their Christian faith that often put them at odds with the culture around them.
Did anyone here learn how to write letters in school? What are some things you learned had to go in those letters? Paul learned that you had to put some things in letters, too. If you read any of the books that are letters from Paul, you’ll notice that the beginning has a very similar pattern. There’s the sender’s name and the recipients, in this case, “all God’s beloved in Rome.” Notice that Paul doesn’t just say his name. He offers a short description of his calling, and, also, his understanding of who Jesus is and what the Gospel is.
Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? It’s a short description of a project idea that you might give someone if you only had a short elevator ride to convince them to support you. If you weren’t able to read any of the rest of Romans, Paul’s introduction here is his elevator pitch. He is an apostle, which here is not used to indicate the first 12 of Jesus’ followers, but instead to indicate a special role, similar to that of a prophet in the Hebrew Bible.
We should take care to note that Paul isn’t bragging here when calling himself an apostle. He doesn’t linger on descriptions of his particular holiness or giftedness that made him worthy of such a calling. Instead, he quickly shifts to the work of God in the world. As Jennifer Vija Pietz notes in her commentary on this text, Paul immediately emphasizes how God is at work, not just in calling him, but in laying the foundation through the covenant, for Jesus’ eventual ministry, and for the salvation of all. And, she says, “It is this life-giving gift of God’s Son to a world often turned against God that constitutes the grace that transformed Paul and his co-workers into apostles—ones sent by God to bring this gift to others.” And, according to Pietz, Paul is clearly saying, “This life I have is not my own. It’s God’s. Here’s what I’m called to do with it. Are you called to do this with me?”
If this was a regular letter, Paul might not have needed to say all that. He might have just said, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.... To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s how these letters usually go. But, remember, this isn’t just a letter to his friends helping them through a thorny church issue like most of his other letters are. He has realized what the next part of his mission for the Gospel is and he knows he will not be able to do it alone. In fact, he’s never done faith alone. He’s long known that the Gospel is done alongside others. So, he starts this letter right from the beginning with a statement of his great faith and an acknowledgement that God can and will call others to do the Gospel as well.
In fact, he seems to know that there is great potential among the faithful in Rome. He’s already heard about them. He thanks God for them. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” And, that’s where our reading stops, but, obviously not where Paul stops. For this week though, I hope you’ll consider how you might describe your faith if you only had a few moments to do so. What’s your elevator pitch for the Gospel? If you were gonna invite someone to be a part of the mission you’re called to, what would you say? And, if you were sent a letter, or a text message, or a dm from a potential co-worker in Christ, how would you discern if their mission is one to which you are also called? Because there is some powerful work we can do together, when called and equipped by God. May we remain open to all the possibilities that God has already been creating. And, when our letter comes, may we be willing to follow the call.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Jennifer Vija Pietz: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-romans-11-7-6
Bart Ehrman's chapter on Paul in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Neil Elliot's notes on Romans in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.