Paul’s letter to the church in Rome has traditionally been thought that it was written while he was visiting the town of Corinth. Go back to Acts 20:3 and we see that he spends three months in Corinth before he heads back to Jerusalem. This matches up with what he says in Romans 16:23 where Erastus was living in Corinth. The timing of the writing is thought to be around 55 AD. Romans is considered by far the most important theological writing in all of Scripture. It is called the magnus opus (or masterpiece) of Paul and stresses the salvation that is found in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Our faith, our belief system, our understanding of who God is has been radically shaped by this book of the Bible. It also contains some moralistic teachings which allow us to follow some of the dos and donts of Scripture. The first chapter does not shy away from addressing some of the most controversial topics that our society faces today. Let’s go ahead and tackle this crucially important letter in the Bible.
Just one more reminder and point of interest. So, unlike the Acts of the Apostles which was written to give an accounting, as Luke states, of all that Jesus said and did and what the apostles who followed him did as well. This book of the Bible, however, is not an accounting of what has taken place, but rather a personal letter from a spiritual father, Paul, to a congregation in a specific city. This city happened to be Rome. I think I have expressed before that Rome is my absolute favorite place in the entire world. I love that city. I grew up in Rome and lived there and went to public schooling in the Monteverde section until I was 8. I ran the 7 hills of Rome and they were my backyard, so when we read about events that take place in that city, I know them well. So the community to whom Paul is writing, to me at least, sounds personal. He loves the community and has heard about them, although he has not had the chance, at this writing at least, to visit the community. So in this letter he addresses the most important theological stances that had to be taken. Let’s get started.
Paul begins his letter to this community that he has never met by laying out his pedigree and his qualifications. Surprisingly, he calls himself an apostle. We had discussed previously how apostles often just pertains to the 12 + 1 disciples that followed Jesus while he was on the earth. The +1 is Matthias who was chosen by lot after Judas was no longer in the picture. But historically Paul is also considered an Apostle because he saw the Lord Jesus and was spoken to by him on the road to Damascus. The qualification to be an apostles is that you must have been chosen apart by Jesus to be his follower, and then later on have taken on some leadership role in the church. The whole concept of Apostolic succession is foreign to us as Presbyterians, but if we did actually believe it then Paul would count as an apostle. So, he lays out his qualifications by saying that he is an apostle, a servant first of Jesus Christ, and set apart to be the one who would proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or the good news. Those are his qualifications and I’m guessing that anyone hearing this letter read to them in the midst of a congregation in Rome in the first century would say: “Let me hear more of what this Paul has to say.”
One more note about Rome. It had, and still does to this day, a very influential and important Jewish community. It is not surprising that the Gospel took root in a place where there was such a strong Jewish presence. Notice in his greeting he lifts up the gentiles as crucial to the advancement of the Gospel. He greets all the beloved who are called to be saints in Rome. What a great greeting. And then he gives a formulaic address which contains: Grace and Peace. Paul loves the community in Rome. That is fairly obvious. Their faith is proclaimed throughout the world. That means that they must be well known throughout this fledgling Christian community. He speaks about Rome as this eclectic city that contains both the wise and the foolish, the Greek and the barbarians (that’s an unfortunate juxtaposition which implies that anyone who is not a Greek must be a barbarian).
Vs. 16 is a memory verse that in VBS we must have memorized at one time or another. Listen to it again: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” I am not ashamed of the Gospel. Unfortunately, this rallying cry seems to have been monopolized by all those living within the United States who feel as if our Christian privileges ought to be maintained at all cost. I have heard countless times those who say that we cannot be ashamed of the Gospel and what they really mean is that we have to have prayer back in school, not allow prayers of other religions in public, and a whole assortment of cultural status symbols that we have seen slip away over time. It is important to understand that when Paul wrote the Roman government was in charge and they worshipped idols. When Paul says don’t be ashamed he said it not for Christians to maintain their privileges but rather to Christians who were facing life and death situations. Our shame of the Gospel probably reveals itself when we choose our commodities over our need to be servants to those in need on our doorstep. We are ashamed often to trust that God will provide so we hoard until those around us have less. If we are righteous, says Paul, then we will live by faith. Living by faith is something that Christians of the 1st century implicitly understood. Less so for those of us living in the 21st century in a country that does not overtly worship idols.
Vss.18-24 are fundamental verses to understanding what we believe in regards to the age old question: “What if someone never hears about Jesus, can they be saved?” Paul says that creation itself reveals the presence and the power of God. As Paul states, they are without excuse. So I guess that means that none of us has an excuse as to whether we are disciples of Jesus or otherwise. Even if we do not hear about the saving power of Jesus, we can still honor, respect, and obey God as exhibited in creation. Paul has very, very harsh words for those who worship idols. But this shouldn’t surprise us. From the very beginning the people of God were told to worship a God that hands, our hands, could not make. And now, in these next verses, from 24 and following, we get ourselves into trouble.
Before you see what comes next I encourage you to look at the letter that our session posted, a little over two years ago. Today when the headlines contain the apology of the Pope for those who are gay and have been mistreated (I beat him to that apology, listen to the beginning of this: http://www.straspres.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Sermon-June-19-2016.mp3), it may seem poor timing to address the issue of homosexuality. I can only say that we have to address the Scripture as it comes to us. Please read this letter that the session – http://www.straspres.org/session-letter wrote.
The question remains between the two camps within the Christian faith: Is homosexuality a sin? I take the stance that it is, but let me clear, it is a sin of no greater importance than the greed that I have in not selling all that I have and giving it to the poor. Our society, and in greater measure our Christian religion and those who would call themselves Christian (who happen, by the way, to be the same people who bemoan the loss of power and privilege that the church used to enjoy) would like to lift up homosexuality as a sin that is a sort of trump card. It is far more important than any other.
There are other Christians who simply do not believe that homosexuality is a sin. They see it as something blessed by God. As I have stated in the past and I will state here, I disagree. I simply cannot overlook the vast body of Scripture which consistently calls homosexuality a sin. In vs.27 Paul addresses the issue directly and calls a natural relationship as being between a man and a woman. This is my position as well. God made man for woman and vice versa. It is a natural relationship. You see how it all ties into the beginning of the chapter when Paul speaks about knowing God through what He has made, or through nature. This is part of the order which God has created. One more statement, I hope, of clarity. I do not, however, believe it is a salvation issue. If anyone is reading this and thinks they are better than “those gays”, let me tell you, you are already far, far behind where God wants you to be. I think I warned you that these 90 days would be a little more challenging than the last. But that’s Paul.