Spending Some Time with the Apostle Paul

 

Time to spend some time with Paul.

Paul? Yes, Paul.

This will be better than you think, I promise.

Romans 1:1-17

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To 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.

8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

16For 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. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Do the people of Plymouth have a problem with Paul?

If so, let me clear: I am here to convert you.

I get it. Paul has a bad reputation –seen as arrogant, sexist, out of touchy and maybe a little judge-y. Lots of progressive/liberal/mainline Protestants tend to see Jesus as the good cop and Paul as the bad cop.

I think I am so aware of this because it reminds me that I am not in Kansas anymore. I was raised in an evangelical tradition that revered Paul. Growing up, I heard a lot more preaching on the letter of Paul than I ever did on the Gospels.

But when my theology changed—when my journey led me out of evangelical Christianity and into the United Church of Christ—Paul was THE key to my thinking. Because I grew up thinking Paul taught one thing but when I finally dug in and wrestled with his thought on its own terms, I found something very different. As my understanding of Paul changed, so did my understanding of God, the church and God’s call on my life.

I owe a lot to the Apostle Paul. So I am eager to introduce you to him. And for the next couple of weeks I have an opportunity to do just that. I will try to make good use of it.

Between now and Pentecost, the Narrative Lectionary will devote four weeks to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The schedule looks like this:

May 19:           Romans 1:1-17

May 26:           Romans 5:1-11

June 2:             Romans 6:14

June 9:             Romans 8: 14-39

As it so happens, this same four weeks will be a busy time in the life of Plymouth Church. We will say goodbye to 3 members of our staff team in three consecutive weeks; celebrate our graduating seniors on Baccalaureate weekend and celebrate with the Matins choir as they get ready to go out on tour; hold a Discover Plymouth New Member Class and participate in Pride 2019.

I can see how Paul might get squeezed out by some of these other events. But I hope to at least use this blog to delve a little deeper into his thinking.

Let’s start by getting oriented to the Epistle to the Romans. A couple of features make it unique among Paul’s letters. For one thing, it is the longest letter we have from his pen. And, for another, he wrote this letter to people he had never met. But he wants their support for the next phase of his missionary work. He lays it all out near the end of the letter, in chapter 15:

23But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while. 25At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; 26for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.28So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain; 29and I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.

So, Paul has two goals in mind and he wants the Christians in Rome to help with both of them:

  1. He is taking up a collection from predominantly Gentile churches to support the mostly Jewish church in Jerusalem. This offering, to Paul, is an important symbol of the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the church.
  2. He also hopes the Christians in Rome will support him in his attempt to push west, into Spain.

But since he has never met the Christians in Rome, Paul uses this letter to lay out his own beliefs as thoroughly as possible. It is the closest thing we have to a “systematic theology” from Paul.

And this week we begin at the beginning, with the first 17 verses of the letter. Paul is well-schooled in 1st century Greco-Roman epistolary conventions –in other words, he knows how to write a letter. But he takes the conventions and bends them to serve his purpose.

So an outline of this portion of the book might look like this:

1:1-6                Introduction: Who is Paul?

1:7                   Recipients

1:8-15              Prayer of Thanksgiving

1:16-17            Thesis

Let’s examine each section in a little more detail.

INTRODUCTION (v.1-6) Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

It is customary to open a letter by identifying the sender. Sometimes (Galatians is a notable example), Paul will expand this section to serve some purpose. In this case, having never met the Christians in Rome, he wants to credential himself as an apostle, “set apart for the Gospel of God.” And he specifies his mission as focused on “the Gentiles.”

RECIPIENTS 7To 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.

 Then one names the recipients of the letter. And Paul’s typical blessing (“grace and peace”) perfectly marries Greek and Jewish sensibilities. “Grace” is closely related to the Greek word for “greeting” (think: “Hello!”) while “peace” evokes the Hebrew word shalom, designating, not mere inner tranquility, but comprehensive well-being for all of God’s creation.

THANKSGIVING 8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

Whereas a conventional Greco-Roman epistle would offer some sort of kind words for the recipient (essentially the 1st century equivalent of “I hope this email finds you well”), Paul takes this section and makes it into a “prayer wish” –telling the Christians in Rome how, specifically, he prays for them. There is also, in this section, a delightful sort of awkwardness in which Paul initially presents his preaching a little one-sidedly (“…that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you”), but then, perhaps remembering that he has never met these people and he needs to be a little more diplomatic, reverses himself (“or, rather, so that we may be mutually encouraged…”).

THESIS 16For 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. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

According to some outlines of Romans, Paul here introduces the idea that he will unpack all the way to the end of chapter 11: The Gospel is God’s salvation for Jew and Greek.

I can’t possibly do it justice now—this is, after all, in invitation to a journey—so let me hit two key concepts very quickly.

Gospel (τὸ εὐαγγέλιον) is a word derived from the context of battle. When an army was victorious, a messenger would run and proclaim “Good news!” to the people back home. In the context of Paul’s thought, his message is announcing a new state of affairs which God has unilaterally brought about.

Jew and Greek            are THE key to Paul’s thought. He believes that, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has opened a way for non-Jewish people (“Gentiles” or “Greeks” = Hebrew goyim) to have a relationship with the God of Israel. The church exists to be one community in which Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another and stand on equal footing before God.

So permit to finish where I started: with a bit of autobiography. I grew up thinking Christian faith in general, and Paul very particularly, relentlessly focused on the need for individuals to be reconciled with God. Think about the language of “being born again.” Think about Billy Graham (whom I saw at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh I 1993). Think about “The 4 Spiritual Laws.”

(This might be a good time to mention that links to other sites on this blog do not constitute endorsements).

I suspect others have this same impression of Paul. Maybe that is why people at Plymouth think Paul is not their guy.

But here is what I discovered when I began to study Paul for myself: There is no reconciliation with God without reconciliation between people. That is THE key to understanding his thought.

And once I saw it, everything began to change for me.

Maybe the same thing could happen to you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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