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Narrative Lectionary Text: Romans 1:1-17
We have a tall order today. I need to introduce us to the apostle Paul, the letter he wrote to the Romans, and discuss what he meant by the Gospel, all in under twenty minutes.
We can do this!
I’m going to do this by asking three basic questions:
- Who is Paul?
- Why did he write this letter?
- Who cares? Right? I mean, why should we care about a personal letter written by someone 2,000 years ago?
I want to begin with a little glimpse at the third question.
Let’s look at Romans 1:16-17. This is like Paul’s thesis statement for the whole letter.
Will you read this out loud with me?
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. For 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.”
Wow! There’s a lot packed in there.
I want to focus in on this phrase.
The Gospel, the Good News, is “the power of God for salvation.”
In order to get at the question of “who cares?” I want to ask this fundamental question:
saved from what?
When a person feels desperate, like they are going to lose something valuable or are going to die, then that person is looking for one thing: salvation.
But, when a person is really comfortable, then salvation isn’t really a big issue. I have a running theory that one of the reasons for decline in our churches in the United States is because many Americans are really comfortable.
We’ll get back to that.
Let’s look at the first question:
Who is Paul?
When we first meet Paul, he goes by his first name, Saul. We meet him back in Acts chapter 8.
By the way, I’ve been preaching here at Grace for five years now, and you’ve probably noticed that I like to use cartoons. If you’ve ever wondered where these come from, let me tell you. I spent a few years cartooning my way through the Bible. So, if you would like to take a cartoon tour of the Bible, you can get all of these on my website a the Bible Bookshelf.
So, this is the story of when Stephen was stoned to death in Acts chapter 7. He was the first person to die for proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for.
Stephen is down here, and Saul is standing by, approving of this execution.
Saul was a well-educated young man. He had the best of three worlds. He was Jewish by birth, but was born in a Roman colony in Asia Minor and received Roman citizenship. This was rare for Jews. He was educated in Greek philosophy and in the Jewish religion. He moved to Jerusalem, studied with famous rabbis, and was sure to become a powerful leader of his people.
He was very much against the followers of Jesus. One day he got permissions from the leaders to go to a norther town called Damascus to round up the Jesus people and have them arrested, and possibly executed.
On his way to Damascus he is encountered by the risen Jesus. He has a dramatic conversion, and drops off the scene for 13 years. Then, when he comes back, he is the leading missionary to the Gentile people.
That brings us to our theme for this Easter season. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is God’s massive restart button for all of creation.
Two weeks ago we saw this starting to happen with the apostle Peter. God gives him a vision of the unclean animals, tells him to eat them, and then invites Peter to cross over his chasm of racism and enter into the home of the Roman centurion named Cornelius.
Then, last week we saw the apostle Paul take his first missionary journey into the region of the Gentiles (that just means anyone who is not a Jew). He leaves from the city of Antioch, moves across the island of Cyprus, then goes across the region of Galatia.
Let’s zoom in and remember what happened to Paul and Barnabas in the city of Lystra. Paul heals a crippled man. The people think he and Barnabas are Zeus and Hermes. Then a group of Jewish people that really, really hate Paul come into to town and convince the people to stone Paul and leave him for dead.
Let’s think about that for a second. Paul spent his entire life going through this process. On more than one occasion he had so many rocks thrown at his body, bones crushed, to the point that the people actually thought he was dead. But he survived, got up, and kept telling people about Jesus.
Can you imagine what his body must have looked like?
So, Paul heals and moves on. Since last week Paul goes on two more journeys. During one of those journeys he spends 18 months in the city of Corinth, hanging out with a married couple named Aquila and Priscilla. They are Jewish people who are in Corinth because the Roman Emperor had all the Jews run out of Rome.
So, Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla are making tents together, probably talking about the church in Rome. Paul has never been to this church, but he feels like he knows the people.
That leads us to our second question. Why did he write this letter?
Paul is in Corinth. He has been collecting money from the Gentile churches in order to help the people in Jerusalem, because there was a big famine and the church was suffering from hunger.
Paul’s big plan was to go all the way to Spain, which was, from his perspective, literally the end of the Earth. He knew that if he wanted to get to Spain, he was going to have to go through Rome, and he would need the help of the church there.
So, he writes this letter to introduce himself, and to explain to the people in that church what he is all about, and how he defines the Gospel.
So, here’s the basic overview of what Paul said in the first four chapters of Romans. It is basically the message we have been preaching all year in our theme of Blessed to be a Blessing.
You remember the story, right. 2,000 years before Paul’s day, God made a promise to a guy named Abraham. God said, “I will bless you so that your family can be a blessing to the nations.”
Say it with me. “Blessed to be a blessing.”
2,000 years later, some of Abraham’s children are known as the Jews. They believe that they are God’s chosen people. They are Jews and everyone else is the “Gentiles” You see here that there are as many types of Gentiles as there are non-Jewish culture. Everybody is a Gentile if you are Jewish.
They also believed that the only way a person could be right with God and have any hope of eternal life and/or salvation, was to become Jewish. You have to abandon your culture and become just like us in order to know God.
Paul is arguing against this idea. He makes this argument in the first four chapters of Romans
- The first chapter establishes that the Gentiles have turned away from the creator to worship created things. This is idolatry. The Jews shout “Amen!”
- The second chapter says, “Whoa! Hold on my Jewish brothers and sisters.” The Jews have turned away from God and put their trust in self-righteousness, thinking the Law of Moses makes them better than everyone else.
- The third chapter can be summed up in Romans 3:23. For ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are all equal and we all need salvation.
- The fourth chapter ties it all back to the beginning with God’s simple promise to Abraham. It all comes down to God’s faithfulness to God’s promise and Abraham’s faith in God’s faithfulness. Period.
So, here is, perhaps a more accurate picture of how Paul sees the Gospel. God’s massive restart is bringing the Good news of God’s faithfulness, demonstrated through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to all nations. Not to convert them to a new culture, but to transform them within their own culture to know the love of God.
Now, we get to our big question. Paul writes to the church in Rome, who is divided between the Jews and the Gentiles, and says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation, first to the Jews, and also to the Gentiles.”
So, what about us today? What is the power of the Gospel in the twenty-first century, right here in Andover, Minnesota?
I think the answer to that question is different for everyone.
Some of us need to be saved from bondage of some kind. Something has a grip on your mind and heart that is not allowing you to experience the love of God. If you feel like it is difficult to believe that God loves you, or if you have difficulty loving and/or forgiving someone else, or if you struggle with loving yourself, then you are in bondage and need to be saved from it.
The truth is, we all are.
What is it for you today?
Do you feel lost?
Are you deep in debt and financial bondage?
Are you gripped by an addiction?
The Good News is that God does love you, the way of Jesus leads us to new life, and the Power of the Holy Spirit gives us the power to live the life for which we were created.
I think there is another kind of salvation, as well. And, perhaps, this is what Paul was trying to communicate.
I think, many times, we need to be saved from our “isms.”
An “ism” is what happens when you believe that your way of seeing the world and understanding God is the only correct way and that everyone else must become just like you in order to be right with God.
Paul said, “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.
God is faithful to God’s promise. God became flesh in Jesus to show us the way of life. The Spirit brought Jesus back from the dead and that same Spirit is poured out on all people, to give us the faith to know that we can be saved.
He is risen, He is risen, indeed, Alleluia!