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When we meet together in person, we share our joys and concerns with each other before we focus on our Sunday school lesson. Think about your needs and concerns right now, and if you like, you can share them in the comments.
Today’s lesson is from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Roman church. It is about Paul’s longing to see these Christians in person so they can encourage and strengthen each other. It is also about God’s power to save anyone who believes in Christ.
Our Sunday school and church is now open so that we can join to worship God, to learn about God’s word and to encourage each other in person. We are grateful to be back together, but we continue to pray for those who not yet able to. We are glad that those who cannot be with us physically are able to learn and worship with us online.
The following prayer serves as our opening prayer. It was written by Nathan Nettleton and posted on his website at laughingbird.net.
Blessed are you, God of all creation, and blessed is the communion into which you gather us. You promised through your beloved Son that when two or three gather together in his name, you will be there in the midst of them.
We come defeated, we come dancing, We come traumatized, we come trusting, We come aggrieved, we come adoring. We come because our hearts are made restless by echoes of a song we have never heard and memories of a place we have never seen. Send your Holy Spirit to call us by name and lead us home. Amen.
Today's lesson is on Romans 1:8-17.
Introduction and lesson context
In his book, “The Rise of Christianity,” sociologist Rodney Stark writes about the reasons Christianity spread in the first few centuries after Christ. Much of it, he says, was because of how the Christian community provided a different model for hope, love and security, which was attractive to people. Another reason he gives is that Christians were over-represented in cities, and changes in culture tend to flow out from cities into rural areas.
That is a sociological explanation about why Paul concentrated his ministry in cities. There were simply more people there, and that provided a catalyst for spreading the gospel everywhere. But together with those natural reasons, Paul saw a greater underlying reason: God was at work through his ministry (and the ministry of others) to spread the gospel to all people.
Three of Paul’s key ministries were in Antioch, Corinth and Ephesus — all among the 10 largest cities on the Roman Empire. But Paul had a burning desire to visit the greatest city of them all, Rome, the capital of the empire and center of the world in those days.
The saying “All roads lead to Rome” was more than a proverb for Paul. Rome was unparalleled in the ancient world. After Rome declined, no city would rival its importance and influence until nineteenth century London. So Paul was convinced God was calling him to go to Rome.
Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in advance of his trip there. A church was already growing in Rome, likely made up of people who had been in Jerusalem on Pentecost and those who were converted after they had returned.
Paul wrote the book of Romans around AD 58, during his third missionary journey. He probably wrote it from the Greek city of Corinth, where he spent three months. The timing lines up. But there is another reason for suggesting he wrote it then. Most scholars view the book of Romans as the zenith of Paul’s theology and writing. A concentrated period of writing in one place might also explain, in part, how he was able to craft such a deep letter.
Power of Witness (Verses 8-10)
After briefly introducing himself and laying out the gospel, Paul offers a message of prayer and thanksgiving, which is characteristic of most of his letters. Paul notes that the Roman Christians’ faith is reported all over the world. That may be because Emperor Claudius had expelled from the city everyone of Jewish background. In its early years, Christianity was seen as a sect of Judaism so Claudius would not have distinguished between Christians and Jews when he issued his order.
By the time of Paul’s letter, however, Claudius had died and the Jews had returned to Rome. Christians and Jews were beginning to reconsider their relationship to each other and to God.
As noted at the start of our lesson, Rome’s unique status as a center of travel and commerce would have made it the perfect location for the spreading of the gospel in all directions. Therefore Paul prayed to be able to go there as part of his grand vision for bringing the message of salvation to everyone.
Up until now, however, Paul’s plans had been thwarted. It must have been frustrating for him on one level, but ultimately he saw his mission as subject to God’s will, not his own.
Power of Preaching (Verses 11-15)
Paul had heard of the Roman church through second-hand sources. He was now writing to them to encourage them in their faith and to help them establish a firm theological foundation.
Still, he wanted to see them face to face and to have fellowship with them, something that cannot be done as effectively through letters and messengers. Today we have a lot of options for communication that Paul did not have. We connect through phones and the internet, and that has been a great way to encourage and support each other and even to worship over the past year. Still, in my opinion, there is no substitute for having direct contact when that is possible.
When we get together for worship and fellowship, it is not just a one-way street. As ministers share the faith with us, they also receive strength and encouragement from the congregation. Paul wants to share the gospel with the Roman Christians, but he also wants to receive encouragement from them. People outside the church often have a hard time understanding the comfort Christians get just from being together, from comforting one another and sharing stories of faith. Paul anticipated all of this as he looked forward to an in-person visit.
Paul wrote and preached expectantly. He anticipated that God would use his words to bring about a harvest of souls. It was not just a fantasy for him because Paul had already seen such harvests throughout his ministry.
When Paul’s plans were delayed or redirected, even when there were political or physical reasons for it, Paul always saw God’s direction behind it. In this case, Paul had long planned to visit Rome, but circumstances had always prevented it. Paul’s travels were to serve Christ, not to find personal fulfillment.
Paul saw his mission to the Gentiles as a debt he owed them and that could only be paid by preaching the gospel to them. In the Roman world, Gentiles were divided into Greeks, with their strong sense of culture, philosophy and language, and non-Greeks, the less educated Gentiles who did not speak Greek. The latter group is often referred to as barbarians. Paul wanted to share the gospel with both groups.
He adds that he is indebted to both the wise and the foolish. This may be an attempt to connect the foolish with the barbarians and the wise with the Greeks, which is how the Greeks and Romans saw things. But education and culture do not always make people wiser. The broader point is that Paul’s mission is to all Gentiles, regardless of their level of culture or understanding.
That is why he is so eager to preach to the Christians in Rome. These people are already Christians, but preaching the gospel involves more than evangelism. It also involves imparting a deep and correct understanding of the faith so that the church can flourish.
Power of Faith (Verses 16-17)
The core of Paul’s preaching and teaching was that Jesus had been executed like a common criminal. For Jews living in a culture of honor and shame, this shameful event would have excluded Jesus as a person who should be followed. But for Christians, Jesus’s shameful death on the cross only shows the lengths God went to for our salvation.
That is why Paul writes that he is not ashamed of the gospel. Instead, he sees it as the ultimate expression of God’s power to save people. It is clear that both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were part of the church in Rome.
And for all people, the gospel is the most crucial message because it reveals the righteousness of God. It reveals to every sinful person how to become righteous before God, which is something we can never achieve ourselves.
Richard Boyce, commenting on this passage in the Presbyterian Outlook, writes: “While the power of Rome might be obvious to those who live there, the power of God for salvation is both more mysterious and more lasting. In some fundamental way, the entire book of Romans is a testimony to the power and righteousness of God, a power whose purpose is salvation (rescue from any other power or principality that might claim one’s ultimate allegiance) and revelation of “the righteousness of God” (whose character and purpose is to “set things right” between God and all people, and among all the peoples of this earth).”
Paul concludes his summary of the gospel message by quoting a statement from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk: “The righteous will live by faith.” Like other Old Testament prophets, Habakkuk complained to God about how the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered. He wanted God to act to rectify the situation.
In response, God’s final word was that righteous people must remain faithful, trusting God for the timing of his justice. We do not compel God to act; instead, in the meantime, we place our faith in God, live by that faith, and leave the timing of God’s justice to God.
It seems to me that Paul takes that statement and turns it around. Instead of telling righteous people that they must continue to live by faith as they await vindication, as Habakkuk does, Paul takes it to mean that people who have faith in Christ are imputed with God’s righteousness. They are therefore saved and will live.
Paul sees Christ as the ultimate expression of God’s righteousness or salvation. Having faith in what Christ has done, believing in the gospel, is what allows us to be justified before God and to be treated as faultless despite our weakness and sin. The Revised Standard Version makes that idea much clearer when it translates the statement, instead, as, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”
So for Paul, salvation and righteousness is all about faith. Our righteousness is literally “from faith to faith,” by faith from first to last. The Sunday school lesson author writes that this means that for God’s people righteousness has always been about faith. As he writes, “It is faith then, faith now, and faith going forward.”
Conclusion: Come to the Cross
The most recognized Christian symbol is the cross. We see it on churches, as jewelry, in logos, in massive monuments and in cemeteries. For many, the cross is most associated with the latter as it marks a grave of a loved one.
As Christians, we affirm that Jesus’ cross is about death. But the cross is also about life, for Jesus’ death gives us the possibility of being forgiven of our sins, escaping the penalty of death, and embracing eternal life as a gift. To do this, we must come to the cross in faith. We must not be ashamed. We must come believing that the cross represents the great love of God. We must come convinced that faith in Christ has the power to save us. It is there that our burden of sin was lifted and our spiritual blindness will become the sight of faith.
Lord God, may we approach your throne with faith, unashamed of our love and trust for your Son, Jesus Christ. May we give all that we have to serve you and to bring the gospel message to those who have not heard. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
This week's benediction is from the New International Version.
Next week's lesson will be on Romans 4:1-12.
We are a small, rural Presbyterian church in southwestern Pennsylvania.