Apostle

And So We Begin

Romans 1:1-7 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.

And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.


Today we begin what will be a relatively long sermonic journey through Romans, but I’m praying it also will be a joyous, productive trip. By the time we finish in November, God willing, I hope we know our redeemer and ourselves a little better, thanks to Paul’s insights during the early life of the church.

Our verses today are an introduction, and we should begin this journey by being sure we fully understand the man, the place, and the plan. By the man, I mean the Apostle Paul, the author. By the place, I mean Rome, home of his Christian audience. The plan is a reference to God’s work through Jesus Christ, a theme that will be at the heart of everything we hear from the Book of Romans these next nine months or so.

Paul was in his day and is unto today a controversial figure. People uncomfortable with Paul’s assertions about specific Christian behaviors sometimes go so far as to separate the faith into what could be called “Jesus Christianity” and “Pauline Christianity.” It is a false separation, and a dangerous one. Instead, it is correct to see Paul and his ministry as flowing directly from Jesus Christ, an extension of the work Christ did among us.

I can make such an assertion because Paul’s conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts in both third person and first person and alluded to in other parts of the New Testament, was a direct experience of the risen Savior. It was a 180-degree turn for Paul, who was a respected, scholarly Jew, a man who had studied under one of the finest Jewish rabbis to ever live. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was actually in the process of pursuing and persecuting Christians when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding flash and a voice from heaven.

The link between Jesus Christ and Paul is undeniable for anyone who takes the Holy Bible seriously. We therefore have to take the Apostle Paul seriously, even if he is a teacher who often challenges us through his writings in ways that make us uncomfortable. If you don’t know what I mean when I say he can make us uncomfortable, just keep showing up for these sermons.

In addition to his role as apostle—the title for a person called to preach salvation through Jesus Christ and establish new churches—Paul in many ways functioned as Christianity’s first organized theologian. That is, he began the process of systematically describing what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul was an educated Jew, having trained under a great rabbi named Gamaliel. Paul’s conversion did not cause him to surrender his education; instead, he began to apply his understanding of Judaism to his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

You can see evidence of this in his introductory statements we’ve read today. For example, when Paul referred to the Christians in Rome as “loved by God” and “called to be his own holy people,” he was evoking Old Testament language previously applied to the Israelites. Paul was leading the Roman Christians to see themselves as the new beneficiaries of a very ancient promise.

Because Paul flew higher intellectually than most other early Christians, he can be a bit harder to study. That’s one of the reasons we will be using the New Living Translation throughout the year. We may lose some of the subtle nuances of his wording, but we will gain much in readability.

If it makes you feel any better, Peter, a man who walked with Jesus and served in the Messiah’s inner circle, even commented in one of his letters that “some of [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.”  (2 Peter 3:15-16.)

Note, however, that Peter’s words indicate he already considered Paul’s writings to have the same force as holy Scripture, which was just beginning to take shape. Other apostles also seem to have held Paul in high regard, once they overcame their initial fear of him as their former persecutor.

So, we’ve talked about the man. Let’s discuss the place a little. Paul was deeply interested in the church in Rome for a unique reason. Christians were already there; no church planting by this particular apostle was needed. But it is clear Paul saw this particular set of Christians as very important, and he wanted to be sure they had a proper understanding of Christianity.

Rome was, after all, at the heart of the known world. All roads ultimately led to Rome, and more importantly to an evangelism-minded apostle, all the roads in Rome led to the far reaches. If Christ’s mandate that the story of salvation be told everywhere were to be fulfilled, then the church in Rome had to be strong and sound.

If you’re a student of history at all, I don’t have to tell you what an incredible insight that was. We will talk more about Paul’s longing for Rome next week.

Paul also took God’s plan of salvation and rooted it in a couple of critically important words, “grace” and “peace.” As we begin this journey, we need to embed those words in our minds and hearts.

Grace, of course, is a particular word we use to describe unmerited love. God sent his Son to die on the cross not because of some sort of rule established for the functioning of the universe, but because God is, more than anything else, love. We will hear of the cross and its effects repeatedly as we explore Romans.

Let us never forget that God’s work through Jesus Christ is a tremendous expression of love. Knowing we are so loved should give us tremendous peace, regardless of what circumstances we may face. If we find ourselves troubled, it is only because we have forgotten the great truth of the cross—we are loved, despite our sins.

As we go through Romans, we will need to return to the words “grace” and “peace” on a regular basis. Understand what I am saying: Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us. This journey through Romans will at times be hard. Later in this first chapter, Paul makes some assertions about sin that go to the heart of major disputes in churches all over the globe today.

Studying Romans should cause us all to grow in our understanding of salvation, in our faith, and yes, even in old-fashioned concepts like holiness and radical forgiveness.

I, for one, am quite excited.

 

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The Heart of the Matter

Matthew 22:34-40

During October, we’ve been listening to what the Bible has to say about God’s law, given to us so we may better understand who God is.

We heard how poorly the Israelites responded to the law, despite the powerful revelation they received at Mount Sinai. And last Sunday, we explored how Jesus’ answer to a law-related question puts all of us in a quandary.

The law’s demand that we worship only God and let nothing come between us and God seems to be a hopelessly high hurdle. When faced with God’s high standards, humans throughout history have often chosen one of two options: throwing up their hands in despair and turning from God, or attempting a kind of hyper-obedience, trying to outdo others in observance of the law.

Certainly, turning away doesn’t help. And because sinless perfection is not humanly possible, I’ve never understood how hyper-obedience is supposed to save anyone from the separation from God brought on by sin. I assume that practitioners of extreme legalism think that God will save the best of the bad, like a teacher grading a failing class on a curve so that a few students receive A’s.

There is a better way to understand how we are to relate to God under the law. In fact, that’s the whole point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And by listening to Jesus and understanding his story, we can follow this path to reunion with God.

Matthew’s gospel records in chapter 22 a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. (This lawyer also was a Pharisee, one of those groups that strove for hyper-obedience.) The lawyer tested Jesus by asking him, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?”

Jesus gave a highly orthodox answer, quoting the Shema,  a Jewish liturgical prayer rooted in Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus said. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

He added that there is a second like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” quoting from Leviticus 19:18. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In Luke’s version of this conversation, Jesus’ assertion is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we learn that we are to define even our traditional enemies as our neighbors, showing them mercy.

Jesus was affirming that nothing about the law had changed. After all, the law as given to Moses is a revelation of the unchanging God. But Jesus also was clarifying the law’s purpose: to teach humanity that love is the core behavior for those who follow God.

The need for obedience doesn’t go away; Jesus proved that later in Matthew when he was obedient to the point of going to the cross, even after asking God the Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”

Love, however, shapes everything, even our obedience. Jesus went to the cross to save us from the punishments we are due for our sins, out of love for all of creation.

Love as the primary driver behind everything we do sounds nice. I get visions of a television show from my childhood where a giraffe, a chipmunk and some other puppet critters sang, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love … .”

We should never forget, however, that love complicates a religious life. Legalism is in some ways the easier path to choose, at least if you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to say, “Just tell me the rules so I can follow them.”

Love forces us to think, to analyze our actions, to check our motives.

I’ll give you the toughest example I know right now in the Christian community. It is what many simply call “the homosexual issue,” a catch-all phrase covering debates about the ordination of homosexuals, whether homosexuals should be able to marry each other, and whether pastors should bless such marriages.

Working from the Bible—which I take very seriously as being inspired and shaped by the Holy Spirit—I find it nearly impossible to justify homosexual acts. It is possible to contextualize the Old Testament prohibitions, something Christians do all the time with other Old Testament rules. But I cannot get around the first chapter of the New Testament’s Book of Romans.

Its author, the Apostle Paul, clearly understood the impact of God’s grace and love being poured out on the world through Jesus Christ. Paul still, however, deliberately linked homosexual acts (and several other sins) to a general turning away from God by humanity.

And yet, I am troubled by my own desire to say to homosexuals, “There’s the rule, get over it.”

I know followers of Christ who struggle with their homosexuality. I care for them. Love forces me to think beyond simple assertions, acknowledging the powerful feelings they live with day after day, their pain, their craving for acceptance and community.

I love God, I trust God’s Word, and I desperately want to better love my neighbors, but love sometimes leaves me a little stumped. All I can do is pray that the love that resulted in the cross and the resurrection will eventually provide complete answers.