Called To Belong
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It’s with some trepidation that I approach these weeks in the book of Romans with you. It was written by Paul after his three missionary journeys sometime in the mid-50’s. This was before his journey to Jerusalem, which would turn out to be his final journey to Jerusalem. He’d be arrested and eventually sent to Rome in Roman custody. Romans has traditionally been seen as the most significant of Paul’s letters, and certainly the longest. Given pride of place right after the Acts of the Apostles. Jean Calvin had this to say about the letter to the Romans - “I fear, lest through my recommendations falling far short of what they ought to be, I should do nothing but obscure its merits…when anyone gains a knowledge of this Epistle, he has an entrance opened to him to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.” It is a letter that informed the church through Augustine when the Roman Empire was on the verge of collapse. It is a letter that changed the course of church history through Martin Luther. It is a letter by which Karl Barth reminded everyone about the Lordship of Christ and the failure of human pride and pretension in light of God’s saving mercy.
It is with some trepidation that I approach this book with you, but I think some trepidation is in order. Some trepidation keeps us relying on God rather than ourselves. We like to think in Toronto that we live in the centre of the universe, but Rome in Paul’s day really was the centre of things. All roads led there. The economic and political hub of an Empire. A place Paul longed to visit, with a church that had been established outside of Paul’s own missionary work. A church (or better yet, a group of churches) that were comprised of Jewish followers of Christ (who had been banished from Rome in 49 AD by Emperor Claudius and allowed back 5 years later at his death) along with Gentile followers of Christ.
It is a theological letter. By theological, we simply mean that Paul’s concerns are God and our lives before God. In other words, what does faith mean for life and for our lives together? It is a letter written to a specific group of Christ followers in a certain time and place that has meaning for any group of Christ followers in any time and any place. I came across this meme recently which describes the overall structure of Paul’s letters in general (Grace – I thank God for you – Hold fast to the gospel – For the love of everything holy, stop being stupid – Timothy says hi). In all seriousness, Romans is full of doctrine – in other words, what we believe as followers of Christ. The definition of our faith. It is a call to faith in both assent and trust.
I propose that as we go through the letter, we consider it in terms of God’s story. Creation. Rebellion. God acting in creation to restore relationships – restore right standing before God – through a chosen people and through God’s chosen son. The renewal of all things towards which this story is going. The letter tells of fundamental truths which speak of God as Creator and of us as created. It encompasses themes like sin (our tendency to mess things up), mercy, forgiveness, the created world around us, faith, and righteousness (right standing before God and just living with one another and with all creation). I think that the best way to encapsulate all of this talk about the story of God and the various themes I’ve just mentioned is in one word. Gospel. Good news.
Paul writes of this good news in his introduction. It’s longer than in any of his other letters, of course. He doesn’t know any of the churches he’s writing to personally. Someone has said, “Make a good beginning, and you’re halfway to winning.” Paul makes a good beginning. He writes of his identity that is grounded in the good news of Christ. He doesn’t say “Paul, missionary” or “Paul ex-Pharisee” or speak of his family or where he’s from. “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.” Paul has staked everything on Jesus. Luther described faith like this in his commentary on Romans – “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man (sic) would stake his life on it a thousand times.” “The God to whom I belong” is how Paul described this relationship in the middle of a storm. To live in the story of God is to be a servant of God. This might not seem on the surface to be a very appealing thought. Who wants to be a servant of something or someone else? The truth is, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we all got to serve somebody. To think that we are our own bosses or that we rule over our own destinies, or that we are our own “lord” is to be in rebellion against the One who created us. It’s the origin of the mess. But more on that in weeks to come.
Paul doesn’t mention anyone else in his opening, as he often does. What he is about to write has been honed and focused through years of bringing the good news to the Eastern Mediterranean. Now he wants to bring it to the West. He’s been called to be an apostle. He’s been called to be sent as a messenger “…set apart for the gospel of God.”
Set apart for the good news of God. What is this good news?
Paul describes the good news here in three verses. He writes of the old and the new. The traditional and the innovative which spans all of history – “which he promised beforehand, through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David, according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (v 2-4) And all God’s people said, “Amen!” And Amen.
The blessing that was promised to Abraham – that through one nation, all the nations of the world would be blessed has come about in the person of Christ. Right-standing with God and lives that reflect right-standing and justice with one another have come about through the self-sacrificing act of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.
“Through whom we have received grace…” (5) Through whom we have received unmerited, undeserved favour from God. How is this good news? It’s the end of performancism. This is the belief that our identity, our value is equal to how we perform and what we accomplish. Our value in our society is directly tied to our ability to produce and consume. Our value in society is based on how we look, and finding that perfect selfie angle, and thank God for filters and the affirmation of “likes.” It causes us to eat up stories of failures or bad behaviour in general and say, “Thank God I am not like them!” Thank God I am better than them. I read an article recently entitled “DNF – The Cross and the Finish Line” about a marathon runner who fainted before the end of a race. She was in serious medical distress. She recounts that as she came to, a sea of concerned faces appeared above her. “Let me finish…Please, please…” she told them. The shame of the DNF. The feeling of self-empowerment that finishing brings. The self-satisfaction in the earning of a reward. The runner would tell friends, “So yup, I didn’t finish.” One day a friend said to her, “It’s interesting, that you keep using that phrase, and that Christ’s final words on the cross were ‘it is finished.’ Maybe he finished so you didn’t have to?” She goes on, “The life of the Christian is primarily marked not by triumph but failure. The humbling truth is that we fall short all the time. Recognizing that is kind of the first step; the second is knowing that our success is going to look far different than how we’re imagining it. I saw a race, another medal to hang alongside the others, another #humblebrag to post online — but God saw a moment to refine and mold me. It’s not through medals and glory that he does his best work, but through humbling moments of collapse.” Performancism is a heavy thing. It might even cause us to collapse. It’s good to hear this message. Marcus Mumford has a solo project out, a track called “Grace.” “How should we proceed, without things getting too heavy?” he asks. “Grace like a river.” “There will come a time/When it won’t just feel like living it over and over/With the weight of the world on your shoulders/And I hear there’s healing just around this corner” “Grace like a river.” Grace through Jesus who has done something for humanity and all of creation that we could not do for ourselves. The end of the myth of self-reliance. The end of “do better” or “try harder” or “be best” but rather “Be at rest in the grace of God.” Grace based in God’s mercy rather than our merit. God’s mercy made known in Jesus “through whom we have grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” (v5-6) It is God’s mercy that is reliable even when our response to it is not, or our efforts to earn it. “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who called to be saints, grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (v 7) The unmerited favour of God to you, and peace – the entering into a state of wholeness and unity and restored relationship.
Paul tells these brothers and sisters that he thanks God for them. It wasn’t about numbers. The good news of Christ is being proclaimed in the very seat of Roman “power.” There may have been around 100 followers of Christ at this time in a city of around 1 million. Paul tells them he remembers them always in his prayers. Are we praying for one another? I pray that we all become part of a group of people who spend time praying for one another. It’s a good thing. It’s an encouraging thing. Paul longs to be among them. “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” Service to God as it is meant to be is always mutual. We are encouraged by each other’s faith when we get together. I pray that if you’re physically able to hear this call to be physically together, to be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith, that you will long for it enough to accept it. We were all greatly encouraged this past Sunday when we had a time of prayer with the youngest members of our Blythwood family and some of the people who have taken up the call to nurture their faith. So we come to the end of our opening passage. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.” Paul is not ashamed of the good news. Someone has proposed he might be saying “I’m not ashamed” in terms of ironic understatement, the same way we would say “That’s not bad!” to mean something is really good. It’s possible. We understand, though. the potential to be ashamed of the good news though, don’t we? There was a Scottish theologian named James Stewart who once said, “There’s no sense in declaring that you’re not ashamed of something unless you’ve been tempted to feel ashamed of it.” We get it. The power of God? Where is the power of God when it’s set up against the power of wealth, the power of fame, political power, etc Note that Paul doesn’t say that the gospel has the power of God (like it might not have it or might lose it even) but that it is.
In the background here is Habakkuk 2:4 - “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faithfulness.” We are being reminded by Paul that to follow Christ is to walk by faith and not by sight – in other words, to follow Jesus is not simply to look at circumstances. If I only looked at circumstances, I would be in a crowd of hundreds or thousands chanting an actor’s name on the street in a TIFF premiere- this seems like a much bigger, more powerful deal than 30 people gathered in a church
But we’re gathered in a church so let’s hear Paul’s words about what all this means as we close. In the good news of Christ Jesus, the righteousness of God is revealed. This word righteousness carries overtones of justice, of making things right, of humanity and all of creation being made right. It also carries overtones of faithfulness, of God being faithful to carrying out God’s promises. We are called to respond to this justice and faithfulness of God in thankful trust. To live out being made right with God in the mercy of Jesus by trust in him. One of the challenging things about Romans is the nuances of meaning in the language – the possibilities open to the reader. Paul writes, “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith…” This can mean through the faith(fulness) of Jesus for our faith. It could mean that faith or trust in God births more trust. One of the ways in which I’ve seen this is in transformed lives. No matter how things look in our world or in our lives, the power of God in the good news of Jesus is not absent. One day, the righteousness of God – the justice and faithfulness of God will be known in a broad, final way. In the meantime, to live by faith – by trust in God – is to know the power of God to transform lives. I’ve known it in my own life (you have no idea!), and I’ve known it in the lives of those around me. We know it within our own beloved number here at Blythwood, don’t we? May God help us as we hear this invitation to live by faith. Amen.