Paul is about to write a doozie of a letter, a tome, that one scholar (NT Wright) calls an “Alpine peak that towers over the hills and villages” of his other writings.
Oh, he has so much to say to them!
He is going to say something about everything he believes in and all that leads him! He is going to go on and on and paint the whole picture for them, and for us: all about our relationship to God and all the things we turn to instead, and how we have been made free but continue to live as though we were slaves to sin, and about grace and how it changes us and invites us always back into that freedom. About how it’s for everyone, and all that it looks like to live in freedom and life with God and each other.
He’s going to unpack it all!
And he needs to start out by saying that it all begins with Jesus and comes back to Jesus. That in him we are reconciled to God, called God’s beloved, called to be followers, sharers in grace.
And even though he really is going to say all of this in such a very thorough way in the letter, he can’t help himself, so he launches right into it with his greeting, filling the return address box with perhaps the world’s longest run-on sentence. It begins, “From Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” which is this – about Jesus, who is this - and then goes on to jam it with an ever unfolding description of what it all means, dropping descriptions open like an accordion file, one leading to the next, leading to the next, conjunction upon conjunction, like scarves being pulled from the clown’s sleeve. Before I even say hello, this is what I want you to hear- where this gospel begins and what it’s for.
“Gospel” means good news, and Paul is insistent that it is not just some flat message; it is the very power of God to change the world. And it isn’t just words about something that happened – that Jesus came – but it’s truth about something that keeps happening, claiming us and doing something in us and to us and through us, and he can hardly keep from saying it all right off the bat.
I tried to diagram this opening sentence, and instead ended up making lists about all subjects and objects in the text – God, Jesus, the gospel, Paul, the Romans, others, how the text describes them. Then I added arrows going every which way – the power of God and choosing of God flowing through Jesus to Paul and the believers in Rome, the way Paul sees his whole mission and calling as coming through Jesus, from God, and connecting him to them. It’s all a lovely web of interconnection, really, coming from God and returning to God and empowered by Christ and bringing us to Christ, and needing one another and meeting one another.
I considered bringing in a ball of string and asking people to stand up here and throw it around as each person is mentioned as the source, recipient or vehicle of action, so we can see how Paul really does see it all connected to God through Christ, inviting each other to trust God, and finding that when we hear about one another’s obedience of faith our own faith is strengthened all the more.
At our session meeting Thursday I shared about a hard decision I had to make to say No to something I had already said Yes to. And part of the decision process for me was realizing that living in God’s abundance, instead of in scarcity, means accepting that I am a limited human being. And it means believing that I can trust that God will accomplish what God wants to do through those who can participate in freedom and joy. It means not choosing to do something because I am afraid to miss out (which I often am) or because I think somehow God can’t get it done without me (which, unfortunately, I often do). And, after three days of hesitating, when I finally said No, I felt peace and release. I felt like I was living into trust in God and my interconnection in the world.
And when I shared this with the other folks at session, more stories came out, about the courage to live in trust instead of fear. And how it feels when we do, and how hard it is to do. How we are so pulled toward wanting to live in fear and self protection – what we will hear Paul call slavery to sin - and instead we are to be, as Paul describes himself here, "a slave of Jesus Christ," meaning that everything in our life reflects the life of the one to whom we belong, who sets us free to live in love and connection to God and each other, instead of being trapped in cycles of self-protection that shut others out, and self-destruction that shuts God out.
And what a gift it is not to be in this alone! We looked around the table at each other and could feel how we need to hear each other’s struggles with this, and share each other’s successes, how we help each other to trust and to live in the promise of God’s freedom and life when the alternative is breathing down our necks all the time.
I imagine the community in Rome receiving this letter from Paul. Getting the huge package from Fed Ex and breaking open the seal. They had not yet met Paul, and wouldn’t until years later when he ended up in Rome under house arrest and they could visit him whenever they wanted to hear him teaching from his front porch rocker in between writing letters to other churches and people far and wide.
But Paul has heard of the believers in Rome, and they have heard of him, and they all know are in this thing together. And Paul is longing for the chance to sit down with them in a way that strengthens all of their trust and encourages them all in this life in Christ.
They didn’t have things figured out. They were bumbling along, messing up and learning from it, having conflicts and sorting them out, facing adversity and persecution and figuring out who they were in the midst of it, as they learned how to be in relationship with God and each other in this new way. Jews and Gentiles, with all these different beliefs and cultural practices that had shaped their upbringing, and still directed their lives, trying to figure out together how to follow this Jewish Messiah and what it means to be in the Body of Christ together.
Imagine what it felt like to open this giant letter, filled with deep theological explanations, how rich and wonderful it would be to begin to digest it with one another! To read it aloud all together, and lay it alongside the scriptures the Jewish brothers and sisters brought with the stories of God’s faithfulness of old. To speak it out beside the word of mouth stories from Jesus-followers passed around, and use it to enlighten the transformative encounters with God through the Holy Spirit they themselves had, and to wrestle together about what it all means and how to live faithful to it.
There was no bible yet. This letter, which ends up in the bible, would’ve been such a gift, such instruction and direction and encouragement.
And perhaps Paul is thinking about this as he begins in such an intense, verbose and deliberate way – drawing their attention immediately to Jesus, to their connection to God through him, and to their mutual call to faith and trust.
So our verses today from this letter are the address label and the opening greeting, the delicious doorway into what’s coming - Paul’s message that will unfold wider and wider, into a huge, colorful, elaborately detailed canvas of language and ideas, explanations and admonitions, words that point to the reality that we are drawn into the life of Jesus Christ and all the rest of everything else begins from this place and leads back to this place.
And it is by faith that this happens. “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith,” it says. We are going to spend a lot more time with this word, so let me just introduce it in Paul’s introduction – his thesis statement for the whole letter that our text ends with today - by saying Faith is trust, but it also has loyalty in it, and it originates in God’s trustworthiness and loyalty, God’s relationship to God’s beloved people, and Jesus relationship of trust and obedience to God, and we are called to participate in that.
There is one word family, pistis, that encompasses “believing, trusting, faith, faithfulness, belief, trust” and can be translated any of these ways or even as some verb form like, "faithing." One scholar (Michael Gorman, in Reading Paul) explains, “Forms of this word-family appear in Paul’s letters more than 200 times. Depending on the context, Paul can stress one aspect or another of this complex phenomenon that we…refer to as faith.”
So in “faith” we are drawn into this bond of trust that exists between God and Jesus, this connection that binds us to one another in love, and shapes our lives into a response of trusting and faithing, and helping each other do the same.
If we zoom up from the big web we’ve just created from imaginary string, here is basically what Paul is so eager to get started saying: we’re all called by God into a life defined by God’s saving love in Jesus Christ that happens through a trust relationship opened up to us in God.
I want to close by reading you a paraphrase of these verses (adapted from Eugene Peterson's The Message), and I am going to ask you to close your eyes and imagine that this letter is coming to you.
We are going to pause a few minutes, and I invite you to call up in your mind where you are right now in your own faith, by which I mean, consider, and then hold in your imagination, an honest sense of your own relationship of trust with Jesus, your connection to other believers/trusters, and how that trust plays out or doesn’t, in your life these days…
I, Paul, am a devoted slave of Jesus Christ on assignment, authorized as an apostle to proclaim God’s words and acts. I write this letter to all the believers in Minneapolis, God’s friends.
The sacred writings contain preliminary reports by the prophets on God’s Son. His descent from David roots him in history; his unique identity as Son of God was shown by the Spirit when Jesus was raised from the dead, setting him apart as the Messiah, our Master. Through him we received both the generous gift of his life, and the urgent task of passing it on to others, who receive it by entering into obedient trust in Jesus.
You are who you are through this gift and call of Jesus Christ! And I greet you now with all the generosity of God our Father and our Master Jesus, the Messiah.
I thank God through Jesus for every one of you. That’s first. People everywhere keep telling me about your lives of faith, and every time I hear them, I thank him. And God, whom I so love to worship and serve by spreading the good news of his Son, knows that every time I think of you in my prayers, which is practically all the time, I ask him to clear the way for me to come and see you. The longer this waiting goes on, the deeper the ache. I so want to be there to deliver God’s gift in person and watch you grow stronger right before my eyes! But don’t think I’m not expecting to get something out of this, too! You have as much to give me as I do to you.
Please don’t misinterpret my failure to visit you, friends. You have no idea how many times I’ve made plans for Minneapolis. I’ve been determined to get some personal enjoyment out of God’s work among you, as I have in so many other non-Jewish towns and communities. But something has always come up and prevented it.
Everyone I meet—it matters little whether they’re mannered or rude, smart or simple—deepens my sense of interdependence and obligation. And that’s why I can’t wait to get to you in Minneapolis, preaching this wonderful good news of God.
It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of the power of God for new life to everyone who trusts him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: “The person in right relationship with God by trusting him REALLY LIVES.”