The Narrative Lectionary continues our tour through stories of the early church, energized by the power of the resurrection. The previous two weeks, the Narrative Lectionary has looked at the story of the early church through the lens of Acts, and this week the frame shifts to the church in Rome.
Writing to a church he doesn’t know personally, Paul spends a long time introducing himself and outlining his credentials. His first claim is to be a servant, one whose position depends on the one he serves. He immediately links himself to a bigger story. He makes himself present to the church in Rome, not on his own accomplishments, but on the foundation of a shared faith. He writes this letter only from himself, in contrast to other letters where he includes other names, or “all the members of God’s family.” (Galatians) Mark Achtemeier suggests in the Interpretation Commentary on Romans that Paul is making a case for his understanding of the gospel, preparing to ask for support to expand his missionary travels.
Achtemeier adds that this letter “is intended as a letter for practicing Christians,” meant to be useful in everyday faith. The foundation for Paul’s theology is also our foundation, and this letter gives us a view of both the energy and the concerns of the early church.
Paul’s own journey also embodies the new thing that God is doing in Jesus. He hints at this when he talks about the place of the Gentiles in God’s plans (v.13) but Paul himself has a new identity, in Jesus. Susan Eastman (in an older Working Preacher article) observes, “Paul’s self-description picks up on his given identity at birth, and at the same time distinguishes him from what he once was – a Pharisee. Once he separated himself from society, and certainly from Gentiles, in order to be holy. Now (like Jeremiah) he has been set aside by God precisely to take good news to the “nations” or “Gentiles” (1:5; Jeremiah 1:5).” Paul’s own life mirrors the shifts in the early church.
Paul writes to those “who are called to be saints,” but adds that he prays for them constantly. We find this mixture in our own lives, too. We are called by God to be teachers, or social workers, or people skilled with money, or parents, or people who rescue animals, or any number of things. And yet, to live out our calling we need the prayers of others. Being called by God is a mixture of our talents, God’s purposes, and having the strength to stay faithful to God’s work. Prayer keeps us where God has called us.
Our faith is never solitary work. When it flags, we catch it from each other, encouraging each other through our lives and our words. Paul seems to catch himself, first offering what he can do for the believers in Rome, and then realizing that the gifts go both ways. “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.” Lillian Daniel writes in When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Isn’t Enough, “Being privately spiritual but not religious doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition you did not invent all for yourself.” All these years later, we still need the community of church to shape each other’s faith.
The sermon might consider:
· Have you ever had to prove yourself to someone you don’t know? How did you do it? Related to that, do we as Christians have to prove ourselves to the world? If the world sees us as narrow-minded, out of touch and judgmental, how do we prove ourselves otherwise?
· Paul proclaims himself to be a servant of Jesus, or, literally, a slave. He chooses this word to reflect his own stature in regard to Jesus. For anyone preaching in a multi-cultural context, where people understand slavery vividly through the experience of their ancestors, this word is a painful reminder of a past they didn’t choose. Congregations of people with low-wage jobs know plenty about a kind of economic slavery. Is there a place for the word “slave” in our faith? How do we interpret Paul’s self-proclaimed identity in our world?
· Paul proclaims that he is not ashamed of the gospel, but I often find myself ashamed of the church, and what we have done, collectively, in the name of the gospel. How do we separate God’s good news from our flawed expression of it? Are there places where we should be ashamed? Where do we find God’s “righteousness,” as Paul calls it, mixed in with our human frailty?