First Lutheran Church
May 3, 2015
I have read Romans before. I have taught an extended adult Bible study on Romans before. But it was in preparation for this sermon that Paul’s greeting to the church in Rome really jumped out at me for the first time. Look at it with me. Verses 1-7 are a run-on sentence, which tends to be a pet peeve of mine. It helps to know that in the Greek text, there is neither punctuation or space between letters. So what we have in front of us is a product of the English translators and editors. But the content comes from Paul. While he follow the traditional greetings of letters for his time, in this letter, there are significant differences. These are Paul’s Christian credentials, written to a church he has yet to visit, but desires a relationship with them.
I sort of gave you this kind of greeting on my first Sunday with you. Part of what I said was something like this, Please call me Helen Rose. Yes, I am a Presbyterian pastor, recently celebrating 20 years of ordained ministry, serving Christ and his church most of my life. I have a daughter, son, son-in-law, 2 cats. I hate to cook. I am not here to change, but to challenge you, raising questions to which we will struggle together to find some answers. The focus was on introducing myself to you, giving both personal and professional credentials, as is the custom in our own times. So it is interesting that Paul, who is also introducies himself to a group of people whom he had not met, that the focus of his credentials contain virtually no personal or professional credentials at all. He derives his entire identity, authority and purpose from the identity, authority and purpose of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The only thing he says about himself here is that he is a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. The remainder of his credentialed greetings is a christology which summarizes the sweep of God’s relation to us and to his whole creation. I am humbled by his example.
From the beginning, Paul asserts that the power of the gospel resides in God’s relationship to us through Christ, and in our relationship to each other and the world. Based on their mutual faith in Christ, Paul has a great desire to visit the Christians in Rome. He did not start this church, as he had so many others. So he comes to them, not with the authority of the founder, but as a brother under the lordship of Jesus whom they all serve, to share spiritual gifts and the good news of the gospel.
So what is this Good News on which everything hangs that Paul wants to share? He fixes it firmly in the ancient history of the people of Israel, from whom Jesus descended through David, the king. He grounds Jesus’ birth and life in the Hebrew scriptures, and in the will of God the Father. In raising Jesus from the dead, God makes his expansive grace available to all people, Jews and Gentiles, who come to him in the obedience of faith. That shared ministry begins and ends with the revelation of the righteousness of God, in which we find our own righteousness through faith. He references the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk 2:4 when he says, The one who is righteous will live by faith.
Human faithfulness and righteousness are grounded in the faithfulness of Jesus and the righteousness of God. Part of the confusion of the content of the gospel, not only in Paul’s’ time, but in our own, is in defining our salvation in terms of whether or not we follow the Ten Commandments and the Law. Martin Luther, building on Paul’s writings, was a pioneer in leading the church away from the doctrine of salvation by the works of the Law to salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It was a real paradigm shift for them, and it is for us. I think part of that is because in secular society, we define ourselves by what we do more than by who we are. What do you do is the standard question when we first meet someone, and we can feel less than worthy if our answer is weak.
I lived for a year with my mother in Missouri between my ministries in Kansas and Webster. I met with some folks I had not seen since high school graduation to plan a reunion. As we went around the table with introductions, five were already retired and traveling. One was a senior vice president in a bank. I was an unemployed Presbyterian minister living with my mother. The silence was palpable as I introduced myself, and I was essentially invisible to them for the rest of the meeting. I skipped the reunion. It is a tragedy that I allowed myself to feel less than around them, even though I was doing noble work, helping my mother. I wonder how the meeting would have gone if I had witnessed to Christ as Paul did.
Righteousness begins with God who keeps God’s Covenantal promises to us even when we do not keep ours to God. From the covenant of the rainbow, to the new covenant sealed in the sacrifice of Jesus, God faithfully calls us to serve him. Because we know that God is always faithful, we can count on his promises for the future. In this we are freed from the burden of trying to keep a Law which only convicts us of how far short we fall from the glory of God. It frees us to love God and each other. It frees us to be obedient as Jesus was obedient in relating to God’s precious people. What we do matters, not because it saves us, but because it expresses our gratitude to God and demonstrates to the world his love through Jesus Christ. Righteousness is not just about believing the right stuff, it is about how we relate to God and each other, and my friends, that takes enormous courage. God is always ahead of us. Faith is about having the imagination to believe and see that God is moving in mighty ways in the world.
I am in awe of the clergy in Baltimore who stand in solidarity with each other under God’s sovereignty. The only credentials they put forth is the power of the Living God who gave them courage to speak truth to oppression and violence. Their names, education and employment were unimportant as they calmed things down and helped refocuse attention on the enormous complexities of human suffering that comes from looking at others as less than, because they are black or poor or police officers. A few weeks ago I talked about my encounter with a young black man in Chicago which led to my visceral fear of all young black men. It took a lot of faith in Jesus and courage overcome that fear. It is so easy to make sweeping statements about those people when we reduce them to a cartoonish stereotype that prevents us from seeing them are human beings and loved children of God. The Baltimore clergy are not allowing that to happen.
If we truly follow the example of Christ, the teachings of Paul and the edification of Luther, we must move beyond what people are to who they are. On Saturdays, I invite people to the Lord’s Table with a phrase I have said for many years, there is a place for all of us here because all of us are loved by God. I am going to it this morning, because it expresses God’s expansive intention for all people. All of us are sinners and all of us are welcomed at the Table because all of us are loved by God. My friends, our credentials do not finally lie in our profession, education, median income, neighborhood, race, nationality, gender or religious affiliation. Our credentials come through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. That is who we are, and that is what gives us the courage and the authority to go out into the world, making disciples to the glory of God, who raised Jesus from the dead for the life of the world. If we would truly go out into the world in his name, we could move mountains. Amen.