First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Advent 4

William Loader

Advent 4: 18 December  Romans 1:1-7

This letter is different from the rest of Paul's letters. He is writing not to a church which he founded, but one which probably had its origins in the work of other Christian Jews at least a decade earlier. He wants to write because he plans a visit (1:10) and intends to use Rome as a launching pad from which to move onwards to Spain and the western reaches of the empire (15:23-28). That latter plan did not succeed. Paul would spend his last days in Rome and there face a cruel execution at the hands of Nero.

Visiting another congregation which he had not founded hardly warranted such a long letter, now divided into 16 chapters. There was, however, something much more at stake than arranging overnight accommodation. That doesn't even receive a mention. Rome was not an isolated capital, but a hub of connections. These included the incidental connections of merchants, but also the intentional connections of Jewish pilgrims and even the forced expulsions and later return of Jewish members of Rome's house churches. Paul hardly needs to introduce himself as someone unknown. He had been embroiled in some of the major conflicts facing the earliest churches and people in Rome were bound to have their impressions, even their opinions, about this controversial character. Some of it will have been negative as people heard alternative accounts of what reports in Gal 2:11-14.

So Paul has to tread very carefully. Otherwise he may face closed doors. But, worse for him, he may find he cannot exercise the ministry to which he believes God has called him. And given the connections between Rome and Jerusalem there was even the possibility that his grand charge to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles and bring an offering from the Gentiles to the church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:9-10) might fall flat on its face. One of his final requests to the Romans is that they pray that this offering will be acceptable in Jerusalem (15:30-31), because he knew it was far from assured.

Faced with such a complex situation Paul takes great care to offer an account of himself, but more especially, of his theology, so that the Romans will welcome him and, more especially, share in his mission. It is a bonus for us that he felt he had to do so, because in this letter Paul distills into more careful formulation what in earlier letters such as Galatians he had declared somewhat more in the heat of controversy and with barbed argument.

Letter openings followed a set formula, probably an adaptation in Jewish circles of the basic Greek standard. "X to Y, Hi!" becomes a greeting of "grace and shalom/peace". Christians like Paul set this in the context of faith in Christ. Within that framework Paul incorporates elements which reflect the concerns of the letter. Thus here he begins by defining himself with the word, "servant/slave", placing himself and his mission in subordination to Christ. In no sense is this an "ego trip". But it is far from a denial of power. For Paul alludes to his call to be an apostle. That carries authority; Paul has a strong sense of being sent and authorised to do God's work, in particular in bringing the good news of God to Gentiles. Galatians 1 tells us more.

Paul is already shifting the focus, however, from himself to that good news, because that is the priority and his authority stands and falls with it. What he then asserts doubtless reflects sensitivity to criticisms levelled at his version of the gospel. So he begins by underlining the connection of the good news with the scriptures (1:2) - he is far from abandoning them or Israel as some suggested! Then he seeks further agreement and common ground by citing what the Romans would probably have recognised as one of the early credal assertions of Christianity (1:3-4). It reflects the language of royal messiahship. Despite all the ambiguities it posed, Christians proclaimed Jesus the Messiah ("the Christ/Anointed One"), which Jews often associated with the promises that God would raise up a descendant of David to overcome Israel's enemies and set up a reign of peace.

It was a notoriously dangerous idea, because it sounded like subversion and evoked aggressive responses from those in power - well illustrated in the case of Jesus, "The King of the Jews"! But faith insisted that there was a sense in which the claim was true and his death was no contradiction. In a playful defiance faith asserted that the one qualified as descendant of David and in every other way to sit on his throne was indeed enthroned by God through an act of resurrection (1:4). Thus, within this framework of thought, God appointed him royal Son of God in that moment with the promise that his reign would overcome all enemies and bring justice and peace to all (Psalm 2:7; 110:1). Outside of that framework of thought Paul can also speak of Jesus as God's Son in other ways not limited to the time since the resurrection (reflected already in the first words of 1:3), but also in affirmations that God sent "his Son" into the world (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3).

The significance of this story for Paul is that it is the basis of his apostleship (1:5); for he now carries the messianic vision to reality out wide in the world of Gentiles. It is both the basis for confidence that God can do the impossible, make the dead live, make sinners whole, make Gentiles into God's people, and the basis for his own personal journey from persecutor to apostle. Such transforming power, which Paul frequently associates with the Spirit (as in 1:4) and in which he experiences the living presence of Christ, draws its energy from God's compassion, which is so radical and far reaching in Paul's mind that it breaks down all barriers, including those erected on biblical principles. Here in the opening Paul holds that implication back. Instead he reminds the Romans that they, too, are in a Gentile context (1:6) and so belong in this great vision. He is also saying between the lines: so, you see, it is very appropriate that I come to you. I am not an intruder.

It is hardly possible to write off 1:7 as just a standard greeting, although it is certainly that in form. "Grace and peace" would surely include for Paul the very heart of his gospel and its hope. It is about real wholeness/peace and grace is nothing other than the unlimited compassion of God which refuses to give up on us and calls to the gift of renewal and hope. For Paul that was not a state of bliss, but an invitation to passionate engagement in the flowing out of that compassion into the world. This is why he alludes earlier to receiving grace and apostleship (1:5). Grace is a call to come on board, not to sleep at the bus station.

Gospel: Advent 4: 18 December Matthew 1:18-25

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