Introduction to Romans

The Letter to the Romans is a dense, difficult, breathtaking work. It is unique among Paul’s authentic letters in that it is the only one written to a community with which he has no direct connection. He didn’t found it; he’s never visited it. He writes in advance of a trip he hopes to make. In 15:23-24, Paul says:

I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you 24when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.

He does have personal relationships with a number of the Christians in Rome and sends greetings to many of them. It’s somewhat misleading to use “church” or even “Christian” when referring to the communities to whom Paul was writing. Chapter 16 makes clear that he knows of a number of communities that gather in individual homes and may not have close connections with each other.

Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, Romans is not written in response to conflict he is aware of, or in response to questions or issues that have developed. Instead, Paul is addressing the issues that he thinks are most important; above all, the relationship between these Gentiles who believe Jesus is the Messiah and Jews, some of whom also believe Jesus to be the Messiah, and many others who have rejected that idea. It’s likely that there are some Jews among the Christians in Rome, but it’s also likely that part of the issue for Paul is making a case for the continued inclusion of Jewish believers in these communities.

Dale Allison (Yale University) on the social context of the letter to the Romans. Allison suggests that Paul writes about law and justification in such a way because he’s worried about his upcoming visit to Jerusalem and he’s hoping to get the Roman Christians on his side. Allison: “There’s no Christians or Christianity in Paul’s letters.”

It’s also important to note that the traditional Protestant interpretation of Romans that focused on matters of individual justification and salvation and viewed Paul’s argument as a rejection of Jewish law, however compelling that may be, is probably not what Paul originally intended.

Who was the first person to “teach” Paul’s letter to the Romans? According to Michael Byrd, Phoebe.

An embarrassment of riches

There are times when the lectionary seems not to provide anything on which to preach; none of the readings have any meat, or seem to speak to the current situation. Other times, I can imagine numerous sermons, all of them quite different, emerging from the readings. Sometimes, there are profound connections among the texts. The latter was true in the Book of Common Prayer lectionary, which selected texts from the Hebrew Bible based on their connection with the Gospel.

The lessons for the Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year C offer an embarrassment of riches. Here are the texts. The text from Nehemia tells the story of Ezra reading the book of the Law to the assembled congregation in Jerusalem. It is set after the exile, and most scholars see this as evidence that the Torah (the Pentateuch) was compiled in exile in Babylon and brought back to Jerusalem after the exile ended.

The lesson from I Corinthians continues Paul’s discussion from chapter 12 of the body of Christ and that marvelous imagery of “we are all members of one body.” It’s important to note that he doesn’t assert that Jesus Christ is the head and we are the members. Rather, we are all members of the same body, none of us having priority. But he goes further. When discussing order in community, Paul asserts that it is gifts of the spirit that need to be ordered, not offices in the church. The editors leave out the end of verse 31: “but let me show you a better way.” That is Paul’s transition to chapter 13, in which he extols love as the greatest of all gifts, binding the community together across its diversity of gifts.

The gospel is Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. I know that will be the focus of my sermon, but the question is how, and if , I will be able to weave the other texts into this. We’ll see. Check back on Sunday.

These are marvelous texts for the beginning of a new year, and the (relative) beginning of a new ministry. They challenge us to think about our mission, our call, and our responsibility.