Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Romans 1:1-15

    Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake we received grace and apostleship to call people from among the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

     7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

     Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Longing to Visit Rome

     8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

     11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

     14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.

Today our lectionary reading list starts a series of readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans – our listed reading for today is the first fifteen verses. But before we jump into today’s passage, we should probably remind ourselves of some of the background of this book of the New Testament. The Letter to the Romans is considered to be one of the most important books of the New Testament. It’s probably the most important of all of the apostle Paul’s letters, and along with the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, it’s a core book in Christian theology.

Romans is the longest of Paul’s letters, which means it covers a lot of theological ground. And it’s not just long – it’s also dense with theological ideas. It takes quite a bit of careful study to work your way through it.

And Romans is important for more than just the amount of theological content in it. It also played an important role in Christian history. In fact, the spark that set off the whole Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther’s discovery of one idea in this book. It was in Romans that Luther came across the idea of “justification by grace.” That changed his life, and led him to begin the movement that became the Reformation. Today, justification by grace is the cornerstone of the Protestant understanding of our relationship with God in Jesus.

Justification by grace is the idea that our relationship with God in Jesus isn’t an achievement on our part. It’s not something we earn by being more righteous or less sinful than other people. It isn’t something we earn by taking part in religious rituals or even good deeds. Salvation by grace says that God has awakened in us a faith in Jesus just as a gift out of his grace. And grace, as you might remember, is defined as “the un-earned favor of God.” The point of the idea of salvation by grace is that our new life in Jesus is God’s doing, not ours. So we have no reason to think we’re better or ‘more righteous’ than non-believers.

There are a couple of other things we should say about Romans:

Quite a few church historians and New Testament scholars think Paul wrote this letter toward the end of his ministry, when he was planning to travel to Rome. Some scholars think Paul’s actual plan was to spend a while in Rome, and then to travel on to Spain to establish the church there. These scholars think Paul wrote this letter to be sent ahead of himself to make sure he and the Christians in Rome were theologically on the same page when he got there. He might have had in mind that the Roman Christians would study this letter before he got there, so the Roman church would be unified in its beliefs when Paul arrived. That would make sense, since this is the longest and most complete statement of Paul’s theology.

When you read and study Romans, it’s important to keep in mind that the followers of Jesus in Rome – like those in many of Paul’s congregations – were divided between those who had been born and raised as Jews, and those who had been born and raised worshipping the pagan gods and goddesses of the Roman Empire. It’s pretty clear that this difference in backgrounds caused some tensions in the early church.

Apparently some of the Jewish Christians thought they were religiously superior. That wouldn’t be surprising, from their perspective. After all, they were from the chosen people, and they’d been raised with the Law of Moses and the prophets. And of course, Jesus had been one of them. But on the other hand, some of the pagans seem to have thought they were superior, because the Jews had rejected Jesus and had him killed, and some of the Jewish Christians were still observing the old rituals and practices of their people.

Paul devoted a lot of this letter to sorting out this question of the relationship between the old covenant God had made with Israel and the new covenant that had been established through Jesus. Paul understood that this new covenant applied equally to the followers of Jesus who were Jews and to those who were gentiles. That’s what he’s writing about when he talks about “Greeks and non-Greeks.” The word ‘Greek’ is used pretty much interchangeably with the word ‘Gentile’ in Paul’s writing. Even though the Romans were not ethnic Greeks, they considered themselves to be the philosophical and intellectual descendants of the Greeks. (That’s why we use the phrase “Greco-Roman World” to describe the culture they lived in.)

Several of Paul’s letters address these issues, because as the designated lead missionary to the gentile world, they are issues he ran into in a number of his churches.

Those are probably the most important points we need to keep in mind as we start reading and thinking about Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the faithful service of your servant Paul, and for the way his writings still speak to us in our lives of faith 2,000 years later. In the days ahead, help us to have our minds and hearts open to understand what he writes, and to be taught and built up for our lives as followers of Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace,