Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Romans 1:16-27

     16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

     18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

     21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal humans and birds and animals and reptiles.

     24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

     26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

In today’s reading from the first chapter of Romans, Paul sets out a couple of the ideas that he’ll come back to several times in the rest of the letter. These ideas are important for understanding what Paul has to say in Romans, and also for what it means to follow Jesus.

And yes, I’m sure that some readers have stiffened up at what Paul says about homosexuality at the end of the passage. And in fact, the lectionary actually leaves out those two verses, probably because the lectionary planners know they will bother some people. But that seems a little theologically irresponsible. We have some obligation to deal with the passages of the Bible that bother us. So let’s work our way through the whole reading and consider that passage in due course.

Paul starts out by saying that he’s “not ashamed” of the gospel. Some church historians believe “I am not ashamed” might have been a common statement of faith in the early church. When you think about it, that would have been a bold statement for the followers of Jesus to make. The whole point of crucifixion was that it was intended as a shameful form of execution, and most people in the Roman world would have found the idea of following a crucified leader sort of shocking. So you might see why declaring that they weren’t ashamed of the gospel would have been a bold statement of faith.

But the most important idea to understand in that sentence is probably what Paul means by “the gospel.”

In our culture, the word ‘gospel’ has come to mean anything that’s accepted as unquestionable truth – on any subject. Lots of Christians probably hear the word gospel and think about the four books of the Bible that tell about the life and teachings of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But according to the scholars, probably none of those four gospels had been published yet when Paul wrote this Letter to the Romans.

So when Paul talks about the gospel, he actually means something different. The word ‘gospel’ is a translation of the Greek word euangelion, which means ‘good news.’ But it’s not just any good news – it specifically meant the good news that a new king had been born or crowned. So when Paul talked about ‘the gospel,’ he meant the news of what God had done in Jesus – his life and death and resurrection as the king of the universe. This news, Paul said, showed the power of God to rescue everyone who believed it from the powers of evil and death.

It’s also important to know that there’s a part of this passage that probably isn’t usually translated as it should be. Our NIV Bible says, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.” But Paul probably meant something more like “In the gospel a righteousness of God is revealed.” The point is that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s righteousness was revealed in a whole new way.

And that’s a pretty important distinction. It’s God’s righteousness, shown in Jesus, that leads to our salvation. Our salvation is God’s doing, not our own.

Then Paul talks about the prevalence of sin in the world. He says that people have always had the ability to know how God wanted them to live. And moral and ethical codes across cultures have been remarkably similar. But instead of living as God intends, people are selfish and brutal. As a result, the whole creation is out of whack. And Paul says one symptom of this general state of disorder is the prevalence of sexual immorality.

Some people point to this passage as a basis for condemning homosexuality in general. Paul might well have seen things that way, but that’s not exactly what he’s saying here. He’s describing it as a sign of things not being as they should be in creation. And it’s important to remember that Paul was writing in a Greco-Roman culture where practices like orgies and pedophilia were widely accepted. These are most likely the practices Paul had in mind here, not what we would call ‘committed same-sex relationships.’

So there might be some ambiguity about that, but there’s no question about Paul’s rejection of organizing your life around anything other than God. There aren’t many people around us who actually worship idols, as we think about that idea. But whenever we allow any man-made thing to be what our lives are all about – and that includes possessions, sexual pleasures, the country, our political party, our sports teams, etc. – we’re actually contributing to the kind of disorder in the world that Paul is warning against here.

The main point of what Paul is writing about here is that God has created the universe according to a certain order, and people can live happy and healthy lives only when we try to discern that order and live according to it. And the best available illustration of that order is the life and teachings of Jesus.

This, it seems to me, is the background that Paul establishes for the things he will write in the rest of his Letter to the Romans.

Let’s pray. Lord, we believe that you did not create the world randomly, but rather that you made it to be a place where your shalom – your kingdom of peace and justice – can be established. Help us to be faithful in searching for your guidance for that kingdom, and in playing our parts to bring it about. Amen.

Every Blessing,