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The Gospel According to Paul

Date: May 19, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Old Typewriter

Scripture: Romans 1:1-17

Scripture reader: Jennifer S.

Somewhere around 1980, a musician by the name of Peter Jones was in his parents’ attic when he came across a bundle of very old letters. They were written to his great-great-grandfather, John Hunt, who had emigrated from County Mayo in Ireland in the 1850s, by his father, Bryan Hunt.

The letters spanned a time period of over thirty years. Bryan Hunt could not read or write, so the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, wrote them for him. The letters told of marriages, births, deaths, crops harvested and crops failed. [1]

It seems that John Hunt never returned to Ireland, even for a visit—although, to be fair, in those days you couldn’t just hop on a plane and be in Ireland in a few hours, a day at most. [2]

The final letter is dated February 1893 and was written by John Hunt’s brother Dominick, informing John of their father’s death. After that there were no more letters; the tie to the old country was broken. [3]

Letters like those written by Bryan Hunt to his “dear and loving son John” are a major source of information for historians and genealogists trying to understand how our ancestors lived. It is, of course, better if both sides of the conversation are preserved, but that doesn’t often happen—as it evidently did not in the case of the Hunt letters. Otherwise you get a one-sided conversation, a bit like listening to someone talk on the phone when you can’t hear the person on the other end. But even that is better than nothing…and nothing is quite possibly what our descendants a century down the road are going to have when they begin trying to figure out who we were and how we lived.

People don’t write letters so often anymore. We e-mail, or text, or use some kind of instant message app. I’m as guilty as the next person of this, but I wonder what we might be losing by not writing letters to one another.

A large percentage of our Christian Scriptures is made up of letters, many written or attributed to Paul, the apostle we met at his ordination service last week. It’s entirely possible he wrote others that were not preserved and didn’t make it into our Bible. He wrote to churches he had started, like the ones in Corinth and Philippi; he wrote to individuals, like Philemon and possibly a young colleague named Timothy; and in one instance he wrote to a church he didn’t start and had never visited, to introduce himself ahead of a planned trip there. That was the letter to the Romans, which is going to be our focus for today and the next three weeks, finishing the Narrative Lectionary year on Pentecost.

Although Romans is the first of Paul’s letters to appear in the New Testament, it is almost certainly not the first letter he wrote. The letters of Paul in the New Testament are arranged in the order of longest to shortest. If they were arranged by chronology, the order would be very different, with 1 Thessalonians probably coming first, and Romans toward the end, but probably before Philippians and definitely before 2 Timothy—at least the parts of 2 Timothy that can be attributed to Paul. [4]

Paul mainly wrote his letters to address specific issues in churches or to answer questions those churches had about belief or practice. He wrote to encourage the churches when things weren’t going well, and to correct them (sometimes quite forcefully, as in Galatians) when they were on the wrong track.

Without Paul’s letters we would not know that Communion was a regular practice in the earliest Christian communities. We knew from Acts 2[5] that the post-Pentecost community in Jerusalem broke bread together, but from Paul we learn that a specific ritual quickly took shape, the one we hear today when we gather at the Lord’s Table. And we know this because the church in Corinth was, in Paul’s eyes, Doing It Wrong, so he had to write to them and straighten them out. [6]

Without Paul’s letters we would not have the great “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, so popular today at weddings (and sometimes at funerals). Without Paul’s letters a great deal of Christian theology would take a different shape—and without Paul’s letters, particularly the letter to the Romans, there may well never have been a Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who had been taught about an angry and punitive God, and about Jesus as a righteous Judge preparing to unleash violent wrath upon the earth. He and most other Christians of his time believed that a person had to confess every one of their sins to a priest, do penance, and receive absolution in order for God to forgive them.

Luther struggled with anxiety and depression, and he spent many days and nights wracked with fear that he might leave some sin unconfessed and thus unforgiven. In order to confess his sins, he had to remember them all, and he was often afraid he had not remembered everything. He went to confession at least once a day, and sometimes spent as many as six hours in the booth dredging up every minor mistake he’d ever made.

Luther’s mentor, the Augustinian vicar Johann von Staupitz, despaired as he watched his young colleague’s misery. How could he be brought to a better way of relating to God?

Martin had, indeed, exclaimed that the commandment to love God—one of the two greatest commandments, according to Jesus—was impossible if God was the fearsome, vicious being his mind was fixated on. “Love God?” he said; “I hated him!”

Staupitz eventually hit on the perfect solution to Luther’s agony. He abdicated his own position as chair of Bible studies at Wittenberg University, and had Luther take his place. As a result, Martin Luther began to study the Bible more deeply than he had ever done before. And it was while he was preparing to give lectures on the letter to the Romans that the God of love and grace finally broke through his terror.[7]

Before too long, Martin Luther’s changed theology ran headlong into the practices of the church in his day, which viewed God’s grace as something that the church dispensed to believers in finite quantities, as reward for performing certain actions—repeated prayers, pilgrimages, even the giving of money. He wrote up ninety-five topics for discussion, hoping to spark conversation about these practices, and posted them on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church the night before All Saints in 1517.

(He also, wisely, had copies made so they could be distributed beyond a handful of interested university students. Between the silencing of Jan Hus, whose teachings were similar to Luther’s, and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, something truly earth-shaking had been invented: the printing press.)

And the rest, as they say, is history. Who knows where we would be if Luther had not taken up the study of Paul’s letter to the Romans?

A great many Christians, before and after Luther, have taken the letter to the Romans and wrestled a systematic theology from it. The trouble is, Paul was not writing systematic theology in any of his letters, even this one. He was not writing a full exposition of what Christians believe and why. He was writing to churches, each with their own unique personalities, gifts, questions, cultures, and problems, to help them stay faithful to Christ.

This is true of the letter to the Romans, just as it is of all the other letters, even though Romans does present about the fullest picture of Paul’s beliefs and teachings that we have available. He was writing to introduce himself to a church that largely did not know him—although we learn at the very end that he did have some friends and colleagues in that church. But there were some problems in that church, and he had some things to say about them, too. Maybe Prisca and Aquila, who were Jewish Christians that Paul had met in Corinth during the time when Emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome, wrote to him to tell him what was going on there.

In the middle of this letter we have a long section dealing with the place of the Jews who had not recognized Jesus as Messiah in God’s plan of salvation of the world. It is possible that, during the years when Jews and Jewish Christians had been kicked out of Rome, the Gentile Christians who remained there began to see themselves as superior. They may have even come to believe God had rejected the Jews as a whole because some did not accept Jesus. In their minds this was a grave sin, and Paul may have had to help them to understand that there is no sin so great that God cannot forgive it—and that, to be absolutely honest, not a single one of us has any grounds to judge anyone else, because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. [8]

Our reading for today is the opening of the letter. It’s an expanded example of how letters in the Greco-Roman world were generally composed: First the writer gives their name—in this case Paul gives his name and a description, followed by a long run-on sentence about the gospel of Christ, whom he serves. Then the one to whom the letter is addressed is named; and then there is a greeting. Paul mostly uses the same formula in his letters: “Grace,” which was a Greek way of greeting someone; and “peace,” or shalom, the Jewish greeting. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ—Paul speaks as a servant and a representative of the Father and the Lord Jesus.

Following the greeting, there is usually a word of thanksgiving and praise of the recipients[9]; in this case Paul notes that the faith of the Christians in Rome “is proclaimed throughout the world.”

And then in verse 16—the next-to-last verse of today’s reading—he gets down to business with a quick summary of the letter’s theme. It’s interesting that he begins with a negative: “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”

Why does he phrase it that way? Why not say, “I am proud of the gospel”?

It could be that he is alluding to what Jesus said about him being ashamed of anyone who is ashamed of him.[10] Since Paul wrote before any of the four Gospels came together, he doesn’t really quote Jesus or talk about things he did very often; but there were probably collections of sayings of and stories about Jesus floating around even in Paul’s time, so it’s not completely impossible.

Or it could be that one of the problems in the Roman church is that some there are acting as though they were ashamed. So Paul points out that there is no reason to be ashamed of the gospel—indeed, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” We don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that in this opening summary Paul introduces two other themes that he will develop further in the rest of the letter. First, God’s power for salvation is available to all who believe, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. This was part of Paul’s scolding to the Galatian church; they had decided that they needed to segregate the church, to have essentially two churches, one Jewish and one Gentile. But Paul says—possibly quoting a baptismal formula the church would have known by heart—that distinction does not matter in Christ Jesus.[11] He will expand his thought on this subject considerably in the letter to the Romans, devoting three long chapters to the place of the Jews in God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

Finally, Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk, a verse that pretty much sums up most of Paul’s theology as we see it in Romans: “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

It is in Romans that Paul makes clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ—or, in an alternate translation, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—and not something we are capable of achieving on our own. On our own, Paul tells us, we are mired in sin, completely enslaved to its power, totally unable to free ourselves. We have to remember that for Paul sin is not simply the wrong things an individual might do; he views sin as a force much stronger than the consequences of individual bad behavior, a power quite capable of enslaving humanity. But in Christ God has shown that the power of sin, great though it may be, has its limits; the gospel according to Paul is that God’s power made manifest through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection will save us from enslavement to sin, which leads to death.

Over the next three weeks we will learn more about this unfathomably good news. Stay tuned.

[1] The letters are transcribed and available to read at http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/kilkelly/history/kilkelly-ireland.html.

[2] When I went to Ireland in the summer of 1986, we left our house at 5:30 a.m., drove to Tulsa to catch a plane to New York, had a layover there of several hours, then flew to Dublin, where we arrived at 9:30 the next morning local time (3:30 a.m. at home).  It was a long flight, but nothing compared to the ocean voyage John Hunt would have had to take if he were to visit his family in the west of Ireland.

[3] Peter Jones wrote a song based on these letters, called “Kilkelly.”  Lyrics in the song are taken directly from the letters themselves, including John’s mother’s urging that he not work on the railroad—which he evidently did.

[4] Many of the letters we have appear to be composites, made by mingling multiple letters together.  The two Corinthian letters, for instance, may include parts of four distinct letters, and many scholars suggest a fifth letter may have been written but not included.  It isn’t certain whether the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) were entirely written by Paul, but there are bits and pieces here and there that look like they may have been, while other parts simply don’t sound a thing like the Paul we know from the undisputed letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon).

[5] Acts 2:42:  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

[6] 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

[7] The definitive biography of Martin Luther has for decades been Here I Stand:  A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton (Nashville, Abingdon, 1950).  The chapter describing this breakthrough begins on page 52

[8] Romans 3:23; this is the first of the verses we Baptist youth were taught to keep written in the front of our Bibles so we could find them immediately when someone needed to be shown the plan of salvation.  (The others are Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Luke 13:3; and Acts 16:31—most of which have been wrested out of their context in ways that don’t really do them justice.)

[9] Galatians is an exception to this; Paul is clearly very cross with that church and he skips thanksgiving and goes right to the scolding he is writing to give them.

[10] Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26

[11] Galatians 3:27-28