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The beginning of the 1st chapter of Romans is Paul’s introduction of himself to the church in Rome, a church, unlike the others Paul wrote to, hadn’t been to yet. It was an international city with people coming and going; there was a Jewish community in Rome that would have traveled to Jerusalem, so it’s likely Paul knew members of this community, heard of their celebrations and struggles. And Paul longed to be there with them, as part of his call to be a missionary to the Gentiles and Rome was full of Gentiles.
This letter has been vitally important to the history of the church. It was quoted in letters by church fathers in the 2nd century. In the 4th century, Augustine talks about his conversion that happened while reading Romans. In the 1500s, Martin Luther wrote about years of reading and praying and sweating this 1st chapter of Romans because he got hung up on the righteousness of God, because he took his understanding of righteousness and justification from his understanding of the world around him, that God would then punish the sinner the unjust and Martin Luther, despite having been a monk to who didn’t do anything wrong, felt he was unworthy and a sinner, thus worthy of punishment. Through prayer and discernment, his understanding of the righteousness of God began to take shape around God’s grace and faithfulness for our salvation.
So much of Christianity is concerned about how we can be made right with God, how we can be set right, how we can been on good terms with God.
Romans is still beloved and used a lot today. Some have created from Romans The Romans Road–a scriptural defense of why you need Jesus and how to save your soul from hell with your own personal Jesus. It has been used by many to try to convince their friends and loved ones that they need to be saved. It says so! In the Bible! I was in a Zoom call with some other preachers and one mentioned this had been something she tried to do as a young person. I asked if it ever worked, and she said, “Not once.”
So for centuries, folks have been reading Romans, trying to understand it. And sometimes we get caught in the tangle of words that either have no meaning in our lives today or have completely different meanings. It is in Paul’s letters that we find the words that have become synonymous with Christianity: Gospel, Salvation, Grace, Righteousness, Justification, Faithfulness. And we think we know what they mean, or pretty close. But there’s always a context, usually one rooted in the time.
For example: The Gospel, as a word, existed in the world around Paul. There is a calendar with an inscription from the time of “The Gospel (good news) of Augustus Caesar” and it told of his birth and the great deeds he had done. The gospel in the time of the Empire was about the Caesar. It is no wonder that Paul was executed in Rome, such sedition could not stand when he wrote of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior,
Now, when we started in the, we began looking at The covenants God made with God’s people and how God continued to be faithful to the covenant and the people always. We looked at how sometimes there were misunderstandings about what was most important when it came to the laws, how sometimes the laws were used to bully each other, to make some unworthy in the eyes of the powerful. And we saw how God, through the prophets, called the people to return to the teachings that God had given them, to remind them of the purpose of the law and the covenant, that is the caring of each other, the building of a society where justice and love, compassion and mercy enough. Communities where shalom or wholeness was at the center, where God was at the center.
We have seen again and again how God remained faithful to the Jewish community and Paul understood that God will continue to remain faithful.
The community, the way of living that was laid out in the law and proclaimed by the prophets was expanded by Jesus the Messiah, who was not overcome by death. We journeyed through Matthew, Jesus in Matthew is always calling back to the building of and participating in the building of that just world laid out in God’s covenant law then proclaimed by the prophets.
That is the work of God’s righteousness–God nudging of the world toward justice, moving the world toward a more just world where everyone has enough, where there oppressed are set free, where the sick are visited, the hungry are fed.
God has been faithful to the nudging of righteousness, the proclaiming of righteousness, the work of righteousness. God has been faithful to God’s people, committed to our living well in abundance, shalom, peace and wholeness.
While one Martin struggled with this text, there’s another Martin who seemed to live it. Dr King said the long ark of the universe bends towards justice.
But it isn’t just God’s faithfulness but it is also ours. It is our faithfulness to God, it is then revealed in our work to bring justice, our work of righteousness–it’s the small things, the feeding, the clothing, the liberating, the setting free. We are not saved by our works, we are saved by the faithfulness of the liberating God nudging the world toward justice and who calls us to throw our shoulders into that nudging too, to bend the arc of the universe.
Rev. William Sloan Coffin who served Riverside Church in New York Spoke of Dr. King
Martin Luther King deserves a national holiday because he rescued the American people from the shallows and miseries where they had chosen to live their lives. He deserves a national holiday because more than any other public figure in this century he asserted his individuality in order to affirm community on the widest possible scale; because better than any other public figure he understood the nature of compassion, that it did not exclude confrontation It was Martin’s message that it is not enough to suffer with the poor; we must confront the people and systems that cause poverty. It was Martin’s message that you cannot set the captive free if you are not willing to confront those who hold the keys. Without confrontation compassion becomes merely commiseration, fruitless and sentimental.
The one who showed us what it is to love well this world, and to be part of the work of nudging it toward justice. It is caring for individuals, families, and communities but it is also standing up to the empires of our days and pointing out where they are not caring for the hungry, vulnerable, sick, and imprisoned. It is standing between the vulnerable and the empire and proclaiming, demanding that there is another way! A way of justice and abundance, peace and wholeness. It takes time, it is long journey, it is one that we might not see the end of, but we are traveling together, community by community, generation by generation, we do the world together.
That is the gospel of Jesus Christ, that this is the good news that was so dangerous to the powers, systems of the empire, the way that the empire has structured society doesn’t win in the light of the resurrection, doesn’t win in light of those who proclaim resurrection living, who proclaim that arc of the universe bends toward justice and we, you and me and God are part of that work of bending. We can be bold in proclaiming the good news, because we have a God who cares about us in these bodies on this plane of existence, who cares how this world functions and how it loves, how we live and care for each other, how everyone can thrive.
Langston Hughes wrote:
Freedom will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear…
Is a strong seed
Planted in a great need.
I live here too;
I want freedom
Just as you.
–Langston Hughes, “Freedom”
So may we be those who boldly proclaim the risen messiah who sets us free from the powers of this world and set us free to free each other.