Friday, July 15, 2011

A very wet Hong Kong indeed today.  I thought I would bring the posts 'Introducing Romans' to a close with the following Postscript.  The posts 'Introducing Romans' really belong together, but that would have made the post very long indeed.  Hence the need to break them up.  Anyone wishing to access it as an unbroken whole can do so clicking on the label Romans or on the following link:

Introducing Romans

Have a good weekend!

Postscript to Introducing Romans

We have noted how Paul was spending the Winter in Corinth when he wrote Romans, reflecting on his past work in the East and preparing for his future work in Rome and the West.  Before that however, he was off on what he saw as a crucial journey to Jerusalem.  The last thoughts we have from Paul before he set off on this journey were of those who caused division and opposed his teaching.  Doubtless, he was worried that they may get to Rome before him.  After all, his opponents had caused him trouble enough in the past 10 years or so.

He was also worried that he might meet opposition in Jerusalem when he arrived with the collection.  Paul was well aware that so controversial was his preaching to many Jewish-Christians that they might simply refuse to accept the gift no matter how badly they needed it.  He was right to be worried.  Acts 21 records Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem with the collection.  The day after his arrival, he goes to meet James, the brother of Jesus, and the other leaders of the Jerusalem Church.

Paul gives them a report of his ministry amongst the Gentiles.  They seem to have received it well enough, but what really mattered to them can be seen from how they reply to his report.  Luke tells us: ‘Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.  They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 21:20-21)

Their answer to this concern is for Paul to go to the Temple and demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism and the Law.  It was either a set up or a terrible miscalculation.  When Paul is recognized in the temple led instead to a riot and Paul nearly being killed.  Instead, he was arrested a riot breaks out and Paul is nearly killed.  Instead he is arrested.  We do not hear of him as a free man again.  He is imprisoned in Caesarea for two years before being sent at his own insistence for trial in Rome where we know he was also a prisoner for two years.  What happened to him after that we do not know because this is where Luke finishes his account of Paul’s ministry.

Paul had planned three journeys and had written of his desire to see the Roman Christians.  He was to make two of those journeys and did eventually get to Rome, but not in the way he had hoped.  As for the journey he had planned to Spain, we simply don’t know whether he made it there or not.  Some think that Paul was released after the imprisonment in Rome recorded at the end of Acts and went on to Spain.  Some think he was released, but didn’t make it to Spain.  Others still think that he was not released.  The truth is we will never know!

In Christian mission and ministry, we have to make plans.  God expects it of us.  Otherwise, there is a danger that we will just drift.  Churches, dioceses and provinces often have five year plans for what they will do and often these are formulated with the best will and intentions.  Just as Paul’s plans had been.

It can then be very disappointing when our plans do not work out as we either wanted or expected as frequently they do not.  Coping with disappointment can be hard.  On the occasion of my 25 years in the priesthood, I preached a sermon on some of my own disappointments.  One person who heard it declared afterward that she was disappointed in me.  Disappointment doesn’t always fit with some Christians’ world-view!

But in Romans itself Paul wrote of his sufferings and yet despite them he knew that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).  Paul had learnt through years of ministry that although God wants us to plan ahead, God is greater than our plans and has a plan of his own.  Paul was to write to the Philippians about his imprisonment:

‘I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.’  (Philippians 1:12-13)
No matter how much we may be committed to the Church and to the Gospel, God is more so.  We need in our planning and thinking not only to be open to God’s guidance, but to God overruling and changing our plans.  As the saying has it: ‘man proposes, but God disposes’.

And what is true in mission and ministry is true for us personally.  We all have our hopes and dreams.  We plan for the large and small things in our lives: for our careers, partners, and families.  We plan where we shall live and what we shall do.  We plan for our children and their schooling.  And the big plans give rise to the little plans that govern what we do each week and day.

As Christians, we need to see that our lives are in God’s hands.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan, but that we should not be so attached to our plans that we are not open to God changing them.  At times, we will find this frightening and we will be afraid.  There would be something wrong with us if we were not.  Paul believed, however, that not only did ‘all things work together for good for those who loved God’, he also believed, as he again says in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

Yes, our plans will change or even fail altogether – that is a fact of life.  For the Christian, however, there is the promise of God that, no matter how much we may be disappointed or how bad things may get, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  As Paul discovered, not only is God greater than our plans, he is greater than our failure and, no matter what, he remains firmly in control. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This post deals with the other two journeys that Paul was planning at the time of writing Romans.

2. A Journey to Spain

However, while he was reflecting on the phase of his ministry now coming to a close, Paul was also reflecting on what would happen next.  Having preached in the east of the Empire, Paul now wanted to go west and his attention turned to Spain.  He informs the Roman Christians: ‘So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain …’ (Romans 15:28 NRSV).

Why Spain?  This cannot be answered with certainty.  Paul could have gone east from Jerusalem into the Parthian Empire where we know there were Jewish communities or even as far as India.  Even if Paul wanted to stay within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, then there was the north coast of Africa, which again had established Jewish communities.  There were in other words plenty of places that Paul could have visited.  The answer probably lies in the principles Paul gives for deciding where to preach.  In Romans 15:20, he writes:  ‘Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else’s foundation …’

By this he doesn’t mean that everyone in a specific region has heard the Gospel, but that the Gospel is established there.  Spain obviously struck him as a region that had not been evangelized.  It also fitted with other ambitions.

3.  A Journey to Rome

The third journey that explains Paul’s reason for writing to the Roman Church is that Paul specifically wanted to visit the Church in Rome.  In Romans 1:11 at the start of the letter he writes of his longing to see them and tells them in 1:13 that he has often intended to come to them, but has been prevented from doing so.

The reason for Paul now wanting to go to Rome is probably two-fold:

1.  The first reason is one that is frequently commented on.  It is normally linked with Paul’s intended journey to Spain.  Paul speaks of how he intends to make this first visit to Rome on his way 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.’ (Romans 15:24)  What Paul probably means by this is that he is hoping Rome will be come a base for his mission in the west as Antioch was for his mission in the east.  Paul originally was ‘sent out’ by Antioch to preach the Gospel (Acts 13:2)  This sending out would involve the Romans in providing support in terms of money, prayer, and personnel – many of whom, as we have seen, were already known to him.

2.  All the above is undoubtedly true and important.  There may have been a second reason, however, and that is that Paul wanted to bring Rome within the orbit of his authority.  We have seen that Paul made a point of principle not to preach where Christ had already been named.  And yet, at the beginning of the letter, he tells them that he has wanted to visit them, as he puts it, ‘in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.’  (Romans 1:13)

There is an apparent contradiction here.  Paul will tell them at the end of the letter that he is going to Spain because he doesn’t want to preach Christ anywhere that Christ is named, but here at the beginning of the letter he tells them he wants to come to Rome so that he may preach the Gospel and reap a harvest among them as he has the other Gentiles.

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the fact that, as we have previously observed, the Roman Church was not established by an apostle.  Paul clearly feels that this means it ought to come under his authority as the apostle to the Gentiles.  He actually is quite explicit about this.  His Gospel, he tells them, is about Jesus Christ our Lord ‘through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ …’ (Romans 1:5-6) 

These two reasons are, in fact, closely linked.  If Paul is to be able to use Rome as a base, it is essential that Rome recognizes that he is a genuine apostle, with all the authority that implies, preaching a message that he received from God.

In Romans then he sets out his Gospel, that is what is distinctive about his Gospel as the apostle to the Gentiles and seeks to explain it to the Romans in the hope that they will feel able to embrace both it and himself as the person preaching it.  Paul was not certain that they would any more than he was that the Jerusalem Church would accept the collection.  Paul was only too aware of those who would oppose it.  Paul writes at the very end of the letter: ‘I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.  Keep away from them.’  (Romans 16:17)

Romans 16:16-20 are sometimes considered to be an afterthought to the letter, coming as they do after all the greetings in that chapter.  It is worth reminding ourselves, however, that Paul having dictated a letter to a scribe, in this case as we have seen to Tertius, then adds a greeting in his own hand to authenticate the letter (see Galatians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18).  What is more he tells the Thessalonians that this is his practice in every letter he writes.  This would suggest that 16:17-20 are verses that Paul has added in his own hand.

If this is so, and the verses are there in any case whether in Paul’s own hand or not, they suggest that Paul feels he will have the same battle for the Gospel in the years to come as he had in the years just past.  Romans lays the groundwork for what Paul hopes will be future ministry in Rome in the years ahead.

In Romans, Paul writes about the themes that he believed to be essential in his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles.  He goes into more detail and deals with the objections with more care than in any of his other letters.  He wants to be well prepared for the journeys that lie ahead.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Today I want to look at the first journey that Paul was planning at the time he wrote Romans.

1.  A Journey to Jerusalem

In the winter of 57, Paul felt that his work in the eastern part of the Roman Empire was complete.  He writes in Romans 16:19: ‘from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ.’  In 16:23, he states that there is now no role for him in these regions.  Except that is for one.

Paul has for some years been collecting money from his Gentile churches to take as a gift to the Christians in Jerusalem.  As he puts it to the Romans: ‘At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.’  (Romans 16:25-26).  Paul didn’t, however, see this simply as a charitable gesture.  For him, this was an expression of fellowship between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and a sign of unity between the two branches of the Church.

Incredible though it may seem, Paul was worried that this generous collection and ‘sign of peace’ would be rejected by the Church in Jerusalem.  He writes to the Roman Christians: ‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf, that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints …’ (Romans 16:30-31)

In these three months, it is likely that Paul was reflecting on how his ministry had gone now that this chapter had come to an end.  Inevitably, he would remember the opposition he had encountered so far, the arguments he had had and be thinking about the questions he would be asked in Jerusalem especially by those who were suspicious of him and his message.  The letter to the Romans is the outcome of this reflection.