Proper 3 · Romans 1:8-17 · May 25, 2008
By Leopoldo A. Sánchez M.
The apostle Paul had long planned to visit the brethren in Rome who had heard the Gospel from other Christian preachers (1:13). When Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, he had yet to deliver a collection to the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem before making the long-awaited trip to the west (15:25-27). Upon arriving at Rome, he had also hoped to enlist the support of the local church for a missionary trip to Spain (15:24, 28).
Well, Paul did make it to Rome after his Jerusalem trip, though in chains (cf. Ac 21:30-33). As far as we can gather from both the silence and hints of Scripture, as well as church tradition here and there, it does not seem that the apostle made it to Spain. Rome might have been his place of martyrdom (cf. 2 Ti 1:16-17; 4:6-8).
One of the most moving scenes of the movie Peter and Paul is one where the apostle is in chains and being escorted by Roman soldiers into Rome. As Paul approaches the outskirts of the city, great numbers of Christians appear from behind the bushes to greet with joy their spiritual father, their brother, their apostle (cf. Ac 28:14-16). With some difficulty, an exhausted Paul—chains and all—takes courage, smiles, and hugs old and young alike.
The text for today bears evidence that such a deep bond of love between Paul and his Roman brethren developed over time. The apostle gives thanks for them, praises their faith, remembers them in his prayers, asks God to bring him to them for mutual encouragement in the faith, and longs for the opportunity to preach the Gospel to them (1:8-15).
The apostle’s heart beats for the Romans. To them Paul writes one of the most comprehensive and beloved epistles in the Christian world for all time. The last verses of the assigned text set up the tone for the whole epistle and expose the heart of the Gospel that Paul has been called to preach to Jews and Gentiles (1:13-16). Although the wrath of God is indeed revealed against sin (1:18), the apostle Paul is much more eager to preach the power of the Gospel “for the salvation of everyone who believes” (1:16). And what does this Gospel reveal to us? The righteousness of God through faith in Christ (1:17)—the heart of the epistle, indeed of the Gospel!
In the broader context of Romans, Lutherans can proclaim God’s word of Law against us but especially God’s word of Gospel^r us. However, may I also suggest that the preacher take the opportunity to take the congregation on a journey into the heart of Paul, into the depth of his love for the church. Paul’s intense love for the church clearly flows out of his love for Christ and the power of His Gospel for which he was appointed an apostle, put in chains, and ultimately died. Lesson: One cannot love the church enough.
Because the church in the world is always suffering the attacks of Satan (tentatio, Anfechtung), and at times giving in to the evil one and the flesh, the church often becomes a scandal to the world and her “less than perfect” life discredits her witness in word and deed before all men. Well aware of their sins, Christians today can also take heart in the Gospel and learn again and again to love the church as Paul’s heart beats for the Roman brethren—yea, as Christ Himself loves the church to the point of giving His own life to save sinners like us.
The assigned text gives us a picture of what it means to love the church. We love the church when we give thanks to God for our brothers and sisters near and far, praise their faith in Christ, remember them at all times in our prayers, encourage one another in our faith, and are eager to speak and hear the Gospel of salvation in Christ from one another in season and out of season. Why not? We can even long to visit Christian brothers and sisters near and far whenever possible. This is now easier to do than in Paul’s day due to the shortening of distances through fast travel and communications.
The text functions as an invitation to be church, to live out the Gospel with one another, as Paul loved the Romans. For Paul, this self-giving love for thechurch—in his case, to the point of martyrdom—flows out of God’s own gracious revelation in His Gospel that sinners are forgiven and declared righteous before Him through faith in Christ. Lesson: God does not love the church because she is beautiful. The church is beautiful because God loves her. We love and suffer for the church for the same reason.