This is the text to my sermon from last Sunday (Check out the audio here!). Feel free to read it, comment on it, tell me what you like about it/what you think I got wrong/what makes you uncomfortable/etc. I’ll be preaching throughout lent, and I’ll try to do this every week. I appreciate your feedback!
“The Good News”
It seemed fitting, in an odd sort of way, that this week, when I was beginning a sermon series on the Epistle to the Romans, the Pope would resign for the first time in almost 600 years. Why does this have anything to do with Rome? Because the Pope is also known by the name “The Bishop of Rome.” At some point in time in Christian history, Rome becomes the center of the faith. It becomes where the Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church presides, and it becomes where councils are called for, and eventually it becomes shorthand for the head of the Roman Church.
Let’s be clear: This is not the Rome Paul is writing too. Christianity, at the time Paul starts writing, barely exists. It’s been at the most 30 years since Jesus was resurrected, and at this point if Rome knows these Christ followers exists, they don’t like them.
We’re going to enter, in this series, the world of a Roman Empire that is flourishing, but as we’ll see in Paul’s letter, it’s not necessarily good for everyone.
And so we begin with something we’ve all heard, or have spoken of, or thought of, or a few of us at times have preached, The Gospel, however we understand that. This morning, we’re going to hear it prominently in Paul’s letter to the Romans, but before we listen to the words, I want to unpack something for us all, something I received through sleeping through an 8am Greek class at Vanderbilt Divinity school (a bad idea). The word, in Greek, for “the Gospel” is eu engelion (Mark begins Arke tou euangeliou iesou christou- the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ)
And so The Gospel has become a Genre, and it’s become a shorthand for the overall work of Jesus Christ on earth, the life and death and resurrection. And today, in our reading, we’ll hear Paul say it again, we’ll hear it as central to what this letter, and this series is about.
But before we listen, this will be the first Greek lesson for many of you. Another translation for euangelion is just simply “The Good News.”
Listen now to Paul’s introduction to the church in Romans:
1Paul, a servant* of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel/good news of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel/good news concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit* of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul begins all of his letters with an introduction, and he almost always gives away what he’s writing about.
In Corinthians, Paul addresses the letter to the saints in the church, and uses the word sanctification…and the letters largely about morality, and the day to day functions of community life. In Phillipians Paul skips the introduction, and goes right into a celebration of the community, telling them how great they are….and the letter ends up being a celebration of the church. In Galatians, there’s almost no introduction at all, and instead Paul skips right to scolding the church for listening to people they shouldn’t listen too. He is literally short with them, both in his introduction and in his temperament.
And so, in Romans, we immediately get that this letter is going to be about the gospel, the good news, but in a very particular way. Why, after all, is Paul writing this letter, the one about the good news, to the center of the Roman Empire? This isn’t even his church. Unlike his other letters, written to churches he helped establish, he’s never even met the Church in Rome. Why is he writing this letter to them?
This probably isn’t surprising, but Rome offers members of its empire, its citizens certain privileges, the city comes with certain power. One could say there is a message of good news within the Roman Empire, a message of Good News for those who find themselves in favor with the empire.
Paul, it seems, has figured out something, probably on that road to Damascus, when he met the risen Christ, who appeared to him and left him blind. Paul, after that encounter, knows something about the Good News that Rome doesn’t know. And this is key to Paul’s message.
For Paul to speak to us, we’re going to have to accept that in our world there are competing understandings of the Good News. Maybe not even just in the world, but in church too.
In the book Beloved, Toni Morrison tells of how a group of former slaves begin to relive terrible events from their history of enslavement on a plantation.
One of the events, in the clip we’re about to watch, comes from the memory of the narrator, of slaves, born into terrible conditions, celebrating the Good News, which tells them nothing less than they are children of God.
What are the competing views here? There are slave owners, who continually appealed to the bible to justify slavery. They point to Old Testament archetypes, of people owning slaves. They look to Paul and the passages about slaves submitting to their masters. Years after the end of slavery, Howard Thurman would write that his grandmother, who had been a slave, wouldn’t let her grandson read the Pauline epistles. They had been used in such horrific ways that she decided that the majority of the New Testament no longer spoke truth for her and her family.
This was the Good News of plantation owners.
In this scene from Beloved, we see a different view of the Good News. It’s subversive. The owners probably wouldn’t want their slaves to be meeting like this, not be worshiping, not preaching this message and not this “good news.” But they know that the good news is not what they’ve been taught by the masters. They have encountered the risen Christ, they have read the scripture, and have seen how Jesus walks with those who suffer. They know something the masters don’t know about the good news.
They, like Paul, know something that those in power don’t know about the good news. And it’s central to Paul’s message to the Romans, and it’s central to the story of Christianity. What is it?
Paul has discovered that the good news of Jesus Christ, who has received power through the holy spirit, who is descendent of David, who was foretold by the prophets, who has been declared the son of God; the Good News of the Savior Paul encountered on the Road to Damascus, unlike the Good News of Rome, is Good News for Everyone.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is Good News for everyone. And if the Good News you preach is not Good News for everyone, it’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul, living in the Roman Empire, living as a Pharisee, as a powerful religious figure, riding his donkey to enforce the Good News of freedom for some, gets knocked to the ground, and when he gets up, after meeting the risen Christ, realizes that the good news of power, the good news of privilege, the good news of preference for some preached by those in the favor of the Roman Empire is not the Good News of Jesus Christ.
What Paul knows that the Empire doesn’t know is that the Good News of Jesus Christ is Good News for everyone.
And so, Paul writes this letter, his longest, to a congregation he’s never met, one which he didn’t establish, because he realizes that if the Good News of Jesus Christ, if the Gospel is going to accomplish what it was meant to accomplish, then it has to be set up against the so-called good news of Rome. It has to challenge all of the claims on the Gospel in the world that are for some at the expense of many.
And in Romans, as we’ll hear over the next few weeks, Paul sets out to explain this Good News, to link it to the story of the Torah and the prophets, and to encourage the church in Rome to become a different kind of community.
As a church, when we read Romans, we’re faced with this continual task: to seek out and proclaim the gospel for all people. It calls us into different kinds of relationships in this place, based on compassion, and love, and respect. No matter where you’ve come from, you should be welcome here. We’ll hear in Romans, as well as in other parts of Paul’s letters, continual calls for living together in community, many times in a way that bridges the gap between different groups.
In our Thursday morning bible study, we’ve been reading Paul for Everyone, by NT Wright. In it, he describes the Roman community as being “down by the River.” He explains that this means that the church was most likely being hosted by folks who were not the most represented in society. But, he notes, most likely the congregation was diverse in many ways, including status. Meaning that there would have probably been poor people and rich people, citizens and non-citizens, Jews and Gentiles. All gathering in the bad part of town. Gathering in the houses of some of the underrepresented.
Paul, in organizing these churches to preach a Good News that’s for everyone, is calling his churches to get out of their comfort zone, and go to those places where the Gospel of the World, where the good news of the empire tells people they don’t matter. More than that, he’s calling for relationships to be formed across the lines the world has drawn. The poor should dine with the rich, and the gentiles should dine with the Jews. Paul see’s, in the gospel, the call to create a community that bridges the gap that the empire thrives on. And through that community, break down the barriers that separate people.
This, it seems, is the good news. It calls all of us to live different lives in this community, to practice love and respect and forgiveness and grace. To live differently in this place. But it also calls us to go out and live amongst those who are different than use. It calls us into community with those who do not have a voice. And it calls us to live out compassionately in the world, especially when the world says compassion does not belong.
It’s fitting that this week happens to be the beginning of the Week of Compassion. For those of you who don’t know, Week of Compassion is the organization that handles disaster relief for Disciples. Basically, an offering is taken this week, and then again next week, and given to Week of Compassion. They then use that money to respond to natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti and the tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri.
They, in part, try to live out the Good News on behalf of the Disciples of Christ congregations. And we strongly urge you all to give to their work.
But if we are going to take Paul at his work, if we are going to heed his call to establish the good news for everyone, we’re going to have to go out into our world and find those places where the good news isn’t for everyone. Places where people are hungry, where people are naked, where people lack a voice in this world.
How do we respond to this Good News? Like those in beloved, that knew Jesus walked with them because they lived in suffering, we, as a church, are called to live in the world as those called to walk with the must vulnerable in our world. We are called to establish our church as a beacon for Good News for everyone everywhere. To live our lives of faith in relationship with those who do not enjoy the privileges of our world.