We have a wonderful Bible Study going this year on Wednesday nights. It’s an open study and we encourage everyone to drop in, even if it’s only for one session. You don’t need any preparation. The first book we studied this year was Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Romans is the foundational text of Christian theology. You might say that Paul outlined the Christian Religion in this short letter.
What is the Letter to the Romans and why did Paul write the letter?
Paul had not yet been to Rome. He first intended to sail from Corinth back east to Jerusalem with a collection for the poor Jewish Christians, and then visit with the Roman Church on his missionary way to Spain. Paul never made it to Spain. He was arrested when he returned to Jerusalem, as he feared he would be, and when he finally did arrive in Rome, it was as a Roman prisoner - and later a martyr.
The early Church had a problem. The Jerusalem Apostles were led by Peter, James and John. The Jerusalem Apostles were not interested in starting a new religion. Their mission was to wake Jews up to the Good News that the Jewish Messiah had come. While Peter, James and John were open to welcoming gentile pagans into Christianity, their view of this new Christianity was “Judaism Plus”. They required pagan converts be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law, including the dietary laws. Adult circumcision and eating kosher were a barrier to conversion, you might say.
Jesus witnessed and ministered to the Jews, to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This was natural because Jesus was teaching and explaining the true meaning of Judaism and the Jewish Law. But Jesus “opened” the way for the gentiles and even worked miracles for gentiles who exhibited faith. As scripture says, “All the ends of the Earth shall see the salvation of God.”
Judaism had traditionally been exclusionary and a difficult religion to follow. Jews to this day do not evangelize conversion to Judaism. But Paul was commissioned by the risen Christ to go specifically to the Gentiles. Paul's eyes were opened by Jesus, and Paul now taught, in this Letter to the Romans, that faith, not Law was required. Paul taught that the Jewish Law and traditional practices and outward signs were never meant to save and could not possibly save. The Law was designed to bring consciousness of sin, awareness of the futility of trying to keep the entire Law. Faith in God and Transformation are the saving grace.
The early Church was split on this issue. The new Christians had many antagonists. Rome looked at them as heretics and atheists, rejecting the divinity of the Emperor and Roman gods. The leaders of Judaism, many Pharisees and Sadducees and rabbinic schools resisted the messianic claims of Christianity. Christianity challenged traditional Jewish beliefs and practices.
But the third enemy was the most threatening. The third enemy was the dissension and schisms that developed within the Christian Church. Yes, even then. The Christian Church was split between powerful factions. Peter and James and John and the other Jerusalem Apostles wanted no gentiles unless they were circumcised and followed all Jewish practices, traditions, holidays and dietary laws. Paul demanded the traditional practices be set aside. Paul declared the requirements of the Jewish Law were completely fulfilled in the requirement of Love. Many were not sure.
This argument is the source of heat and light in most of the Epistles of the New Testament. The argument is finally won in Paul’s brilliant letter to the Roman Church. The sophistication of Paul's argument, the clarity in this letter to the Romans, ultimately carried the day and defined the direction of the Christian Church. In this letter, Paul lays down the foundations of Christian Theology. That's the background of this letter. Now I will try to give you a little summary of this lucid, powerful Letter this morning.
What is the message of the letter?
Another way to think about Chapters 1 through 8, is this first section corresponds to the Old Testament. Paul recounts Genesis and the creation and fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, when we chose the tree of reason over the tree of faith. Paul describes sin as a consequence of unbelief, of lack of faith. Paul tells of Abraham's dramatic turn to faith, and finally the receiving of the Law. Paul explains the meaning and purpose of the Old Testament Law is to makes us conscious of sin. And he concludes our human inability to follow the Law makes the Law futile as a means of salvation. Paul shows the futility of the Law leads to the necessity of faith and the forgiving grace of God, grace which has been evident to all mankind from the beginning of time.
The second major section Chapters 9, 10 and 11, is the pivot point of the letter, and the pivot point of the New Testament. Here, Paul explains the role of Judaism, how Christians should relate to Jews, and that Jews will be a key component in the final salvation and redemption of the world.
These brief Chapters, 9, 10 and 11, correspond to the Gospel accounts explaining the family tree and birth of Jesus. Paul explains that God has dimmed the eyes of most Jews in order that the oracles and word of God can go out now to the gentiles. The unbelief of most Jews is necessary and the means by which salvation comes to the non-Jews. When will Jesus return? When the Christian Church is and behaves in such a Christian way that the Jews will be envious, and will want the same thing the Christians have, and will thus have their eyes opened to Christ. This, Paul says, will mark the Salvation of the World.
Now, with Chapter 12 comes the culmination of the Letter to the Romans. Paul explains what it means to be a Christian. In this third major section, Chapters 12 through 15, Paul explains the transforming power of Christianity and powerfully exhorts the hearer to not just hear it, but do it. This third section corresponds to the Beatitudes, Jesus' Parables and the Letters. Chapters 12 through 15 is the summation of what this new Christian religion is and what you and I must do to be a Christian. I can't summarize this better than Paul himself, so here is Paul on Christianity on one page.
"Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord.
As promised, just a brief overview. The reason it's taken the Bible Study weeks to go through this marvelous letter is the depth of teaching in it. I hope you will spend some time with this letter as you turn to the Bible.
The third thing I wanted to do in our brief time today is address:
I think this is the core of Paul's message. What does Paul mean by Transformation? In Chapter 6 of Romans, Paul urges us to put off the "Old Man" of sin, that the end of sin is death. And in Ephesians, Paul urges us to put on the "New Man" which is the likeness of God. Paul harked back to Genesis and spoke of the nature of sin, of disobedience to God, of fallen human nature and faith. Only through our faith in God and the help of Jesus can we, as Paul urges, ...no longer conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind. This is Paul's "New Man". Paul teaches that becoming fully human is not a matter of laws, of rules and behavior. It is a complete transformation of our minds, our direction, our attitude to the world. It is a denial of self, a rebirth as something different. The New Man.
When Jesus and Paul tell us “Wake up!” they are telling us it is time to stop being just animals with a lot of knowledge, sinful “smart animals”. This is what the "Old Man" is. God intends for humans to become the "New Man." Another way of looking at Transformation is to think of it as "Evolution" of the mind and soul. Not the physical evolution tracked by fossils, but the spiritual evolution of humankind.
Along with physical evolution which we can track by teeth or bones or cranium measurements, we know there's been mental evolution as we developed the capacity to think abstractly, communicate, even write. This mental evolution is harder to track than bones. Harder yet to track is the development of our souls as we evolve from Homo Sapiens to Homo Divinus. We don't have a ruler or CAT scan or MRI to measure that. Yet Paul describes that evolution, that transformation in his Letter to the Romans and urges us to press forward.
As Paul teaches in Romans, this is the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past. Jesus is the Way. Jesus is the way you and I become transformed as the next evolution of species, Homo Divinus. Paul urges us to be transformed into the New Man.
Faith in Jesus and following Jesus is the Way we and our children's children become the new man and woman.