The Power of the Gospel

Sunday, May 7, 2023
Deacon Stephanie Anderson

Romans 1:1-17

Grace and peace to you from our God who crosses all divides and promises to be right here among us today. Amen

Today we begin our month-long dive into the book of Romans. This is a letter – sometimes called an “epistle” – written by the Apostle Paul. It was written about 20 years after Jesus crucifixion and resurrection and was meant for believers in Christ who lived in the capital of Rome. Paul was writing as a missionary, sent out to preach the gospel of Jesus to the world. Paul’s teachings in this letter have helped our ancestors in the faith for millennia now, to discern what Christ’s resurrection actually means in our day-to-day lives.

Let me tell you, Augustana, if you ever wonder if scripture has anything to say to you in this very moment – if you wonder if scripture might be outdated or irrelevant for our lives – let me take you on a journey through just these first 17 verses of Romans to see if anything resonates with us today.

What we have before us is really just the introduction to the rest of the letter; Paul is introducing himself and offering a salutation and we already glimpse some of the context into which he is writing – what the Christ followers in Rome were experiencing when this letter showed up at their door.

Just a few years prior to this letter being sent, the Emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome, which included Jewish Christians (remember, Christian was only loosely a concept at this point, these were Jewish people who believed in Christ). They had been exiled and forced to leave their churches, which most of them did. But when that Emperor died and they returned back to their church, they found that the church was different and – specifically – now filled with and led by Gentile Christians (and they weren’t so sure about it).

The last few years of their lives had brought disruption to their traditional, familiar, hard-earned experience of church. The reality of their world meant that they had to leave their church (and their familiar experience of it) for a while and now they were back and it didn’t feel the same. They found newness woven into their tenants of faith in a way that was interesting, but also uncomfortable and honestly probably pretty off-putting to them. They had built these churches from the ground up and in many cases really sacrificed to do so and now what? Had they been replaced? Would their traditions or customs that had anchored their experience of church be held with reverence?

At the same time, those Gentile Christians who had been tending to the faith and the church in ways that were new and contextual weren’t so sure that the holders of the tradition wanted them there. They had found refuge in the church and they had come in and assumed some ownership and leadership. They were beginning to imagine anew how God was calling them to be faithful in the world. They had brought in some of their own experiences and freshness to the expressions of the church and believed that the ways the church operated would have to change in order to be relevant to the world and invite people into this gospel message.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I imagine that some of you find yourself in a moment where – thanks to the upheaval of these past few years – you have been removed from your community of faith for a handful of years here, or at least removed from an experience of church that had always been familiar to you. The world in so many ways seems so different than before; so many of us are coming back to a place that we love, but things don’t look the same.

I imagine some of you look up here at your leadership: me and at Pastor Jason at Andy! And while of course so many of you have expressed excitement at sort of young energy being brought in, it is, of course, normal for you to be a little freaked out about what exactly that newness or young energy might mean to the place or the tradition that you’ve always known. I imagine you might have some feelings that would be familiar to the folks receiving our letter today. But we built this place. This has always been our home. The people in my life sacrificed for this place, for this faith, for these traditions, and I love them and I love what has been.

Hear me loud and clear: your leaders care about that, too.

I then, there are those of you who are waiting for the church to change. You who wonder if the traditions and the history and the stories of this place (or of the church at large) or really there to hold you as your whole self. Whether the church is an institution, and if her people inside, really want to celebrate the fullest version of you. You might wonder if you are loved in spite of who you are and not because of it, and you’re not quite sure if your whole self is really welcome because it looks different than what has been in the past. Your expression of faith; the ways that you or your family live into your Christian identity; the social stances that you have been led to by your very Lutheran, very faithful upbringing; aren’t always explicitly celebrated within the walls of the church and so you wonder whether the change that you feel so desperately needs to happen can really come to be.

Hear me loud and clear: your leaders care about that, too.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Dear people of God, we are not the first believers to find ourselves in a moment in the church where differences undergird our experiences and expressions of faith.

We are not the first to be gathered together in community, feeling both the joy and the tension of the generations.

So, what does this letter have to teach us, just as it taught the early church?

Well, as we’ll explore in these coming weeks, the Apostle Paul spoke into this moment with empathy and assurance; he kept the main thing, the main thing.

And what I mean by that is that Paul wrote to both simplify and expand their understanding of Christ’s resurrection and God’s action of salvation in our lives.

He shared with them the gospel of Jesus – which, by the way, was a familiar term to their ears! Gospel was touted as a militaristic term; there was the gospel of Caesar, the gospel of empire, the gospel/good news was a promise from the world for wealth and power and authority, but Paul points to God and says, “This gospel is the one in which we put our trust. This gospel is a gift from God.”

We hear him quote the Hebrew scriptures – the promise found in Isaiah and his focus on Jesus’ descendance from David; this would have spoken right into the hearts of Jewish Christ believers this is a gospel for Jewish Christ followers, yes! And, the gospel equalizes, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (10:12). Paul expands their understanding to include Gentiles; to include all people. This good news goes beyond any human boundary we’ve created or imagined.

And thanks be to God, because every one of us in this room is a Gentile; an inheritor of this faith far outside of the borders and boundaries the world could have imagined in first century Palestine or first century Rome. As we consider what the promise of Easter means for our actual lives; as we wonder how the gospel – the Good News – of Christ actually transforms a world through God’s action of redemption, that’s the Good News. That it isn’t us and our actions or righteousness or works that make things right, it’s God. It’s God who has acted – and who continues to act – to justify, to heal, to reconcile the world that God so loves. And that gospel message is wide enough for all of it; for all of us.

Thanks be to God.

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