Read the passage here.
Our passage today is from Paul’s letter to the Romans; the third time we’ve visited Romans during this Advent season. I don’t know how familiar everyone is with the book of Romans, though most of us know that it’s considered the most comprehensive treatment of the apostle Paul’s theology. In particular, Romans deals with Paul’s discussion on justification by faith. That is, Paul demonstrates that salvation comes through faith in God’s grace alone. It is not by being part of the nation of Israel; it’s not by following the law, but purely through Jesus Christ alone. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. And it is God’s grace alone, completed in the life and death of Jesus Christ, that brings us to salvation.
Now there are a number of related topics or themes that are tied into Paul’s argument, one of those being the mission to the Gentiles – or, how God’s saving work is not just for ethnic Israel, but is meant to encompass all of creation. And this, in particular, touches upon our passage today.
Our passage is the salutation – the greeting – to the epistle to the Romans. But although it contains the usual elements of Paul’s greetings, it’s also more packed than usual.
Part of the reason that it’s so long may be that it appears that Paul was not involved in the formation of the church in Rome. So, he includes a sort of extra-long introduction. And in commending himself to the church in Rome, he establishes himself – as he frequently does – as an apostle.
Now apostle is an interesting word because it functions in a couple of different ways in the New Testament. Firstly, it functions as a title to designate a particular title or position in the church. Apostles were those specifically called and then sent out by Jesus Christ. Presumably, this meant that they had some sort of personal (i.e. face to face) relationship with Jesus Christ.
The second meaning is the root of the first and it means something along the lines of “messenger, or “one sent out.” And as the church, as a whole, is called and sent out to be witnesses, that is messengers, to the world of the gospel, there is a sense in which all Christians are called to apostleship.
Now we can see what may be both of the two uses of the term in our passage here. In verse 1, we see Paul using the term, probably (though not definitively) to refer to his position in the church, and hence his authority to address the church in Rome.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—Romans 1:1
In verse 5, we see what might be the more general sense of the term.
5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.Romans 1:5
Now there are some corners of the Christian church that have conflated the two meanings of the term, “apostle,” and (I believe) therefore confused it. I don’t want to get in to that here. I simply want to point out that, while Paul was called to the office of apostle, the calling and mission to share the gospel is that of the whole church.
Now I hope that wasn’t too much of a digression. But inasmuch as we’re talking about the office that Paul is claiming – that of apostleship, by which authority he addresses the Roman church – I want us to pay attention to how he grounds that office. And simply put, he grounds it in the gospel.
And as we remember, “gospel” is “the good news.” And the good news is the culmination of the story of which Israel has been a part since its inception in Abraham. The good news is the climax and the resolution of the conflict through which Israel has been living. It’s the fulfillment of the promise of which the prophets spoke, and to which David, the great king of Israel, pointed. Quite simply, for Paul, the gospel, the good news, is Jesus Christ himself.
Now I suppose this is obvious to all of us. But I point it out because I want to make this distinction between Jesus-Christ-as-good-news and the many things that we tend to mistake for the good news.
For some of us, the gospel is actually the church. That is, for some people, the goal is to become a particular kind of institution or entity that does things a certain way and accomplishes certain goals. So we spend our time and energy concerned about structures and programs and “mobilizing resources” (because what are people if they are not resources?).
I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with being concerned about any of those things. The trap is thinking that any of those things constitutes what it means to be redeemed. That building a certain kind of organization or designating a certain kind of membership is the goal. The trap is thinking that if we just figure out the right formula and the right combination and organization of parts, then we will have this whole “Christian life thing” sorted out.
For some of us, the gospel is our doctrine. And here I’m using the term “doctrine” as a loose, short-hand for how we think about and how we talk about what we believe. Here, what I mean is when we think that if we can just figure out the right series of propositions, if we just use the right terminology, if we can just boil everything down into “the five things that every sinner needs to know,” then we will have this whole Christian life thing sorted out.
Again, doctrine is important. It’s important to think about what we believe and why we believe it. And it’s important to know that being the people of God is about being the people of GOD. And if there is an actual God, and He wants us to know Him, then it’s important that it’s actually Him that we know, and not some other god, the one we make up in our heads. The trap is thinking that the gospel amounts to just thinking or believing the right things in the right way.
For some of us, the gospel is getting to heaven. Everything that we Christians do, everything we believe, everything we endure is simply about getting to heaven. And the more people we can get into heaven, the more assured we are that we too will get in to heaven. And so we’ll argue, bribe, confuse, entertain, and threaten people because if it’s ultimately a matter of heaven or hell (our eternal landing point), then wouldn’t you rather be in heaven?
And of course we would. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need to be aware that there are eternal consequences to the life we live, the choices we make, here on earth. But the trap is thinking that Christianity is just a mechanism that we use to get a final reward. The trap is thinking that Jesus is just a means to an end.
There are plenty of other examples that we could mention here, and I’m sure there’s many you can think of. I tried to limit my thinking on this to things that are kind of related to what Paul is talking about in Romans. My point is simply that oftentimes we actually put our faith in other things. Sometimes we put our trust and our hope in things other than the actual gospel to get us the things that we think we deserve or want.
And I think that’s what Paul is pointing to here. He is called to be an apostle of the gospel, an apostle for the gospel. He is sent out, called to be a messenger, to preach the gospel. And that gospel isn’t any of those things that we can get trapped into. The gospel is Jesus. The gospel is the person of Jesus, the work completed in Jesus, the promise fulfilled in Jesus.
There are all kinds of ways that we think about what the good news actually is. There are all kinds of ways we try to take hold of the promise; there are all kinds of ways that we try to make right that which has gone wrong. But if we take our eyes off of Jesus, we are missing the point.
So that’s a kind of lengthy reflection on Paul’s calling to apostleship. His apostleship is rooted in the gospel, and that gospel is Jesus Christ.
The other piece of Paul’s introduction that I want to reflect on is how it emphasizes the ministry to the Gentiles. This is a point that we’ve already made in our previous Advent reflection during the second Sunday of Advent when we looked at Romans 15. I include a portion here, just for reference:
7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.”
10 Again, it says,
“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles;
let all the peoples extol him.” …Romans 15:7-11
And what we’ve seen is Paul’s determination to demonstrate that God’s purposes are not limited to a particular ethnic group, national identity, or religious institution. Rather, God’s intention is to bring all creation to redemption, all peoples under Himself through Jesus Christ. The good news is for the whole world.
So those are my reflections on the passage for this fourth Sunday of Advent season. And once again, I want to ask the question, “What does that have to do with Advent? What does it have to do with Christmas?”
At the risk of being repetitive, Christmas is not the celebration of a birthday; it’s the celebration of the arrival of the Messiah. It’s the celebration of the fulfillment of promise. We celebrate, not because (just) Jesus was born, but because Jesus saves.
The thing to remember at Christmas, I suppose, is that this is good news for the world. At Christmas, so the motto goes, we are supposed to think about “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” And generally speaking, I think people do a reasonably good job of this. We tend to be kinder, we tend to be friendlier, we tend to be happier at Christmas time. (Obviously there are exceptions – Christmas (and Boxing Day) shopping can hardly be said to be peaceful. And for many people, Christmas is a time of loneliness, depression, or anxiety). But for the most part, we do recognize a kind of generalized benevolence at Christmas.
However, what Jesus is bringing, what Jesus is doing, is not about instilling a general sense of well-being at a particular time of year. He has established, and He is bringing, His kingdom. And we are people of that kingdom. But the kingdom only has meaning because there is a king.
A king has come who establishes the peace on earth and goodwill toward all human beings. A king has come who establishes justice, righteousness, and holiness. A king has come who loves the poor, the needy, the downtrodden. A king has come who restores us to who we were made to be.
The king has come, and the king is coming again.
So this Christmas, which is only a couple of days way and will pass all too quickly, let us remember why we celebrate. In the midst of our Christmas turkey, and gift exchanges, and time with family and friends, let us remember the king who has come to give us life. In the midst of our celebrations, let us remember the God who came and the God who is here. And let us remember that we who have been given life are called to point the way to that life for others.