“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God… To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today I begin a series of sermons on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. If we think of reading Romans in terms of hiking a mountain, there is no higher pinnacle than last week’s text from chapter 8:
“I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”
It took Paul 7 chapters to reach the summit of the mountain; a point so high that his audience could see the love of God reaching all the way back to Eden’s ruin and all the way forward to the restoration of all creation in the coming Kingdom of God. Who are the children of God? How is a person to become a child of God? How does one become righteous in the sight of God? In our day, because of the evangelical emphasis on personal salvation these questions may appear essentially individualist. But for Paul the answers to these questions were not understood to end with my individual salvation. Paul saw clearly that our salvation, our righteous, our being God’s offspring, was not merely for ourselves, but rather for all creation and all creation hangs on that hope.
But this morning I want to begin with St. Paul’s story and in particular his story as it relates to the Christians to whom he wrote the Epistle to the Romans. St. Paul became a Christian after his conversion on the Damascus Road somewhere between the years 33 and 36, which puts his baptism within 3 years of the Resurrection of Christ. Ananias, a Damascene and apparently a Christian priest, baptized Paul and also provided some initial instruction in the Christian way. Apparently Paul without much ado began preaching Jesus in the synagogues of Damascus:
“And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ And all who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”
He probably stayed with Ananias for only a short while before he learned that the Jews had hatched a plot to assassinate him. He slipped out of Damascus at night and made his way to Jerusalem where he tried to contact other Christians. But the disciples in Jerusalem avoided him because they knew him only as the one who had persecuted them – they had not heard that he had been baptized. Paul was stuck with no where to turn until Barnabas, the cousin of St. Mark, took him in and introduced him to the Apostles and explained to them that he had actually seen the Lord on the road to Damascus and that he had been baptized by the respected Ananias. The Church gave thanks that their once fierce enemy had become a brother and keen follower of Jesus Christ. Paul then started preaching Jesus in Jerusalem until the Apostles learned of a plot to kill him and for as second time he slipped away with the help of the Church who decided that it was in his best interest to return to Tarsus his home town.
Now while all this was going on in Paul’s life, Christians were scattering as far as Antioch because of the persecution that arose in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen. So far only Jews had become followers of Jesus in significant numbers, but in Antioch non-Jews, mainly Greeks began converting and seeking baptism and instruction. When the Church in Jerusalem heard that news, they sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate and to make an assessment. Once he arrived in Antioch and saw that both Jews and Greeks were coming to Jesus in large numbers, he traveled to Tarsus himself, found Paul and persuaded him to come back to Antioch. There they began meeting with the Church, organizing, teaching, celebrating the sacraments and generally leading them into the way of Christ.
It isn’t all that easy to say exactly when, but somewhere along the line Paul traveled back to Jerusalem with an offering for the poor Christians of the city and he met James who had become the head of the Jerusalem church. During that same visit he stayed in Peter’s home as his guest for 15 days and at the end of that time he and Barnabas returned to Antioch as a sort of missionary team with the blessing of the first generation Church.
Now considerable time passed and the Church was at peace as Paul and Barnabas preached the Gospel and planted churches – and then something happened: some preachers from Jerusalem, without Paul’s or Barnabas’ knowledge or consent, began teaching in the churches they had planted that Paul was not giving them the whole truth. Those preachers from Jerusalem said that Paul had been holding back and specifically what he had been holding back was that Christians had to become Jews in order to really be Christians. One had to be circumcised, one had to keep the Sabbath and one had to follow the dietary Laws of Moses or else one was not really following Christ. That led to the Jerusalem Conference where Paul argued that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, keep the dietary Laws and the Sabbath – essentially to become Jewish, in order to be real Christians. He was opposed by Pharisees who had become followers of Christ and who aligned themselves with James; but Paul’s argument won out and in so many words the Apostles declares that Gentiles did not have to first become Jews in order to be real Christians. (Of course, you all know the Pharisaical party in the Church continued to hound Paul and his little mission parishes for the rest of his life.) But the first generation Apostles in Jerusalem, those who had been closest to Jesus in his ministry and who were witnesses to his resurrection were so supportive of Paul’s and Barnabas’ work among Gentiles that they appointed two of their own prophets to assist them in and around Antioch. All of that happened in the autumn of 49. At this point it had been around 14 years since Paul was baptized in Damascus.
The year 49 is important for other reasons as well. That was the year that Claudius the Emperor expelled the Jews from the city of Rome because of unrest in the synagogues over the followers of Christ. As a result of that event St. Paul met and developed a relationship with a man and his wife who would prove to be his most loyal and effective supporters and leaders in building the Gentile church, namely Priscilla and Aquila:
“And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade…” Acts 18:2-3
Priscilla and Aquila were not merely tentmakers; they were skilled manufactures and business people who started what we might think of as a business franchise from Rome. They were also among the initial teachers of Christian theology and when Paul met them in Corinth they were already committed Christians who had left a house church behind in Rome. Paul lived with them for around 18 months as he founded and grew the Church in Corinth. In fact that Corinthian parish met in their house. For the next four or five years Paul moved around planting more churches and Priscilla and Aquila traveled with him assisting him by financing the missions (they were very wealthy), organizing the parishes and teaching the doctrines of the Church to the newly converted Gentiles. Then in the year 54 Claudius died and the edict against Jews living in Rome went by the wayside. For five years St. Paul and Priscilla and Aquila had grown a deep and trusting friendship and reliance upon one another in growing the Church of God and bringing the love and liberty of Christ to the world. Somewhere between years of 55 and 57 St. Paul was back in Corinth living as a guest in the home of the city treasurer, a man named Gaius who, like Priscilla and Aquila, also opened up his home to Church of Corinth as their house church. While staying with Gaius, St. Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans. In the last chapter of that great text he greets several Christians living in Rome by name and this is when we learn that his friends Priscilla and Aquila had returned to Rome and taken up new responsibilities for organizing and teaching the Gentile Christians living there. I don’t think there is anyone else in Paul’s life that he covers with such glory:
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house.” Romans 16: 3-5
After sending the epistle on to Rome, Paul made one more trip back to Jerusalem for the specific purpose of delivering another offering for the relief of the poor from the Gentile churches that Paul had planted. This was imperative to Paul in order to demonstrate and cement the loyalty of the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem church. While he was in Jerusalem the Jews identified him and tried to kill him again. He was rescued by the Roman officials and then passed off from one Roman jurisdiction to another and making each one an opportunity to preach the Gospel of Christ. At the end of it all Paul appealed his case to Caesar and that set the Roman bureaucracy in motion. In 60 AD Paul and a detachment of Roman Soldiers arrived at a spot 40 miles south of Rome call The Three Taverns where a delegation of Roman Christians met up with him and escorted him into Rome like a visiting dignitary, an ambassador for another land. He spent the next two years in Rome where he was permitted to live in a rented home and one Roman soldier to guard him – all at his own expense. He was permitted to entertain in his home and he did. He was also permitted to come and go within the city and he did, preaching the Gospel right in the streets of Rome. And wasn’t that was one lucky Roman soldier? My guess is that before it was over he grew to love Paul and Jesus. He would not be the first Roman guard assigned to Paul to become a Christian. Well that is the narrative context for Paul’s writing of the Epistle to the Romans. This will help us see how the exigencies within the Church were the straw with which Paul made bricks and constructed the most influential theological edifice in the New Testament.