As with the opening lines of most of the epistles, I often find myself passing over them quickly, pressing to get on to the ‘real stuff.’ And, as with the other epistles, when I go back to reread, I find I’ve skipped over a number of powerful statements that preview points that will be addressed in detail later. Again, it’s not really my intent to do a blow-by-blow of the book (or even this passage), but I’ll take a few moments to reflect on a few observations …
In vss 8-15, Paul takes a fair amount of space to share how much he has longed to visit with them. Paul did not have a hand in starting the church in Rome and we know from other correspondence that Paul has a real problem with others attempting to capitalize on his labors (pressing their personal agendas, which were often irrelevant, if not contrary to the Gospel). However, he had no problems with others, such as Apollos (an outsider to Paul’s work initially) coming to expand upon what Paul had started (after all, Apollos, though a skilled orator, humbly submitted to Paul’s co-workers – Priscilla & Aquila). It seems that Paul is quite aware of the possibility of a perceived conflict of interest, a double standard with respect to what he has stated elsewhere when he wants “to impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong” – a potentially loaded statement – quickly clarified with “that you and I may be mutually encouraged…” While Paul goes on in the letter to make some very strong statements to the church, he seems (to me) to be walking a bit of a tight rope at times so as not to come across as the presumptuous outsider with merely an agenda of his own that they can serve. It seems even the great Paul understands the importance of humility as he approaches a ministry opportunity.
Along similar lines, it seems we get a glimpse into Paul’s heart for “the Church” that goes beyond the handful of faith communities he has had a hand in starting. While Paul’s encouragement of the believers in his own churches is understandable (declaring their good reputation in the region, praying for them, etc), Paul extends similar encouragement and interest in this Roman church that he has no direct stake in. Perhaps an understanding on Paul’s part that if the Church is to thrive throughout the empire (and eventually the world beyond) there’s a strategic importance for the church to thrive in Rome. As a pastor of a small church on the outer edge of a metropolitan area, I’m regularly challenged to make/find time to invest, at least spiritually, into more strategic corners of the mission field. Don’t mistake me, I love Trenton, MI and have no desire to leave, and indeed every community deserves a vibrant church community – but the reality is there are other regions/communities in Michigan (let alone the country) that have more strategic importance to the continued growth of God’s Kingdom in the state, nation and world. I will labor joyfully and thankfully in Trenton (hopefully fruitfully) while all the time acknowledging that communities like Detroit, Dearborn (with its extensive Arabic population) and Ann Arbor have leverage potential that Trenton will never have – and so I must make time to give toward, pray for, and share the vision for (in my church) these crucially strategic communities and the potential impact that thriving churches in these locations can have not only in southeast Michigan, but the world.
Verse 15 strikes me as a bit of an oddity. Paul states that he is eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if Paul means by this what we so often do, is Paul looking to preach salvation to those already part of the church (“you who are in Rome” is the church in Rome, presumably already believers)? Is Paul establishing the pattern of so many of our churches today – bringing the evangelist to the church to declare again the Good News to those who have already signed on? Or perhaps is he indicating that, in the end, we should never stray too far from the basic message of salvation? Or maybe, just maybe, could Paul realize that the Gospel is far grander in scope than merely the personal salvation of those connected to a particular congregation, or even all congregations? Could it be that the goal of the Gospel merely begins with our salvation as it reaches to something far beyond – something that we are called to participate in, now that we believe? Something to think about.
In the opening paragraph I see the first of many references to the central work of the Holy Spirit in the letter. Despite the claims of some, the language of the Spirit is replete throughout this letter. At the risk of reading too much into terms like “called to be an apostle,” and “promised beforehand through his prophets,” (not to mention Spirit of holiness), all are part of the Pauline language of the Spirit. For Paul the Holy Spirit is more than a simple doctrinal attestation, it is the indispensable experiential reality of both the Christian life and God’s redemptive activity in and for all His good creation. A bold statement, perhaps, but none the less borne out in the balance of this letter and elsewhere in the canon.
Finally, in Paul’s writings we find many passages like “the Gospel is…” But here, once you sift through the various clauses, we come across one of the simplest and most powerful definitions/declarations of the Gospel – “the Gospel of God …. Jesus Christ our Lord.” In a world filled with the gospel (good news) of this god or that, of this Caesar or that (or in our language this party’s progressive or conservative solution to what ails our land) the Good News of our God is not a ruler, military power, corporate account, or church leader – all of which change with circumstance or whim – Paul states that the Gospel of God is the world’s one true ruler who displayed his power through weakness and has defeated both sin and death and remains ever the same – Jesus.
– pastor Jim Kushner