Today marks the start of a new preaching series for us. Last week we finished Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and today we’re set to dive into Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans!
Martin Luther wrote a whole preface on this letter, stating that “the letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament” that it is “the purest gospel” and that it is “well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word, but also to occupy him or herself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul”.
Luckily for you, I’m not going to make you memorize this letter word for word like Martin Luther recommended we should all do, however, if you should wish to take his advice, then I definitely won’t be the one to stop you. Instead, we’ll be taking the easier root, and introducing ourselves to one of the longest and most significant letters written by Saint Paul.
Saint Paul was a Jewish Rabi belonging to a group known as the Pharisees, and was formally known as Saul of Tarsus, who was passionate and devote to the Torah and the traditions of Israel. The Pharisees, along with Paul, saw Jesus and his followers as a threat, and this was so until Paul had a radical encounter with the risen Christ who commissioned him as an apostle.
Paul, consequently, travelled around the ancient Roman empire, telling people about Jesus and forming his new followers into communities and into Churches. It was these communities he would occasionally write letters to, helping them foster their faith, answering questions and telling them what they were doing wrong… and the book of Romans is one of these.
Despite Paul’s seemingly natural ability to create multiple Church communities, the book of Acts, chapter 18 tells us that the Church in Rome had already existed for some time, and that Paul had never actually been to Rome when writing this letter. We know that the Roman Church was originally made up of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus, that the Roman Emperor had expelled all of the Jewish people from Rome, and that 5 years later the Jewish community returned to Rome, and upon arrival found a very non-Jewish church in terms of custom and practice.
So, by the time Saint Paul writes this letter, the Roman Church was divided, people disagreed on how to follow Jesus and tensions grew between Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Christ. In writing this letter and in giving his fullest explanation of the gospel, and of the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection Paul wanted to make this divided church unified once again.
Both of today’s readings talk about being or not being ashamed. In Romans 1:16 Paul, very early on in his letter writes “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
And in Mark 8:38 we see Jesus telling his disciples that “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”.
The dictionary tells me that to be ashamed is to be embarrassed or guilty because of one’s actions, characteristics, or associations. It is to be reluctant to do something through fear of embarrassment or humiliation.
Being ashamed is a unifying factor, not only between these 2 texts, but also between human kind. Each and every single one of us experiences shame. It is a part of human nature that begins very early on in life, and stays with us until death.
In today’s 21st century capitalist, materialistic society, where the media seems to dominate pretty much everything, we’re often ashamed when we don’t have the latest smart phone or when we don’t have the latest designer clothes that are in line with the latest fashion trend.
In a society that tells us to reach targets and to compete for the best grades, we’re often ashamed when we don’t do as well as our fellow students at university, or when we make a mistake in front of our colleagues.
Sometimes, it’s not what we’re ashamed of, but who we are ashamed of. Most children go through a stage where they are embarrassed of their parents. My Dad was a taxi driver for most of my teenage years, and he’d often park his taxi right outside the house where the party I was at was taking place, and beep the horn as to catch my and everyone else’s attention, and consequently embarrass me in front of all of my friends and peers.
Shame is a part of the human condition and the very nature of human personality… but, what does Saint Paul mean when he talks about being ashamed of the gospel?
Well, the other day, I was in a bar in the Student Union meeting with one of my friends. She’s on the committee for the Christian Union, and I’m the president of the Student Christian Movement… so naturally we ended up talking about our faith. Half way through the conversation she said to me “Sarah, are you ashamed of being a Christian?” to which I replied “no, I love telling people I think I have a calling to the priesthood, I love sharing my faith with others”. The point she was trying to make and understand was that her evangelical church and the Christian Union she’s very much a part of are always out – whether that’s in the city or on the university campus – telling people about the love of Christ and the good news of the gospel… and when she looks at the Student Christian Movement and the more liberal and progressive Churches which I would naturally identify with, she never sees that evangelism in action – therefore, she had concluded I must be ashamed of the gospel.
I spent most of my weekend trying to think of a way I could best communicate that I am not ashamed of being a Christian and that just because I don’t stand in the street telling people about Jesus, I’m not embarrassed by my faith in the good Lord. Just when I was about to call it a day, the Bishop of Chelmsford Stephen Cottrell tweeted “we think of evangelism as one big scary thing. But it could be hundreds and hundreds of lovely little achievable things”.
So, to take a step back again, when we are ashamed, we are often embarrassed or humiliated by someone, something or ourselves, and we want to keep what has happened secret. If this is so, then the opposite of shame is pride. When we are proud of ourselves, someone or something, we want everyone to know, we want to spread around the good news.
Maybe, then, the answer to my friends question in the Union Bar when she asked me whether I was ashamed of the gospel and of Christ because I don’t act in a similar way to her, is that, for me, I show pride in the gospel through my actions, whether that is through ethical consumption, campaigning for what I think is right and by showing people how I try to live in a Christ like way.
So, to summarise I’ll use a very well-known quote from a particular favourite saint of mine, St. Francis of Assisi – “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words.”