Choral Evensong: Paul and Romans

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 138, Genesis 50:15-Exodus 1:7, Romans 11:28-36

For those who find Paul’s letter to the Romans difficult I have bad news for you. The Lectionary suggests that a reading from Romans be read at Evensong every Sunday from 14 June right through to 11 October. Seeing we did not have Evensong sermons until the beginning of August – because of Covid – you may perhaps breathe a sigh of relief knowing there are only another seven Sunday evenings to go! But for those who think differently about Romans – and you would be in good company – the Lectionary gives us a chance to revel in the thinking of one of, if not, the greatest theologians in the history of the church. Reading Romans has literally changed the course of history, and most certainly the course of the Christian Church in the West. Three examples are worth quoting.

In 386 AD the now celebrated St Augustine, back then a young pagan intellectual who rather fancied himself and, by all accounts, could give even the most dissolute modern a run for their money, was blown away when he read Romans 13: 13-14. “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Many centuries later a German monk had his life turned around when he read Romans 1:17. “For in (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” Martin Luther is, of course, credited with starting the Protestant Reformation when he allegedly nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, It was hearing Luther’s commentary on Romans being read that influenced an Anglican priest two centuries later and led to John Wesley saying “I felt my heart was strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation.”

The Epistle to the Romans continues to be seen and understood as perhaps the most profound exposition of the Gospel and modern theologians are still writing highly respected and influential commentaries on the Epistle – people as diverse as the Anglican James Dunn, Roman Catholic Joseph Fitzmyer, Methodist Robert Jewett and Baptists Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner. Incidentally, Professor James Dunn of Durham University died just a few weeks ago at the end of June. May he rest in peace.

But who and what were the Roman Christians, and why did Paul write to them? These questions remain hotly debated and there are several theories. We know from the writing of Suetonius that in 49 AD the Emperor Claudius expelled a number of Jews from Rome due to a ‘disturbance over Chrestus’. This reference to Chrestus is widely taken to be a reference to Jesus Christ. That in turn suggests that within twenty years of the crucifixion there was an established church – quite likely made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians – who were influential enough to come to the attention of the emperor in Rome. It is possible that when, a few years later, the Jewish Christians were able to return to Rome they found the Gentile Christians in a dominant position. This could just account for the long chapters in Romans that Paul devotes to exploring the question of the faith of the Gentiles, and his attempts to answer a question which clearly intrigued him – why did so many Jews not accept Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, as Paul himself had done? Tonight’s snippet is the tail-end of this argument.

Some think Paul wrote to the Romans, whom he had not yet met, to ask for support before his visit to Jerusalem – where he had previously had a run in, particularly with the more hardline Jewish Christians, over his championing of the right of the Gentiles to become baptized and therefor be Christians, without first having to be circumcised and observe all the restrictions of the Jewish Law. Others believe it was from Rome that Paul was hoping to launch his ambitious travel plans to the far west, Spain, and needed both the moral and financial support of the Roman church.

Whatever the reason for writing, Romans is regarded as the finest of Paul’s writings and, if you stay long enough to see the Lectionary readings through, gives us some fascinating snapshots of the congregation in Rome. Of particular interest as we get to the end of the Epistle is the reference in Romans 16 to a good number of women – clearly highly respected leaders in the early church. Among the great themes that Paul writes on are the righteousness of God, justification by faith, obedience of faith, universality of salvation, death and resurrection, God and Israel, obedience to the government and accommodation for the weak – all well worth looking out for as we read through this masterpiece of writing.

Preaching at the Choral Eucharist at the end of July I made mention of a verse we will hear next Sunday evening: Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Paul preaches for conversion – not some blind and mindless change of heart, but one that is carefully reasoned, thought through and then implemented in genuine change of behavior and attitude to life, neighbour and, ultimately, God.

I think it was last Sunday night that I first used a prayer written by John Birch. In a very different style to the writing of St Paul nevertheless is captures something of the idea of the transformation that Gospel-living calls for and is worth repeating. Before reading and praying it, let me encourage you to get stuck into Romans – it’s worth it.

God’s Word informing you
God’s peace encircling you
God’s Spirit upholding you
God’s Love defining you
Go gently into the world
Become the difference
So many have yet to find.              John Birch