In this last Sunday of Advent, we circle back to the beginning of Romans, revisiting the themes that resound throughout the letter and culminate in Romans 15:4-13 (Advent 2).
It is difficult to preach on a text that introduces so many weighty matters in such a short span: God's good news concerning God's son; the witness of Israel's scriptures; Jesus' identity as descended from David and designated Son of God in power; Paul's mission to the Gentiles; the obedience of faith.
One fruitful approach is to focus on the question of identity-Paul's and ours. Verses 1-6 are one long sentence in Greek; if we diagrammed it, we could trace every clause back to Paul, the subject of the sentence. Does this mean Paul is an egomaniac? No, although some have made that claim! Rather, Paul simply cannot introduce himself without telling his story, and it turns out that the only story that matters to him is the news about Jesus the Messiah1. Paul knows who he is only in and through his calling to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul taught that one was either a slave of Christ or a slave of sin (see Romans 6:5-6, 12-14; 7:22-23). What are the ways we experience "slavery to sin" today? We might consider various forms of addiction, destructive relationships, our consumer culture, and so forth, and the ways these kinds of "bondage" shape and mis-shape our identities.
Paul's self-description picks up on his given identity at birth, and at the same time distinguishes him from what he once was - a Pharisee. Once he separated himself from society, and certainly from Gentiles, in order to be holy. Now (like Jeremiah) he has been set aside by God precisely to take good news to the "nations" or "Gentiles" (1:5; Jeremiah 1:5).
After telling his "story," Paul tells his readers who they are: "called to belong to Jesus Christ," "God's beloved in Rome," "called saints." Like Paul's call, theirs (and ours) is done by God, and therefore it is not something we do. We don't make ourselves holy; that's God's business. And that transformation takes place through the outpouring of God's love (Romans 5:1-5).
Paul's hearers belong to Jesus Christ, but they still live in Rome. They are in Rome, but no longer of Rome; like Paul, their new identity and work derives from the one who now owns and loves them. This new identity as Christ's slaves potentially sets them on a collision course with the Roman imperial cult, which proclaimed that the birth of Caesar Augustus was "good news" for the world," and that all Caesar's subjects should serve him.
Paul's description of himself and his hearers leads us into the mystery of identity. What are the sources of our understanding of who we are and what we're about? A short list might include:
The challenge of today's lesson is that each one of these is radically reoriented by an encounter with the God of Jesus Christ. The closest Paul gets to giving an account of his own personal "history" and "accomplishments" prior to that encounter is in Philippians 3:4-6, and he quickly labels it "rubbish." As for his primary relationships, through belonging to Christ he has been brought into close fellowship with people who formerly were strangers and even enemies.
But Paul cannot completely turn his back on his former identity; by using the language of prophetic call, he identifies himself as profoundly shaped by his Jewish history and community. God, made known to him in the revelation of Christ, has never been absent from his life. Rather, his calling returns him to his roots, even while setting him at odds with elements of his past. Similarly, our task as preachers is in part to help people identify the ways God is calling them to newness of life in service to Jesus Christ, and at the same time to see the ways God has never been absent from their lives.
1 For an insightful discussion of this topic in relationship to preaching and teaching, see A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans (Louisville: WJK, 2002), xix.