First Sunday in Lent (Year C)

Entering any text in Romans, in order to explore its preaching possibilities, is similar to entering a vast and highly-developed city.

Misereor Hunger Cloth
"Misereor Hunger Cloth," People of Santiago de Pupuja.  Used by permission from the artist. Image © by People of Santiago de Pupuja.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

February 21, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 10:8b-13

Entering any text in Romans, in order to explore its preaching possibilities, is similar to entering a vast and highly-developed city.

Romans is the flagship of Paul’s writings and his arguments and claims are both profound and complex. In contemporary terminology, one needs a homiletical GPS (global positioning system) to orient preaching preparation within the overall structure of Romans.

Unlike Gospel texts, Romans is a theological treatise of a sort which demands a broader reading of context. The cartological task of the preacher thus requires the following: knowledge of the overall structure of Romans and its major arguments and a contextualized focus for the appointed verses, which can be understood by twenty-first century Christians (Gentiles).

This epistle text for the First Sunday in Lent is heard prior to the familiar account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. As a preaching text, the Romans verses bring to the foreground what is only background in the Gospel: that is, this Jesus in the wilderness, confronting the worldly and ungodly powers humanity faces, is the same Jesus who brings salvation.

In this section of Romans, Paul’s discussion is based on his earlier arguments about Israel’s response, or lack of response, to the Gospel and what this means within God’s will and plan for salvation. While sermon time does not allow for much reflection on the larger arguments in which the text is set, the preacher should also exercise care to avoid the potential for anti-Semitic implications. In Romans Paul is clearly agonizing and arguing over the reality of Israel’s call by God as well as Israel’s rejection of Jesus. This existential pain is deepened and furthered by the divisions between Paul and his own people as he simultaneously argues his claims for inclusion of the Gentiles within God’s salvific plan.

I. The Text

In preparing a sermon on this text, it is impossible to plumb the riches of it without first doing a preliminary list and reading of the Hebrew Scriptures which Paul uses to background his assertions. These texts include (in order): a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:12–14; Isaiah 28:16; Joel 2:32 and Joel 3:1-5. Twice in these few verses, Paul notes “But what does it [Scripture] say?” (verse 8) and “The scripture says…” (verse 11).

Paul’s words indicate that he is not simply using Hebrew Scripture to argue his case but that he is speaking to those who are also familiar with it, as he stakes his claim regarding what God has done in Jesus. For modern day listeners, this scriptural information is useful in demonstrating that the Jesus event was not simply a stand-alone anomaly but rooted in the history of Israel’s life with God. (Given the dearth of Old Testament preaching courses in seminary curricula of any denomination, it is not surprising that the wealth of these historical connections is often ignored or lost).

Several topics fill these verses. One element is: the connection between confessing (verbally) and believing. The first springs from public affirmation, which originates in the spiritual attitude of belief. It is not enough to speak publicly. It is insufficient to believe without verbal expression: the two are linked. But what is the result of believing and speaking together? One is justified and one is saved. Thoughts and words of faith together yield — salvation!

Another set of related phrases also offer insight into the line of Paul’s argument and that is his naming of God. In verse 8 he says “Jesus is Lord;” in verse 12 he asserts — with a subtle elision of meaning! – that “the same Lord is Lord of all’ and finally that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (verse 13). Paul is saying several things here. He is saying Jesus is God. He is saying that God is for all people and that naming God in faith results in salvation, a faith which comes through Jesus Christ.

Another specific emphasis in these verses is the amazing equality of all people before God. Paul asserts that there is “no distinction” and speaks of “all” and “everyone” and to all individuals. While there is a ‘take it for granted’ sense about his claim today, the historical ideas of who was not included, not chosen, were very sharply defined. The religious insiders and outsiders were known. This makes Paul’s view that all have access to God, radical, in the eyes of many heretical. Yet, he deftly argues from Hebrew Scriptures — particularly the eschatological vision of the nations in Joel, which he quotes — as rationale for what he believes about the inclusion of all people in God’s Jesus.

II. More Homiletical Possibilities

This text raises a number of problems and issues. One of these is what Paul calls the God who is “generous to all who call on him” (verses 12 and 13). The implications for this today might relate to how God responds to those of different faith perspectives, or no faith perspectives! What is the role of the church or any formal worship community in mediating God to a human being? How do human beings with their notions of generosity — limited to be sure — understand a God exhibiting such divine generosity 24/7? Could modern day Christian listeners find themselves, on closer examination, to be as closed to God’s generosity as those Paul is trying to convince in his own recalcitrant community? Do we find ourselves trying to “manage” God’s generosity?

For preachers who are part of faith traditions that heavily depend on sacramental theology, what does it mean that one is saved simply by believing in and then verbally confessing Jesus as Lord? What happened to baptism along the way? What happened to a faith community? This question is not as easily answered as one might think, in that it raises questions of the way to “do evangelism.” The question involves thoughtful consideration of ritual, hymnology, ecclesiology and theology and most importantly, hospitality to all who seek God. The simplicity of what Paul is suggesting is perhaps too much for us!