Commentary on Romans 5:1-5
Theologians of the church would develop the doctrine of the Trinity centuries after Paul wrote this letter to the church at Rome. Paul isn’t writing as a systematic theologian; that vocation did not yet exist. Paul is instead more of a pastor. He’s a pastor trying to solve the very particular and limited problem of how Jews and all other nations conquered by Rome can break bread at the same table together.
Paul is working out how peoples radically different from one another in culture, legal and religious practices, language and history can be part of the church. He interprets his scriptures, now known as the Hebrew Bible, to argue that both Jews and other nations can claim the same faith ancestor in Abraham. He cites the prophet Habakkuk to claim that both Gentiles and Jews can be called into right relationship by the same God.
In Romans Paul wrestles with how peoples so different from one another can share in the same church body, the same gathered assembly, when they had spent centuries, if not millennia, separate from and suspicious of one another. The Jews and Gentiles at the center of this story were far more likely to loathe one another, pitted against each other by the powers that be, than they were to worship together.
What connects the contexts in which Paul writes a letter to the church at Rome with the doctrine of the Trinity?
Both are a call into a deepened understanding of interdependent relationship. Who theologians would later name the three Persons of the Trinity are present in this passage. This passage describes these Persons in relationships flowing in and out of one another. Followers of the Anointed One know God’s peace through Jesus. They know God’s love through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit pours God’s love into the hearts of Jesus believers.
The relationships described here are not just the ones among the three Persons of God. There is also a description of God’s relationship with God’s people. God’s interdependent relationship with Godself provides an example for humanity’s interdependent relationship with God.
The Jesus people’s relationship with God is mediated through God’s relationship with Godself. Paul writes that God justifies believers, brings them into right and just relationship, through Jesus the Anointed One. God extends this relationship through God’s Child. It is through Jesus that there is access to the grace that is being brought into right relationship with God.
God not only extends relationship to the church, but there is also hope in this passage that the church might also share in this relationship. Paul writes that we boast in our hope of sharing God’s glory. He continues that we also boast in our suffering.
The shadow side of glory is suffering. Not only suffering, but endurance and character, which produce hope. This hope does not disappoint.
Why does this hope not disappoint? God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us.
What’s to be made of boasting?
The repetition of boasting twice in two consecutive verses is noteworthy, and “boasting” is a theme that threads through Paul’s authentic letters. The Greek verb frequently translated as “boast” is kauchaomai, which can also mean “exult” and “rejoice.”
From the perspective of the dominant Greco-Roman culture, Jesus peoples in Rome have little reason to boast. They were mostly poor, marginal, perceived by outsiders as suspicious, unpatriotic, even cannibalistic. The command to “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” sounded very strange to outsiders.
Beyond these reasons to be suspicious of the Jesus peoples, their so-called “god” had gotten himself killed by a Roman cross. From the perspective of the powers, Jesus was a laughable loser without a leg to stand on. From this perspective Jesus was no “savior” of his people. He could not even save himself, never mind lead an army that would liberate his people from the eternal Pax Romana.
In this context it would likely seem counter-intuitive, even dangerous, to boast. Yet Paul has the audacity to do so, even when it seems foolish.
From a modern perspective, one might think boasting would hinder relationship, that people don’t want to be seen as “full of themselves” or “too much.”
But here’s the thing about relationships: they inherently require risk. There is a lot at stake in what Paul is trying to do in his own time, which can serve as a model for what kind of risk taking we might want to consider in ours. Not from a place of selfishness or foolhardiness, but from a grounded and loving self-confidence that reaches across the proverbial aisle to the other.
How might we boast in our relationships?
The kind of boasting Paul models here is inherently reliant on his faith in the Anointed One and his trust in the relationships he’s building among the Jesus peoples. In a US American culture dominated by self-reliance, how might Paul’s call into radical interdependence with the other, both human and Godly, serve as a model for the living of these days?
As much as we humans would like to see ourselves as totally separate from and having nothing in common with one another, we breathe air, are reliant on the earth for food and drink water the world over. We are inseparably connected to one another. Godself, likewise, is inseparably connected with Godself.
This text too points to humanity’s inseparability from God and one another, that no matter how the forces of sin and death condition us to think that we are not only separate from one another but could never break bread at the same table, that we are united in our humanity, called in right and just relationship with God. This text calls for a recognition that even the people we can’t stand, even the people we would rather see condemned than extended grace, they too are inseparable from their humanity. They too are inseparable from the call into right and just relationship with God. It is in these promises that Paul boasts.