(watch here: https://youtu.be/FJKvq8tqMOg)
1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15— hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
16For 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. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’
Those closing verses of today’s reading remind me of the one about a man who was walking through the woods when he came across a hungry bear. The man dropped to his knees on the trail and clasped his hands together to pray for salvation. To his surprise . . . so did the bear! Greatly heartened by this, the man began to pray. “Oh, Heavenly Father, please let this be a Christian bear! I don’t want to be eaten by those evil nasty devil bears!” And the bear, to the great shock of the man, began to pray, too! Kneeling there on the side of the road across from the man, paws clasped together, the bear prayed, “Oh, Heavenly Father! For this meal, which I am about to receive, I give thanks.”
This morning we’re getting away from the book of Acts and jumping into Paul’s great letter to the congregations of Rome. It’s a distinctive letter written late in his ministry to congregations he had no part in establishing. All his other letters were written to either congregations he had helped to get up and running at Corinth, Philippi, Galatia, and Thessalonica or to individuals he converted including Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. His letters to congregations he established at Ephesus and Colossus are disputed. Because he didn’t have a hand in establishing the congregations in Rome, Paul had to compensate for two limitations–a lack of relationship and unknown theology. He simply didn’t know the Roman congregations and what they believed. Lucky for them, Paul had solidified his theology and a cordial reputation by the time he wrote his letter. He knew Christ and what it means to be a Christian as well as what it takes to gain converts through gentle invitation. These opening lines to his letter reflect this. He begins by stating who he is as an apostle of Christ then moves into giving thanks for the Roman congregations. He praises them for their reputably strong faith and conveys his desire to be with them. But then he dives right in with his evangelizing: “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 it is precisely this proclamation that I want to dedicate our time together this morning; in particular, the notion of salvation…hence, my opening joke about salvation. Who knew God would send a Christian bear in answer to the man’s hope for salvation?!
But isn’t that consistent with how God provides salvation? Whether we realize it or not, we are all in need of some type of salvation. We all need God to save us from something, whether it’s pain and sorrow, broken relationships, nagging creditors, unfulfilling jobs and careers, violence, despair and hopelessness, overwhelming loss, unhealthy urges, the aging process, a broken world, unrealized dreams…there are an endless number of things we need saving from both outside of ourselves and within ourselves. Make no mistake about it, life is hard in this world. Sure, we might have a good run at it for a time but eventually life, in all its finite glory, gets difficult. We all need a savior, someone who can ease our suffering and make life easy again. And God provides just such a savior. Christ is timeless, peaceful, hopeful, unending, unbroken, fulfilling, and pain-free. But he doesn’t remove us from our difficult realities. The Christian bear didn’t remove the man from his difficult reality. Yes, God provides salvation just not in the way we expect it. God walked with us in our fragile, limited human reality and continues to walk with us in it. Not to remove us from it but rather to help us realize we’re not alone in it. And isn’t that what we need the most? If there was no suffering, no aging, no violence, no despair, no unhealthy urges, no brokenness, no loss, no creditors, then we wouldn’t be alive. We need these things to appreciate all the joys and triumphs and graciousness of life. We need this things to help us recognize just how much God blesses us each and every day. All we really need is to know that we’re not alone in our suffering. Don’t take it away from us, just acknowledge it…then it has a purpose.
Salvation is important, perhaps the most important part of the Christian witness. It’s no wonder Paul begins his letter with a nod to salvation. Without salvation, there is no purpose to the Christian witness. Jesus is nothing if he doesn’t save us from ourselves and the world we live in. Jesus saves us by not only living and suffering as we do but by teaching us and showing us that this life is not all there is to existence. There is life after death. There is peace and hope and wholeness and timelessness and balance. And believe it or not, these can exist in this world…in Jesus.
Paul goes on to wrestle with this idea of salvation for the rest of his letter to the Romans as we’ll see in the next couple weeks of readings. But it is an idea not confined strictly to this letter. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2:8-9) As good, dutiful Lutherans, we know that salvation is a gift from God, not the results of our works. As much as we need it, we can’t earn it. We can simply pray that God will gift it to us. That, and believe! In believing we are saved as well. Recall what Jesus said from the book of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.” (5:24) Jesus is the key to salvation. In Revelation, we hear, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (3:20) Just listen, welcome Jesus into your life and you will be saved.
In this season of Easter, we are called to be authentic witnesses of the risen Christ. In his rising, we are saved from the difficulties of this world and this life. The difficulties aren’t removed, they’re justified. They’re given purpose. And isn’t that all that really matters? Paul writes a little later in his letter to the Romans, “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (10:9-10) Salvation IS important…live in the salvation of Christ!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.