Getting in tune with Paul’s letter to the Romans

I must confess that I’d never really read and studied Romans all that carefully until our recent Bible study. I suppose any Lutheran pastor who says such a thing should be blushing beat-red, since Romans is where we find the rallying cry of the Lutheran reformation: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”(3.28)

It’s the kind of verse that will always be both painful and exhilarating. We’re caught in our own sense of self-worth, to discover – painfully – that we were wrong. God sees us not for what we have done (or where we have messed up) but in Christ, through grace (exhilarating!). Paul warns us: “do not be proud, but stand in awe … continue in God’s kindness.” (chapter 11)

The verse that stands out to me in my recent reading of Romans expands on this: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us.” (5:5)

I think I’m partly just drawn to the image of “pouring out” the Spirit as love into the hearts of the people when they hear the good news about God in Christ. It’s the kind of thing we don’t have control over. Think of someone you know who is difficult to deal with, and imagine that person just finding themselves loved by God, apart from your efforts to show kindness to that person.

Then again, think of those people whom society deems unworthy of love. Father Greg Boyle, in his book Tattoos on the Heart, talks about the many death threats received when they started Homeboy Industries, which was in the business of giving a new start to recently incarcerated gang members. “Why should they get this opportunity, considering what they did?” (the idea that we’re justified / condemned on the basis of what we do goes deep!) Father Boyle’s anecdotes aren’t just about helping people, but awe at witnessing people discover they are loved.

As we study Romans I’ve been reading a commentary by Robert Jewett (bits and pieces; the book is big enough to stop a moving vehicle). We all know about the “growing gap between rich and poor” in our own world – Jewett talks about an enormous class divide in ancient Rome: maybe 5% of the population were the wealthy Romans we hear about who brought order and peace through military conquest to the world; most everyone else was poor, many of them immigrants, and considered virtually “nothing” in terms of value. And yet it was largely among these nobodies that Christianity took root in Rome. Paul could point to the pouring out of God’s Spirit as this power that enabled people to discover that they weren’t nobodies but loved – despite what seemed to be the prevailing views of their society.

The Spirit poured out was a power that brought together diverse communities of Jew and Greek to live into a peace that the Emperor could never achieve, let alone prevent.

Are we aware of this Spirit of love poured out in our own hearts and neighbors? How does this pouring shape our approach to ministry? We explore further this Summer in several ways: through sermon series on Romans 8 (July 10th – July 24th), Romans 12-13 (August 21st – Sept 11th), further bible study in August, a visit to the New City Parish (see further below – how can our efforts to help others be also about finding God’s love for ourselves and others, being drawn together in new way?), and a visit to the Getty Villa in August, to learn more about ancient Rome.