>The following was a sermon preached in my PR620 class at Asbury Theological Seminary on December 4, 2006. The text below is Romans 1:1-7 and is from my translation of the Greek.

Romans 1:1-7
Paul slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle having been set apart into the gospel of God, which he promised through his prophets in Holy Scriptures concerning His Son who was born out of the seed of David according to the flesh, being declared the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we received grace and apostleship into obedience of faith in all the nations for the sake of his name, among which you are also called of Jesus Christ,
To all being in Rome beloved of God, called to be holy,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Have you ever written a letter to someone you’ve never met? Maybe it was that pen pal program in the 4th grade, or the Compassion International child in Guatemala, or – for the UM candidates in the room – that letter to your district superintendent to let him/her know that you feel called to ministry. What do you say? It’s awkward; it’s uncomfortable, but sometimes, it’s necessary. What do you write these people that you’ve never met?

When Paul wrote the church in Rome, he faced this same sort of dilemma. This was a church that he did not establish. This was a church that he had never even seen. But this was also a church in the center of the Roman world – it was in the heart of the political, economic and cultural center of the world. It was a church with which Paul wanted to establish a relationship. It was a church that had the potential to reach across the entire Roman Empire. Now, maybe what we had to write to our 4th grade pen pal from the school across town didn’t have this type of magnitude, but nonetheless, the type of information given is similar. So, where do we start? We, like Paul, begin by writing about who we are.

Paul starts his letter with a description of who he is. In some translations, Paul is a servant of Christ, but his language is much stronger than simply “servant.” He describes himself as a douloj, or a slave, of Christ Jesus. While servant is not necessarily an inaccurate translation of the word, it doesn’t really catch all the nuances. When we think of “servants,” we think of someone who is hired labor. There is a certain amount of liberty that comes with being a servant, even though there are some demands placed on the servant by others. However, when we think of “slaves,” we get a very different picture.

We think of the Civil War, Roots, the Underground Railroad. We think of forced servitude in which the slave has no choice but to obey the master. Now while the American system of slavery differed from the Greco-Roman system, those are the same type of connotations that would come across. There really is no individual freedom when it comes to slavery. The slave must be fully obedient to the master.

Later on in the letter, Paul speaks about what it means to be a slave. In 6:15-23, he uses the term six times and the verb form two more times, but it is found nowhere else throughout the letter. In 6:16, Paul tells us that a person is a slave of the one that he/she obeys – we can either be slaves of sin, or slaves of righteousness. For Paul, then, to describe himself as a slave of Christ means that he is pointing to whom he obeys. More importantly, this is the first thing that Paul says about himself.

We all know the story of Paul – we can read the litany of his pre-Christian pedigree in Philippians 3, we can read the story of his call in Acts 9, we can follow his missionary journeys throughout the rest of Acts. There are hundreds of things to which he can point if he wanted to impress somebody with his credentials, but he doesn’t. The first thing Paul says about himself is that he is a douloj of Christ Jesus. You see, Paul’s identity is not wrapped up in who he is, but rather, in whose he is. Being a slave of Christ Jesus frames everything else that Paul has to say about himself, and this is no less applicable to us today.

Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the next characteristic Paul uses to describe himself is that of apostleship. Conceptually, apostleship and slavery are two very different things, but Paul appears to be linking them here. An apostle was one who had leadership in the early church. Typically, an apostle was one who had seen the risen Lord, and most often we associate the title apostle with the twelve disciples. On the other hand, a slave was one who had nothing in the eyes of the Roman world. Even more, in some circles, they were considered to be nothing more than tools to be used and thrown away.

Nevertheless, Paul seems to think of his apostleship as subservient to being a slave of Christ. Paul’s apostleship comes out of his total submission to Christ. In other words, Paul is saying that to be an apostle, one must be a slave. For one to be an apostle – to be “sent out,” as the Greek word suggests – one must be willing to submit his/her whole life to Christ. We, as future leaders of the Christian church, are not exempt from this mandate either. If we are truly called to be sent out into the world for the sake of the gospel, then we have no choice but to recognize that we are to live our lives of apostleship as slaves of Christ. Apart from Christ, our apostleship is nothing more than a quest for attention.

We live in a society that points to what we do and what we have as the primary identifiers of who we are, but this is a lie. What we do should be in response to the life that we have in Christ, and what we have is nothing compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, as Paul writes in Philippians 3. All that we are and have should be framed by our relationship to Jesus. We are not what we do. Our identity comes from the one who laid down his life for our own. For us, just as it was for Paul, who we are is not as important as whose we are.

But wait a minute! Paul is introducing himself, not speaking in general terms for all Christians, right? Isn’t he just letting the Roman Christians know who he is before going into some deeper theological material? Or is there something more going on here? Notice the shift in language beginning in verse 4. It’s subtle, but important.

Who is the gospel about? Who is the descendant of the line of David, according to the flesh? Who does the Spirit of holiness declare to be the Son of God? Who is it that was resurrected from the dead? Jesus Christ our Lord. Paul doesn’t say, “Jesus Christ my Lord,” but it’s “Jesus Christ our Lord.” And it is through him that “we received grace and apostleship.” Paul has moved away from simply introducing himself to the Roman Christians, and is making the point that they are also called to apostleship. They are called to be sent out to all the nations as well. It is not just Paul who is sent out among the nations; it is all Christians.

When Jesus calls the disciples in Mark 3:14-15, his purposes are twofold: 1) that they may be with him, and 2) that they may be sent out. The call of discipleship still rings out today, and these same purposes still exist. Our first call is to be with Christ. It is only when we are with Christ that we can truly be sent out for the sake of the gospel. And we can only be sent out if we have submitted ourselves to Christ.

Paul’s self-identification as a slave is a recognition of his proper position before the Lord. Not only does it frame Paul’s apostleship, but it is intended to frame our apostleship. You see, Paul’s introduction is more than just personal information for us to gloss over as we get to the meat of the letter. It frames the entire letter – not only so they may know who he is, but that the readers may know who they are.

Paul understood himself as a person redeemed by the grace of God. He understood himself to be free from the sin that permeated his life before he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. He could look back on his life and see that once he was a slave to sin, but now he is something different. He is no longer enslaved by the power of sin, but has been set free – free to obey a new master, Christ. It is this very same Christ that came as a baby two thousand years ago to set us free so that we can look back at what our lives used to be, and then look forward and kneel before the Lord in total submission, recognizing our proper position before Him.

As we enter the season of Advent – a season of hope and expectation – let us remember that the way to the cross begins with a manger. While Paul offers his call as an example of an appropriate response to grace, we must also remember the example that Paul followed. The example given by God, the Creator of the universe, who came to earth, took on flesh and began the plan of redemption as a baby. The ultimate example of servitude was offered by the one who has no master. It is this example that we must set for those we serve. It is the recognition of who we are in Christ.

Just some musings from a traveling pilgrim.

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