Called to Serve

by Rev. L. John Gable

Called to Serve by Rev. L. John Gable
January 14, 2018

I know many of you get booklists from people, typically in their Christmas letters, offering suggestions of good books to read, or not.  I am going to suggest one to you that I would like for us all to read together as a congregation – the book we commonly call Romans – and we are going to start our read this morning.

Why Romans?  This letter is the most comprehensive and systematic presentation of the Gospel we are given in the Scriptures.  It was written by the Apostle Paul at the height of his ministry, during his third missionary journey, approximately 54-57 AD.  While Paul was the church’s first great evangelist, planting churches throughout the Mediterranean basin, he is writing this letter to a church he did not organize, to a people he did not know, but was making plans to visit.  Paul’s intention was to complete his missionary trip by returning to Jerusalem to deliver the offering for the saints he had been collecting from the churches he had founded in Greece and Asia Minor, then to journey from Jerusalem to Rome, ultimately on his way to Spain.  His purpose for writing was to introduce himself and in so doing to give his explanation of the Gospel as clearly as possible, as well as hopefully to solicit some support for his continued journey to Spain.  This letter then is Paul’s Magna Carta, his Summa Theologica to use Aquinas’ term.  It was essential to Paul, and to the spread of the Gospel, that the Romans get a clear and concise understanding of who Jesus was (the promised Messiah of God) and what He had come to do (offer God’s saving grace sufficient for salvation to all who put their faith in Him).  Rome was obviously the most important city in the most important empire in the entire world, so it was essential that they had a firm grasp on the Gospel message; but interestingly enough, Rome was not Paul’s end game, it was a means to a greater end, a way station, on Paul’s way to Spain, to the end of the “then-known” world.  Paul’s desire was to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission given to His disciples in Matthew 28 to “make disciples of all nations”, which was then reissued by the risen Christ in Acts 1 “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Paul saw his ministry as the extension and expansion of Jesus’ mission and ministry, as we should as well.

Why is it important that we study the book of Romans?  For these very same reasons.  We too need to have a firm grasp on essential Christian teaching, teaching which has now stood the test of time for 2000 years, with the clear understanding that we too are influencers/witnesses for Christ in this city, state, nation and “to the ends of the earth.”  So it is for our benefit and for the benefit of others and ultimately for the benefit of the Kingdom of God that we understand the Gospel message in its purest form.  But I will also confess that I, and perhaps I should say we, enter this study with some measure of caution and trepidation.  I have been ordained now for 35 years and have been preaching weekly for nearly 30 of those, yet I will confess that I have never attempted to do what we are setting out to do, that is to preach through Romans.  I have preached from Romans many times but never through it, why?  Because it is tough sledding at some points, or as one has put it, “it is like eating a good piece of bread”; there is a lot to chew on here, and it introduces some topics we often try to avoid.  But for our benefit we need to understand what Paul is saying and we are going to take our time doing so.  This series is planned to go until the end of July, seven full months, which seems like a long time, but I believe it was Calvin or Luther or Barth or one of those great preachers who spent over 2 years going through Romans, so I’ll encourage you to think of what we are doing as taking a short cut.

Today we are going to look at the first seven verses.  Let me forewarn you, it is going to take a month for us to get through chapter 1!

Paul opens the letter in the way that is typical in the first century Greco-Roman world.  Whereas today we open a letter with the name of the recipient, as in “Dear John” (I get a lot of those), in the ancient world one would begin by naming the sender, in this case Paul, which really makes a lot more sense.  I know who the letter is for, it was addressed and delivered to me; but I don’t always know from whom it was sent.  Have you ever gotten a letter or more likely an email or a text that you start reading then have to look to the end to see who it is from?  I’ve actually gotten texts asking me questions which, before I answer, I write back asking, “Who is this?”

So Paul opens his letter simply by stating his name, “Paul”, and this is interesting for two reasons.  First, he is stating that these are his words, so he stands behind them.  Unlike some of his other letters there are no co-authors in his letter to the Romans.  Second, one has reached a certain level of fame or familiarity when they can be identified by a single name, such as Elvis, Cher, Madonna, Paul.  Paul and his story were well-known in first century Christian circles, even as far away as Rome.  Without ever having met him his Roman readers knew that Paul, the former Saul, had been a Pharisee’s Pharisee and great persecutor of the Church prior to his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  They knew of his subsequent conversion and that he had recommitted his life to Christ and the spreading of the Gospel, planting churches throughout Greece and Asia Minor, even in to Europe.  Paul was a rock star in first century Christianity, a man who literally needed no introduction, and he knew it.

So he opens his letter by simply stating his name, but then he adds a twist.  Whereas it would be typical for the sender to tell something of his or her background and credentials in order to establish their authority, Paul begins by calling himself a “servant”, the Greek word is actually a “slave” of Jesus Christ.  I don’t know about you, but if I am introducing myself to a new audience this likely isn’t the way I would present myself, as a servant, much less a slave, but it defines Paul exactly, as it should each of us.  A “doulos” is a bondservant who has voluntarily committed him or herself to their master, which is exactly what Paul has done to Christ by calling Him Lord; as we are called to do as well.

He then identifies himself as an “apostle set apart for the Gospel of God.”  This designation was hard-fought for Paul.  There is a distinction between being a “disciple” of Jesus and being called an “apostle.”  While we often use these two terms interchangeably, referring to the 12 disciples or the 12 apostles, the two designations are actually quite distinct.  A disciple is anyone who is willing to submit and follow in the way of Jesus, that is, to discipline themselves to Jesus’ way of life and living, and there are many of those.  An apostle however is typically one who has been with Jesus, who has had a first-hand encounter with Him, and has been commissioned by Him to spread the Gospel message, to be His ambassador or emissary, and that number is typically narrowed to the original twelve who were chosen and called, not self-selected.  And here is the point of contention for Paul, he identifies himself as an apostle, that is, he is claiming to have the same authority as that which was given to the original 12 because of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.  That designation was a point of contention and debate for some of his first century hearers, “Who does he think he is?”, but this is the basis for his authority in preaching and teaching, an authority not of his own making, but one given to him by Christ’s call and claim on his life.  Paul clearly sees himself as being “set apart” by God for the purpose of spreading the Gospel message; hence he calls himself an apostle.

In this regard, you and I and anyone who has submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, namely who has become His “doulos”, His servant and slave, can rightfully be called His disciples because we are disciplining and aligning ourselves with His way of life and purposes, but we can also call ourselves apostles in the sense that we too have been called to be His ambassadors or representatives or emissaries, commissioned to spread the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.

Today we had the privilege of ordaining and installing new elders and deacons, and if you listened carefully to the questions we asked them you would come to the correct conclusion that theirs too is a special calling, a “being set apart”, through their offices in the church.  We need to pray for them as they seek to live in to their high callings.  But they are not alone in being called in to service in this way, each of us are similarly called when we are baptized.  In our baptisms, just as we performed with little Charles this morning, we are being claimed and called into service for Christ and His Kingdom.  In baptism we are literally being called in to ministry. So, when you are instructed “Remember your baptism” you are being reminded that you have been called to be a follower and a teller, a disciple and apostle, of Jesus Christ.

Now back to the letter, Paul then expands the opening salutation by describing Jesus, the promised Messiah spoken of by the prophets, as being both of human origin – “descended from David according to the flesh” – and divine – “the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness (that is the Holy Spirit) by resurrection from the dead.”  In Jesus these two worlds meet, the human and the divine; the upper story and the lower story intersect vertically and horizontally.  So in this introduction Paul is giving us a foreshadowing of what he is going to teach throughout the letter by declaring both who Jesus is, the promised Messiah of God, and what He has come to do “to confer grace” sufficient for our salvation and so to call us into “apostleship”, to call us in to ministry and service in His name. To what end?  Every good writer includes a summary statement somewhere in their opening, and Paul does it here in verse 5.  I, Paul, am sharing this with you “in order to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of His (Jesus’) name, including yourselves.”

So, Paul is writing, not merely for his own sake, to introduce himself, but for the sake of his listeners, the Romans then, and all who hear his message today, that is, for the sake of the whole world, with his sole desire being that everyone will come to the “obedience of faith”, that we too will come to be disciples and apostles, followers and tellers, of Jesus, “saints” set apart by God and called in to the service of Christ and His Kingdom.

And he then closes this opening salutation, as will I, with a prayer and a blessing.  He writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Grace (charis) the traditional Greek blessing of God’s free and unmerited love and favor, and peace (shalom) the traditional Hebrew blessing of well-being.  Paul knew his audience, Jew and Gentile alike, and he wanted everyone to know, then and now, that they/that we are included in his message; that no matter who we are, or where we have been or what we have done, each and every one of us is always welcomed into the family of God.

Grace and peace be with you, a grace and peace we can only enjoy when we are in a right relationship, “the obedience of faith”, with God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

And with that, friends, we are off to a good start on this good read and we’ve already got 7 verses under our belts.