Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On preaching that last incomplete sentence in Romans

On Romans 16:25-27... 
Paul’s letter to the Romans is achieving much, much more than is indicated in the concluding sentence read for the fourth week of Advent. In the course of sixteen dense chapters, Paul is accomplishing a number of epistolary tasks. First, he is introducing himself to the Christians in Rome. Second, he is giving indication of his intention to visit them on his way to further missionary work in Spain. Then, a majority of the letter is devoted to sharing the gospel he preaches—the salvation of God through Christ accomplished by the righteousness of God revealed through faith. See especially Romans 1:16-17 for a concise definition of the gospel Paul intends to exposit in his letter.
Furthermore, Romans gives considerable attention to God’s salvific work as it relates to both Jews and Gentiles. It is this all-encompassing impact of the gospel that energizes the letter, as well as its later impact on Christian history. 

Romans was profoundly influential in Martin Luther’s conversion to an emphasis on grace, faith, and justification, and significant theologians and church leaders such as John Wesley and Karl Barth experienced breakthroughs or tipping points as a result of careful sustained study of the letter. 

If the history of interpretation of this letter is any indication, new reform movements in the church will emerge from individuals or groups who attend to this letter closely. 

As unlikely as it seems, the revitalization of the church depends on reading very, very closely what many consider to be the most theologically dense and complicated of all Paul’s correspondence.


It is surprising and wonderful what you can discover by re-arranging words and shifting them on the page, and although many people think grammar is something they learned in middle school they hope not to repeat, once a group begins to actually move the words and phrases in a sentence like Romans 16:25-27 around on the page a bit, play can quickly take over and discoveries emerge fast and furious.
Consider, for example, what many perceive to be the thesis statement of Romans: “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.  For 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” (1:16-17). Packed together like this, there can be a tendency to rush through the text, reading but without much comprehension or meditation. However, parse the two verses somehow, and much becomes clear that was opaque:
            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.
                        For 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.
Perhaps, left to your own devices, you might parse the verses differently than they are parsed here, but in doing so, you would need to come up with some guidelines or rules for how to do so, and in the process would discover much about the grammar and structure of the phrases that had not been apparent before you applied the rules. Grammar is thinking and vice versa. At least one thing you may discover in comparing this thesis statement of Romans to the final sentence of Romans, is how dependent each is on four key terms—God, power, gospel, and faith. 

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