St. Paul mosaic

Studying Romans 1 8-17

We are studying Romans 1:8-17 for Sunday, July 11. It’s the first of four lessons we have from Romans, in this quarter titled “Confident Hope,” which seems mostly to be about faith. Faith and hope are connected, of course, so maybe the editors were “justified by faith being connected to hope” in calling it what they did. [LOL Bible nerd joke] [Some questions on the text are here.] OK, here are my notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans – that is, the early Christian church in the city of Rome. Scholars think Paul wrote this letter “in the late 50s,” towards the end of a series of missionary journeys around the Mediterranean [that is, the ocean “in the middle of the earth” – to remind us to put on our ancient mindset].

The church seems to have been a “mixed” church of Jewish and gentile believers. Here’s one scenario about what that would have meant, and how it’s related to the expulsion of Jews from Rome a few years before this letter was probably written.

The book of Romans is Paul’s longest writing, and seems really long for a letter. Nevertheless, it has “letter form,” with a greeting from Paul, to his audience, a preamble, followed by the body of the letter, and then closing remarks, further greetings, and conclusion. In the case of this letter, the body of the letter is long and tightly organized. But our text is at the beginning, right after the introduction, in a preamble that concludes with what our study Bible identifies as Paul’s “purpose statement” in verses 16-17.

We should be aware that Paul’s formal opening in verses 1-7 includes a summary identification of the substance of “the gospel” in verses 1-6 – the same gospel he will say he is not ashamed of in verse 16. This seems vital.

Verses 16-17 are in the lectionary, along with Romans 3:22-31, for either the 9th Sunday after Epiphany (good luck needing that in a liturgical year), OR the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, whatever that is after Pentecost, year A (which can also get bumped by the calendar, as it will in 2023). It seems the lectionary makers wanted to give those verses a chance to be heard in church eventually, but not a good one.
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CLOSER READING: At first it might look like this text is mostly about Paul trying to find something nice to say to the people on the other end of the letter. If we look a little more closely, he seems to be communicating something about the nature of faith.

In v8, he “gives thanks” – a verb that gives us our word “eucharist” – literally “about” or “concerning” all you-all. The NRSV says “for you” – but I think it’s more the kind of “for” in “I thank God for trees and sunsets” than the “for” in “I thank God for you and your lugwrench that time I had a flat tire.”

Their faith – a word that will be repeated in some variation another five times in these verses – is famous. Proclaimed in all the world. So: for some reason, this famous faith is something for Paul to be thankful for. It is probably not obvious to us what that reason is, even though we might think it is.

Verses 9-10 are odd. I think. Maybe because I am an introvert. If we assume Paul is being frank, rather than polite or just saying something to be saying something, he is describing an intense, constant longing to visit these Roman church folks. And he is describing it with reference to how he serves God, in his spirit, in the gospel, of God’s son Jesus Christ. [We can refer back to vv1-6 here.] So, it’s a theological and spiritual longing to spend time with them in person.

Verses 11-12 give a motive: Paul wants to give them some spiritual gift – that’s a charisma kind of gift, not the more typical dōro kind, which seems noteworthy. He wants to do this for the fixing, firming up, setting securely in place kind of “strengthening,” not the general “pumping you up” kind. That also seems noteworthy.

Verse 12, more particularly, to be “mutually encouraged,” literally, paracleted-together by each others’ faith. The paraclete word, as in John 16:17. So here’s a little picture of the inside of Paul’s mind, in which we see faithful people’s faith holding up other faithful people and their faith. People’s faith fixes, firms up, stabilizes, secures other people’s faith.

In verse 13, where NRSV translates “reap a harvest,” in Greek it is literally “might have some fruit in you.” It is not obvious to me that “reaping a harvest” is the right image here. Especially coming from the author of Galatians 5.

[But maybe I am wrong about this. Whenever I think harvest I think wheat. But people harvest olives, too, which are fruit, and he is going to talk about olives later on in this letter.]

This fruit that he is having or the harvest he is reaping is specifically in “Gentiles.”

[Unless it would be better to say, “nations”? Or even, “ethnicities”? Technically, Israel would be one of those, too. I think we ALWAYS translate this word as “Gentiles,” and we probably should. Except that in this context, where he is not specifically contrasting the ethnesin and Israel, I wonder whether he is doing something a little crafty and inclusive with this word, which we miss by translating it as “Gentiles.”]

Then in verse 14, Paul is a debtor to different kinds of other people. The harvest / fruit seems to be what puts him in people’s debt. So we could ask ourselves how that works.

The list of people to whom he is a debtor – Greeks, barbarians, wise, foolish – seems kind of edgy as a comparison to his audience. “I’ve gotten things from all kinds of people, respectable and total low lifes, smart and stupid, so of course I want to come see you-all.” ??? What exactly did he just say about them?

Specifically he wants to come proclaim the gospel. [So now, we refer back to v9, and vv 1-6, already in our minds, to remember what this means.]

In vv16-17,

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.”

Romans 1:16-17 (NRSV)

We might ask ourselves why Paul would make a reference to being ashamed of the gospel in the first place. Who is ashamed of the gospel, or would be, and why? Or, what is or would someone be ashamed of, instead of the gospel? That is – what is the contrasting situation of being ashamed that he’s denying here by saying that he’s not ashamed of the gospel?

Now is the first time he mentions “Jew and Greek.” Note that he contrasts Jew with Greek and not with “Gentiles” or “ethnicities.” This reinforces my suspicion that earlier, he is trying to use an inclusive word for “nations” or “groups of people,” one that might at least technically include both Jews and Greeks.

If I were going to use clunky elementary Greek, which is the only kind I have, I would understand the last part of v17 as saying the righteousness of God is revealed from (out of) faith unto (into) faith. As it is written, “the one who is righteous will live from (out of) faith.”

This point about how the righteousness of God is revealed out of faith unto or into faith probably ought to make us think deeply about what Paul is saying about the gospel – what is the content of that gospel revelation, how does that content come out of faith, and how does that content go into faith? We presumably learn more about this as the letter unfolds.

As to the out of / into, I refer to what I mainly know about Greek prepositions [see panels 11 & 13 in particular]:

But Paul is quoting Habakkuk 2:4, and there it says (as I understand it in my own language) the one who is righteous will live by faithfulness / steadfastness / loyalty.

Which puts a different spin on this whole faith = belief idea.

Language. It’s what we think with.
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Saint Paul writing

Images: “Saint Paul mosaic,” by Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “An Adventure with a Lion,” from University of North Carolina Department of Classical Studies website; “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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