I must be crazy! Last November when I prayed and thought over sermon texts for this year, I felt led to tackle preaching through the epistle to the Romans. The first chapters seemed appropriate to Lent and the remainder could be spread through the summer and the fall.
However, as I embark on the first of these messages for this coming Sunday, I realize that in order to reach the goal of working through the letter before Advent I’ve forced myself to bite off impossibly large chunks. So for this week it’s: Romans 1:1-17. It would probably take at least 6 sermons to do that text justice!
So I’m afraid that I will do a rather cursory job of the first fifteen verses and zero in on the last two, particularly verse 17, which is often identified as the theme of the letter, with it’s closing quotation/paraphrase from Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous [just] will live by faith.”
Still, I will want to call attention to verse 5 for it’s statement of Paul’s mission and here choose a more literal translation than the TNIV’s “faith and obedience.” Paul says the apostles “received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience of faith for his name’s sake.” That phrase “the obedience of faith” seems nearly as strong a theme as the “The righteous will live by faith.”
The interpretation of these phrases is fraught with complexity and the options are many. But when you juxtapose verse 5 and “the obedience of faith” with verse 17 and “the righteous will live by faith,” there seems to be another dimension in the latter besides the Reformers’ emphasis on sola fidei (“faith alone”). There is an ongoing and practical outworking of faith in the lives of those who experience it. It manifests itself in obedience, in living by that faith.`
The above does not eliminate the idea that by faith one shall live in the sense of escaping eternal death for the blessing of eternal life. In other words, faith is the key to salvation, to true life. That’s true, but Paul’s concept of faith in Romans is clearly not as a cognitive ticket to heaven, but as an experience which makes life in Christ possible beginning now, especially in the form of obedience.
The sermon title phrase, “from faith to faith” (translated “by faith from first to last” by the TNIV) remains mysterious. I’m drawn to Origen’s notion that it picks up on the order of the Gospel first to Jew and then to Gentile in verse 16. So the righteousness of God is revealed both in the Old Testament faith of the Jews and then in the New Testament faith of Christians. But commentaries tell me that’s unlikely. Oh well.
For our purposes Sunday there’s another unlikely suggestion that “faith to faith” is the passing of the good news from one believer to another person. It identifies the way in which God’s revealed righteousness actually becomes known in the world. That actually seems to fit with the passing of faith from Jew to Gentile ala Origen.
As anyone who’s read this far can see, it’s all terribly complicated, way more than I want to tackle in a twenty-five minute sermon. And I still haven’t been blessed with any stories or images to crystallize it all in a way that will preach. I’ve got some ideas floating around our weird decision to celebrate St. Patrick this Sunday in combination with Paul’s desire to journey to Rome (both men went captive to their destinations, Paul to Rome, Patrick to Ireland), but it’s all inchoate as yet.
So pray for me and rejoice that God saves us and gives us faith even when we remain well short of sorting out all the theology and biblical interpretation.