Romans 1: 1-17
May 7, 2023
There is an Indian parable about blind men and an elephant.
In the story, these men heard that a strange animal, called an “elephant,” had been brought to their town. There had never been an elephant in the community before, so they have never been exposed to one.
So, they sought out the elephant and its handler, and when they found the pair, they were allowed to touch the animal to develop an image in their minds of the beast.
The first person’s hand landed on the trunk, and said “The elephant is like a thick snake.”
Another man’s hand reached its ear. He said that it seemed to him like a kind of a fan. Another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.
The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall.”
Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope.
The last man’s hand felt the elephant’s tusk, and described it as being like a spear.
The men’s descriptions … all anchored in their knowledge and experience … were correct for the portion they felt … but incorrect for the larger picture … on his own each man cannot fully describe an entire elephant.
To do so required a group effort.
If we were to place ourselves in the role of the blind persons and the gospel in place of the elephant, how would we describe it?
… the writings of four authors with four different focuses?
… the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension?
… offers the promise of salvation … of grace?
What portions of the gospel can we best describe and what parts need to be fleshed out for us by others’ knowledge and experience?
If we were to describe the gospel to someone who has had no exposure to it, what would we say? How would we describe our relationship to the gospel or to God? Would we be able to describe how the gospel informs our identity?
Last week, we heard of how the Spirit led to Paul and Barnabas being sent out to be apostles for the gentiles. We see the fruition of that call in Paul’s full letter to the congregations in Rome.
This morning’s passage from Paul’s letter provides a fuller description of Paul … of his service to God … and of the gospel that he proclaims in his travels.
Bear in mind, that Paul is writing to one of the congregations that he didn’t plant.
In Paul’s day, it would be the usual practice that he would be introduced to the congregation or the community by a member who knew him or who had worked with him. But, Paul had not been to the city yet and there was no personal relationship between him and any of the members of the congregations. So, he had to introduce himself.
The members would be familiar with Jesus’ teachings, but not with Paul. They would be like the men in the elephant parable … grasping parts of the gospel.
So, Paul has to lay out his apostolic credentials for the people.
Paul has to establish his identity … and to Paul that identity is tied to God … through Jesus and through the gospel.
The most important thing to know about Paul is Jesus Christ.
Paul tells the people that he is a servant of Christ … which implies a life of service. But our version of the Bible softens the tone of the verse a bit … a more accurate translation would be “slave of Christ.”
This would mean that Paul … in his humility … identifies himself with the bottom rung of the social system in Rome. He places himself in a position of total dependency … a dependency on Christ … upon God.
Paul makes it clear that he shares this dependency with all who share the apostolic call. It is a communal call that Paul fondly anticipates sharing with them.
Paul writes that:
“I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles.”
Learning … growing in understanding of God’s promise contained within the gospel … is an ongoing process for Paul … just as it is for us.
Through the Spirit, Paul has been “set apart” for the gospel. Paul is called to be an apostle, and he is writing to a group of people who are also called to be apostles, sent out among the gentiles. This is a call we share … and it is a call that sets us apart.
To Paul, being a follower of Christ means entering into a mutual relationship with one another. It represents an opportunity to be in community with other faithful followers.
It represents an opportunity to grow and learn together … to more fully understand the message and promise of the gospel … together.
We only have to look at the effort to form a joint ministry with Central Westside United to see that communal learning is still at work.
To Paul, the gospel is alive and active. Through the Spirit-initiated actions of the people, the gospel transforms lives and the life of the world.
In the final portion of the letter, Paul lays out the theme of the gospel … God’s righteousness is revealed through the cross … through the risen Christ. This is where the power lies within the gospel.
Theologian L. Ann Jervis describes the gospel as “a living entity – a power. It is God’s power.”
The purpose of this power is salvation … healing the world … making things right … bringing equality to life.
Near the end of this morning’s portion of the letter, Paul proclaims to the congregations in Rome that he is not ashamed of the gospel.
The gospel comes to us through the cross and crucifixion … a practice that was intended to be the most shameful act that could happen to a person. It was the way Rome had of punishing and dehumanizing people.
Yet, through Jesus’ death the cross is transformed into something else … through God’s actions, it becomes a way toward new life for all. This was a provocative claim for residents of Rome to hear.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the meat on the bones of Lutheran theology. It is where the power of the gospel receives its full voice.
Paul writes that the gospel is not a set of doctrines it not a set list of propositions or a recap of what God performed through Jesus Christ.
The gospel is the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore the people … all people.
Paul … echoing Habakkuk … writes that it is only through our faith in this promise that we truly live … fully and completely live … into the transformative love that is needed in the world.
We are invited to consider the Spirit’s actions in our lives during this time between Easter and Pentecost … to consider how live weinto our apostolic call … to consider if and how we come together … how we communicate … how we share the gospel with those around us.
And to consider how …when given the opportunity … we describe the gospel and how … perhaps … our descriptions … our experiences … fill in the gaps in others’ understanding of God’s promise and love for the world.
To consider how we describe the elephant in the room.