A Sermon Based Upon Romans 1: 1-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 22nd, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 4/15)
During our mission work, one of Christian youth from Georgia was staying in a former East German home. The host mother came up to me and made a statement I had never heard before and have never heard since. She said to me, “Pastor, I have no trouble with belief in God, but it's Jesus that I struggle with.” She went to explain that she could imagine a spiritual force behind the world, or even a creator, but she could not fathom God living on earth in flesh and bones.
Strangely, in spite of the resistance some have, it is exactly this belief that God was revealed in human “flesh and bones” which formed the center Christian faith expressed in the Apostle’s Creed. Our faith confesses Jesus Christ as ‘the word’ which ‘became flesh and lived among us’ ‘...full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14). Additionally, in an early Christian letter, John warned that anyone in the church who did not ‘confess that Jesus came in the flesh’ is ‘a deceiver’ and worst, should be considered ‘antichrist’ (1 Jn. 4:2-3, 2 Jn. 2:7).
However you look at it, the church took the Incarnation very seriously. The astounding, mind boggling question remains even today: Why did those first Christians, who were also devout Jews, who as a part of their daily prayer, prayed: ‘Hear o Israel, the Lord our God is one”—how did they come to believe that Jesus was God’s ‘only Son’?
JESUS: DESCENDED…ACCORDING TO THE FLESH (3).
In Paul’s most important letter to Rome, the opening lines are ‘pointers’ to what the Apostle’s Creed affirms about Jesus. One of the very first things Paul asserts is that Jesus ‘was descended from David according to the flesh’ (v.3). In other words, Jesus was a real ‘flesh and blood’ person, who lived as an actual, historical man.
I know this sounds elementary, but there are people today who have attempted to debate, dispute, and doubt whether Jesus actually lived; some even writing books, articles and documents asserting that the gospel accounts are fabrications by the early church---figments of religious imagination. In response this chatter, Dr. Bart Ehrman, a well –respected ‘secular’ New Testament scholar, who is also an agnostic, recently addressed anyone who might deny that Jesus actually lived. He wrote: “In a society in which people still claim that the Holocaust never happened …. it isn’t any surprise that some claim that the greatest person in the history western civilization, who is worshiped by billions, never existed.”
(From Ehrman’s article on Blog of Huffington Post).
There is much more that could be said about Jesus as a real person, even about the name “Jesus”, which means “Joshua”, the Lord Saves. Today we place special significance in that name,’ but then, before it was combined with the title, Christ, it was just another Jewish name, referring to an itinerant Jewish preacher, who lived and died in 1st century Palestine, ‘according to the flesh’.
However we come to think about Jesus, the Creed reminds that first of all, we must believe that he was a real ‘man of his own time’. When I was in college, I recall a speaker who came for chapel, claiming that if Jesus were to walk into the auditorium today, we would all be impressed by his muscular build, his intellect, and his winning personality, and even his good looks. Jesus was the ‘perfect man,’ he told us. I found the whole point quite ridiculous. Jesus’ perfection was about his moral nature, not his physical stature. That fellow was saying nothing important about Jesus, because before you say or believe anything else about Jesus, you must affirm that he was human like anyone of us.
CHRIST:..PROMISED BEFOREHAND (2)
The second name Paul uses to express his faith in Jesus is “Christ.” Christ is not Jesus’ last name, but it is a designation claiming that Jesus was ‘the Christ’---the ‘promised,’ long awaited Messiah, who was to be the anointed savior of Israel. Paul echoed this expectation, saying that Jesus was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures’ (v. 2). In Mark’s gospel, Simon Peter was first to call Jesus “the Christ” (Mark 8:29).
Strangely enough, Jesus’ earliest followers declared him not only Messiah, but the ‘crucified Messiah’ (‘We preach Christ crucified’, 1 Cor. 1:23). This is something that had never been considered before. Most expectations were that when the Messiah came Israel would no longer suffer from the hand of oppressors, and instead would become the religious and political center of the world (Isaiah 56: 5-8). But this generally held expectation was not fulfilled; at least not as most of devout Israel expected, including Simon Peter (Mark 8: 31-33). What did happen, in what we now know as the gospel story, was as incredible as it was unimaginable. God’s Messiah would be God’s Messiah on God’s terms.
Of course, most of us have no problem believing that Jesus came to be the “Christ” who died for our sins. But some still find how and why it happened the way it did disturbing. In other words, the question is as alive today as ever: why did Jesus have to die such an awful death? Could God not have established forgiveness and redemption in some other way?
The creed has more to say about Christ’s suffering, but for now we need to know that the only Old Testament expectation of such great ‘suffering’ was from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of an unnamed ‘suffering servant’. This was generally not taken to be a person, but it was generally interpreted to be a picture of the pain Israel would undergo under to be a ‘light to the nations’ (Isa. 42.6; 49:6; 60:3; Lk 2.32) or be ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Ex. 19:6) (http://outreachjudaism.org/gods-suffering-servant-isaiah-53/).
What was not fully understood, even by those first followers of Jesus, was that the one ‘wounded for our transgressions’, and ‘bruised for iniquities’ (Isa. 53.5) would be the Messiah. Jesus took this role upon himself when he explained to his disciples that ‘the son of man must suffer’ (Mk 8.31). In contrast, Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 7: 1-14) has a future ‘Son of Man’ sent by God to rescue and to redeem Israel by establishing God’s eternal Kingdom. Jesus himself chooses to combine this ‘saving role’ in Daniel, with the ‘suffering role’ in Isaiah. By doing this, Jesus accomplished in himself what Israel could not accomplish for itself.
But here comes the most interesting part. What does a saving and suffering Jewish Messiah have to do with those of us who are not Jewish? The gospel of Matthew opens with an angel announcing that the child ‘named Jesus’, will ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1.21). Even then, still no one expected Jesus to save his people through suffering. This message of a crucified messiah (Christ Crucified) was a ‘stumbling stone’ (1 Cor. 1.23) to the Jews, who rejected him, just as it was ‘foolishness’ (1 Cor. 1.23) to the Greeks—or the Gentiles. In other words, the question then, and still the question today is why should anyone believe in Jesus Christ? Why should we we who are neither Jewish, not very religious, who are more secular than ever, and perhaps even not spiritually minded at all---why should any of us, need to believe in Jesus, who was, by not only a Jewish Messiah, but he by most every human indication, was also a ‘failed’ Jewish messiah.
I find this question of ‘what a Jewish Messiah should mean for non-Jews’ most intriguing because it was exactly this kind of question that Jesus himself unexpected confronted in one of the most unique gospel stories. This story is found only in Mark’s gospel (7:24-30). It is a story of the only argument Jesus ever lost---and he lost it to a Gentile woman. This is also a disturbing story, because Jesus seems ‘‘caught with his compassion down’ (Sharon Ringe).
In the account, a non-Jewish woman comes asking Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Jesus refuses. “Let the children be bed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”(v.27). So, here we have Jesus referring to a woman in need with a common prejudiced Jewish slur which named all Gentiles ‘dogs’. No matter how you interpret this, as my mother would say “That’s not very nice!”. Stranger still is the fact that this story appears in a gospel written to reach out to Gentiles?
There have been many attempts to soften what Jesus said, but there is really no way to get around that calling someone a ‘dog’, then or now, is an insult. And It is the Gentile woman, who turns the insult on it’s head by answering, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”(v.28). With this great come-back, her Gentile faith and confidence in Jesus shines, despite the insult. And in response to her surprising and astounding faith, Jesus concedes and heals her daughter.
This is story certainly doesn't make Jesus look good, which may be why no other gospel writer included it. While there is more behind this exchange than the gospel writer tells us, why did this Gentile woman dare approach this Jewish healer in the first place? In the same way, why should we dare believe and call Jesus our Christ—our Messiah too?
SON: DECLARED TO BE SON OF GOD (4)
The answer to why this woman needed Jesus then is the same as why we need Jesus now. It's an answer that comes in the very specific way Jesus Christ is named next in the creed as God’s ‘only son’. Paul clarified what this means, introducing Jesus to the Romans as ‘declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4).
Pay close attention to what 'only Son’ implies. Jesus is the unique ‘only Son’ because God raised him from the dead ‘with power’…by the resurrection from the dead’ (v. 4). This means that Jesus is no longer a failed Messiah. He was raised with the ‘power’ we all need in the face of our shared date with destiny and death. We may have ‘eternity in our hearts’ (Ecc. 3:11), but we are also people who bear the ‘wages of sin, which is death’ (Rom. 6:23). Without God’s power that is given to the Son, there is no hope--none.
OUR LORD: ….TO BRING ABOUT THE OBEDIENCE OF FAITH (4c-6)
Amazingly, what this creed declares, and everything the gospel story proclaims, is that this ‘power’ over death is, through Jesus, a gift of hope now given to all God’s sons and daughters. In our text, Paul says his mission was ‘to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name’ (v. 5). This ‘obedience of faith ’ which strangely moved from Jew to Gentile, through a crucified Messiah, only makes sense, if God indeed did raise Jesus from the dead.
We make this Jesus our Savior, by making Jesus our Lord. But notice that this assumes the community of faith along with your personal faith in him. The creed does not call him ‘my lord’ but ‘OUR Lord’. It’s much the same in the whole New Testament. This not accidental , but intentional. The Bible knows no ‘Lone Ranger faith’. We are in this together, or we are not in this at all. We are called to be a part of his body, the church; or we have no true part of his saving power for life.
I realize this kind of inclusive, relational, and community language goes against the very individualized, self-focused, and self-sufficient American culture. As I wrote this, five Dallas police officers were ambushed and gunned down by an angry gunman. One wonders, how many people will have to die before our society learns we have to work together, or nothing works at all? Interestingly, about the same time this terrible event unfolded in Dallas, an American writer released a book about the difficulty many American soldiers are having when they return from serving overseas in war zones. That writer, who embedded himself with the military for months, learned that, while only a few soldiers actually see combat, many more than that come home suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress. He asserts that the surprising reason has much more due to what kind of society they come home to, than the stress they experienced overseas. While serving in the armed forces live in a community that takes care of each other, even though there is danger all around. When they return to the states, they come home to live in a relatively safe environment, but one that is selfish, lonesome, cold and too often cruel. The writer believes that the real problem is not what's wrong with them, but what’s wrong with us, and with our society (Based on Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe).
When secular writers start ‘preaching’ to us, you know a society is in serious trouble. When the creed speaks of OUR need of a “Lord” and of ‘the obedience of faith’, we need to realize that this life of ‘obedience’ is not for God’s sake alone. Jesus is to be named ‘OUR Lord’ so that we come together in him. As someone has said, ‘If Jesus and his love can’t pull us together, then there is nothing else on earth that can.’
Isn’t it incredible that the Bible and the Creed only speak the truth about Jesus as they also call us to face the truth in ourselves? This is why the ‘truth that sets us free’ is just not any kind of truth; but it is the truth about Jesus. Jesus is the ‘truth, the way, and the life’ exactly because he is our also our final destiny. Here, let Paul’s words about Jesus’ lordship be the final words ringing in our ears: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed-- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:9-13 NIV). Amen.