It was the seventh inning of Game Seven of the 2016 World Series. The Chicago Cubs were leading 6-3, and hoped bringing in dominant relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman to get the final outs would seal the victory for the Cubs and break their longtime curse – a 108 year World Series championship drought. An Indians double and a two-run home run later, and the game was tied. Cleveland had the momentum, and Cubbie faithful had the all too familiar “here-is-where-the-wheels-fall-off” and “the curse is still alive” despair. We’re going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Again. I mean, they’d had a three run lead. That’s like a 3 touchdown lead in football.
Then providence intervened: the rain picked up, and the Progressive Field grounds crew rolled out the rain tarp onto the field, forcing players, managers, and fans to hunker down and wait for the 10th inning of the tie game to continue. In the Cubs’ dugout, right fielder Jason Heyward sensed the same deflated and defeated spirits that Cubs fans were showing. So he called his team together to passionately challenge them to “remember who you are.” They thought they knew who they were – they were the Cubs, famous for losing records and almost-but-not-quite championship runs that just fell short. They had blown a three-run lead, and would probably blow the game and the World Series in the next inning or two. They always did. But Heyward reminded them of their new identity as the best regular season team in baseball in 2016. They were victors in the first two rounds of the playoffs that year, and a team that came back from a three games to one deficit to the Indians in the series to force a game 7. It was their game to win as much as it was to lose.
Heyward’s speech, reminding his team of who they were NOW, instead of THEN, brought life to the dugout. The Cubs bats exploded in the top of the 10th for two go-ahead run. The 2016 Cubs could have accepted inevitable defeat, choosing to be the team they had always been. Instead, the rallied, fueled by their teammates reminder that they weren’t the same team anymore. Now they were the National League champions, and they were one good offensive and defensive inning away from being World Series champs. Inspired by the truth of who they really were, they charged ahead and won their first World Series in 108 years.
Today we’re beginning a new series of sermons from the book of Romans, and that’s kind of what St. Paul does in Romans. He reminds us of what we are NOW in Christ, and what we are supposed to be doing. Romans has been called “the most profound writing that exists.” Martin Luther, the first of the church Reformers, called Romans “the true masterpiece of the New Testament and the very purest gospel, which is well worth and deserving that a Christian … should not only learn it by heart, word for word, but also that he should daily deal with it as the daily bread of [the human] soul. It can never be too much or too well read or studied, and the more it is handled the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.” Chrysostom, one of the greatest of the church fathers, had Romans read to him in its entirety twice a week.
It’s a daunting task to preach through Romans. Try to do it in the popular 8-12 week sermon series and you’ll never do her 16 chapters justice. John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, set aside 225 sermons to preach through the book. That would have been 4.5 years of sermons if he were preaching weekly, but like most pastors, he takes a break regularly. It took John over 6.5 years to preach through Romans. Another pastor took 54 sermons to work through the book. That’s just over a year, assuming that whoever preached at that church on a given week was preaching from Romans. Donald Grey Barnhouse spoke from Romans in depth on his weekly radio program from 1949 until his death in 1960. That’s 11 years. Now we aren’t going to take 11 years to go through Romans, although you can buy Barnhouse’s study of Romans in a collection of four books and I highly recommend them. And we aren’t going to take 6 years. But we are going to break Romans up into three segments. We’ll preach through the first 6 chapters or so now through the end of June in a series called “Going Deep.” Then we’ll take a break from Romans for the summer and come back to it next fall from September through the start of Advent. We’ll then take another break from Romans during Advent and Christmas later this year and finish it up with a series called “Transformed” next winter. At least that’s the plan. Today, we’re looking at Romans 1:1-7.
Paul begins this long letter with a long introduction. Seven verses that start with From: Paul and ends with To: Roman followers of Jesus, but he puts a whole lot of extra stuff in between. Literary custom for letters in that day weren’t all that different than they are today. They added a “from” segment, and then it was pretty much “Dear so and so, I hope you are well.” So “Grace to you and peace” would be pretty common words. But Paul really breaks custom with his greeting here, and he wasn’t dumb. He was actually incredibly highly educated. He knew how to write a normal letter. But he didn’t here, so we should be attention to what he says, because he’s setting custom aside for a reason. He wants us to know who he is, who Christ is, and who they are.
Look at V. 1. He identifies himself as a servant of Jesus, and as an apostle who has been set apart to share the good news about Jesus those who had not yet heard about him. And he leads with “servant.” That’s an interesting way for Paul to start his letter, because the typical Roman citizen detested servitude. They despised it, because it meant the loss of your freedom and thus, the loss of their dignity. Not a whole lot different than the typical American citizen today, actually. Now, a servant could possibly be an employee, but the more common rendering of the word Paul used here is “slave.” Paul, as he often does, calls himself a slave of Christ. In fact, he uses a word that specifically means “bond-servant.” In that day, it was fairly common for someone to wind up having to serve as a slave, a servant for a creditor if they could not pay their debts. They worked off their debt. In the ancient Jewish world, slaves were set free every seven years and their property was restored to them. But sometimes a slave realized that they were not very good at managing their life, which is why they ended up in debt to their master. Or the master was really good to them, and so a slave might choose to remain the slave of that master for life. So the slave and master would go down to the temple, and a priest would pierce the slave’s ear lobe with an awl, and that hole in the ear lobe would signify this person as a slave of the master for the rest of his life. It was a chosen life of servitude. Obviously it rarely happened, but it did happen. So Paul is saying, “I belong to Christ. I have set aside my precious freedom and become the property of another to do with as he wishes. I belong to my master. I belong to Christ.”
And he is a slave with a purpose. He is an apostle. They would have been very familiar with this word. It simply means “sent one,” but in this case, Paul is referring to himself by the very narrow definition of an apostle of Jesus as someone who had seen the risen Christ with his own eyes. Remember that Christ actually appeared to Paul at his conversion on the road to Damascus. In other words, I am about my master’s business, and I am speaking with his authority. These are not my thoughts. In fact, given my training as a Pharisee under Gamaliel, the greatest of the Jewish rabbis, and also at the University at Tarsus, one of the greatest universities in the world at the time, it’s unlikely that I could have made this up if I tried. In fact, I was on my way to Damascus to imprison and possibly kill anyone who identified themselves as a follower of this Jesus guy when Jesus himself showed up and knocked me off my horse. I didn’t make this up. I saw him. I spoke with him. And I belong to him and am doing his business. These are his words.”
And then he gets to the heart of it all – Jesus Christ. Look at Vv. 2-4. In the flesh a descendant of David through Joseph and the Messiah, the promised one. And in his resurrection proved to be the son of God, divine, whose powerful and life-giving Spirit flows through all who identify themselves with him. “And remember,” Paul says, “I’m an apostle. I SAW him.” To the church at Corinth Paul wrote “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Not “Six steps to a healthier you” or “How Jesus can fix your marriage” or “Five Biblical principles for managing your money.” Just Jesus. Doesn’t mean there aren’t practical, every day applications of Scripture. Of course there are! But the heart of the message was, is, and will always be “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” If anything else becomes the heart, we’ve lost our heart, our center, and gotten off track. “I decided to know NOTHING among you except Jesus Christ …” Christ is the heart of it all and the reason we do everything we do.
And the entirety of Scripture, the entire Bible points to Christ. Look again at V. 2. From Genesis to Revelation, the pages of Scripture tell his story, reveal him to us. They are his words spoken to us. The Law, the Prophets, the sacrifices and rituals, the events and the history, the songs and the poetry, it all foreshadows and points to Christ. The very history of the people of Israel pointed them to Christ. They were a living, breathing arrow pointing to Christ. In Matthew, Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). The Law was a way of referring to the books of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, and the prophets referred to much of the rest of it. And the phrase “The Law and the Prophets” was often the New Testament way of referring to the Old Testament in its entirety. So what was Jesus saying? “Every word of the Old Testament was pointing toward me.” In speaking of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, Martin Luther said Christ is “enfolded in the old, unfolded in the new.” Someone else said “The new is in the old contained, the old is in the new explained.” Christ is the heart of every word, and is the key to unlocking every word. It all points to him.
Now, Paul wants us to understand something as we read this letter, because he’s about to launch into an in-depth, detailed exploration of the human condition apart from Christ, and with Christ, and it gets pretty dark. He paints a bleak picture of humanity. He digs pretty deep. So this slave and apostle of Christ gives us something to anchor ourselves to, something to hold on to, a light to illuminate even the darkest depths of the human soul: we are loved by God and belong to Christ.
Donald Grey Barnhouse tells the story of a young man whose mother loved him dearly. But he made several poor decisions in life that led him deeper and deeper into sin. He fell in love with an evil woman who dragged him even deeper into sin. His mother kept trying to help him get his life on track, but he resisted her efforts, and his lover resented the mother. One night, the woman told him that she didn’t think he really loved her. He was drunk, and she told him that if he really loved her he would get rid of his mother. As the story goes, he ran from the room to the house nearby where his mother lived, and he beat her until she died, and then he tore her heart from her body to carry back to his lover as proof of his love. Gory scene. But as he rushed home drunk, having just beaten his mother to death and torn her heart out of her body, he tripped and fell, and from the bleeding heart, there came a voice, “My son, are you hurt?” That is the love of God. That is the way God loves you. We don’t pursue him. If anything, we run away from him, and that is exactly the picture that Paul paints in Romans. We run from God, and he pursues us until our dying breath, offering us life. And the fact that so many of us reject him is the greatest of tragedies. We are loved by God.
And we belong to Christ. We tend to think that Christ belongs to us. That we ADD Christ to OUR lives. But all of the things Paul said about himself as a slave and apostle … they’re true of every follower of Christ. We aren’t apostles like Paul was, but we too are “set apart” for God’s use. Wait pastor. Are you saying that every one of us is “set apart” and should study to be a pastor? No. But every person who places their faith in Christ and follows Christ belongs to Christ and is set apart for his use. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). In other words, you belong to Christ. He purchased you with his blood. Not only is he my savior. He is my Lord. My master. What does that make me? His slave.
You are deeply loved by God. And you belong to Christ, to serve his purpose. And what is that purpose? To reveal his love. You are a living, breathing, walking, testament to the love of God. It is not just the pastor and the missionary who are set apart for the work of God. Paul was actually a tent-maker by trade and we know that he engaged in his trade wherever he went. You are set apart for God’s use wherever you find yourself … as a lawyer, as a doctor, as a teacher, as a laborer, as a mechanic, as a parent, as a spouse, as a friend, as an athlete, as a retiree, as a volunteer, even sick in bed, you have been set apart for the work of God.
The story appeared a while ago in the news of an elderly woman who had finished shopping and returned to her car. She found four men inside the car. She dropped her shopping bags, drew a handgun, and screamed, “I have a gun, and I know how to use it! Get out of the car.” Those men did not wait for a second invitation; they got out and ran like crazy.
The woman, somewhat shaken, loaded her shopping bags and then got into the car. But no matter how she tried, she could not get her key into the ignition. Then it dawned on her: her car was parked four or five spaces away! She loaded her grocery bags into her own car and then drove to the police station to turn herself in. The desk sergeant to whom she told the story nearly fell off his chair laughing. He pointed to the other end of the counter, where four men were reporting a carjacking by an old woman with thick glasses and curly white hair, less than five feet tall, and carrying a large handgun. No charges were filed.
She thought it was her car, but it really belonged to someone else. We think our lives are our own, but they really belong to God.[i] Christ doesn’t belong to us. You and I, we belong to Christ and we are each deeply, deeply loved by him. That truth will transform your life.
[i] Greg Laurie, “A Time to Worship,” Decision (November 2001);