I often wonder, as people who read the Scriptures in a world and a context so far removed from the ones in which they were written, how much we lose, or have lost, in our comprehension of them. Can we really comprehend what they are saying, if we don’t have some understanding of the world in which they were written? We hear the Scriptures read, or we read them ourselves, and because we either don’t know the backstory, or because we are so familiar with the text itself, we read and our hearts are not stirred; we read, and we are not convicted; we read, and a fog of incomprehension descends upon our minds, and we are not converted. Now I know this is not always the case. I know this is a gross generalization and exaggeration. But I know too, at least for me, many parts of Scripture leave me yawning. I don’t know why something is important, and I can’t be bothered figuring it out. It would be better if I were at least scratching my head wondering what it means. Instead, I simply move on until at last a ray of light penetrates the fog of my incomprehension. And that is the danger. When our incomprehension fogs our understanding, the meaning, and the power of Scripture is lost to us, and even for us. When that happens, Scripture loses its ability to stir, convict, and convert us.
I say all of this, because these few verses of Romans that were read tonight, are dense with meaning, and pack a punch we may fail to feel, and it begins with a phrase and an image which Paul uses several times throughout this letter: the Jew first, and also to the Greek. Paul uses this phrase, almost exactly word for word, three times in all. At the same time, he repeats over and over this Jew – Gentile pairing. Clearly, he is trying to tell us something. And what he is saying, he says, I think, in verse 16, the first verse of our lesson this evening.
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.”
It’s important to remember that when Paul uses the word gospel, he is not referring to a particular book, but to the whole of what we would call salvation history, from the moment God spoke the words, let there be light, to the moment the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples like tongues of fire, and beyond, even to this very day. What we see in salvation history is what Paul knows as gospel, the faithfulness of God demonstrated in the faithfulness of Christ, to bring about the salvation of all people, the Jew first, and also the Greek.
That faithfulness we see demonstrated by God throughout salvation history, is for Paul the underlying characteristic of God. For Paul, God is always faithful. We on the other hand may be unrighteousness, ungodly, unfaithful, and foolish, but God is always faithful. It is God’s constant faithfulness, in the face of everything, that marks God as God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. It is God’s faithfulness, to God’s people, in the face of everything, that marks God as God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Over the last thirty some years, I have done almost every job there is to be done in the community. One of the jobs I did for a number of years was that of HR. I was involved in every aspect of our relations with employees. As HR Brother, I learned a legal phrase, which rather amused me. You may be familiar with it: arbitrary and capricious. As an employer I could not be arbitrary and capricious. What I did for one, I had to do for all, and whatever I did, I needed to back it up with a paper trail. If I could not document the steps I had taken, in making a decision, that decision could be challenged in court as arbitrary and capricious, especially if with a different employee, I had made a different decision.
Paul lived in a world where the gods of the Greeks and the Romans, indeed the gods of the Gentiles were arbitrary and capricious. These gods behaved in despotic ways, on a whim, or a fancy, without forewarning, or apparent motive. This however is not the way, that the God whom Jesus knew as Abba, and Paul knew as the Creator, acted. This God, this Abba, this Creator, who could be known, honoured, understood, and even seen through the things he has made was neither arbitrary, nor capricious. Instead, this God, the God of Jesus, and of Paul, this Abba, this Creator, was everlastingly faithful, offering salvation to all, the Jew first and also to the Greek.
And that is the good news of Paul, who is not ashamed of the gospel of God’s faithfulness to all, which he proclaims.
Like our ancestors in the faith, you and I may very well be arbitrary and capricious, but God is faithful. Like the powers of Greece and Rome, the powers of this world may very well be arbitrary and capricious, but God is faithful. Like the gods of Greece and Rome, the gods of this world may very well be arbitrary and capricious, but Paul’s God, Jesus’ God, is faithful, and that, in an arbitrary and capricious world is good news indeed.
Unless we know something about the arbitrary and capricious world in which Paul lived, we cannot comprehend how good the news of the gospel of a faithful God was, to the people who heard him, Jew and Greek alike. Unless we know something of the arbitrary and capricious nature of the people who made up Paul’s audience, we cannot comprehend how good the news of the gospel of a faithful God was, to the people who heard him. Unless we know that our world, is not all that different than Paul’s, we cannot comprehend how good the news of the gospel of a faithful God is, to all those to whom he speaks today.
It is so easy to turn away from Scripture, written in a world and a context so far removed from ours. Yet the good news of the gospel of God’s faithfulness to all people, proclaimed in an arbitrary and capricious world, which stirred, convicted, and converted Paul’s audience, Jew and Greek alike, has the power to stir, convict, and convert us, who live in an arbitrary and capricious world, and not us alone, but to all, all who look for the salvation of God by living lives of righteousness.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Year 1, Proper 23
 Romans 1: 16
 Romans 1: 16 – 17
 Genesis 1: 3
 Acts 2: 1ff
 Romans 1: 20
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.