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Lent 1: When in Romans

March 6, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The First Sunday Lent / Celebrate the Gifts of Women, March 5, 2017. This is the first of a five-part series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, called “Justice, Generosity and Joy.”

Romans 1:1-17 and 15:14 – 16:2

I have just come back from a two-day retreat at our Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center in Holmes New York. My colleagues were ordained ministers, commissioned lay pastors, and ruling elders who serve on the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. Our committee helps people discern God’s call to ordained or commissioned ministry.

In today’s passage from Romans, we meet Phoebe, a minister of the church in Cenchreae, a city on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean near Corinth. Take that in for a moment. Phoebe was a minister in the early church. She is called a diakonos in Greek, a word that is always translated as minister or missionary when describing a man, but as deacon, deaconess, servant or even ‘helper’ when describing women. One translation completely erases her ministry and simply calls her a “dear Christian woman.” Ugh. She was a minister!

So I want to take a moment right here and ask you, especially those of you who are women, if you have ever felt God urging you into ministry. Perhaps a friend has suggested it to you or during a time of prayer you’ve felt God nudging you. If so, please know my office door is open and I would like to talk with you and help you discern next steps.

Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans in the spring of 58 while he was on a three-month visit to Corinth. He composed it just before leaving for Jerusalem. And he sent Phoebe on ahead of him to Rome, where he hoped to visit next. Phoebe was present when the letter was composed, and may have helped shape the contents. She undoubtedly, though, shaped its reception, for it was Phoebe who was entrusted to orally present the letter to the house churches.

Chapter sixteen tells us that Phoebe was not only a minister; she was the financial benefactor of Paul’s mission and probably planned to bankroll his proposed mission to Spain. In fact, she was likely in Rome to raise funds for Paul’s mission to Spain.

I’ve taken the title of my sermon this morning from a new book by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, who taught at Princeton when I was there and now teaches at Baylor. I never had a class with her, but her husband Bill was my supervisor at Somerset Medical Center while I was pursuing clinical pastoral education. Her new book, When in Romans is an invitation to linger with the gospel according to Paul.[1] (I have posted an interview with Professor Gaventa on the church Facebook page.)


The title, of course, alludes to the aphorism, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This actually goes all the way back to Saint Augustine who said

When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but here in Milan I do not. You should also follow the custom of whatever church you attend, if you do not want to give or receive scandal.

But that very attitude raises questions of its own, doesn’t it? It begs the question of what is essential to faith and what is a matter of custom. Yet we could also read it as an invitation to immerse ourselves in the worldview, the society, the economics and politics of the city of Rome 50 years after the birth of Jesus. To imagine how people living in this capitol city of the Empire might have heard and interpreted Paul’s message to them. And that is what I’d like to invite us to do. To imagine; shepherded by what we know of history, language, and culture.

This is the beginning a five-part sermon series called “Justice, Generosity and Joy,” based on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Romans is notoriously difficult to read. We don’t share Paul’s worldview any more. We don’t share his rhetorical style or form of argumentation. We don’t know exactly to whom he was writing; scholars still argue about this. In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation by discovering what he believed was Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Romans. But then 60 years ago Krister Stendahl published an important book that showed us that we don’t have to and actually shouldn’t read Romans through Martin Luther – as important a figure in the Reformation as he was.[2] First of all Paul is writing about communities and their life together, not about individuals. Romans is hard to read not only because of its structure but because we already think we know what it’s about before we open the Bible. That’s why Roman’s is notoriously difficult to read. We have to lay aside our preconceptions and imagine our way back into the setting where Paul composed a letter that was orally delivered by a minister, Phoebe, to small house churches scattered throughout the city of Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire.

A Word on Translation: Throughout Lent, we want to try and hear the Apostle Paul’s words to the house churches in Rome in a fresh way. The translation we will be using is drawn largely from the work of Ted Jennings, a professor of constructive theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, a Methodist preacher, and a philosopher. It adheres closely to the Greek, but attempts always to capture the apostle’s meaning while avoiding certain words that are so burdened with meanings drawn from other sources (other scriptures, historical use in liturgy and song, theological and devotional writing) as to mean something quite different than what the apostle meant. For example, in the Ancient World the word gospel generally means the announcement of a Roman military victory, a triumph for Caesar, Lord and Savior of the Empire and “bringer of peace.” Since, to our religious ears, gospel automatically refers to the stories about Jesus, Prof. Jennings translates the word for gospel as “glad announcement” “good news,” or “triumph.” The familiar word Lord is rendered Leader; grace may be translated as generosity or favor; faith is sometimes fidelity, loyalty, or faithfulness, depending on the context; justice is used instead of righteousness. It’s close to the text to translate it in this way. Finally, the name and title “Jesus Christ” will be heard as Joshua Messiah, both Hebrew originals for the Greek substitute, Jesus Christ, we have carried over into English. Please listen to the letter as it is read each week. Do not follow along in your pew Bible. For after all, no house-church member would have had a copy of Paul’s letter.[3]

Today what I want you to do is listen. Listen anew to these words spoken by the minister Phoebe who shaped not only their content but their delivery. Imagine you are living under the rule of the Roman Empire. Some of you citizens, others slaves. Most of you poor, a very few of you artisans. Even less of you are wealthy. Imagine you are sitting with your household, listening to Phoebe. Children are present. Some animals are present. You have probably eaten something together before Phoebe begins. At certain points, you may interrupt her or press back. Imagine this as more interactive presentation rather than one-way communication. You are the one, though, who has to fill in the gaps.[4]

Today not only begins the Season of Lent, but Women’s History Month and is observed in the Presbyterian Church as “Celebrate the Gifts of Women” Sunday. We are going to hear Paul’s Letter to the Romans in one woman’s voice throughout Lent. Sharon Callender has agreed to play the role of Phoebe, to give voice to Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome.

Phoebe Greets the House-Church

Before I read the letter and discuss it, let me say first: Greetings to the churches of Rome! I also bring you greetings from the believers in Cenchreae. They commend me to your care and pray often for their brothers and sisters in Rome. – I am honored to be entrusted with Paul’s message to you. He longs to be with you and indeed is with you now in spirit, as he makes the arduous journey to Jerusalem. – Today I will read only Paul’s opening and closing remarks in his letter, and his greetings to all of you who share our living hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me begin.[5]

The Jennings Translation of Romans (with a few small changes by Pastor Jeff)
Paul’s Opening Remarks

Paul, a slave of Joshua Messiah, called to be an apostle, set apart for the glad announcement of God (which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy writings), the good news about God’s Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh but designated Son of God in power according to a spirit of holiness through a resurrection of the dead, Joshua Messiah, our Leader, on whose account we have received favor and apostleship in order to provoke the adherence of loyalty on account of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to Joshua Messiah.

To all in Rome, beloved of God, called holy:
Generosity to you and peace from God our Father and our Leader, Joshua Messiah.

First, I thank my God through Joshua Messiah on account of all of you, because your faithfulness is being spoken about in all the world. For my witness is the God whom I serve in my spirit in the good news of his son, that I always continually refer to you in my prayer, asking that by God’s will I may at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you so that I may impart some spirited gift to strengthen you, or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged through one another’s faithfulness, both yours and mine.

I want you to know, comrades, that I have often intended to come to you but have been hindered until the present, so that I may reap some harvest among you as indeed among the remaining nations. I am under obligation to Greeks and barbarians, to the wise and also the foolish, so that as far as I am able I am eager to announce the good news also to you, those who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the glad announcement; it is divine power for salvation for all the faithful, to the Judean first and the Greek. For in it divine justice is disclosed from faithfulness to faithfulness, for as it has been written: the just live through faithfulness.

Paul’s Closing Remarks (without the list of greetings)

I myself have been persuaded about you, comrades, that you yourselves are full of goodness, having been filled with all knowledge, and so are able to instruct one another. But on some points I have been bold as a reminder to you through the favor given me from God to be a public servant of messiah Joshua to the nations, the glad-making proclamation of God, so that the offering of the gentiles may be acceptable, made holy by holy spirit.

In messiah Joshua therefore I have pride in the things of God, although I will not speak of anything but what messiah worked through me for the adherence of the nations, by word and deed, by power of signs and wonders, by power of holy spirit, so that from Jerusalem around to Illyricum I have filled up with the good news of the messiah.

I am, therefore, eagerly striving to announce the good news, not where the name of the messiah is already heard, so that I don’t build on a foundation that belongs to another, but as it is written (in prophet Isaiah): They shall see who have never been told of Him, and they shall understand who have never heard of Him.

Since I have long yearned for so many years to visit you, I hope in traveling on to Spain to see you and be sent on by you if it may be possible and to be refreshed by you. But now I am going to Jerusalem to serve the saints: Macedonia and Greece thought it good to make some contribution for the poor saints in Jerusalem. They were happy to do it and are indebted to them, for if the nations have come to share in their spirited things, then they should also be of service to them in fleshly things. When, therefore, I will have competed this and sealed to them this fruit, I will be on my way through you to Spain. And I know that when I come I will come to you in the fullness of messianic blessing.

I beg you comrades, through our leader Joshua messiah and through the love of the spirit, to strive together with me in prayer to God for my sake, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints so that in joy I may come to you through the will of God and find rest with you. The God of peace be with you all.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a minister of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the way of our leader, with a hospitality fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.



[1] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul. (Baker Academic, 2016).

[2] Luther is hard to shake, though. His reading has become a cultural product that is continually read back into Paul’s letter.

[3] Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul. (Stanford, 2013). This book is a line-by-line commentary to accompany his Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice (Cultural Memory in the Present). (Stanford, 2005).

[4] A marvelous introduction to imagining the house-church is Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level, (Fortress, 2009). Oakes utilizes the archeological remains of Pompeii to bring to life five individuals that would also have been typical of congregations in Rome: Sabina the stoneworker, Holconius the cabinet-maker, Iris the barmaid, Primus the bath-stoker, a model craft-maker, and the household of Menander.

[5] This introduction comes from Reta Halteman Finger, Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups. (Eerdmans, 2007). Finger provides character background, scripts, and questions to recreate a house-church conversation about Romans for study groups.

[6] For copyright reasons I will not be reproducing this text each week, but highly recommend Jennings books on Paul. I provide the translation this week to give a flavor of our experience. Sharon did a beautiful job bringing Phoebe to life for us.

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