Obedience of Faith

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle and singled out for God’s good news — which He promised long ago through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures — concerning His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and who has been declared to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead according to the Spirit of holiness. We have received grace and apostleship through Him to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations, on behalf of His name, including yourselves who also belong to Jesus Christ by calling: To all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 1:1-7 HCSB)

There have been few names in history that carry with them enough underlying story and impact as to need little explanation. If someone refers to Aristotle, Socrates, Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hitler, JFK, MLK, Manson or Mandela then you immediately recall the story that defined their legacy and the impact they had and the ongoing effect it has on our lives. Sometimes that impact is positive and has made life for many much better, but some have had a negative impact and the lingering effects might be a mixture of good or bad impact. For example, while there’s little doubt that the overwhelming impact that Hitler had on our world was very, very negative there is a way in which those negative things have resulted in mankind taking steps to keep those negative things from ever happening, again. As my mother used to tell me, “if you don’t learn from your mistakes then you are destined to repeat them.”

You might be asking, “What do these thoughts have to do with our focal passage?” I want you to notice how Paul introduces himself to the Roman Christians, “a slave of Christ Jesus.” Now, there have certainly been slaves who have had and made tremendous impact on our world and on our own lives. For example, I have always been fascinated and inspired by the story of George Washington Carver. Carver was born into slavery in the mid-1860’s (the exact date of his birth is unknown) in Missouri and his parents were slaves of Moses Carver. When George was just a week old, he, his sister and his mother were kidnapped and resold as slaves in another state. Moses Carver hired a man to find them, but George was the only one who was found and returned to Carver. After slavery was abolished in Missouri in 1865, George was raised by Moses Carver and his wife as their own son. Carver would eventually work his way through college and was hired by Booker T. Washington in 1896 to head the Agricultural Department at the Tuskegee Institute which later became the Tuskegee University. While Carver never earned his PhD or Doctorate, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate by several universities during his lifetime and was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate by Iowa University, his alma mater, in 1994.

What’s my point? I suspect that Carver, along with any other slave or former slave in history, did not and would not want to be known or identified as George W. Carver, former slave of Moses Carver. However, George Washington Carver did identify as the son of Moses Carver. Yet, Paul identifies himself as “a slave of Jesus Christ.” What would drive Paul to self-identify as a slave of Jesus instead of identifying himself as a “child of God” or “friend of Jesus?” I think it has to do with the root source of the relationship. In America, we tend to highlight and emphasize those relationships that show us in the best light. For example, I had a sense of pride when the announcement went out that I had taken a position as Vice President of The Baptist Foundation of Oklahoma. Emphasis on that title, Vice President. Right? In  fact, I was just having a conversation with a friend about the fact that my new office doesn’t seem to reflect that title. I inherited the office of a previous IT employee who did not have the title “Vice President.” I don’t even have room to have a meeting in my office and that doesn’t seem to reflect the position that I hold in the organization. See what I mean… it’s all about me and how I look or appear in front of others. Aren’t we all guilty of similar things?

In our modern culture, Christians tend to emphasize the relationship with God that puts them in the best light. For example, it is not uncommon to see posts on social media where Christians emphasize they are a “child of the King” or a “child of God.” While these relationship terms are absolutely true and are sometimes intended to help overcome a low self-esteem, we rarely see Christians emphasize their relationship as a “servant” or “slave” of Jesus Christ. Personally, I find that interesting and insightful. Paul not only doesn’t hesitate to call himself a “slave” but he seems to emphasize that as the core truth of his identity and focus of his relationship with Christ. Today, I’d like to spend some time exploring why Paul takes that approach, the basis for this being the focus of his relationship with Jesus, and the evidence he provides in the focal passage for this approach. Let’s get started…

First, I want you to notice that Paul isn’t really denigrating himself by emphasizing this role or relationship as a servant (Greek “doulos” = bond-servant, from “deo” which means to tie or bind something – i.e. bound to one’s master/owner). Actually, Paul immediately points out that he was called as an Apostle and singled-out as a recipient of the Gospel. In other words, this was God’s purpose and plan for Paul long before Paul was born or even conceived. Paul understood his existence and his identity in light of who God is and why God had made him. Paul recognized that he existed for God’s purpose and glory, not his own and I think that is the central struggle that many folks have with knowing and relating to God, today.

We don’t initially see ourselves as slaves or servants or that God’s purpose and plan is the epitome of our existence. Instead, we tend to view ourselves as autonomous, self-defining individuals who are and should be worthy of God’s love, care and blessings. Wow, talk about arrogance. Paul used to think like that, before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. But when Paul encountered Jesus, I want to remind you that Paul referred to Him as “Lord” even before he knew who it was…

“Who are You, Lord? ” he said. “I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,” He replied.” (Acts 9:5 HCSB)

On that day, Paul immediately recognized the immeasurable differences between himself and this person standing before him who was shining brighter than the sun at noonday (see Acts 26:13). While Jesus would tell the disciples that He would no longer call them slaves (see John 15:15), it wasn’t because they were no longer servants but rather because Jesus was now including them in and informing them of His plan and His work. But immediately after calling them “friends” He reminds them that they “DIDN’T choose Him” but that He chose them and gave His life for them. So, even in the midst of revealing this new relationship of friend, Jesus kept them grounded in His authority and role over them. We love to sing “I am a friend of God” but we must never forget that Jesus had to conceal His glory lest His disciples be overwhelmed by it. While we can and should relate to God as a friend, we must never ever lose sight of who He truly is and how far He has stooped down to walk alongside us.

Next, Paul gives us three glimpses into the way in which God has revealed Himself to us through Jesus: 1) as the human fulfillment of God’s promises to King David; 2) revealed to be the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead; 3) and as the glorified Christ through the Spirit of holiness. In essence, Paul draws a contrast between the humanity (line of David) and divinity (Spirit of holiness) of Christ and the bridge between these is the resurrection. It is important to note that the term “declared” could be misunderstood by English readers because we would normally associate the term to mean that God “announced” Jesus to be the Son of God based on the resurrection. Perhaps a better translation would be that God “revealed” the divinity of Jesus through the Resurrection. Let me use an analogy to explain…

In the far north, above the arctic circle, the sun barely rises above the horizon in the winter. As such, if your only experience of the sun was limited to living above the arctic circle in a perpetual winter then your view and understanding of the sun would be very limited and not really accurate, or at the very least, it would be incomplete. Now imagine that after having lived in these conditions all of your life that you are placed on an airplane at night and flown to Ecuador. As you emerge from the plane, the sun is just beginning to rise and, for the moment, everything seems normal in your life and in your mind. However, as the minutes and then hours progress, the sun doesn’t just hug the horizon and cast a faint glow on your day but it begins to blaze in all of its glory and brilliance. You are no longer experiencing the sun from the limited perspective of a perpetual winter in the arctic circle but you are now experiencing the sun in all of its glory, brilliance and power. Your limited view, understanding and perception of the sun is suddenly transformed in a blaze of glory and power as it is now on full display. The sun didn’t change but your perspective of it certainly did.

That, my friends, is the essence of that word “declared” when placed alongside the resurrection. The word comes from the root form of horizon and means that the glory of Christ rose above the horizon and was revealed or “declared” in full glory, power and brilliance through the resurrection. Those who had experienced Jesus prior to the resurrection had a very limited view of His glory and power. The horizon of His humanity hid the full glory of His divinity. Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matt. 17:1-6). Those who were touched by one of His many miracles had but a glimpse of His power and glory. Those who encountered Him in His humanity only had a faint glimmer or glimpse of God and had been living, so to speak,  in the spiritual darkness of a perpetual winter above the arctic circle, until the Son rose that glorious Easter morning. That is what Paul experienced on the Damascus Road, the glory, brilliance and power of the Son of God on full display – no longer hidden by the horizon of His humanity. Let that sink in a bit… let the light of life, the radiant glow, the penetrating warmth and the incomparable glory of that moment wash over you. Let it change you, like it did Paul – the slave of Jesus Christ.

Finally, Paul tells the Roman Christians that Christ has called him by grace and granted him apostleship so that he might bring obedience of faith among all the nations. In light of the events of the last few weeks, I want to spend the remainder of our time together addressing this issue of obedience of faith among all the nations. Since her inception, America has struggled with the issue of racism and equality. While our founding documents declare our belief in the principles of human worth, dignity and the equality of all men, in reality, our experience and our culture have not carried those principles forward to practical fulfillment. We echoed the words, but our words were most often empty and truly just echoes of these principles without a corresponding reality of actions. We spoke the words of equality but we didn’t live the life of equality.

Now some of you may be offended by my words. You might consider yourself to be open minded and blind to the color of someone’s skin. To be honest, I would have counted myself to be among that group not so long ago. But I want you to realize something, and I’m going to use Paul’s words to help illustrate my point. Paul says that by God’s grace he has been called and granted apostleship to bring about obedience of faith among all nations. Are we obedient to our faith in Christ that declares the image of God in all men and, thus, their inherent value and equality? Like the words that shaped and form our national heritage and culture, our call to obedience must not be full of empty words or devoid of Christlike actions. The Apostle James says that we must also have faith that is demonstrated by action or our faith is empty and dead (or just empty words – see James 2:17).

In fact, in our study of Romans in the weeks that follow we will see just how much Paul reacts to that very idea. But for now, let me simply say that Paul is not just a source of empty words. In the weeks and months ahead, we will see how Paul’s presentation of the Gospel makes demands upon the beliefs, words, actions and interactions of those who claim faith in Jesus as Lord. Jesus Himself said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18 HCSB) Christ was sent to proclaim freedom to the captive, sight to the blind, and to set free the oppressed. As Christ’s people, we must not be silent or inactive on the very topics He declared would be the focus of His mission and ministry and ours, too.

I fear that some of you may feel this issue is being blown out of proportion. If so, you’ve never been on the receiving end of slavery or oppression. I shouldn’t need to, but I’m going to draw attention to the stark contrast between forced slavery and willing servitude. Paul declares himself to be a “slave of Jesus Christ” and spends his life striving to be obedient to his Lord and Master but Paul does so out of love and gratitude to Christ due to His grace and forgiveness. However, our Brothers of Color still carry the cultural emotional scars and live in the dark shadow of forced slavery and its lingering oppression. When innocent black men are killed simply because they are black then there can be little doubt that the dark shadow still stains our skies and its oppressive voice still echoes in our cultural ears.

What am I asking of you? Obedience of faith, plain and simple. When a brother hurts, we should feel his pain. When a brother suffers, we ought to suffer with him. When a brother cries, tears should fall from our eyes. Jesus said that the hallmark of the Christian faith would be the love we have for one another.” (See John 13:35) As such, we cannot be silent in the midst of their pain and we must not stand idle in their time of struggle. To do so would be to deny our faith or to walk in willful disobedience. Now, I must readily admit that this is an issue that the vast majority of white Christians fail to fully grasp or understand. But that doesn’t mean the issue doesn’t exist or is being blown out of proportion. Also, I am not saying we turn a blind eye towards the illegal activity of burning and looting. But, we must be willing to hear the cry of their anguish and pain and respond with Christian love. Isn’t that the very thing Christ commanded us to do in response to the needs of our neighbor?

“Jesus took up the question and said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’ “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? ” “The one who showed mercy to him,” he said. Then Jesus told him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37 HCSB)

Let me end this week by encouraging you to live out your faith in a very real, tangible way. Step alongside a brother of color who is hurting. He doesn’t want your sympathy, just your willingness to listen and care even when you struggle to understand. That’s the focus of Jesus’ story about the Samaritan neighbor and that should be our focus. Instead of just talking about our faith, we should live it out in very practical ways among our neighbors. Instead of just claiming faith, we must show our faith through our daily lives. As Paul says to the Roman Christians, my aim is to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations – but more specifically, to bring about the obedience of faith in your life and my life as willing bond-servants of Jesus Christ.

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