Sunday, December 19, 2004

Romans 1:1-7 - “Christmas Letter Writing Workshop”

4th Sunday in Advent (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, December 18, and Sunday, December 19, 2004

Christmas Letter Writing Workshop

Lesson #1: How to Begin
Instructor: Paul
Textbook: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1:1-7)

Imagine opening up a schedule of community education classes, and there you see that a Christmas Letter Writing Workshop is being offered. Where it lists the name of the instructor, all it says is Paul. The only textbook the class requires is Paul’s letter to the Romans. This Christmas Letter Writing Workshop must be taught by Paul, St. Paul, the Apostle Paul, the early Christian missionary.

You dig out your Bible to look at the class textbook, Paul’s letter to the Romans. From what you remember, the book of Romans in the Bible is a rather long letter. If you had to be honest, Paul’s letter to the Romans is quite dry, a little boring, requiring a little too much, you know, thinking for a holiday letter. You just can’t quite imagine the letter to the Romans printed on paper with Christmas trees, with snow, with red and green on it. You certainly wouldn’t write a letter like that for your Christmas letter; what would your family think? They’d think you’re preachy, long-winded, and not very fun. Certainly they’d rather have a letter about your summer vacations, the kids, or the house. They’d probably even rather hear about cleaning your garage instead of something like Paul’s letter.

You look at the community ed class schedule again. Even though you don’t think you’re really going to write a Christmas letter based on how Paul writes, and even though you already wrote, signed, and mailed this year’s letter, you decide that you’re too curious to pass it up. You decide to go to class and find out how Paul would tell you to write a Christmas letter.

You get to the Christmas Letter Writing Workshop, and on each desk, there’s some Christmas-themed paper and a pen. There’s a message on the whiteboard in the front of the room: “Your instructor, Paul, is unable to be here today. He wasn’t feeling up to it.” Under this message, it gives the day’s assignment: “Lesson #1: How to Begin. Read Romans 1:1-7. Using Paul’s beginning as a model, start your own Christmas letter.”

Well, your first thought is to leave. Yet, you’re still just so curious about how it is that Paul’s letter could have anything to do with your own Christmas letter, so you take a seat at a desk. You pull out your Bible, your textbook, and find the letter to the Romans in the New Testament. You read the first seven verses, the verses that supposedly will tell you how to begin a Christmas letter. You read:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

[The Gospel] which [God] promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, about His Son, who was descended from the seed of David according to the flesh and was designated as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness as a result of His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience that comes from faith among all the nations for the sake of His name, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s a lot for the beginning of a letter, but you decide there’s got to be some ideas to take from it. You take a piece of the Christmas-themed paper, and write some notes. You see that Paul’s letter teaches us about how to talk; how to talk about 1) ourselves, 2) Jesus, and 3) other people. Even if you don’t leave this Christmas Letter Writing Workshop with a new Christmas letter, maybe your notes will end up helping you see how your faith in Jesus changes how you see yourself, how you see others, and how you see Jesus working in your life.

#1 – How does Paul talk about himself? He doesn’t talk about being a tentmaker, a world traveler, or a Roman citizen. Instead, Paul talks about how he has been called by God, set apart for the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul focuses on how God chose him to tell others about Jesus. In fact, Paul is willing to call himself a slave of Jesus Christ. By saying that he’s a slave, he’s saying that he is completely owned by Jesus, that he has no standing apart from Christ.

Are you willing to identify yourself like that? What would it mean to start a letter talking about how God has chosen you to share your faith with other people? What would people think if instead talking about your job, your school, your hobbies, the things people usually know about you, what would people think if instead you told them how God has really been using you to tell others about His love? What if you said that you were a slave of Jesus?

People would think you’re a freak. Plain and simple. To talk about yourself as being a slave of Jesus sounds like you’re a zealot, you’re overly committed, you’re so involved in your faith that you can’t relate to the rest of the world.

That’s what people might think, but wouldn’t that be something to always define yourself as a slave, a servant, a messenger of Jesus? It might shock them to hear it; it might make them pause and wonder if you’re really in touch with the world around you; it would be a very strange way to start a Christmas letter.

However, just as Paul, a slave of Jesus, talks a lot in his letter on how his faith does relate to everyday life, so too people might be shocked when you call yourself a slave of Jesus, but if they keep reading your letter, if they keep talking to you, won’t they find that you are a regular person with a regular life with regular problems who enjoys regular things but who also happens to be very dedicated to Jesus?

Paul doesn’t call himself a slave of Jesus and then kind of act like he has nothing in common with the people reading his letter. Paul admits that he is the same as the Christians in Rome. He shares the same struggles with sin, the same need for forgiveness, the same temptations, the same confusions, the same difficulties of remaining committed to his faith.

As you stare at your notes written on that Christmas-themed paper, you write in big letters: I AM A SLAVE OF JESUS. You decide that whether in Christmas letters or your conversations, you’re going to be bold this Christmas in telling people that you follow Jesus. But you’re also going to be ready to admit your failures, your struggles, the times when you have trouble believing that God really forgives you. In other words, you’re going to tell people that you are a dedicated follower of Jesus who understands regular life.

So then it is onto the next step in your notes for the Christmas Letter Writing Workshop. #2 – How does Paul talk about Jesus? Paul says that he is a slave of Jesus, called to share the Gospel, and then he explains what the Gospel is, the Good News, the message of Jesus.

The Gospel is ancient, eternal; God promised through the prophets of the Old Testament to send a Savior. This message of Jesus isn’t something that was made up a few centuries ago; it goes back to the beginning.

The Gospel is about God’s Son, Jesus. First and foremost, it is about Jesus, what Jesus did. The message isn’t Gospel if it only talks about what we do, about following commandments, about doing the right things. The Gospel is about Jesus.

It is Good News to know that Jesus is both man and God. Paul explains that Jesus was a descendent, from the family of David, was born in the flesh, and so Jesus is true man. Yet, Jesus is also the Son of God, the One who has the power of God, the One who has the Spirit of holiness, the One who had the power to rise from the dead.

Then suddenly Paul starts talking about stuff that sounds like he’s talking about us. “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience that comes from faith.” You pause a little bit in taking notes, because it seemed like Paul was focused on explaining who Jesus is in this section. This phrase doesn’t seem to fit, though, until you remember what your English teacher, your grammar teacher would want you to realize: God is the actor in the phrase. Yes, it says, “We have received,” we were given grace, we were given apostleship, but that must mean that someone gave us those things. God is the actor. We’re still talking about Jesus and what He does. Jesus gives us the gift of forgiveness; Jesus makes us apostles, sent out to share His Word; Jesus gives us faith that leads to obeying Him. God is the actor.

This is something you want everyone to hear when you talk about Jesus. Even when you talk about your faith, about how you try to follow God’s will, you want people to know that Jesus is the actor, Jesus is the One working in your life, Jesus gives you the faith in your heart.

As you pull apart these phrases, as you try to understand how Paul talks about Jesus and the Gospel, you realize that Paul’s letter is making you think about changing the way you talk about Jesus. You’re going to try to be very straightforward in your Christmas letters or your conversations that the Gospel is about Jesus, the God-man, the Savior, the One who came to save us.

That takes you to the last phrases in that section where Paul makes the transition to start talking about the people reading his letter. Jesus came to bring His faith, His grace and forgiveness to all nations, all people, “including you,” Paul says, meaning the Roman Christians, “including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

So that takes you to the last section of your notes for the Christmas Letter Writing Workshop. #3 – How does Paul talk about other people? Other people are included. Paul sounds like such a Jesus freak when he calls himself a slave of Jesus, and it may seem like Paul’s closed off to other people, but here you realize that it simply isn’t true. Paul’s got other people in mind from the beginning. God has worked faith in Paul’s heart, giving Paul a heart for other people, wanting all nations to come and find the forgiveness and hope in Jesus Christ.

Other people are included, and they also receive wondrous gifts from the Lord. Paul says that they “are loved by God and called to be saints.” Different than any Christmas letter you might write, Paul is writing to people he’s never met, people he’s only heard about, and yet, he doesn’t hold anything back. The Christians in Rome are loved by God. The Christians in Rome are saints, holy ones.

How can he talk about these people as saints, as holy ones, when he doesn’t even know them or what they actions are really like? It goes back to what Paul knows about Jesus. Jesus makes us holy. Our actions might not always be right, but when God sees us, when God sees faith in our hearts, He sees the holiness of Jesus instead of our sins. How can Paul call these people saints? Because God calls them saints; because Paul knows that through faith these people have the holiness of Jesus.

This really gets you thinking about what it would mean to talk about other people this way in your future Christmas letters or when you talk to people during this Christmas season. Instead of always reserving the right to reject people, instead of always remembering their faults, instead of making people prove themselves with their actions, instead of second-guessing whether people truly are faithful, Paul’s letter in this Christmas Letter Writing Workshop has got you thinking about talking about other people as chosen by God, loved by God, made holy by God.

You’re back to thinking that someone’s going to call you a Jesus freak, but really, what would happen if you openly told people that God loved them, that they didn’t have to do anything to earn God’s love or your love, that they had a place in God’s family because of Jesus?

Someone’s going to ask what the catch is. Someone else is going question whether all of these people you talk to are really meant to be in God’s house. Still someone else may doubt that God could really love them that way. When you say that God wants to include all people in His kingdom, some people may disagree with you, doubt you, challenge you, murmur under their breath, saying that you’re being far too welcoming.

Yet, when you go back to look at what Paul wrote, the words that God gave Paul to write, you’re convinced that this is the way to talk about other people. God has sent His Gospel to save people among all nations. When God says He will save us from our sins, all people are included; God wants to include all people in His salvation. He is calling and inviting all people to come to faith.

You look up from your desk in the community ed classroom and realize that you’re well past the class time. You’ve got some great notes written all over that Christmas-themed paper, but you’re still not so sure that you’ll actually write your next Christmas letter like this. You do, however, leave that day realizing that you want to change the way you talk, change the way you talk about yourself, Jesus, and other people. You are a slave of Jesus, Jesus who came to give you the gift of life after death, Jesus who came to give that gift to other people too.

Paul’s letter to the Romans might not look like a Christmas letter, but you realize that his letter just got you focused back on the reason Jesus was born: to save all people from their sins.

You decide that you’ll come back again to the community ed class, whether or not Paul ever shows up, because his textbook is really helping you understand what it means to believe in the babe born in a stable on Christmas Day.