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Saving the best for last

The title of this week’s lesson is terribly misleading. To say, “all the rest is commentary” implies that we have now finished the important parts of Romans and what remains is of secondary significance at best. That would be like saying, “We’ve finished four quarters of the Super Bowl, the score is tied, and the rest doesn’t mean very much. It’s just sudden death overtime. No big deal.”

The fact that, with thirteen weeks to analyze sixteen chapters, our quarterly crowds three chapters into this last lesson also suggests that we’re not dealing with very important stuff here. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is the conclusion of Romans. This is where Paul has been headed all through the book. Up to this point has been commentary. Now we’ve reached the grand climax.

Romans 15 shows us that Paul had plans to go to Spain. He wanted Rome as home base for this daring mission, and he knew that to be a good support base the church needed to be unified. His passion for a unified church led him to go to Jerusalem first to take the collection of funds he had raised from the Gentiles for the Jews to symbolize the unity of Jew and Gentile in the Christian church. Paul also knew there were divisions at Rome that needed to be healed.

Roman believers disputed about food and days (probably fast days, so that the dispute was over what to eat and when to eat it). Paul recognizes that they are divided, but he doesn’t try to get them all into one camp. He says, “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.” I’m sure there were people who complained, “That’s the problem now. Everybody has their own opinion. We need Paul to give us the right answer.”

Paul, however, doesn’t do that. Instead he talks about how Christians should get along with each other when they don’t agree. The more strict (whom Paul calls the “weak”) should not point the finger of judgment at the less strict. And the less strict should not look down with scorn on the poor misguided strict people who were not as enlightened as they. In fact, the “strong” should be willing to give up their legitimate rights rather than hurt the “weak,” for to harm another person by what you do is wrong. And the weak should stick to their convictions. But both should welcome each other in the same way that Christ welcomed all of them.

Paul has been leading up to this grand climax all through the letter. Way back in chapter two he started showing the dangers of judging others. In chapter four he emphasized that Abraham was not “weak.” The whole emphasis on salvation through God’s grace and not human achievement served to put all Christians in the same boat, dependent on God alone, with nothing to boast about. With Christ as Savior of all (Paul emphasizes how all are saved in the same way throughout the book), no one has a special claim on God’s grace, and all can be brothers and sisters in Christ. Salvation by grace through faith isn’t a theoretical issue for Paul; it is the foundation for unity in Christ, and a community where all believers welcome each other, even when they disagree on some matters. The discussion about coming together in unity is not commentary. It is the climax.

Even if we can make the point about the crucial significance of chapters 14 and 15, however, it seems hard to find all that much redeeming value in chapter 16. It’s just a list of names, after all! Yet in many ways “just a list of names” is an insult to this vital chapter. You see, the goal of Paul’s message in Romans is community in Christ. Paul is a passionate pastor, not an abstract theologian. His goal is to see a community of believers who build up each other and grow in Christ, witnessing to the world around them about God’s grace and faithfulness.

That is exactly what chapter 16 is all about. Of course, since Paul had never been to Rome and wanted to see it become the support base for his mission to Spain, it was to his advantage of take advantage of all the personal connections he had in Rome, and since all roads really did lead to Rome in the first century, he knew many people whom he had met elsewhere who were now in Rome. But this list of names carries a lot more punch than that. Here is a reality check of what community in Christ actually means.

This list of names includes Jewish names, Roman names and Greek names. It includes people from all classes, both slaves and masters. This is true of the church in Rome to which Paul writes and of the church in the area of Corinth in Greece from which he writes. The juxtaposition of two names in his greetings from the church where he is says it all. In Romans 16:23 Paul says, “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.” (TNIV ) Erastus is clearly an important person. An inscription found in Corinth mentions him and says that he gained his position by constructing a street at his own expense. He was obviously a person of means. On the other hand, the name Quartus was inevitably the name of a slave. It simply means “fourth,” and it was slaves who were named with numbers. But both names stand side by side in the same sentence.

So don’t say this is just a list of names, any more than the church directory of our congregation is just a list of names. Every one represents a person, saved by God’s grace. Every one has a story. Every one is a child of God. That’s what Romans is all about. The first chapters are commentary to lay the groundwork. The final chapters show Paul’s real concern, people living together in Jesus Christ.

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