The title of today’s RJ blog is borrowed from a chapter title in a book of essays by the late Frederick Buechner. I was reminded of this recently when Darrell Delaney—my co-host partner on the Groundwork radio and podcast program from ReFrame Ministries—and I began recording a series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Romans may well be the Apostle Paul’s magnum opus in the New Testament, and for someone who singlehandedly wrote just shy of 50% of the whole New Testament, that is saying something. For a lot of us, though, we often treat Romans like a kind of theological compendium or a catechism of some sort. That is to say, we view it largely theologically and academically. Make no mistake there is plenty of theology and plenty of knowledge of an academic sort in this epistle. Romans is the book that has launched thousands of other books and who knows how many PhD dissertations and such.
But in terms of literary genre, Romans is indeed an epistle. It’s a letter. And although we know historically and from Paul’s own witness in the first part of Romans 1 that Paul had not yet personally made it to Rome, he clearly knew a lot of folks in the Roman congregation. He expresses very fond and warm sentiments to the congregation in the opening verses of Romans 1 but then after that, it would be easy to forget that fact and still end up thinking of Romans as a theological treatise, a kind of tour de force of salvation history culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Lord. People call it “The Book of Romans” almost as often as it is rightly called “The Letter to the Romans.”
Except then you get to the very end, though I wonder how many of us even look at Romans 16 as we often treat Romans 15 as the de facto conclusion. But no, Paul needs to pass on some final personal greetings and as he does so, he reels off a list of just over 2 dozen individuals with names like Rufus, Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa. He also refers in general to a lot of people he does not specifically name. Still, Paul names about 25 people.
Now a moment ago I called that part of Romans 16 “a list.” But no sooner did I write that and the high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock came into my head and his insistent refrain “Don’t call it a list!” in his sermon “When the Roll Is Called Down Here.” Those names do not constitute some dry list as though it were akin to a grocery list with “Eggs, Milk, Cheese, Butter.” No, this is the roll call of the saints in Rome. These were people near and dear to Paul’s heart. And they are the people who were before the eyes of Paul’s imagination in every word he wrote in the Letter to the Romans.
Some years back when Calvin Theological Seminary began its Distance Education program, we were instructed that when recording our video lectures, we should put the picture of someone we love—a child, spouse, grandchild—somewhere behind the computer camera so that we would not be staring into the dead eye of the camera lens but speaking, as it were, to the loved one in the photo. This would help make the lecture more personal. Not a few pastors discovered something similar during the lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic—they needed pictures of parishioners within their line of sight. Some placed such photos behind a camera, others who were recording from empty church sanctuaries arranged to get blow-up pictures of people pasted onto the pews where those folks usually sat. Again, it kept the sermon from being dry–it warmed it up with a personal touch.
Paul did that in his memory as he wrote Romans. And that is more important than we may think. The communication of the Gospel and yes, even the teaching and conveying of significant and sometimes knotty theological truths always needs to be person to person. Teaching needs to be delivered with love and affection. Because when theology or the Gospel becomes de-personalized, when conveying theological ideas becomes abstract and only about cold concepts and principles, that is when we are in danger of wielding theology in ways that might not only fail to connect to people, it might even risk alienating them.
This has been a danger all through church history but our social media-saturated world has given rise to many more opportunities for de-personalization that can—if left unchecked—devolve into unloving ways to speak the truth.
Paul concludes Romans this way: “Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
And you kind of suspect that whoever read this letter aloud to the Roman Church for the first time probably noticed on the parchment what looked like the stains of Paul’s salty tears that spilled over his eyelids and plopped onto the parchment as he conveyed this lyric doxology to the saints in Rome whom he so dearly loved.