Romans

When in Romans: Peace with God (SBC response sermon)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

            For most of last week I was working on an answer to the question of how we can have peace with God. That’s what Paul seems to want to talk about in today’s Epistle lesson, and that’s what I was planning to preach about this morning. I was going to say that we have peace with God when we realize that we will never be justified by being good enough, but only by trusting the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. But toward the end of last week people began to ask me a different question. Through text messages, emails, and phone calls they were asking not how do we have peace with God, but is this church a Southern Baptist church? And I think you know the reason for that.

            At last week’s annual meeting the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed its position that no woman can be the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church. But then it went beyond that and voted to amend its constitution so that no church that had a female pastor of any kind, even if she were a pastor to children, could be part of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The title of pastor is reserved for men alone,” they said. Which is why people were asking the question. They know Richmond’s First Baptist Church has female pastors, and has for years. So far we haven’t had a female senior pastor, but we have a female senior associate pastor, and we have a female associate pastor, and we have a number of other women who serve as ministers and deacons in our church. The people who have been asking this question are wondering if, when the SBC ratifies the amendment to its constitution next year, this church will be kicked out. They want to know: “Is this an SBC church?” Let me see if I can answer that question.

            What I usually say is that Richmond’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1780—65 years before the Southern Baptist Convention even came into existence. But I also say that through the years we have partnered with whatever denominational entity or agency could help us fulfill our mission, and for many years the SBC was a good partner. When I became a Baptist in 1981 I joined a Southern Baptist church. I learned about the emphasis on missions and evangelism that has defined the denomination from the beginning. I learned the names Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, two famous (female) Southern Baptist missionaries. I learned about the Cooperative Program, the unified giving plan that made it possible for me to go to seminary free of charge—a gift I’m still grateful for. But I also learned that being Baptist means freedom.

When I talk about this in our newcomers’ class I often refer to Walter Shurden’s little book, Four Fragile Freedoms, and then I talk about our individual freedom, sometimes referred to as soul competency. I say, “In some churches they baptize infants, but we Baptists like to wait until you are old enough to make up your own mind about Jesus. In a Baptist church nobody carries you down the aisle, and nobody pushes you down the aisle. You make up your own mind.” Next I talk about Bible freedom. I say, “Some churches don’t think the people in the pews should be reading the Bible; they think that should be left up to the priests. But we believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit every Baptist can read and interpret the Bible with understanding. We encourage it, and don’t think anyone should stand between a Baptist and her Bible.” Next I talk about church freedom, often referred to as local church autonomy. I tell them, “Other churches have bishops and popes, but we don’t. We have a congregational form of government. We get to decide for ourselves what our mission and ministry will be, and we are free to ordain whomever we perceive to be gifted for ministry, male or female.” Finally I talk about religious freedom, based on the principle of a free church in a free state. “This is how Baptists got their start,” I say. “They didn’t like the Church of England telling them what to do. So they came to this country seeking religious liberty and found it. They built a wall of separation between church and state. We are at our Baptist best when we don’t tell the government what to do, and don’t let it tell us what to do.” James Dunn, who for years served as the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, put it another way. He said, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to do!” That spirit is deeply ingrained in Baptists, so when the Southern Baptist Convention tells us we can’t have female pastors we feel our spines stiffen. We wonder, “Who are you to tell us what to do?” And people who don’t even know us begin to ask, “Is your church a Southern Baptist church?”

Let me tell you a story. Back in the mid-1980’s the Southern Baptist Convention was coming apart at the seams. The denomination was embroiled in a controversy some called a “conservative resurgence” and others called a “fundamentalist takeover.” At stake, some said, was the Bible itself, which led them to brand an otherwise ugly denominational disagreement as a “battle for the Bible.” But not everybody wanted a fight. Some were praying for peace. And in the middle of that controversy a so-called Peace Committee was formed with representation by some of the most prominent personalities on either side. Dr. Jim Flamming, Pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, was appointed to the Peace Committee and he did his very best to be a peacemaker, but as Lynn Turner remembers he came home from one of those meetings and told the church that those people had no interest in peace. He said, “This is a fight going on among preachers and we don’t need to have any part of it. Instead of saying that we are a liberal church or a fundamentalist church or a moderate church or a conservative church, let’s just say that we are the church of Jesus Christ,” which may be another way of saying, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell us what to do!” And when the Southern Baptist Convention literally split apart in 1991, with thousands of former members founding the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Dr. Flamming begged the church not to choose, not to split this church down the middle, but to remain the church of Jesus Christ and let those who wanted to support the SBC send their mission dollars there, and those who wanted to support the CBF send their mission dollars there, and for all those years since then—more than thirty years now—that’s the way we’ve done it.

So, are we a Southern Baptist church? When I came to First Baptist fifteen years ago I was told, “No. We do not formally affiliate with either the Southern Baptist Convention or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Instead we support missionaries, and church members are free (there’s that word again) to support SBC missionaries, CBF missionaries, or both.” That may explain why our church didn’t show up on a blog post by Mike Law, an SBC pastor in Northern Virginia who started searching through the websites of every church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, looking to see if they had any women on their staff, and checking to see if any of those women had the title “Pastor.” I looked through the entire post to see if our church was listed, and it wasn’t, but I saw the faces of women I admire and respect, pastors and associate pastors who have done great good in their churches, posted on this blog as if it were the 17th century and this were a witch hunt. It made me mad. Mike Law believes these women are a threat to the Southern Baptist Convention. He believes they pollute the denomination’s doctrinal purity. He believes the role of pastor can only be filled by a man.

I disagree.

I disagree on biblical grounds. I remember back in 1984 the Southern Baptist Convention said that women could not be pastors because Eve was the first to sin. I had just started seminary, but I knew that Eve at least protested when the serpent invited her to eat the forbidden fruit. Adam didn’t. Eve handed it to him and he bit right in. The convention quoted the writings of Paul at some length, which is why many women still don’t get along with him, but remember that Paul was writing in the first century, when women were considered second-class citizens and the property of their husbands and fathers. When Paul (or someone writing in his name) said, “I forbid a woman to teach a man” (1 Tim. 2:12)[i] it was because women were not allowed to study in those days, and you wouldn’t want an uneducated woman trying to teach. That’s not true in the twenty-first century. Women can study right along with the men, in fact, many seminaries have more female than male students, and many professors will tell you that their female students are their best and brightest. And when Paul said, “Women should keep silence in church” (1 Cor. 14:34), I believe it’s because women had always been relegated to the balcony or the back of the room in the synagogue, where they may have whispered and swapped recipes and passed babies back and forth. “But keep silence in church,” Paul said, and he may have meant, “because this is for you, too.” Isn’t he the one who said, “For there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)?

In Romans 16 Paul sends his regards to Phoebe, who was a female deacon. He had great respect for Priscilla, who was a powerful preacher. He mentions with gratitude those women who were his partners in the gospel. He advised women to keep their heads covered when they “prophesied” (a New Testament word for preaching). You may remember from the Book of Acts that Philip had four daughters who prophesied, or from the Day of Pentecost that God poured out his spirit on all flesh, both men and women, or from the Gospels that the women who followed Jesus were the last at the cross and the first at the tomb, or from the Easter story that if it hadn’t been for Mary Magdalene we might never have known that Christ had risen. You don’t need me to tell you these things. Take women out of the Bible and there’s not much left. Take women out of the church and the roof would collapse.

And that’s my other argument. I disagree with those who say the role of pastor can only be filled by a man on biblical grounds, but I also disagree on the grounds of experience. I posted Lynn Turner’s picture on Facebook on Friday and said something like, “Has this woman ever been a pastor to you?” The testimonies came flooding in, in fact they are still flooding in, from people who have known and loved Lynn for years and who have been blessed by her ministry. Yesterday I posted a picture of Allison Collier and said, “Allison will offer the pastoral prayer in worship on Sunday morning. Do you know why? Because she’s a pastor.” And once again the testimonies came flooding in. Meredith Stone, Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry, said that if the SBC constitution is amended some churches may decide to change the titles of their female pastors just so they can stay in the Convention. Well, here’s what I say: you can change Lynn Turner’s title. You can call her whatever you like (and some people have). But she is now, and will always be, a pastor. That goes for the other women on our staff and for all those women I have worked with through the years who were gifted and called by God.

Why is the Southern Baptist Convention doing this? Why do they feel the need to put women in their place, once again? I have my opinions, but at this point that’s all they are. What I really want you to hear is this: that because of the cherished Baptist principle of local church autonomy, even if we were a Southern Baptist church, the Convention could not tell us what to do. They could kick us out, but they could not shut us up, and they could not keep us from being who we are. As the Apostle Paul might say, “Since we are justified by grace through faith, we have peace with God.” And he said that as someone who had been kicked out of better places than the Southern Baptist Convention. Paul had peace. In an earlier draft of this sermon I pictured him standing waist-deep in the waters of baptism, like Jesus, looking up toward heaven as a dove fluttered down and a voice said, “This is my beloved child.” If you’ve had that experience, if you know you are God’s beloved, then there’s not much that can touch you. I pray that for all those Baptist women in ministry out there—and in here—that they would know they are God’s beloved, and that they would not let the actions of a group of mostly old, white men get them down.

Standing waist-deep in the grace of God Paul wrote: “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” “Hope does not disappoint us,” Paul said. We have the hope of sharing the glory of God. And even if we have to go through hell to get there,

We will.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] The Letter of First Timothy is not considered one of the undisputed Pauline letters, meaning it may not have been Paul who said this at all.

When in Romans: Reckoned Righteous

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.

            You may not be aware of this this, but when I am planning my preaching for the year I try to think about how to provide you with a balanced biblical diet. I want to make sure that you get generous helpings from the Gospels, but also some tasty side dishes from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Psalms. We’ve just finished up a series from the Gospels; before that was a series from the Old Testament; every Sunday we hear from the Psalms; so maybe it’s time for the Epistles, and some of you might say it’s past time. You love Paul almost as much as you love Jesus. Well, get ready, because today we begin a summer sermon series called “When in Romans,” and we will be in Romans from now until September 17.

            But I don’t want to bore you with expository preaching: that is, I don’t want to simply go through the letter verse-by-verse. I want to see if we can get a glimpse of the big picture this summer, as if we were visiting first-century Rome and trying to understand its language, customs, and culture. And I want us to get to know Paul in ways we never have before. I want us to think about what could possibly persuade a Jewish rabbi to preach the Christian gospel in a pagan culture.

            Maybe that’s where we should begin.

            You know some of Paul’s story. In Philippians 3 he writes that he was, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). That line about being a persecutor of the church takes us to the end of Acts, chapter 7, where we learn that while Stephen was being stoned “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Paul’s Hebrew name). Luke tells us that a severe persecution against the church broke out that same day, and in the next chapter he tells us that Saul was “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1-3).

            But something happened, right? In Acts 9 we read about Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he intended to round up any followers of Jesus and bring them bound to Jerusalem, when suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” It was the voice of the risen Jesus, who told him to get up and go into the city where he would be told what to do. And then Jesus told a disciple named Ananias, who lived in Damascus, to go to Saul, to lay hands on him that he might regain his sight, to baptize him so that he might receive the Holy Spirit, and then to tell him that he had been chosen as an apostle to the Gentiles.

            Let’s pause there for a moment to appreciate what a life-altering experience this was. Paul, as he tells us in Philippians 3, was a Pharisee; he had voluntarily separated himself from anything that was not kosher; he was as Jewish as a Jew could be. He had trained to be a rabbi at the feet of the famous Gamaliel. As to “righteousness under the law” he considered himself blameless, meaning that to the best of his knowledge he had kept all the commandments. He was a Jew among Jews, and according to the Law he was to have nothing to do with Gentiles. They were the uncircumcised, sometimes called “dogs,” who were not counted among God’s chosen people. And yet here was Saul, blinded by his encounter with the risen Christ, sitting in the home of a man named Judas, eating and drinking nothing for three days, while waiting for someone to come to him with a message. And when Ananias came the message was this: “Yes, Jesus is Lord, and the Lord wants you to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.”

            There are two words for repentance in the Bible: one means to turn around and the other means to change your mind. Saul had to do both. First, he had to change his mind about Jesus. He had thought that he was just a troublemaker: a poor carpenter from Galilee claiming to be somebody, maybe even the Messiah. Saul thought he was doing God a favor by keeping people from following this pretender. But then he received a visit from Jesus himself and it changed his life. The scales fell from his eyes. He saw the risen Lord and began to proclaim him in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God!” Saul repented in that way: he changed his mind about Jesus. But he also repented in the other way: he turned himself around. I don’t know that there has ever been such a complete turnaround, from persecuting the church of Jesus Christ to proclaiming him as Lord and Savior, and not only to his fellow Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

            I want you to think about that for a minute. Suppose you were the rabbi of a local synagogue and you became convinced that God wanted you to let the Gentiles in. What would you do? What would you say? And not only what would you say to them—to the Gentiles—but what would you say to your fellow Jews, especially the members of your governing board? How would you answer their protests that the Gentiles were not among God’s chosen people? See, I believe there is a way to read the Bible that excludes, and if you are looking for a reason to exclude the Gentiles you can find it, but I also believe there is a way to read the Bible that includes, and if you are looking for a reason to include the Gentiles you can find it. I think that’s what Saul spent the next few years of his life doing: poring over the pages of Scripture to see if he could find any way that Jesus could be the Messiah, and then searching through the pages of Scripture to see if he could find any reason for including the Gentiles. He had to have some answers, not only for his opponents, but for himself.

            I believe he found them, and then I believe he spent some time thinking about how to make his arguments compelling and how to make his preaching persuasive. In the Book of Acts Luke suggests that whenever Paul came to a new town on his missionary journeys he would go first to the synagogue and try to convince the Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah they had been waiting for. But after they kicked him out he would go to the Gentiles with a different message. Because the Gentiles weren’t waiting for the Messiah. They couldn’t care less about that. Paul had to come to them with something they would care about and so he came to them with a message of salvation. I can almost see him out there on the street in front of the synagogue, still brushing the dirt from his clothes, asking the Gentiles passing by, “Do you want to be saved?” “From what?” they might ask. “From this!” Paul would say, meaning the entire pagan world.

            Because I’ve been reading up on the Roman Empire in the first century, and although there is a lot to be said for it in terms of civilization, there is also a lot to be said for it in terms of moral depravity. The Emperor Caligula comes to mind. He took the throne when he was only 23 years old, and is said have considered himself a god, who sometimes reminded others that he had the right to do “anything to anybody.” And he did. He turned murder into a sport, attacking people at random.[i] He slept with other men’s wives, including the wife of a senator. He spent enormous amounts of the people’s money on his personal building projects. Beyond that he had an insatiable sexual appetite for both men and women and is said to have turned the palace into a “brothel” where drunken orgies went on night after night.

Caligula was no longer emperor when Paul wrote Romans, but his decadence had become the stuff of legend. I think it may have been Caligula and his court that Paul had in mind when he wrote, in Romans 1: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,and in the same way also the males, giving up natural intercourse with females, were consumed with their passionate desires for one another…and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” Paul may have been thinking of Caligula himself, who was assassinated four short years after he began to reign.

I can almost picture Paul inside the synagogue, pointing out the depravity of the Gentile world just outside the doors, whipping those faithful Jews into a frenzy of self-righteousness before saying, “But you are without excuse, whoever you are, for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (Romans 2:1). A little further down in chapter 2 he writes: “If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what really matters because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, who teach others, will you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by your transgression of the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the gentiles because of you’” (Rom. 2:17-24).

What Paul is doing here, rhetorically, is genius. He’s getting the righteous people all lathered up about the unrighteous before telling them that they are just as bad as they are. On the one hand here are the Gentiles, frolicking in an ocean of filth, but on the other hand here are the Jews, trying to swim across that same ocean by keeping the law. What Paul is saying is that neither group is going to make it. Some of the Jews might swim farther than others; Paul might have swum farther than any of them; but the ocean is big, and not even the most righteous Jew can make it across. Along with the Gentiles they are “sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.” When along comes Jesus, in a boat, to pluck them out of the water—Jew and Gentile alike! That’s Paul’s message. It’s not complicated. But he has as much trouble getting the Jews to accept it as the Gentiles. So, in today’s passage he appeals to Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, and if you thought his reasoning was genius before, just wait.

He begins: “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” And that needs a little more explanation. For Paul the word righteousness was one of the most important words in the dictionary. It’s the Greek word dikaiosune, and for him it means something like “the right-making power of God.” When Paul talks about the “righteousness of faith,” he is talking about the righteousness that is ours not because we keep the law, but because we believe God has the power to make us right. And he uses Abraham as an example. Think about it: Abraham lived centuries before Moses, before the covenant at Mount Sinai, before the Law. He couldn’t have been justified by keeping the Law; it hadn’t been given yet. And get this: Abraham wasn’t even a Jew. He hadn’t been circumcised. That command hadn’t been given. So, here’s this person who isn’t a Jew, isn’t a Christian, hasn’t been circumcised, hasn’t been baptized. He has no claim on salvation, and yet God tells this wandering Aramean, who is nearly a hundred years old, that he’s going to be the father of a great nation, that his descendants are going to be like the stars in the sky, like the sands of the sea, and Abraham believes him. When he does God says, “That’s the kind of faith I’m looking for! That’s the kind of faith I can build my Kingdom on!” And in that moment God reckoned him righteous: a word from the marketplace that meant something like “paid in full.”

“So,” Paul concludes, “our righteousness doesn’t depend on keeping the Law, as much as we Jews like to think it does. But that’s probably a good thing. If it did, none of us could be saved. No, our righteousness depends on faith, the kind of faith that Abraham had. If God could save him, then God can save us, God can save anyone. Unlike Caligula, God really can do “anything he wants to anybody he wants,” and what he wants to do, apparently, is save us from a corrupt world, bring us into his household, make us members of his family, call us his beloved children. What is our role in all this? Simply to believe, as Abraham did, that God can do it.

—Jim Somerville © 2023


[i] https://www.thecollector.com/caligula/

Is Jesus God?

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.

If you were a good and faithful Jew, you might recite the words of the Shema every morning and every evening.  Do you know the Shema?  It is a short, simple prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy that has been used for centuries by God’s people.  It says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one, and as for you, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”  The Apostle Paul was a good and faithful Jew.  He would have recited that prayer when he woke up in the morning and before he went to bed at night.  He must have tasted those words on his lips a million times: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  How then, did he come to the place where he could say that a poor carpenter named Jesus, from Nazareth, was also Lord?

There must be a story there.

In the third chapter of Philippians, Paul shares the beginning of that story.  He writes, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”  In other words he was a good and faithful Jew.  He was born into that tradition.  And he embraced his Jewishness wholeheartedly.  As to the law, he was “a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”  And that’s where the story gets interesting, because if you have read the Book of Acts you know that it was Paul, formerly named Saul, who was an accomplice in the stoning of Stephen.

Do you know that story?  Stephen was a deacon of the church in Jerusalem, and he distinguished himself by doing great signs and wonders among the people.  But eventually he began to meet some opposition from the Jewish community, who said he was trying to replace Judaism with some new religion.  They brought him before the council and asked him to make his defense, which he did by giving one of the longest speeches in the Bible, full of nothing but praise for the God of Moses, but in the end he gazed into heaven and had a vision of Jesus.  “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”[i]  And that’s when they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death, and laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, who “approved of their killing him.”[ii]

This is the first we’ve heard of Saul, but in Acts, chapter 8, we learn that, “[he] was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [and committing] them to prison.”[iii]  And in Acts, chapter 9, we hear that while he was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, he went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”[iv]  Why?  Because these followers of Jesus were committing blasphemy.  They were making Jesus equal to God.  They were calling him Lord, saying that he was the long-awaited Messiah.

Paul knew that couldn’t be true.  Faithful Jews are taught from an early age that in every generation someone might be born who has the potential to be the Messiah, but if that person dies, then that person is not the Messiah.[v]  Jesus had died.  He had died painfully and publicly.  His crucifixion was well-attested.  What was not so well-attested were the rumors spread by some of his followers that he had risen from the dead.  Those rumors had to be dispelled; that’s why Paul was persecuting the church.  It was 135 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus, but with a full posse of his fellow Pharisees and enough trained soldiers to get the job done Paul made the long journey north.  Here’s the way one writer describes it:

It was late afternoon when they rounded a bend in the road and saw Damascus in the valley below.  If they hurried they could make it before nightfall.  A light breeze was blowing up there on the heights.  Dark clouds were gathering overhead.  The air smelled like electricity.  Suddenly a blinding light flashed all around them, and Saul was knocked to the ground.  For a second or two he lost consciousness, and when he came to he could feel the pounding in his skull, taste the blood in his mouth.  He tried to lift his head to see what had happened but he couldn’t see anything, just the afterimage of the flash burned onto his retinas, fading from orange, to blue, to black.  And then he heard the voice.  “Saul?  Saul!  Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Sir?” he asked.  And the voice replied: “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” [vi]

And then imagine what must have gone through Saul’s head: If this Jesus really had risen from the dead, if he really was alive and well, then everything his followers had been saying about him could be true.  He really could be the Messiah, God’s anointed one, because it would have been God, of course, who raised him from the dead.  It would have been his way of validating Jesus’ life and vindicating Jesus’ death.  And all of this would mean that Saul had been persecuting people who were not only followers of “the Way,” but followers of God’s way, and that Saul—who thought he was doing God’s will by persecuting them—was, in fact, doing just the opposite.  The truth would have struck him like a clap of thunder, and if it had been up to him he might have just lain there in the dust of the road forever, but Jesus told him to get up and go into the city, and that’s what he did.  He still couldn’t see anything.  The men who had come with him had to lead him by the hand—a much different entry than the one he had imagined.

For three days he sat in the house of a man named Judas on Straight Street, unable to see anything and refusing any kind of food or drink.  Truth is, he didn’t have any appetite.  All he could think about was that he had been wrong about this whole thing—dead wrong.  The irony of it was that nobody had ever tried harder to be right.  Following the letter of the law, scrupulously obeying the Scriptures, passionately committed to his cause, ready to die for his beliefs, Saul had been struck down by the revelation that he was wrong, wrong, wrong about all of it.  So when Ananias, one of the believers there in Damascus, came to him and called him “Brother Saul,” Saul gladly received him; and when Ananias laid trembling hands on him and prayed for him so that he was able to see again, Saul praised the Lord; and when he offered to baptize him and Saul said yes, Ananias did it and (in the words of Jesus) Saul was “born again.”  It is possible that no one has ever entered the waters of baptism with more humility and that no one has ever emerged more eager to make things right.  Paul ate some food to get his strength back, and for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, where they must have taught him everything they had come to believe about Jesus, because as soon as he was able “he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”[vii]

Welcome back to this series called, “Building It as We Fly,” where we’ve been talking about building a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of and looking to the “inventors” of the early church for inspiration.  Last week we looked at Peter, the “rock” on which Jesus said he would build his church.  This week we turn our attention to Paul, the one-time persecutor of the church who became its greatest missionary.  How did it happen?  He had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, and when he did he asked the question, “Who are you, Sir?”  I believe that if we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of, then each one of us, in our own way, will have to answer that question: “Who is Jesus?” (and that includes you, graduates; of all the test questions you have ever answered, none is more important than this one).  Within days of his encounter with the risen Lord Paul was preaching in the synagogues, telling people that Jesus was not only the long-awaited Messiah, but somehow, also, the beloved Son of God.  Maybe that’s what happens when you have an encounter with Jesus:

You become a believer.

One of the things I love about Jesus is that when he called those first disciples he didn’t ask them if they believed he was the Son of God, he didn’t ask them if they believed he was born of a virgin or that he would rise from the dead.  He simply invited them to follow and as they did they became convinced that he was no ordinary man.  On the road near Caesarea Philippi he asked them, “What are people saying about me?”  And they answered, “Some say you are John the Baptist come back from the dead, and others that you are Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other great prophets.”  “But what about you,” Jesus asked.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Because in the end that’s the only thing that will matter.  We can listen to all the things other people say about him but until we have our own encounter with Jesus, until we can say who he is to us, it won’t have much meaning.  On that day Peter said, “You are the Messiah!  You are the Son of the Living God!”  And Jesus said, “Yes!  I can make something of a faith like that.  I can build a church on a foundation like that!”  If we are going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of we will have to build it on the foundation of personal faith.  Each one of us will have to answer the question, “Who is Jesus to me?”

Paul had an answer to that question.  For him Jesus was the Son of God.  He began to make that argument in the synagogue, trying to prove to the Jews that the Messiah they had always been waiting for had finally arrived.  Yes, he had died on the cross, but God had raised him up again.  What further proof did they need?  A lot, actually.  Paul preached in every synagogue he could find, but very few Jews became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah.  And so Paul turned his attention to the Gentiles, proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior, but even then he encountered opposition.  Truth be told, it took the early church several centuries to reach consensus on who Jesus was and there were several controversies along the way.

The best-known among those may be Arianism.  Named after a Christian elder from Alexandria who did most of his teaching in the early decades of the fourth century, Arianism acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God but claimed that he was made by God in the way all other things were made: thus he was no more equal to God than a clay pot is equal to the potter.  Real Christians couldn’t stand that kind of talk.  They denounced Arius as a heretic.  Eventually the Roman Emperor Constantine (who had himself recently become a Christian) convened a council of bishops in the city of Nicaea to settle the matter once and for all.  Three months later they had produced the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in many Christian churches and makes it as clear as an ancient creed can make it who Jesus is and who he isn’t.  Listen: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father.”  It’s that last part that really clinches it.  The Greek word is homoousios, meaning “same substance.”  At that council the early church agreed that Jesus is made of the same stuff as the Father, and within a century they would begin to profess their belief in the Trinity: in the one God who exists as Father, Son, and Spirit.

I don’t know that Paul had come that far in his thinking, but in Romans 5, our text for today, he mentions Father, Son, and Spirit in the same paragraph.  They may not have been unified in his theology, not yet, but they were central to his faith, which was rooted in his understanding of God the Father, rocked by his encounter with Jesus the Son, and replete with the power of the Holy Spirit.  Paul wouldn’t have been Paul without the Trinity, and the church that he planted wouldn’t have been the church.

But back to our original question: is Jesus God?  If you had asked Paul that question point-blank I think he would have said yes.  Who else could he be?  But that wasn’t Paul’s favorite name for Jesus.  His favorite name for Jesus was “Lord.”  He uses it over 230 times in his letters, far more than any other title, and that’s significant.  Because to call Jesus “God” is to make a doctrinal statement, it’s to talk about what you believe; but to call him “Lord” is to make a relational statement, it’s to talk about whom you love.  It not only answers the question of who Jesus is, but also who he is to you.  So, is Jesus God?  That’s a good question.  Is he your Lord?  That’s a better one, and if we are ever going to build a post-pandemic church that Jesus would be proud of each one of us will have to answer that question.  So, students—and all of us—pick up your pencils.

You may begin.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] All of this is from Acts 7.

[ii] Acts 8:1

[iii] Acts 8:3

[iv] Acts 9:1-2

[v] From the Judaism 101 website: “Mashiach” ( https://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm).

[vi] Jim Somerville, “Getting in the Way,” a sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Washington, DC, April 25, 2004.

[vii] Acts 9:20