About twenty five years before Paul wrote this letter, Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem by Roman authorities with the consent of Jewish leaders. In the intervening period a Christian community arose in Rome. The time was now the middle 50s A.D., with a young Nero in his first years as emperor of the Roman empire.
When Paul wrote, he had never visited Rome. He certainly had not founded the church in Rome. Why then did Paul write? He, like other Christians around the Mediterranean, had heard of the faithfulness of Christians in Rome. He wrote to express his care for them and desire to see them. He also wrote to explain in some detail God’s good news in Jesus, the relationship of the Jewish people and Gentiles to God and to each other, and the ethical implications of being a follower of Jesus. Worthy of deep and prayerful study, this letter engages both our hearts and our minds.
With today’s passage, we begin to read extensively in Romans. This opening section consists of Paul’s introduction. It includes a greeting, commendation of the believers in Rome, Paul’s credentials as an apostle, and reasons for his writing. It also includes certain fundamental assertions about Jesus and our relationship to Jesus.
We should take special note of these assertions. From familiarity with church history and our life in the church, we may miss how striking they are, especially in original context. At the outset of this letter Paul reminded the Christians in Rome who really is the ruler of the world – of empires, nations, and people. Jesus is the Son of God and the Lord – not the emperor. Believers belong to Jesus – not to the Roman empire.
Questions of allegiance and identity are basic to life. They are certainly basic to Christian life. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” At the outset of this letter, Paul makes clear that we serve Jesus. Our allegiance is to Jesus; our identity (our belonging) is formed in Jesus. Yes, we live in nations and societies of the world. Yes, they assert their claim on us. Yet, as we have been baptized into Jesus’ death and reborn in his resurrection, our hearts, our minds, our very lives belong to him first and last. May we let Jesus, not the world around us, shape our allegiance and identity deeply, fully, visibly.