The Free Gift
The church at Rome to whom St. Paul was speaking in today's Epistle was formed following the events of Acts, Chapter Two. Jews from around the Roman empire had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They were celebrating the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the festival commemorating Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai.
One morning -- we all know the story -- there was the sound of a great wind. The believers began speaking in known foreign languages. Flames of fire appeared above their heads. When a crowd gathered, St. Peter stood and preached a powerful sermon, convincing hundreds of the visiting Jews that Jesus was in fact the Messiah.
Many of those visitors had come from Rome, and when they returned home, they formed a new gathering that met in the local synagogue, Jews who believed that the Messiah had come.
Rome was the busy commercial and government center of the empire, so it wasn't long before Gentiles, non-Jews with little or no religious background, began attending the gathering.
Soon, confusion arose as some of the Jewish Christians insisted that Gentiles must first become Jews before they could become Christians. That confusion had reached a peak when St. Paul wrote his letter to Rome.
Pauls message was clear. Whether Jew or Gentile or pagan, we all start out as sinners in need of God's help. Making the Gentile converts follow Jewish traditions wouldn't change that. Making the Gentiles get circumcised and stop eating pork wouldn't change that either, any more than it would for Jewish believers.
The Messiah had come, and only a transforming relationship with Him would put our lives right in God's eyes, whether Gentile or Jew or pagan. The good news was, such a relationship was and is open to all, as a free gift.
Paul quoted King David from the Psalms: Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account. Blessed are those against whom God no longer keeps score.
Was this blessing available only to Jews? No.
Would Gentile believers have to adopt Jewish ways before they could claim this blessing? No.
Paul wrote to the believers in Rome that what he wanted for the Jewish people is what he wanted for everyone salvation. He knew what passion, what zeal, the Jewish believers had for the things of God. But they didn't understand that the rules have changed, that God is moving among Jews and Gentiles and pagans to make people everywhere right with Himself. God has made this business of righteousness and salvation His business, and through His Son has put it within easy reach of all.
It's not about scoring points by keeping the rules, clinging to the old hope of earning our way to God by giving a tenth of our income or wearing a prayer shawl or eating only kosher food, every detail of our lives regulated by the rules. Jesus taught that God's standards are higher than we could ever imagine impossibly high! And if we continue to try to earn our salvation by that impossible standard then we will die by that standard, whether we are Gentile or pagan or Jew.
The earlier revelation was to get us ready for the Messiah, but now that the Messiah has come, He is setting everything right for those who trust Him to do it. The truth we need is within easy reach. Moses said, "It's already on your lips and in your heart" that is, the truth that Jesus is the Messiah and that God raised Him from the dead. As we heard in the Epistle reading this morning ... "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."
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