“This is one of my most precious passages in the Bible,” said the Rev. Allan Aubrey Boesak about Romans 8:31-38. “We don’t know who planted the church in Rome, but it was not Paul. However, he had a burning longing to see them.”
His sermon title at the Friday morning worship was “The Difference Love Makes” and the Scripture text was Romans 8:31-38.
In Romans 16, Paul lists a number of co-workers to whom he sent greetings.
“One of them was Junia, whom he called an apostle — the same title of Paul,” he said. “For centuries, translators tried to say it was a spelling mistake, that the name was ‘Junio,’ but there is no question about the leadership of women in the early church. I have no clue why we have been fighting about it for so long.”
Scholars have wondered why Paul longed to see the church in Rome. Five house churches were already doing the missionary work. Did he want to bring them together? The letter to the Romans is full of doctrine — did they need a better theology? Did Paul want to be recognized as their leader?
“If I read I Corinthians right, Paul doesn’t care who was leader because it is God who gives the growth; it is all about God,” Boesak said. “How I wish we would remember that. That is what the church should remember — it is all about Jesus.”
So why did Paul want to go to Rome?
In Chapter 1 of Romans, Paul said that he wanted to be “mutually encouraged by each others’ faith — both yours and mine.”
“Paul understood the situation of the Roman church,” Boesak said. “They lived in the belly of the beast: right in front of Caesar. When Nero’s city burned he needed someone to blame, and he lashed out at the Christians who were the most vulnerable.”
Rome had conquered territories by force and left soldiers, garrisons and tax collectors to enforce its rule, Boesak said. Rome also set up temples to Jupiter, but it did not ban local religions.
“As long as [they] did not threaten Roman power and emperor worship. If you just watched what you said in sermons and did not [do] irresponsible stuff, then you would be OK. But when Christians said ‘Lord Jesus’ they were speaking against the empire,” Boesak said. “They were subverting the empire. They were traitors to the empire. They gave all the titles the emperor claimed — Lord, God, Son of God, Prince of Peace, Light of the World — and claimed them for Jesus, the peasant from Galilee.”
Boesak said there were other people named Jesus from prominent families in Judea, but it was the child of a single mother who had no pedigree who was given all these titles.
“It was because the peace he brought was not built on violence and conquest; it was based on love, mercy, forgiveness and genuine peace and justice,” he said.
Rome knew this and was uneasy. Christians said no to violence and domination and refused military service.
“Jesus said, ‘I will suffer violence in your place and you leave the rest to God,’” Boesak said. “They sought servanthood and challenged Rome at every turn. That is why Paul longed to come to them, to strengthen their faith. That is what love does.”
Love, Boesak said, will stand beside people who are suffering; will stand between those who are delivering deadly blows and their victims.
“Love will defend the defenseless and not run away,” he continued. “Love will not fold its hands in sentimental piety. Love goes where children are suffering from hunger, where people live in poverty. Love goes to Palestine and Ferguson and Chicago. That is the difference that love makes. When a woman is shunned, beaten by her husband, the pastor does not ask ‘What did you do to deserve this?’ If you can’t speak love and give protection in the house of God, then shut up and close the Bible.”
In Rome, when a Christian was baptized, he or she was shunned.
“Christians lost their jobs, their citizenship; they were kicked out of their families and lost their patronage. If you were an aristocrat you were demoted to the status of a slave,” he said.
But the servant is not above the master, Boesak continued, and Jesus told them, “what happens to me, happens to you. But I am with you.”
Paul told the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”
Boesak said, “don’t be ashamed of a power that will save you and redeem the world. Don’t be ashamed — peace is the way. Stand up for justice; that is the Gospel. Stand up for the voiceless; that is the Gospel. The question is not ‘Are we ashamed of the Gospel?’ but ‘Is the Gospel ashamed of us?’ ”
He asked the congregation, “When we use Jesus to justify prejudice, greed, violence to — exclude people and put them down — is the Gospel ashamed of us? The Gospel is love, passion, peace and justice. Don’t be ashamed.”
Paul wrote to the Roman Christians that they were conquerors, not because they had swords, guns or armies, but because they had “the love of God in Jesus Christ,” Boesak said.
“That is our anchor, our foundation that will lift us up so we can sing and testify,” he added. “We don’t need the power that comes from any throne; love is the most wonderful thing.”
Paul develops two lists of things that could separate the Christians from God’s love. The first list is those things that are tangible — life, rulers, things present. The second list is intangibles — life, death, angels, powers.
“Paul is convinced — not I think it might be, not in my humble opinion, but convinced — that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
“If you forget everything else, remember that nothing can separate you,” Boesak said to conclude. “If they mock you, remember nothing. When you stand up for justice, remember nothing. Whatever nothing — nothing nothing, nothing — can separate you. Go back to your state, your city, your town, and let them know that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
The Rev. Susan McKee presided. The Rev. Willie Francois, pastor for congregational care at First Corinthian Baptist church in Harlem, New York, and a member of the New Clergy Conference, read the Scripture. The Fifth Avenue Strings, a group of 13 young adults from Pittsburgh provided the prelude, “Chautauqua Waltz,” written by one of their members, Sasha Voinov. The Fifth Avenue Strings accompanied the men of the Motet Choir for the anthem, “Amazing Grace,” arranged by Craig Courtney. Jared Jacobsen, organist and choir director, directed the musicians. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund and the Randall-Hall Chaplaincy provided support for this week’s sermons.