Read Romans 1:8-15
It's very difficult to interpret the tone of the writer when the source matter has been translated and is close to 2000 years old, but when I read this portion of scripture, it feels different to Paul's usual dominant style, a "this is how it is truth hammer". We find here, following his lengthy introduction, an effort to celebrate the kingdom work they have already completed without Paul, and Paul's (almost) proposal to work on things together when he gets there. An activity that he has tried, but has been prevented from, in the past.
He raises his first point, however, we see later that there is no second or third point. Perhaps he means "of first priority". Either way, he thanks God (the Father) - through Jesus Christ - for their faith. Expressing, even praising them, that their faith has reached every corner of the world. Wouldn't it be great to hear that our church's faith had reached even the ears of other churches in the area?
Whether real or an exaggeration on Paul's part in an effort to build bridges between him and this community, there is no doubt that a body of Christ planted and remaining faithful in the den of the lion was something to praise. This community was in the capital of the Empire, the centre of the world at this time, the hot seat!
Paul then continues to build a link to this group by expressing his personal call to preach the gospel and to come to visit them. It's a real sense of desire to be with them on Paul's part to be with them.
In verse 11 we see two words that are often associated together by Christians, however never (apart from here) written together in scripture, "Spiritual gifts" ('pneumatikos' 'charisma'). It's not exactly known what Paul means by these words. Initially, on reading verse 11 it almost sounds like an offering, and we know Paul has been collecting an offering from the Gentile churches for the Jewish church in Jerusalem. But this has Paul giving or sharing it with the church, telling us that it will strengthen them. When we read on, Paul tells us that it will result in them being "mutually encouraged by each other’s faith". Each will be built up (in the gospel) and there will be mutual edification (improvement), perhaps spiritual growth. We see something similar when Timothy is sent to the Thessalonian church;
We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith (1 Thessalonians 3:2)
Paul then moves back to building that bridge between him and the church by apologising that he has not yet visited them (in any of his 20 years of missionary work). Emphasizing it is not for the lack of will, but the lack of opportunity. Perhaps Paul knows of or is preempting, a sense that they feel like they deserve a visit from Paul. After all, he knows some of the Jewish members from when they were expelled from Rome, and Paul must have been known to the community in Rome, yet 20 years have passed and no visit.
The last two verses of this section (v14-15) show Paul expressing his call (again). That he is obligated, that he has been set apart, to preach the gospel, (Acts 9:15). The NIV translates the group he is preaching to as the Greeks and non-Greeks. This categorisation is distinguishing between the 'true' Greeks and those other cultures who had become Greek through Alexander the Great's Empire expansion and the spread of the Greek language and culture into other regions. The second word is actually 'barbaros' from which we get 'barbarian'. Some translations in fact have "the Greeks and the barbarians". Paul reinforces this further by defining these groups by being wise and unwise (or foolish). This distinction supports Paul's call that he is to preach to all peoples.
The issue we have is being able to raise this passage of scripture up to be less specific about Paul and the Roman church, and rather make it about God and His church today. And on some other level what it means for you and me. Paul had a very unique calling from God, but should we be any different in our daily walk? How should we model ourselves on these statements? What does Christian service look like for you?
We are called to imitate Paul, as Paul imitates Jesus, (1 Corinthians 11:1). So if Paul is called to witness and preach to all peoples so are we! The people around us, whether Greek or non-Greek, whether Hindu or Sikh, Muslum or agnostic. Our work, our place of study, shopping, our missionary field is all around us, it is wherever we are.
I think, however, there is more we get than just being a faithful witness. We are also to edify one another, to improve each other in faith. The role of evangelist to the non-believer, but also the teacher to the student. To disciple one another and to grow together. To work together for the kingdom as co-workers in Christ. To mutually encourage each other’s faith. These are the spiritual gifts Paul is referring to. To be the body of Christ and all that it means. We are in a season when the Word of God is freely and widely available through our computers, phones and even TVs and the comfort of our homes is so very real, but please hear this, Being a Christian, following Christ means belonging to others in a community of believers, serving one another and encouraging each other. Through the pandemic, we were reminded that the Church was not a building, but rather a community. Now, post-pandemic we must be reminded that church is also not a screen and that it is still a community!