Paul defies all expectations with this statement about the gospel, and it’s interesting to focus for a moment on how exactly he words this. The apostle who so frequently is found to be reveling in and boasting about the gospel, boasting in the cross itself, here proclaims not that he glories in the gospel, nor boasts in it, but rather, that he “is not ashamed of” it. What’s truly sad to me is how powerful this statement is in terms of our own culture as well. It is equally powerful to us as it was to his readers then. See, the Romans to whom he was writing were accustomed to the “Roman way,” which was the worldly way; worldly things, worldly goals. They found their success measured by wealth, prestige, power. Paul recognized that the Romans held the emperor in the highest esteem, lifting him up to godhood, and that to this people, Jesus was a Man to be held in the lowest esteem. The Son of a carpenter, living as a vagabond, holding little to no material wealth, hated, reviled. Even in His death, He was mocked, spat upon, cursed, and then crucified, hanged on a tree between two common criminals. To the faithful, Paul and the believers knew the truth about Jesus, about who He is and what He accomplished upon the cross. But, think about it from the perspective of unbelievers for a moment. To the unfaithful and unbelieving, Jesus was a shame, a mockery of a prophet. We read in the Gospel, “Likewise, the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said “I am the Son of God.”‘” (Matthew 27:41-43). We read that “even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.” (Matthew 27:44). See, it’s to this perspective that Paul, once a highly esteemed student of Gamaliel the Elder (a leading authority on the Sanhedrin), as well as a citizen of Rome, writes that he is “not ashamed” of the gospel. And that, because to the non-believers of Rome, to pay honor to a homeless, penniless vagabond would have been something that would bring about great shame.
And, what disturbs me is that our world looks frighteningly like the Romans empire in Paul’s day. So often, our definition of success is measured by our financial accomplishments rather than our spiritual growth. Our worth is measured by our accomplishments. Our very existence is defined by if we are a “productive member of our society.” And then we elevate others to the level of gods, constantly seeking our salvation in the lives of other people, of politics, of government. We elevate them to the level of gods and base our happiness on our levels of comfort rather than our relationship with the Lord. And then, we turn and apply those same principles to our theology and suddenly, the gospel begins to look very similar to the American dream. Our Jesus no longer demands obedience, no longer demands denial, no longer demands asceticism. Our gospel removes the demand for repentance and our religion removes the truth that any faith, in absentia of the works which are the fruit of that faith, is dead. The very asceticism that Jesus demanded when He admonished us to “deny yourselves, pick up your cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24) is removed from our theology. In fact, it’s argued against by our most esteemed theologians. The sacrifice that Jesus demanded when He taught us that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:26) is erased. The denial He commands when He warns us not to “store up treasures for ourselves here on earth” is removed; because those very commands don’t fit into this image that we have of the gospel, the American gospel of blessing after blessing with neither cost nor sacrifice. Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, “If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh, we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.” Regretfully, this mindset is shunned and debated, argued against, by many who share in the gospel of the age.
The problem with that is this: those principles, those commands, that is the gospel that was given to us by God the Word, our beloved Jesus. And we must never be ashamed of it. Even when it doesn’t make sense, we must not be ashamed of it. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). So, it makes perfect sense that the truth would never make sense to those who are not of the faith, and yet, we still must remain unashamed. That is exactly what Paul models for us here. Though he knows that he will be mocked and shamed, insulted and slandered for his allegiance to Jesus, he still declares, “I will not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus.” See, the biggest problem with the gospel of the age is this; it is not a gospel. It is pleasant and tolerant, and appeals to everything which is wicked inside of us, but it has no power to save anyone, thus it is not truly “good news,” but rather “false news.” And false news always sounds good to those who are seeking it, but to those seeking the truth, it is not good news by any means. Paul explains that it is the power of the gospel of Jesus alone which has the power to save, and that offer stands for any who truly believe in it’s power.
He then affirms what he had previously stated, that salvation, though chronologically was first for the Jews, is equally for the Greek. There is a very important statement which is being made in his wording here, and one which we so often overlook. See, Paul, having already made clear that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, he turns around and places the Jew first and then the Greek second. It could be ever so easy to misunderstand this as to think that this is a matter of priority, and yet, it is much more likely that he chose this solely for the purpose of historical accuracy. In his stating that the Lord’s grace was offered first to the Jew and secondly to the Greek in no way imparts favor to the Jew, it merely shows that Israel was, in fact, granted this opportunity first, a fact which even Jesus affirmed. When the woman of Canaan sought help for her daughter, initially Jesus had replied, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24). And then, upon seeing the faith of the woman, He ignored her heritage and healed the daughter (Matthew 15:31). I would liken this, in our own lives, to one who may have turned to the faith and been baptized before another. If one person was baptized 20 years ago and another 15 years ago, which baptism carries advantage over another? Does the one who was baptized 20 years ago, though he received His grace first, have advantage over one who was baptized 15 years ago? Of course not. Though the one received grace chronologically before the other, each are equal in the grace received of the Lord. Thus, the offer of salvation to the Jews, chronologically first, holds no advantage over the offer to the Gentiles, though received later.
My brethern, we must never be ashamed of the gospel of our beloved Jesus, nor allow the twisted gospel of the age to lead us astray. His calls to obedience, to denial of self, to holiness; many are the commands of the Lord that the gospel of the age would seek to censor from our learnings. There are many who would seek, as Satan did in the garden, to twist these commands, through whatever formulae and guile, “wise words” and cunning, they can garner, to make the commands of the gospel mean whatever they choose. They would twist the Scripture to remove His commands and to say that only this elect group of people, this “elect,” are able to receive His grace. Much as the Jews of Paul’s time did, they would decry “only the elect of God can be saved,” and that to their own detriment. Many are the heresies which have entered our Church, and we must be fully guarded against them. The gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation, and that gospel is offered unto all who will receive it. And that choice is a choice which must be freely made, for that choice, according to our Lord, must come at a price. We must always count the cost of the work of salvation in our lives and recognize that the work of that salvation begins, not ends, with faith. As St Maximus the Confessor teaches us, “Do not say that faith in Christ alone can save you, for this is not possible if you do not attain love for Him, which is demonstrated by deeds. As for mere faith: ‘The demons also believe and tremble’ (James 2:19). The action of love consists in heartfelt good deeds toward one’s neighbor, magnanimity, patience, and sober use of things.” In adhering to the Lord’s command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all you soul, and all your might,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” our love must be manifest in actions which would display that love, thereby evidencing our faith. As John teaches us, “let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18). Thus, the love which begets from faith is the love that produces action, as Maximus so clearly stated. Our love should be a love which none are able to question, and that love can only come from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.