4th Sunday of Advent – Living by the Meaning of His Birth

The Prophet Isaiah, Benedetto Gennari, 17th century, Burghley collection

The Prophet Isaiah, Benedetto Gennari, 17th century, Burghley collection

Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.
(Isaiah 7:14)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Romans 1:1–7
December 18, 2022

After a week with St. James, we return to Paul’s “Letter to the Romans,” indeed to its opening. As we have seen before Paul is writing to a community he did not found nor one in which he has many friends. He also has a very clear motive for making a good impression. Paul is going to Rome as a prisoner to be tried by the emperor. This will not be immediate, and he will need to be housed and fed. He wishes the Roman Church to pay for a good jailor and a decent room where he can still speak with others and write. Paul, however, has a problematic reputation. Some people are still suspicious of him because he once persecuted the church, others because of his occasional intemperance. They most likely read the letter to the Galatians. He needed to be very careful to make a good impression on the Roman Christians. Further details can be found here.

Besides the political, there is a theological issue. Paul is an apostle. An apostle is literally one who is sent. Yet the early church gave apostle a fuller meaning. An apostle required that one have seen the risen Lord, been commissioned by him to preach the gospel and, for Paul at least, to found churches. This is wider than the 12 and Paul goes to great lengths to show that on the road to Damascus he had an encounter with the risen Lord who commissioned him to preach to the Gentiles. We see in the “Acts of the Apostles” that Paul’s apostleship was widely accepted, at least in the generation after his death. So as an apostle he had the right to demand to be housed and protected but he had no means to command them. This would be difficult for the most experienced diplomat, which is not a word that comes to mind with Paul. He will need to set both the mood and his terms in this introduction.

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle
and set apart for the gospel of God

(Rom 1:1)

A Roman letter always begins by stating who is sending it. Paul names himself but then calls himself a slave. He uses the word “Doulos” which means slave not servant. He is telling the Roman Church that he is totally “owned by Jesus,” completely dedicated to him. It is also the most humbling thing he can say. He begins this letter then by acknowledging that he has no being except for Jesus. Then he states that he is called to be an apostle. We saw the meaning and consequences of this above.

His apostleship was part of God’s plan. Being “set apart” meant that it was a vocation. It was not inherited nor part time but was his very life. The Roman Church was composed of people who were born Jews and most likely still considered themselves Jews. They would have known that many of the prophets believed that they were set apart (Jeremiah 1:5 and Isaiah 49:1 to name just two). Note as well he said that he was not only a slave but a slave of “Christ Jesus.” Christ meant anointed one, the Messiah and of the greatest importance to Jews.

He makes this connection even clearer by telling the Roman church that they are to judge him by the great figures of the scriptures what we now call the Old Testament.

Which he promised previously through his prophets
in the holy scriptures

(Rom 1:2)

Paul will show that their greatest hopes were fulfilled in Jesus and best expressed by him.

The gospel about his Son,
descended from David according to the flesh,

(Rom 1:3)

Good news, evangelion in Greek, was an idea that every Roman, whether born Jew or Gentile, would have understood. It was an official statement that something important had occurred. The “good news” ranged from the birth of a son to the emperor or a great victory for a general. Paul proclaims that the good news is that Jesus offers salvation. But he offers it as the Christ, the Messiah who is descended from King David. This is not a spiritual decent but “according to the flesh.” He was a true descendant. Thus, we should take the genealogy of Jesus, all those begats, seriously. God promised David his line would be fruitful and in Jesus it has been more than he could possibly imagine.

But established as Son of God in power
according to the spirit of holiness
through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Rom 1:4)

The resurrection established Jesus as the “Son of God” by revealing who he always was, indeed is. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah but he is also Lord, that is God. The “Spirit of Holiness” is a way of saying the “Holy Spirit” which revels Jesus for who he is and animates us to follow him. He develops this further on in Romans:

If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus
from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through his Spirit that dwells in you.

(Rom 8:11)

In Paul’s case, the Spirit has made him an apostle to the Gentiles, that it is the Holy Spirit who has given him the mission and the power to bring the gospel to people who were not born Jews.

Through him we have received the grace of apostleship,
to bring about the obedience of faith,
for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles

(Rom 1:5)

As the Holy Spirit made him an apostle, only the Holy Spirit could take this away from him. This was gently but clearly telling the Roman Church that he was divinely chosen whether they admitted it or not.

The Roman Christians have been called like him and the Gentiles he has catechized.

Among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;
to all the beloved of God in Rome,
called to be holy.

(Rom 1:6-7a)

His words would be familiar to most educated Jews. One example is from Deuteronomy:

For you are a people sacred to the LORD, your God;
he has chosen you from all the nations on the face of the earth
to be a people peculiarly his own

(Dt 7:6)

He is telling the Romans that although he did not found their church he accepts it as a true Christian community and wishes to be with them.

He then offers them his blessing:

Grace to you and peace
from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

(Rom 7b)

This is an undoubtedly important, revealing and powerful passage of Scripture but why is it read the week before Christmas? We must remember that the focus of Advent changes on December 17. Before then we prayed for the return of Jesus and asked that we would be ready to greet him, after that we pray that we will appreciate the meaning of his birth and live according to it.

Paul today clearly states that Jesus was born according to the flesh and was both the human Messiah and the divine Lord. This makes us who we are asks how we are to be holy? For Paul it is as an apostle. Into what is the Spirit making you and me?