The Power of the Gospel

by Brian Walsh

[At Wine Before Breakfast we are again meditating on Paul's letter to the Romans. With a little help from Ben Harper, here is my reflection on Romans 1.1-17.]

“It will make a weak man mighty,
it will make a mighty man fall,
it will fill your heart and hands,
or leave you with nothing at all,
it’s the eyes for the blind,
and legs for the lame,
it is love for hate,
and pride for shame.

Now that’s the power of the gospel,
that’s the power of the gospel,
that’s the power, that’s the mighty power,
yea, that’s the power of the gospel.” (Ben Harper, “The Power of the Gospel”)

I think that St. Paul would have loved Ben Harper’s song.

St. Paul who begins his letter to the Romans
with the gospel, the gospel, and the gospel again.

He knows that ‘gospel’ is a politically loaded term.
He knows that imperial pronouncements and news that
are proclaimed from Rome to the rest of the empire
are called ‘gospels.’

And so he makes no mistake when uses the same language
for the proclamation of the good news of Jesus.

Rome has a gospel,
all empires have their gospels.

Paul proclaims an alternative gospel
and here in the opening sentences delights to say so over and over again.

“Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” – not the gospel of Caesar.

This is the “gospel concerning his Son, descended from David” (not Augustus),
this is the “gospel of God’s Son” (not the son of a deceased and thereby deified emperor, but the Son of the Father, the Creator of all).

Paul is eager “to proclaim the gospel to you who are in Rome” (thereby reversing the direction that these things go – Paul brings gospel to Rome, when Rome assumes that the only gospel to be proclaimed is generated by Rome and goes forth from Rome).

And the apostle boldy proclaims “I am not ashamed of the gospel”
even though he has clearly identified this gospel
with those resisters to the empire who are deemed to be shameful,
even though this is a gospel rooted in a story of a shameful people
who have been vanquished by one empire after another,
even though this is a gospel of one who was put to shame on a cross
in some far outpost of the empire.

No, says Paul, I am not ashamed of this gospel
because it is nothing less than the power of God
it is nothing less than the dunumais, the dynamite of God
that can blow the top off of imperial notions of shame,
and the oppressive power of the deceitful rhetoric of the imperial gospel.

Paul is not ashamed of this gospel because in the face of Rome’s gospel,
a gospel that proclaims that all salvation lies in Rome,
a gospel that identifies the emperor as both lord and saviour,
yet brings crosses, crippling taxes, agricultural exploitation,
economic destruction, war and violence where ever it goes,

Paul brings a gospel that can blow all of this away,
Paul brings a gospel of deep, transformative, creation restoring salvation
that turns the empire on its head from the get go
because it reverses the order of the empire by coming to the Jew first, and then to the Gentile.

That’s the power of the gospel.

Gospel, gospel, gospel, gospel, gospel – five times Paul names the gospel.

This is a gospel of that proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah
and therefore Lord of all not because he succeeded the previous emperor,
not because he has a Roman imperial lineage,
not because he has successfully deposed or murdered his predecessor,
but because he rose from the dead.

He was declared to be Son of God not because his father is now amongst the gods,
but because he has blown apart the grave,
broken a royal seal that would have kept him there,
and been established as Son of God through resurrection.

And now if there is any gospel left to be proclaimed from the heart of the empire,
it is that there is a struggling group of Jesus followers
who have bent the knee to the Messiah,
who have named him as their Lord,
who have a faith alternative to the fidelity of the empire,
who have an obedience in their lives that subverts imperial obedience.

That’s the good news coming out of Rome these days.
That’s the gospel, and that’s the only gospel worth talking about.
And that’s the gospel that overturns the order of the empire.

Paul is not a citizen, but a slave.

And he says that as a slave of the Jesus Christ he is in debt
both to the Greeks and to the barbarians,
both to the wise and to the foolish.

This is socially revolutionary stuff!

In an honour/shame society,
in which everyone is indebted in one way or another
to those above them in the social hierarchy,
Paul says that as a slave of Christ, he is at the bottom of the social ladder,
and therefore he is indebted to all above him.

But he goes even further, he is not just indebted to the wise and the foolish,
he is not just indebted to the educated elite and the illiterate masses,
he is not just indebted to both the 1% and the 99%,
no, he is also indebted to both the Greeks and the barbarians;
he is indebted to those identified with the height of civilization,
those whose myths and gods are at the foundation of the empire,
and he is indebted to those who on the margins of the empire,
those who are so savage, so uncivilized, so primitive
that they resist the empire and are in a constant war of terror against the empire.

That is like saying that I am indebted to both America and the Taliban,
I am indebted to both Canada and Al Queda.

That’s the power of the gospel.

But the most explosive language comes at the end of our passage.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,
for it in the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith,
as it is written, “The one who is just will live by faith.”

I know, I know, you heard the text read as the
“righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” and
“the one who is righteous will live by faith.”

But there are very good reasons to translate dikaisosume here and throughout the letter
as “justice” not righteousness.

Or maybe we could put it this way,
the justice of God is a righteous justice
and the righteousness of God is a just righteousness
and such a just righteousness and righteous justice is rooted in faith.

Now all of this would have run bells for anyone in Rome.
You see, if there is one thing that Rome prided itself on it was Roman justice.
And that Roman justice was bestowed upon the empire by the goddess Iusticia
together with a revival of fidelity, or faithfulness
– to the gods, to the emperor and to the empire.

But Paul here says while justice is indeed rooted in faith,
it is not Roman justice, nor is it Roman fidelity that has the power of salvation.

No, this is the justice of God that he is talking about,
this is a justice rooted in the covenantal faithfulness of this God
manifest in Christ Jesus,
and the faithfulness of this God calls forth faithfulness in response
so that the one who is just is the one who will live by faith.

That’s the power of the gospel.

“It will make a weak man mighty,
it will make a mighty man fall,
it will fill your heart and hands,
or leave you with nothing at all,
it’s the eyes for the blind,
and legs for the lame,
it is love for hate,
and pride for shame.

Now that’s the power of the gospel,
that’s the power of the gospel,
that’s the power, that’s the mighty power,
yea, that’s the power of the gospel.”

One Response to “The Power of the Gospel”

  1. “Clobber Texts” « Empire Remixed

    [...] consistent with the subversion of the Roman imperial ideology that is pulsing through these opening sentences of Paul’s letter, he doesn’t let up when it [...]

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