The Christian Mission

Thoughts on the Gospel
for the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 2024

It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.

Ephesians 3: 4-5

The Christian Mission

What the New Testament sometimes remembers as a mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 15:24) became a mission to all nations. “All authority is given me in heaven and earth,  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:18–19).   

Guided by their master’s commission, the apostles had gone  first to the synagogues, only to be rejected as teachers of heresy, or worse. of blasphemy, and then to the Gentiles. It is important to remember that the Roman religion was a natural mysticism, under-girded by popular accounts of various gods, supported by an official idolatry. Roman religion had no certain moral consequence; indeed there was no claim to revelation.   

In the opening paragraph of his letter to the Romans, Paul recites his commission “to bring about obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” It was surely surprising to the average Roman to be told that he belonged to Christ, and surely more unsettling to learn that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.   

Knowing God, they did not thank him, but “changed the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to dishonorable passions. Paul then details the inevitable descent of a culture that rejects God into perversion. Paul is telling the Romans something they know.  Sexual degeneracy is but the beginning.  There follows a culture of malignity: envy, murder, strife, deceit. 

Now Paul reveals a world of moral consequence.  “For he will render to every man according to his works:  to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality he will give eternal life. But for those who are fractious, and do not obey the truth but obey wickedness there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jews first  but also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” 

It remains only to assure the Gentile reader that “what the law requires is written on their hearts.” Having made his point, that justice of are subject to the  of faith for both Jew and Gentile.  Paul uses the image of the olive tree from which branches have been broken off to make room for the wild, olive tree.  The Jewish root supports the branches, not the branches the root. Why is the mission to  the Jews so apparently fruitless?  “I want you to understand this mystery, brethren, has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved.” –Christ’s saving sacrifice (4:1–5:21) and moments of unparalleled theological insight (8:18–23) are intermixed with Paul’s bewailing of his plight as a sinner and his reiterative engagement with the failure of the Jews to believe.  But, most importantly, in his letter to the Romans Paul had made a successful salley into the Gentile world, making the case that all mankind is subject to the justice of God. Christianity under-girds a culture in which, for the first time, and still, righteousness matters absolutely.   Paul has begun his mission to “all the nations, including yourselves, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:6).

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