Our lectionary for daily office is now Jeremiah, Romans, and John. My teaching on Thursdays will look at Romans. I do so with trepidation. In Memphis I think it is the case that Romans is considered the most important book of the Bible. It might be fair to say "Roman's Christians" are the primary group among Evangelicals. I have been a "Matthew Christian" most of my life, it is my starting place and paradigm. Roman is approached with some pretty heavy assumptions and strong opinions.
Paul begins by introducing himself to the community and establishing his credentials. As an outsider, Paul wants them to know he is called and set apart by God. (We easily forget that this was a letter to real people long before it was "Scripture" for the whole church.) Jesus, son of David and Son of God, is the center of Paul's message. He calls "Gentiles" to "the obedience of faith." Having honed in on that idea (from reading John and Deuteronomy last week) I think I was more aware of the words when I read them Monday. The combination of the two is vital, I think, for what comes later. (Obedience or submission is a translation of the Greek upo-akuo which is a compound word under + hear/listen... The latter is a key concept in Deuteronomy.)
Paul shares his spiritual practice, "praying constantly" for this church. Once again, we are reminded that prayer for the church is a key component of our vocation. The spiritual warfare NEVER LETS UP. It is an unending struggle. Too often we think "after Jesus" that it is done and peace will reign. Our peace comes from confident assurance of God's (impending) Final Victory. For now, we still experience the daily battles even if the war is won. Prayer is the mode of living in that tension.
Paul then lays out his first theme. To paraphrase: "there is no excuse for atheism or disobedience." Paul claims that creation reveals God and His nature. Paul implies that human reason, an open and sincere heart, and observation of the world would lead one to know God and His command. He certainly considers idolatry to be obviously foolish. Much of what Paul says here falls under the heading of "Natural Law" and "Natural Theology." It is 'philosophical' in that it does not require "written Revelation" or the "Tradition." Certainly, Paul's pre-existing faith (based on his training for many years) allowed him to see the revelation in creation more clearly, but his argument is fair. It is the case that unbelief has a volitional component and atheism, like theism, is a choice to take the evidence and decide.
Probably, Paul is also using an argument from fruits. In other words, one's beliefs create one's "reality." If 'you are what you eat,' it is more true that 'you are what you believe.' The beliefs of individuals produce the person's life, and what is true on the micro level is much more true on the macro. Civilizations become what they are based on their willingness or refusal to acknowledge God. I think would agree that when pagan culture is a wreck because it is based on a falsehood.
Paul illustrates the fruits of unbelief/wrong belief through his discussion of sin and wrath. Wrath, while an active aspect of God's dealings with us, is also a natural consequence. Many times God's wrath is His "withdrawal" from the situation--no more protection. People choose and the choice creates the civilization. Many of the current social debates in our society center on the information which Paul writes about here. "Natural" desires (i.e. things which humans experience as happening in them) are natural but not always God's will. Humans desire all manner of things which are bad. Paul makes clear, we are prone to all sorts of mischief and he lists over twenty ways the mischief is manifest. One need only look at the complete agenda of the advocates of the new morality to see, in the end, love and obedience to God are not the main concern.
We end with Paul's reminder, however, that no one is fit to judge another. We may know that they are doing wrong, but God is the judge. Instead we must be aware of our own sinfulness and failure. One needs to be occupied with self examination to find where our faith is disobedient. We must seek God's glory not our own. We cannot want God's mercy on ourselves and deny it to others. God's mercy is a call to repentance. It is a grace which demands a response.
The readings from Monday through Wednesday end with the verses beginning: "God will repay according to each one's deeds." (yikes, a scary thought) Paul makes clear in these words (disobey and perish, seek God and thrive): Our lives matter very much to God. Very much. It is all of our living (word, deed, inner life and external behavior) that comes under Divine scrutiny. Paul will have so much more to say, but for now this is much to ponder.