The Letter to the Romans is the longest of St. Paul’s letters. In many respects it’s also his most important of his letters in that it touches on all the major themes of the Gospel. Recognizing this, the Church includes daily readings from Romans for the next four weeks.
Today we heard the opening words of the letter in which Paul describes himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus” [Rom 1:1]. Some folks find this a bit odd. After all, as baptized Christians, as adopted children of the Father, doesn’t the Church teach that we’re sisters and brothers of Christ? And doesn’t Jesus also call His disciples, and that’s you and me – doesn’t He call us His friends?
Which are we then? Brother, sister, friend or slave? Well, the only correct answer is “all of the above.”
This is one of the wonderful paradoxes of our Christian faith. Yes, Paul is right: in a sense, we are slaves – servants called to do the will of God. But because we are also God’s children, and because Jesus calls us to be His friends, God doesn’t demand a slavish obedience, an obedience of submission. No, indeed. He allows us to choose. We do as God commands out of freedom. It’s a freedom that comes from our close relationship with Jesus.
As Jesus’ friends, as His brothers and sisters, we want to do as He asks. We respond obediently just as a slave would, but we do so because we recognize God’s great love for us. In faith we know we are loved by the Father who brought us into being. We are loved by the Son who gave His life for our redemption. We are loved by the Spirit who guides us, inspires us, and leads us on our journey of faith. And in faith we return that love by trusting that God will call us to do only that which is good. In faith we accept that God knows best what’s good for us.
When I was a little guy, my parents bought me my first bicycle as a birthday gift. I could hardly wait to ride it, and so I got up early that next morning, climbed on that little bike and tried to ride it. A valiant attempt, but I immediately fell over onto the driveway with a skinned knee and elbow. I was horrified that I had failed, that I couldn’t ride this wonderful thing for which I had wanted so long.
My dad, who had witnessed this from the kitchen window, came outside and said: “Look, if you want to learn to ride your new bike, you’ll have to let me teach you. Will you do that?”
I had to think about it. I hated to admit that I couldn’t do it on my own, but I really wanted to ride that bike. I wanted the freedom it would give me, the ability to go wherever I wanted in our little town. And so I buried my pride and turned myself over to my father’s instruction.
An hour later I was pedaling up and down our street, about as happy as a five-year-old could possibly be. My father, too, was smiling, happy that I had placed my trust in him and learned an important lesson.
I learned that day that I couldn’t do everything myself, that first I had to learn and grow, to accept that I needed help. Paul teaches the Romans much the same thing by focusing on God’s call to each of us.
Paul was, he wrote, “called to be an Apostle” [Rom 1:1]. And he was writing, in his words, to those “called to belong to Jesus Christ” [Rom 1:6]…those “called to be holy. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” [Rom 1:7]
What exactly is this calling of ours? No less than the actual meaning of our very lives; for we are called to be holy. Indeed, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is really an explanation of this call.
Jesus calls us to follow Him, to deny ourselves, to take up our own cross, for only by doing so can we be His disciples. But that’s just the beginning, for we’re also called to “make disciples of all nations” [Mt 28:19]. And how do we do this?
Not by relying on our human strengths, not by thinking we can do it all ourselves, not by trying to fix things, or to solve problems, or to convince others to be just like you or just like me. Too often we try to force others, to argue them into discipleship.
You see, the making of disciples is God’s work. Let God work through you, especially through your weaknesses. Most often it means simply being there when another is in need. It means seeing Jesus Christ in your spouse, in your children and grandchildren, in everyone you meet…and letting them see Jesus Christ in you.
Yes, Jesus calls us to love the unloved, to feed those who hunger and thirst for God’s presence in their lives. And He calls us to be that presence, to be God’s quiet, loving presence.
We are the called, brothers and sisters. This is our identity as Christians. This is the meaning of our lives. Let’s all try to live a life worthy of our calling.