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God’s People, part 181: Rome

Read Acts 28:17-31

“Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

281: Rome. As was mentioned in the previous devotion, there was a church already established in the city of Rome. We know that this church was not established by Paul himself; however, word of the church and their faith had reached Paul and he very much wanted to visit them. We know this from his own writings to the church in his epistle to the Romans. In that letter, he wrote:

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else…In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places. But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.”  (Romans 15:20, 22-24, NLT)

Paul’s own words tell us that he had never been to Rome before and that someone else was responsible for bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to them, founding them as a church. By church, it is not meant that they had a physical location to worship at that we now commonly know as a “church”; rather, the church is the group of Christian believers that are gathered in a geographical location, who probably worshiped at multiple different houses throughout the city.

To the earliest Christians, the Church or ekklesia (Greek ἐκκλησία, pronounced eh-ck-lee-sia) means an assembly or gathering of people. It matters not where they gather, but what they are gathering for. In the Christian context, the church is a gathering of Christ followers. Thus, Paul was writing his letters to the body of Christians in the specific cities he addressed them to. In the case of Romans, Paul was addressing the body of Christ followers in the city of Rome, regardless of where they met and worshiped.

While we do not know who established the church in Rome, it is safe to believe that it was someone who may have known, or at least known of Paul. Paul writes his letter to a people he presumes will know who he is. Whether it was a close associate of Paul or some other Christian who spread the Good News there, it makes perfect sense that the Christian faith would spread quickly to the heart of the empire. After all, there was a large Jewish community within Rome and, no doubt, Christians would have traveled to, and been present in, the Jewish community in the imperial city.

Paul did eventually make his way to the believers. In our Scripture today, we see that Acts concludes with Paul under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial and, of course, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people while he waited. Paul was in the lion’s den, as it were, and yet he boldly proclaimed the Gospel despite his impending trial.

While Acts ends the story at Paul’s arrival, the truth is that the Gospel message would eventually cost Paul his life. More than likely, he was beheaded during Nero’s persecution of Christians. The reason was that Nero scapegoated Christians for a large fire that got out of control and burned half of Rome down. Historians contemporary to the time speculated that Nero started the fire himself; however, Christians received the blame and were put to death in the most horrific of ways, making Paul’s death look like a walk in the park.

Prior to his death, Paul was visited and cared for by friends and by other Christians in the Roman community. He was loved and cared for by his fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. This should challenge us to remember that the church is just that: a community of believers who are charged with visiting and caring for each other. The church is a community of believers called to live out their love for on another, despite differences that would otherwise separate and divide them. Let us, as Christians today, remember that the mission of the church is no different now than it was then. Let us visit each other, care for each other, and love each other just as the Christians in Rome did for Paul.

Love wins. Let us be on the winning side.

Lord, teach me to be like Paul and the earliest Christians. By your grace, help me to love and to care for my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ, living into Christ’s new commandment for those who follow him. Amen.