Admittedly, the beginnings of Paul’s letters–or of any of the epistles–seem to me to be 90% cultural context and 10% authoritative text, so I pay very little attention to them. In fact, I had to will myself to really read Romans 1:8-15, because I wanted to get to the towering theological truths of chapters 3 and 6, and to the soaring moral exhortations in chapters 12 and 13. Barth treats this passage succinctly, but he finds real energy and excitement in these verses:
Romans 1:8-15 | “Personal Matters”
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish—hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
Barth makes several fascinating points in expositing these texts. He finds both comfort and encouragement for the preacher who feels he or she has “nothing to say,” in Paul’s desire to “share…some spiritual gift to strengthen [the Roman Christians]” (v.11). Barth writes:
The importance of an apostle is negative rather than positive. In him a void becomes visible. And for this reason he is something to others: he is able to share grace with them, to focus their attention, and to establish them in waiting and in adoration. The Spirit gives grace through him. Possessing nothing, he has nothing of his own to offer, and so, the more he imparts, the more he receives; and the more he receives, the more he imparts.
This is encouraging news for me as I engage in full-time ministry this summer. The best thing I have to offer a church is not anything I have at all! But only what I myself have received in the first place. Thanks be to God!
The best part, though, is how excited Barth gets about verse 8.
The Resurrection has proved its power: there are Christians–even in Rome…This is a sufficient ground for thanksgiving. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb. The Word has free course. Jesus lives; and He is in the metropolis of the world. Everywhere Christians have heard of it…Paul does not thank God for the piety of the Roman Christians, or for any other observable human advantages they may possess. He simply gives thanks for the fact that there are Christians in Rome. Special gifts or remarkable deeds are less important than the fact that the flag has been planted, that the name of the Lord is announced and received, that the Kingdom of God is being awaited and proclaimed. This then is faith: the fidelity of men encountering the faithfulness of God.
I love this. What joy Barth (and Paul, in the first place) experiences in witnessing the spreading of the Kingdom of God. May God fill me with such joy and passion.