I've been reading Paul's letter to the Roman church this year with someone in our church.
We've recently finished and one of our concluding observations was to ask what if the story had been different. It's one way to work out if you've caught the message that is in front of you - what would we lose if we didn't have this letter? What is its contribution? What is conveyed by this being the response given to a particular situation?
The story (as we discern it from the text) tells that Paul sends his epic letter to Rome in the hands of Phoebe whilst he journeys from Corinth to Jerusalem and then eventually to Rome, in hope of going on to Spain. His journey to Jerusalem is to deliver the finances raised from churches across Europe to provide for the Jerusalem church.
In Galatians Paul and Peter agree that Paul is to go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. But, Paul is to remember the Jerusalem poor. He collects from Philippi (Macedonia) and Corinth (2 Cor 8-9, Phil 4). His logic is that while spiritual blessings have come from the Jews to the Gentiles, material blessings should go the other way.
And so his journey will be slowed. Mere pragmatic advance of the gospel message to as many people as possible as fast as possible is not the gospel shaped approach.
What if the story had been different?
What if Paul had merely sent the money back by messenger (Phoebe perhaps) and gone straight to Rome and on to Spain (and perhaps on to Britain?)? Perhaps it would've made no difference, perhaps there is no right or wrong here.
Or, perhaps his message would be of notional care for the Jewish church but a pragmatic stretch onwards. He might've got further - his appeal to Caesar got him to Rome but doesn't appear to have helped him to get beyond there.
The tension between care for the church and extending the church exists.
Phoebe might've carried the money with a different letter - Judeans perhaps rather than Romans, which would presumably have justified his strategy - here's money for you but the gospel must quickly advance.... With all due respect to Phoebe a different value would be evident in her having made the delivery instead of Paul.
The relationship of Jewish believers and unbelievers to Gentile believers and unbelievers is written into the gospel story as Roman's tells it. God's patience with Jewish unbelief provokes the Gentiles to blaspheme (Romans 1-4), a new Jew and Gentile humanity is formed through the gospel (5-8), Gentile inclusion is for the eventual provocation of the Jews to belief (9-11). Jews and Gentiles must live together with mutual blessings flowing between them (12-16).
Judeans might reflect a different priority, and perhaps a different sort of gospel, a lesser value on the forming of a new community - perhaps more urgent, less patient...
As a corollory to this change in the story of the early church Acts would also tell a different story. Indeed we might not even have Luke-Acts which its suggested may have been researched by Luke while Paul was back in Jerusalem... and in any case Luke writing of Paul wouldn't be telling of one who followed in the footsteps of Jesus, facing trial and death, rather he might've gone on unbound to preach in unreached lands... a story that sounds like saying to Jesus, why not skip out on Jerusalem and crucifixion and go to the nations? Perhaps a more impressive story to tell and yet a story without the cross, which in the end would be no gospel at all.
In writing Romans Paul tells his readers that he's not ashamed of the gospel, he's urgent to come to Rome and to the nations beyond but the unity of the church and the road to Jerusalem, with all its dangers and trials, are unavoidable, necessary. As he walks forward he's always tucking back. As he looks to resurrection life, he's dying daily.
I'm thankful for the opportunity to spend 20 weeks reading this great letter this year, and look forward to doing so again soon.