Next week I'm off to a ministers' conference to do the Bible readings. And I'm really looking forward to it - though I'm not sure I have anything particular to contribute to my brothers' and sisters' understanding of either the text or their jobs.
I've decided to read Romans 1 and 16, the opening and closing of Paul's great letter, and think about the twin issues of identity and inclusion. Who are we in Christ? How do we build genuinely inclusive communities?
These have always been key issues - they clearly were for Paul's first hearers. But I feel them to be particularly important for us today. Our identity as Christians in the West has taken a hammering with the passing of Christendom and the abandonment of the faith by so many of our neighbours. Who are we when so few think the Christian faith worth following?
I guess Paul's first hearers thought something similar for different reasons. There were not many Christians in Rome in the mid-50s when Paul wrote. Romans 16 suggests five house churches, possibly seven. Even if 30 people went to each - which would be pushing it, given the capacity of the homes these groups met in - that would mean a Christian community of no more than a couple of hundred people in a city of one million.
Furthermore, these believers would be people of little status or clout. They wouldn't even have had the presence that the Jewish community had through its purpose-built meeting places. The Christian community would have been all-but invisible.
So, what was their sense of identity? Paul clearly wants them to understand themselves in relation to the coming Kingdom: they are people of the new age rather than the age that is passing away. They are people of the resurrection, people who know the forgiveness of God and the renewal of their lives through his Spirit. In short they are holy people.
And they have this status not because they were born into it - which must have been a relief to those (a majority) who were at the bottom of the social heap and hence born to nothing but penury - but because God chose to give it to them as an act of grace. More than that, by making them holy and filling them with the Holy Spirit, God made them into brothers and sisters of his son, Jesus, he adopted them into his family (adoption into a divine family was the highest a Roman could imagine - it's what Caesar had a habit of doing).
Paganism in ancient Rome - as much as various new age spiritualities these days - offered ways for people - who'd never be adopted into the emperor's family - to discover the god within them, to realise that they were in some way already divine or had the potential to be. The good news of Jesus is that God adopts us into his family, makes us partakers of the divine nature, as Peter puts it, through our faith in Jesus.
That has to be good news in any culture, doesn't it?