Part IX of “Romans: The Road Less Traveled”
The Academy Awards are tonight, and while I haven’t seen many of the movies (ok, really none of them), it’s always an interesting exercise in watching human behavior. I especially enjoy watching the speeches, where excited people try to thank everyone they know while the show producers want to get them off the stage as soon as possible. The length that they shoot for is about 45 seconds before the orchestra starts playing to signal that the show must go on, but the prestige of a particular award category actually determines how much leeway an award winner gets. The speech for Best Makeup, for example, will get a quicker hook than that of the Best Director.
Actually, according to a recent study, Oscar speeches are getting longer. From 1960 to 1969, for example, the average speech length was 44 seconds for men and 39 seconds for women. Now the speeches have stretched to an average of 1 minute, 57 seconds for men and 1 minute, 56 seconds for women (note here that the men talk longer, which goes against all the conventional wisdom that men are less verbal than women!).
The speeches, of course, are all about thanks—who gets included and, more gossip-worthy, who gets left out. The speeches have gotten longer because every Oscar recipient is mortified by the prospect of leaving someone out, especially in an era in which celebrities have a virtual army of people attending to their lives—managers, publicists, directors, studio execs, handlers. This has led to a certain protocol about not only who gets thanked, but in what order.
Rebecca Rolfe, a Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student, conducted a scholarly research project on human gratitude and used the Oscars as her subject. She says that protocol for accepting an Oscar usually goes something like this: They all start with some version of ‘I’m so happy to be here,’” says Rolfe. “Next, they mention their film and the people they worked with, sometimes including people from previous films. Then they go to the core team: the publicist and the other handlers. Finally they get to their families.”
Some other interesting speech facts: crying is less common than you think—only 21% of actors and actresses will choke up—but it’s more common now than it was 20 years ago. Some Oscar winners used note and some don’t, which also determines speech length. Without notes, the average speech length is 1:24 and with notes it’s 2:02 (so if someone opens a note, look out—it’s the same with preachers, by the way, although I have an iPad, so I get style points).
Also fascinating is the fact that men are more likely to practice the one-handed celebratory hoist of the Oscar over their heads, while the women are more likely to clutch it with both hands. “The women hold it like it’s a baby,” says Rolfe. “It’s a don’t-take-this-away-from-me gesture.” Rolfe has put together an interactive web site with a lot of these interesting facts, including a place where you can put together your own Oscar speech—you know, just in case they call your name tonight!
As we reach the end of our series on Romans, we see here in Chapter 16 that Paul is offering an Oscar-worthy speech of thanks, greetings, and encouragement to no less than 28 people. It doesn’t take a minute 57 to read, but it is a list that, in many ways, is far more important than that of any Academy winner’s entourage. None of the people on this list are famous to anyone outside the church. None of them would have been on Roman network television sitting in a crowd with their formal togas on. But for Paul, they are the most important people in the world because they are people of God.
It’s easy to think of Romans as Paul’s primary theological treatise on the Christian faith, and in many ways it is. Our study through this letter has taken us through some of the major themes of Christian theology. Remember how Paul began the letter with the thesis statement in 1:16-17 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” In chapters 1-3 we looked at the problem of human sin; that all people have fallen short of the glory of God. Chapter 4 reminds us, however, that God launched a rescue plan for humanity—a plan begun with a covenant with a man named Abraham, who put his faith in God and became the patriarch of a family through whom God would save the world. Chapters 5-8, then outlined how Jesus—Abraham’s descendant and God’s Son—dealt with human sin through his own suffering, death, and resurrection; defeating death and making the way for God’s ultimate right-putting new creation. Chapters 9-11 then show us how the coming of Christ has formed a new humanity that isn’t bound by ethnicity or gender, but by faith in Jesus. Chapters 12-15 then outline what living that faith looks like in the present age with our eyes on the age to come.
What we sometimes forget, however, is that in the midst of all this grand theology—which is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award just on the writing alone—is that Paul’s theology was never designed for mere abstract contemplation. It was, and is, good news for people. The gospel is good news, the power of God for salvation and redemption in Jesus Christ; the power to be God’s new humanity, the people through whom God’s saving grace would be made known to the world. Christians in the 21st century tend to read Paul’s Gospel as being primarily about me as an individual and my salvation. But Paul’s theology, and indeed all biblical theology, is always focused on community. No Academy Award winner ever gets to the podium without an army of people working with them to make it happen. No Christian ever makes it as a disciple without a community of people standing beside them.
And so Paul begins his thank you speech beginning at 16:1. Notice that the first person he “commends” is Phoebe—a sister, a deacon of the church—who is likely the one who carried Paul’s letter to Rome. The Roman mail system was reserved only for government use, so if you wanted to get a letter somewhere you had to send your own messenger. In this case, we see Paul backing up what he said about community in Christ, where there is no difference between male and female—a distinct departure from the ancient world’s way of doing things.
Priscilla and Aquila “risked their necks” for Paul and for all the churches. These Jews, whom Paul had lived with in Corinth for a time, had returned to Rome—not choosing the safety of being far from the center of Empire, but now going to its heart. Then there is Epaenetus, the first Christian convert in Asia, Mary the hard worker; Andronicus and Junia, whom Paul calls “apostles” or those who had seen the risen Christ before Paul ever did. There is Ampliatus the beloved, Urbanus the co-worker in Christ (both of which were common slave names in Rome); Stachys and Appelles, approved in Christ. The family of Aristobulus, who may have hosted one of the Roman house churches; Herodian and the family of Narcissus. Tryphaena and Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus, and many more. Paul calls to all of them from the stage and urges them to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” It’s not the fake smooching of the Oscars—it’s the kiss of peace that was for the community of faith.
So, here they are—Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor. They are the church—people who would normally have no business with one another except for Christ. These are the people through whom the power of God will work—people behind the scenes, but without whom there is no story offered to the world.
You know, I can stand here and make a similar list of people to thank and to greet. I could name the people sitting in this room, the people who have been part of every church I’ve served, the people who surrounded me in the churches in which I grew up. It would be a lot longer than a two-minute speech, but the only reason I am here is because of them and their faithfulness to Christ. If we had the time, I’ll bet every one of you could come up to the podium here and name your own list. If the Oscars take about four hours, that could take four days! We all have an entourage of people that have not been ashamed to give us the gospel and to share their faith with us.
The truth is that we were made to share the prize together—“the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” as Paul puts it in Philippians 3—which is why he closes the letter with some final instructions: Keep an eye on those who cause dissension and opposition. Don’t listen to smooth-talkers who serve their own ends—the kinds of sycophants who hang around successful people. Instead, Paul says, “be wise in what is good and guileless in what is evil” (v. 19). After all, “the God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet” (v. 20). Every step we take with Christ on the road of faith is one step closer to his kingdom and one more stomp on the power of evil. Together, we carry the story of Christ into the world.
It’s interesting to me that on Oscar weekend another movie about Jesus is premiering. “Son of God” hit theaters on Friday, and has already had $4.1 million in advanced sales. This movie is actually an edited version of the miniseries “The Bible” which was on the History Channel earlier this year and it stars a Portugese actor and model named Diogo Morgado as Jesus—who looks like he came from Hollywood central casting and almost nothing like a first century Jew (in fact, on the internet he is being called “Hot Jesus”).
It’s safe to say that this movie won’t be winning any Academy Awards—and not because of some Hollywood bias against Christians. It’s because it’s not very good. The miniseries was best known for having a Satan that supposedly looked like President Obama (a total coincidence, said the producers–right). Overall, it was disaster of biblical proportions.
Then again, no movie can ever capture what the story of Jesus and the good news of the gospel is all about. We keep hoping that better production values will make the story more appealing to the masses, when the reality is that the only way the Gospel of Jesus Christ will become known to the world is through a community of people who are actually living it out. That’s the way it’s been designed from the beginning. The world doesn’t need another silver screen Jesus who looks like a model, it needs regular people who will model Jesus to the world.
Romans offers us a script of what that particular people looks like—a people who recognize that they are sinners; a people who know they need a Savior; a people who have invested their whole lives in faith and trust in Jesus; a people whose lives reflect his character; a people whose hope is invested in God’s future, the new creation, and the defeat of death; a people who are willing to go to any lengths to share the good news about Jesus with their neighbors; a people who reflect the love of Jesus in their communal life together and invite others to join in.
You know, one of the other fascinating facts that Rebecca Rolfe has dug up about the Oscars is that of all the people who have ever been thanked during Oscar speeches, it’s producer and studio executive Harvey Weinstein who’s been thanked the most—30% of winners have thanked him in the last 20 years. By contrast, only 7% of winners have thanked God.
Well, in here it’s 100 percent. Romans teaches us that without God’s grace, made known in Jesus, the human project is doomed. Whatever trophy we hoist in the end is all God’s doing, and he deserves our thanks and praise. Academy Award winners get a little gold statue of a man. We receive the glory of God in Jesus Christ—and that’s something to hold on to!
And so Paul’s Oscar speech ends the letter with this word, dedicating it all to God:
25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
May that be our speech as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Kluger, Jeffrey. “Science Analyzes the Academy Award Speech.” Time Web Site, February 21, 2013.
Rolfe, Rebecca. Thank the Academy. http://www.rebeccarolfe.com/projects/thanktheacademy/