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A dear sister came to our church recently and this is what she said about coming to this family of faith. “I felt like I had found a home.” Thanks be to God.
A dear mother (and mother-in-the-faith and mother-in-law) from the Greek Orthodox tradition once asked the question of a Baptist, “Why do you spend so much time talking about Jesus?”
Of course, in the Orthodox tradition, they talk about Jesus too. There is an icon of Christ which is called “Pantocrator.” This is a word that appears a lot in the book of Revelation and is also used in the Greek OT to translate “Lord of Hosts” or “Almighty God.” Literally translated, it means ruler of all. In a Greek Orthodox church, the Pantocrator icon is often painted in the central dome. This is a good place to have it and I’m going to put it up on our screen.
We are coming to the Lord’s Table today. To come to a table and eat is a sort of homecoming, isn’t it? I hope it is. I hope our experience of coming to tables is like coming home or being at home. To come to Jesus is to come home. To come to Jesus is to come to the one who is our host as we come to our family table. It might be a return home for us, and that’s fine. It’s better than not returning home. It may be part of an ongoing orientation toward Christ in which we live, and I pray that God will bring us all to such an ongoing orientation – that all of life worship which Paul started this section of his letter off with back in chapter 12. For some, it might be the first time we orient ourselves toward Jesus as Lord and say, “You are my Lord. I give my life to you.”
Whatever our situation, it is a kind of coming home. A place where we are loved unconditionally, accepted, understood, carried along. Home for the follower of Christ is a place where we are carried in the same way that a shepherd carries a lamb against his chest. We are called to carry along each other’s burdens as we are all carried along by Christ. How, then, shall we live? How are we called and enabled in Christ to live? This is the question that we’ve been looking at for the past several weeks and we will continue to ask the question and ask God to give us wisdom. Paul is not at the end of the paraenesis section of his letter to the 1st-century Christians of Rome. We’ve heard about how we are to live with regard to one another – belonging to Jesus and belonging to one another. We’ve heard about how we are called to live with regard to our enemies and those who would persecute us. We’ve heard about how we are called to live with regard to the civil authority. We’ve heard about how we are called to live when we disagree. We’ve heard, “As far as it is possible, live in peace with everyone.” We’ve heard, “Owe nothing to anyone except love.” We’ve heard “Put on Christ.” I don’t suppose we would be wanting to walk on a picture of Jesus, but if we could, it might be fitting to have a an image or representation of Jesus underneath us. Underpinning, undergirding all that we have been discussing and praying about - is Jesus.
Paul finishes off the discussion of the weak and the strong that he had in chapter 14 (and that we had last week). We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. This is a bit of an unfortunate translation of the word that Paul uses, which is “carry,” or “bear,” or “uphold,” or “sustain” the failings of the weak. Paul is not saying “put up with” in the sense of “grin and bear it” while harbouring inner disdain. The word is the same one that’s translated “bear one another’s burdens” in Galatians 6:2. Carry one another along rather than please yourselves, says Paul. Again we are not to absolutize this and say that anything goes or we must put up with anything. Paul has been talking about non-make-or-break matters concerning how the Christian life is led in, which we are called to neither judge nor despise. “Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour.” (15:2)
This lead to another question that should always be before us. Are our words and actions building up, or are they tearing down? Do we want to build up or tear down? God grant that the answer is always build up. Note here that Paul is talking to everyone now. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. It’s not simply a matter of let those who are strong build up those who are weak (or those perceived to be strong and those perceived to be weak). Each person has something to contribute. There is a reciprocity here in the building of one another up. Someone brand new in the faith has something to do or say to build someone up who has been following Christ for decades. Don’t we see this truth borne out in our discussions that we have? Isn’t it wonderful to hear someone newly following Jesus express the kind of thanks and wonder at God’s grace that we might have become all too used to? There is a reciprocity and a mutuality in our being built up.
We say that the church is not about a building but we might equally say it’s about building. The people of God being built on our foundation. Our home base. Our key of C. The place that we always come home to. Christ Jesus. “For Christ did not please himself.” Our model. Our enablement. Paul comes back to where he started and where we started with him all those months ago. The good news of Jesus. “The gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness (because we talk about the God and the Holy Spirit too, of course!) by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1:3-4) There is a prayer written by Jane Austen called “Another Day Now Gone,” which contains these lines. We were talking about prayer posture last week, praying on our knees or on our faces, and this might be a good time for such a posture – “Incline us, oh God, to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.”
On what basis do we make such a prayer? On the basis of the One who loves us to death, even death on a cross. On the basis of the One. For Christ did not please himself. Let each of us look not to our own interests but to the interests of others. This is revolutionary stuff in a world where all too often, self-interest rules the day. In a world where so many relationships are transactional – based on what’s in it for me or what’s in it for both of us if we’re really morally upright. We’re used to the practice and language of exchange in so many of our relationships. The exchange that has happened is Jesus exchanging God’s form for the form of a servant in order that we might be brought home.
“For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” This is from Psalm 69:9. Christ identified himself with the weak, with the rebellious, with God’s enemies – in other words, us – by not pleasing himself but praying, “Not my will but yours be done.” He is our enablement and He is our pattern. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (15:4) The Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament is the earliest part of the story that we live in as followers of Christ – the roots out of which we have grown which point ahead to Christ. They are there to instruct and encourage us – to remind us of the promises that were made and how those promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. NT Wright puts it like this: “ the whole Old Testament forms the God-given story of how the covenant people were called to bring God’s salvation to the good but fallen creation. This necessarily involved them, and would necessarily involve their ultimate representative, the Messiah, in terrible suffering, standing at the place where the world, and humankind in particular, was in pain with its own rebellion and failure. Now that the Messiah had come and had achieved what the whole Old Testament had been moving towards, the Bible could be read not as a puzzling story in search of an ending but as the foundation for God’s great achievement in Jesus.”
We then have the first of two great prayer/blessings in this section of chapter 15: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus. So that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” What a great prayer. Look at what’s going on in this prayer. The people of God are glorifying with one voice. What does this mean practically? Surely a life together of praise and worship of God. Surely a life together of regular praise and worship of God that reflects our unity in the love of Christ and unity in the Spirit of God. It doesn’t mean uniformity of thought of practice, as we’ve been saying in previous weeks. It’s not so much thinking the same thing as each other as it is having a mindset of love toward one another that works itself out in what we do. With one mind. With one mouth. Describing unanimity in praise and worship that shows to the watching world that hope and joy, and peace are here. That God is here. One voice is not simply because it’s good to be united, but so that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will be glorified – in other words, so that the love, peace, joy, hope, faithfulness, justice, mercy of God and Jesus the Pantocrator and the Holy Spirit would be present and would be made known.
That we may experience a homecoming and that we might invite others to experience a homecoming – to taste and see that the Lord is indeed good. That God’s purposes for humanity might be revealed in us. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” That God’s plan would be made known. God’s plan to reconcile all things to Himself in Christ – to bring back all things to Himself in Christ. In the second part of our text this morning, Paul goes over how this plan was promised to the patriarchs. Remember the words to Abraham – “I will make of you a great nation through which all the nations of the world will be blessed.” God’s plan was always about inclusion rather than exclusion or exclusivity. “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify Go for his mercy.” (15:8-9) What does this mean? God would work through a covenant people, making and keeping promises and demonstrating His truth/faithfulness - to bring about deliverance which is open to all – showing God’s mercy/steadfast love. The two essential elements for Paul, as someone has said, of who God is.
Truth and mercy. Faithfulness and steadfast love. May we never get used to this or take it for granted.
This was always the plan. As it is written (read 9-12). These verses referencing 2 Samuel, Deuteronomy, the Psalms. The final one from Isaiah 11, which we hear very often at Christmas. The shoot from the root of Jesse, who rises (the word for resurrection there) to rule the Gentiles. All are welcome into his rule, his realm. Self-giving, self-emptying love so that all might be welcomed.
How critical is it that the church be place where the welcome of God is enacted? We thank God for when we see this. It is in community that we witness what God has done, is doing, and one day will do in reconciling all things to himself. The world is longing for and crying out for peace and hope, and deep-seated joy. Someone has said that a world looking for hope and peace and joy will look to where these things are evident. If they are not clearly evident in our life together, how can we invite others to them? We don’t have to manufacture unity ourselves but orient ourselves together toward the one in whom our unity is found. May we be reminded of this truth this morning. May we meet Jesus at this table, and may he be revealed to us the same way he revealed himself at a table to those two disciples in a town called Emmaus. The only thing left in the letter is to say goodbye, and we’ll spend a week or two on the goodbye. For now, let us repeat to one another Paul’s prayer, and may this be the cry of our hearts for one another.:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:13)
And all God’s people said, “Amen!’