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We might consider the end of Paul’s letter to the Christians of Rome to be a bit of a comedown. Paul has taken us to the heights of the good news of Jesus Christ. Let us remember some of those. “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.” (1:16) “Therefore since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (5:1) “Wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (7:24-25) “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (8:15-16) “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38-39) “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, hold and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (12:1) “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (13:8) “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 then we get to… travel plans?
Paul brings it to the level of the every day, and all these lofty truths which we have been discussing and praying about are meant to affect the everyday. The ending of the letter of Romans reminds us that the good news of Christ Jesus does not exist by itself. The good news of Christ Jesus is not simply a good idea or a theory. It was embodied in a unique way in a person who was born in Bethlehem. It was embodied in a man called Paul, who lived it and wrote about from Corinth to a group of people who received the good news in Rome around 58AD. It is embodied in us in whom the Spirit of Christ lives, and we have spent the last few weeks examining and sitting with and praying over what this means in our day-to-day lives in the city of Toronto or wherever we may be. In this letter, we are hearing the Apostle Paul in a particular place and at a particular stage in his life. We are hearing in a particular place and at a particular stage of our lives. Isn’t this at least partly why the good news of Jesus is always new?
The good news of Jesus gives life a certain kind of importance. It makes every moment matter, potentially, at least. We go back to the idea of the centrality of Christ, the Pantocrator of which we spoke last week – the centrality of Christ in a life where all of life is lived as worship of God, with the living Spirit of God in us. I read an interview with Bob Dylan recently that made me wonder about how I spend my own time, and that reminded me of what a centrality of the good news of Jesus brings to our lives. Here’s what he said – “I’m not a fan of packaged programs or news shows, so I don’t watch them. I never watch anything foul-smelling or evil… I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation… The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it…For my part, none of this imagery makes me feel afraid, guilty, or judgemental. It makes me feel alive. It wakes me up. It makes me feel that everything I do today matters. Life feels full of adventure, significance, and portent. Today has an edge. My heartbeat is eschatological. My pulse is apocalyptic.”
We need (I need) to come back to the centrality of the good news of Christ. Paul never forgot the vital importance of relationships in the Kingdom of God, and we’re going to see this in a larger way next week as we look at his good goodbye in chapter 16. Here at the beginning of the passage we read today, Paul tells his brothers and sisters that he feels confident about them. “I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another.” Even if this confidence is not based on Paul’s personal knowledge of this church, Paul is confident in the power of God through the Holy Spirit of God to fill them with all joy and peace in believing so that they may abound in hope. This was the prayer which we prayed for one another last week, and we believe in the power of God to do this. We can say the same thing confidently about each other, can’t we? Filled with goodness. Filled with all knowledge. Able to instruct one another. Why, then, are we spending 14 weeks (and some have spent much longer!) on examining this letter together? “Nevertheless on some points (not all points but many points), I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister (a servant) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles….” Because no longer how long we have been following Christ we need reminding. We need to hear the old story in a new way. To hear and grasp the same thing in a different way. To be made new. To be enabled to walk in newness of life – a life where each may have eternal significance. A life in which purpose and meaning is found through the grace and mercy of God in every act of mercy, kindness, compassion, love.
I saw the Banshees of Inisherin recently and there is a lot going on in that movie, not the least of which is questions about faith. At one point, Brenden Gleason’s character Colm Doherty is having an argument with Colin Farrell’s character Patrick Sullivan about creating great art versus “being nice.” Colm maintains that what is most important in terms of being remembered is creating an artistic piece that will last. He’s trying to write a song for violin and voice which is where the movie gets its title. Patrick is maintaining that it’s important to be nice, to which Colm responds that no one remembers anyone from the 17th century who was nice. They remember composers who wrote great works. In the light of God’s Kingdom, Colm can’t be more wrong. Jesus tells us that in his Kingdom, even something as seemingly mundane as a cup of water offered in His name takes on eternal significance.
So we need to come back to the good news constantly – to be reminded constantly. Listen to Paul in our passage – “because of the grace given to me by God,” “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me,” “by the power of the Holy Spirit of God,” “Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news….” We may be reminded of what Paul had written to the people of Corinth about the centrality of the good news of Christ in his life and work – “For I decided to know nothing among you among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Our model. Our enablement. Our deliverer.
I know we’re not Paul, but his desire to keep the good news of Jesus is one for us to emulate and pray to God for. We may not be called to preach and write but all of us are called to live the good news of God’s mercy out and be able to speak of it when we’re called on to speak of it. NT Wright, in his commentary on the Romans, puts the good news which was shared by Paul like this:
“He (Paul) was telling them the extraordinary news that there was one true God rather than the multiplicity of pagan deities, that this one true God had made the world, still loved it, and was bringing it justice and hope, and that this God, to fulfil this plan, had sent his own son, his own second self, to suffer the fate of a rebel against the empire and now to be enthroned as the world’s true Lord. To say that he has written boldly at some points in the letter (verse 15) is to say, why change the habit of a lifetime? Paul had been speaking and acting boldly ever since he had met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.”
May we act and speak boldly. Paul’s desire was for this news to spread to wherever it hadn’t been heard. He was kind of a Littlest Hobo of apostles – always on the move, seeking out new territory. The farthest western territory in the world, as far as it was known to the Roman Empire, was Spain. He first needs to head east, which at first glance seems counterintuitive. It’s in the completely wrong direction and travel was difficult and slow. “At present,” Paul writes, “I am going to Jerusalem as a ministry to the saints.” Paul had been taking up a collection of money to help the poor among the saints in Jerusalem and he wanted to deliver it personally. It was a big deal. We’ve been talking about reciprocity and mutuality in the life of those who follow Christ. The good news of Christ is for everyone, and this has been demonstrated in Gentiles (in other words, everyone else) coming to share in the spiritual blessings promised to the original covenant people (the people of Israel) through Christ – in whom there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ. It is this message of unity in our difference rooted and grounded in Christ Jesus that Paul has been coming back to and that we will keep coming back to. Remember how Paul started the letter, talking about the good news of Jesus being the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greeks. Gentile followers of Christ have shared their material blessings with their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, from whom came their spiritual blessings. This surely should make us think about how we share material and spiritual blessings with one another?!
Paul fears opposition. There’s a chance that his life will be in danger as it has been in danger before. There’s a chance that the money he is bringing from Gentile followers of Christ will not be accepted in Jerusalem because it didn’t come from the right kind of people. The collection of money and Paul’s interest in bringing it himself are pointing to a truth beyond the money and Paul’s presence – there are to be no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We’ve spoken of the family of God and the body of Christ. We all perform different functions and we are not to be ranked based on what our function is. There is much work that goes on in the family of God that is unheard and unseen and we are to be thankful for each and every one.
Paul makes a prayer request here to the Romans, that they would pray for his safety and that the gift he’s bringing will be accepted. A prayer for safety and unity. Paul doesn’t say something like, “Remember me in your prayers.” The way Paul makes the request is more like “Struggle with him” in prayer. One’s struggle is the struggle of all of us in the family of God.
Paul ends with these words, “So that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. The God of peace be with all of you. Amen”
Paul would never get to Spain, as far as he knew. He planned to get to Spain by way of Rome and be refreshed in the company of his Roman sisters and brothers. Paul would get to Rome, but it would be in Roman custody. A group of believers would meet him outside the city as he was on his way – “And so we came to Rome. The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” (Acts 28: 14b-15) What Paul planned for in Spain never took place, but there is a final lesson for us in this passage as we close. God may use what we do in service of plans that we have, even if the plans never come to fruition. Paul never got to Spain, but in preparing to go, he wrote this letter to Rome which has become so precious to the church. As someone has said, “We should never underestimate what God will do through things which we see as small steps to a larger end.”
The only thing that remains is the good goodbye. In the meantime, may our words and deeds reflect God’s ways, and may God use all our steps toward His merciful ends, and may this be true for us all.