Epistle

Overwhelmed by Reality

Mark 9:1-9 (NRSV)

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


If we’re going to understand this story called the “transfiguration,” we first have to acknowledge that we do not see reality in full.

We like to trust our eyes, but you don’t have to be a religious person at all to understand there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Just ask any amateur astronomer. Many of our best discoveries have come because we built instruments capable of seeing wavelengths beyond the visible light our eyes can process.

We also see differently from other animals in creation. For example, biologists say birds and bees can see ultraviolet light, while we cannot.

Our inability to see in full is a common theme of the Bible, too. For example, in 2 Kings, chapter 6, the prophet Elisha appeared to be surrounded by an enemy king trying to capture him. His servant, alarmed, pointed out the approaching enemy.

Elisha prayed his servant’s eyes be opened, and voilà, the servant suddenly could see God’s horses and chariots of fire ringing the mountains around them. The enemy king’s soldiers proved to be no problem for them.

From birth, sin obscures our ability to see reality in full. Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 4, said Satan, acting as ruler of this world, “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

Even for believers, a full grasp of reality is difficult. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul also wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As believers, however, we also are being drawn into deeper understandings of reality. In our transfiguration story from Mark, we are invited into a moment where the veil is briefly lifted and three broken human beings who also happen to be disciples are allowed to see Jesus Christ in full.

Not that they know how to process what they’re seeing. Jesus’ clothes are whiter than white, whiter than anything in those Tide commercials that ran during the Super Bowl. Peter, not knowing what to do, starts talking, seeming to babble through the greatest vision he has ever witnessed.

Funny thing is, Peter is partially grasping the situation. His desire to build what sounds like a camp is rooted in the Jewish belief of the day, the idea that when God comes to dwell with his people, they return to a nomadic existence, God’s presence being all they really need for survival.

Peter’s response was essentially right; you’ll note there were no stinging words from Jesus to put Peter in his place. It simply was too early to sit down and dwell in God’s glory. There was work to be done. There is work to be done.

Let me teach you a word you may not have heard before. Peter believed he was experiencing the parousia, the full and complete presence of God among us, what we sometimes call the Second Coming of Christ. In the parousia, everything will be as it was meant to be. God’s reality and glory will no longer be filtered and dimmed for us.

There were and are steps to get there, though. This is why Jesus told his three key disciples to say nothing about what they had seen until after the resurrection. Jesus had not even gone to the cross yet, and certainly his death was necessary to pay for our sins.

Christ’s resurrection would serve as proof the cross had worked, that death is defeated. That first Easter morning brought us a step closer to glorious parousia—we are but one step away now, even though it has seemed like a very long step to take.

Just before the transfiguration, Jesus had been laying out all the steps. He warned the disciples he must die and rise from the dead, a concept they could not grasp at the time. They wanted the glorious presence without the necessary work of salvation Jesus was willing to undertake. They had forgotten the price of sin.

He also mentioned his followers would have to take up their own crosses as they came to believe in the work he would do on the cross. Some of his disciples, Peter included, would do so literally, crucified as leaders of the early church. According to church tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, saying he was unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as his Lord and Savior.

As Jesus’ followers, we are all called to follow our own particular Via Dolorosa, the sometimes difficult, painful path that joins us to Christ. Some of you already know what it means to surrender certain aspects of your life to the greater glory of God, seeking the growth of the kingdom in the hearts of people around you.

As you have these cross-bearing experiences, never forget that we move toward a glorious presence we cannot even begin to understand in full. I say this from time to time, and it’s worth saying again: Imagine the greatest experience your mind can concoct, and then understand your imagination has fallen far, far short of what you, as a follower of Christ, will actually enjoy when fully in the presence of God.

Years after the transfiguration experience, Peter wrote about it in a letter, what we now call 2 Peter. He focused not on what he saw, but what he heard, the voice from heaven declaring once again that Jesus is the Son of God, the same declaration we imitate as we tell others about living a life in Christ.

“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed,” Peter wrote. “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Amen; may we work with our hearts attuned to God’s glory.

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Creation Stories


Genesis 1:1-5 (NLT)


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

Genesis 2:4-9 (NLT)

This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, neither wild plants nor grains were growing on the earth. For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil. Instead, springs came up from the ground and watered all the land. Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


“In the beginning.” These are, of course, the opening words of the Great Story we celebrate in our lives, the story in which we participate whenever we gather for worship.

It is the Great Story, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, that explains who God is, why God matters, and how God relates to his creation, particularly people. We discover that people are central to the Great Story, too—in fact, we matter so much, we are loved so much, that God does some very strange things to maintain the relationship.

Ultimately in the Great Story, there is God in flesh, and a cross, and resurrection. But today, we’re going to re-introduce ourselves to the creation stories, those first two chapters of the Holy Bible that set the tone for everything to come.

Being Biblical

I am going to be as biblical as I can be today; by that, I mean I am going to let the story as it is told shape what I say as much as possible. (God help me, and God forgive me where I fail in this area.) Traditionally, one of the great things about being Methodist is that we let the Bible guide us, trusting that it is God’s inspired word, communicating truths that transcend cultural biases.

That does not mean you will hear what some call a fundamentalist or literalist presentation of the creation stories’ highlights from me. As I understand those explanations of the creation stories, they at times can contradict the purposes of Genesis 1 and 2. Fundamentalists and literalists have been known to take lyrical tellings of who God is and how God relates to humans and reduce them to strange science, missing their larger points.

Ultimately, I want to get to the deeper truths being communicated at the opening of this sacred, wonderful Great Story. For there are great truths, the kind of truths around which we should build our lives. When I say I believe Scripture is true, I’m talking about a mystical kind of truth that underpins and holds together the very cosmos.

The Stories

There are two creation stories before us in Genesis. Most scholars agree the first one runs from Genesis 1:1 through the first statement in Genesis 2:4, where we hear the concluding statement, “This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.” The second story then begins, “When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens …”.

There are, of course, similarities between the two stories. In both cases, we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, one of three biblical manifestations or persons of God. In the first creation story, God’s Spirit hovers over a dark, watery, formless earth. In the second story, the Spirit is present as God’s breath, entering the human formed from the ground to create life.

There also are significant textual differences between the two stories, including the name used for the Creator. In the first account, God is, in Hebrew, simply ʼElohim, while in the second account we see “Lord God,” YHWH ʼElohim, the addition being the “I Am Who I Am” secret name of God revealed to Moses in the story found in Exodus 3.

The basic purpose of the first creation story seems pretty clear. We see God standing outside all things. God is complete. God is not dependent in any way on creation. Why does God create? It would appear that creativity simply is a key part of God’s character. As God sees things are “good,” he experiences the satisfaction a human writer, painter or sculptor might feel.

We also see how creation is made to be responsive to God. Pay careful attention to the shift in language at Genesis 1:11-12. With God’s power, the land begins to participate in the process of creation, sprouting and producing seed-bearing plants which then beget more life.

The pattern is repeated as animals are created. God gets everything rolling and creation joyfully imitates. Ultimately, humans are made in God’s image, ruling in miniature on behalf of the one who made all things.

I carry this truth away: I am just one of billions of humans who have existed, but I am important. You are important. As responsive bearers of God-given life, made in his image, we have so much potential! Treasure the life you’ve been given.

Yes, the story goes on in chapter 3, and sin introduces horrible encumbrances to weigh us down. But remember that potential, and remember the powerful truth that Christ came to redeem us from sin. Through Christ, we are re-created, restored to that potential.

Deep Love

The second creation story accomplishes another important task. It is, in a way, God’s valentine to us, as he says, “See how much I love you?”

Here, the Lord God is much more personal and relatable, shaping the first human from sod and blowing life into his nostrils. He then carves out a special place in creation, a holy garden where the man can learn pleasurable, fulfilling work alongside his creator. He also is called to learn joyous obedience by following one simple rule: Don’t eat from that tree.

There is to be no sadness or sense of isolation in this place called Eden. We see this as the Lord God fashions animals, and then finally a woman, for the man. We are left with a picture of perfection, man and woman together, relating to one another and God in idyllic peace.

Again, sin mars the picture as the Great Story progresses. But thanks to the work of Christ, we can look at one another, and look to God, and say, “We are loved!” And never forget that the Great Story, the whole story of the Bible, returns us to this Paradise, this perfection of relationships.

It is all true. These stories are not science or history as modern people understand these two fields of study, but these stories are true.

Let these creation stories lead you into the eternal story lived with God.

The Last Episode

1 John 2:28-3:3 (NRSV)

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.


As in several other places in the New Testament, a reader can discover what seems to be a tension between ideas in 1 John.

First, the author is emphatic that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the path to salvation. In chapter 1, verses 7 through 9, he writes, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But later in the letter—just beyond our reading for today—the tone changes, as if those who are in Christ cannot sin. “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. … Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”

The two ideas pull at each other, but the tension is there to keep heresies from developing. If we forget salvation is an act of grace, an unmerited gift from God, we can start thinking we somehow earn our salvation on our own, and we begin to live like Pharisees. But at the same time, when people do not make a conscious effort to stop sinning, we can cheapen Christ’s sacrifice, saying to ourselves as we sin, “It’s okay—Jesus will forgive me.”

I think all of this is easier to process when we consider our text today. The author of 1 John is inviting us to live as if we know how our story ends. Why? Because we actually do know how our story ends.

If you’re standing on a train track, and you hear a whistle and feel a vibration under your feet, what do you do? You get off the track.

If you’re crawling out of a dark cave and you see a beam of light, what do you do? You crawl toward the light.

If you know your boss is going to walk through the door at any moment, what do you do? You work like you’ve been working hard all day. (That’s actually an extreme paraphrase of one of Jesus’ parables; see Matthew 24:45-51.)

If you genuinely believe you’re going to see Jesus face-to-face one day, what do you do? You put aside sin, those things displeasing to him. You certainly put aside those things that are recurring; if you keep reading 1 John, you’ll see the author seems particularly concerned about repetitive patterns of sin.

We know how to handle situations when the end result is clear. We change our behaviors so we are aligned with future circumstances.

Here’s what we don’t want to do. We don’t want to live like the people who are oblivious about the end result. I’ll give you an example: We don’t want to be like the characters on “Seinfeld.”

Most of you who are regulars know I have a deep affinity for “Star Trek,” and I’ve promised to limit my references to that show. But what many of you don’t know is that I also love “Seinfeld.” In particular, I think the show’s final, two-part episode in 1998 was deeply theological, whether or not the writer Larry David intended it to be.

For nine seasons, the characters on the show went about their lives without ever considering the consequences of their actions. Jerry, George and Kramer wrecked women’s lives with abandon; the toxic glue on cheapskate George’s discount wedding invitations killed his fiancée, for crying out loud! Elaine was just as adept at ruining the lives of men around her.

There also was the constant lying and deceit, whether it was Jerry trying to avoid visiting his parents at Del Boca Vista in Florida or the whole group trying to get soup from the soup Nazi. And those of us who watched the series throughout loved every minute of it. As long as we’re watching fiction, it’s amusing to see people living their lives as if there is no ultimate end in view, particularly when they are so hilariously sarcastic about everything.

It was the theologian in me, however, that made me think the final episode was brilliant.

In short, Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George find themselves far from home, in a small town that actually has what most of us consider normal values. Fictional Latham, Mass., has even gone so far as to enshrine the need to help each other in the law, requiring people to come to the aid of someone in trouble.

Seeing a very overweight man being robbed, the Seinfeld Four choose to film the event rather than helping him or calling for help. They make fun of the victim the whole time, as they’ve always been prone to do. They end up under arrest for not providing aid, and being the first people put on trial under the law, the courtroom scene turns into a spectacle.

People they have victimized over the years arrive to testify against them. Jerry stole an elderly lady’s marble rye; she’s there, and she’s still angry. The Bubble Boy explains how they nearly killed him during an argument over Trivial Pursuit. (Moors! Moops!) Teri Hatcher shows up, and that’s all a pastor can say about her character.

An old girlfriend tells how George fled an apartment fire by pushing children and an elderly woman out of the way. There are references to uromycitisis poisoning, the puffy shirt, cockfighting, and how Jerry was “all the time mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking, mocking. Now it is Abu’s time to mock!”

And of course, they are all found guilty. The series ends with them in prison. The Seinfeld universe, as weird as it was, is put right in the last episode, with goodness affirmed and badness condemned.

As complicated as he can seem, the author of 1 John is telling us how the same principle plays out in real life. We have a last episode coming. It is already written. We know whom we see when we arrive in it. The good will be affirmed, even rewarded, and the bad will be condemned.

As people who already know the story, we are called to live our lives accordingly, no matter how much we might think we are entitled to that marble rye.


The featured image is Joos van Cleve’s “Final Judgment,” circa 1520.

Smooth Talkers

Romans 16:17-27 (NLT)

And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them. Such people are not serving Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests. By smooth talk and glowing words they deceive innocent people. But everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord. This makes me very happy. I want you to be wise in doing right and to stay innocent of any wrong. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

Timothy, my fellow worker, sends you his greetings, as do Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, my fellow Jews.

I, Tertius, the one writing this letter for Paul, send my greetings, too, as one of the Lord’s followers.

Gaius says hello to you. He is my host and also serves as host to the whole church. Erastus, the city treasurer, sends you his greetings, and so does our brother Quartus.

Now all glory to God, who is able to make you strong, just as my Good News says. This message about Jesus Christ has revealed his plan for you Gentiles, a plan kept secret from the beginning of time. But now as the prophets foretold and as the eternal God has commanded, this message is made known to all Gentiles everywhere, so that they too might believe and obey him. All glory to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, forever. Amen.


We have reached the end of our Romans series. For 37 weeks, we have heard from Paul the core truths about Christianity.

Again, there is this matter of the Good News. Anyone making it this far through Romans should have a clear idea of what the Good News is. Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah, and in dying on the cross, he made salvation available to all people anywhere. God’s promise to Abraham that his people would be a blessing to all the world is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Paul also has given his readers ongoing reminders of God’s holiness. What conforms to God’s nature is holy, and what defies God’s nature is sin. We are called not only to salvation, but also to a remaking through the work of the Holy Spirit, growing in our ability to reflect God’s holiness in our own lives.

We must put sin aside, exploring God’s revelation of his will in Scripture so we know what he calls holy and unholy, rather than trying to define these matters for ourselves. In Methodist terms, we are to experience sanctification as the gift that follows salvation.

With all this in mind, Paul has one last pressing concern as he wraps up his letter—the danger posed by people who selfishly bring division to a church. It is not that the Christians in Rome necessarily have a problem in this area; in fact, Paul seems to indicate they don’t, saying “everyone knows that you are obedient to the Lord.”

Paul knows, however, that the issue of division is a serious one, and that churches must prepare for its possibility in times of unity so they know what to do in times of discord.

Having just discussed core Christian concepts in his letter, Paul’s warning is a relatively simple one. As mature Christians, you know enough already; you understand God’s will, you know what is important. Don’t be swayed by “smooth talk and glowing words” designed to steer you away from these core truths.

As we know in our own time, words without content can be quite effective. We live in a culture where people use pretty, empty words to get what they want. Try this exercise: Pick a politician and break down his or her political speech. Really listen closely. Outline it. Analyze it. How much is actually being said clearly and forthrightly?

I’m not calling all politicians empty suits. We do have deep thinkers in politics. I’m just saying you won’t have a lot of trouble finding politicians who get elected while talking a lot but say nothing. You can do the same kind of exercise with television commercials. What do you really know about what’s being sold once you’ve analyzed what is said?

Where there is no substance in an appeal, we usually find emotion. More than 300 years before Jesus ever came onto the scene, Aristotle showed how emotion could be used to drive rhetoric. And yes, this happens in religious communities all the time. In fact, it may be easier in such communities because the people present have very personal commitments to God and each other, as well as other concepts like family or nation.

We actually have an easier time testing people’s words than the early church at Rome would have had. In many ways, they were still teasing out the implications of a risen Christ, with people arguing about his humanity, his divinity and other details of how God was working in the world.

We now have Holy Spirit-inspired Scripture and centuries of solid Christian thinking, what we sometimes call “church tradition,” to give us guidance. Our core doctrines are largely a settled matter. No one has to invent another wheel to keep the cart moving forward.

Paul also gives us another way to test people who bring discord. Ask, “What does this person have to gain?” If people are serving their own personal interests rather than the kingdom as Christ has described it, there is a problem.

Here, Paul causes me to think of a book called “Antagonists in the Church,” which a mentor convinced me to read when I first went into professional ministry. The author, Kenneth Haugk, argues most people who would bring division are pretty easily identifiable by their particular behaviors and strategies. They raise certain flags, and if you see enough flags coming from a person, beware!

I’ll not get into all of those flags—I do recommend the book—but I will say this: Nearly all the bad behaviors and strategies are borne from an antagonist thinking, “How can this benefit me,” rather than, “How can this benefit the kingdom?”

One of our earliest Christian documents we have outside the Bible is called The Didache. It was sort of an early church Discipline, giving all sorts of guidelines for how to run a church.

The Didache addresses this problem of self-centeredness masquerading as prophetic speech. In the early days of Christianity, travelers calling themselves prophets would show up in communities, and members of the local churches never knew whether to take these people seriously.

A particular guideline was very specific. If the traveler claimed the Lord had declared the church should have a fellowship meal, a real prophet would make the proclamation and move on before the food had been prepared. If he tried to stay and eat, he probably was a fake.

As we wrap up this trip through Romans, I hope you’ll take much away from your time in this holy book. There are two ideas I pray stay with you, as they will determine the future health of any church.

First, there is Good News! Understanding that news and its implications is critical to the Christian life. I’ve said it in different ways throughout this series: Bible study, mixed with a healthy dose of prayer, is the path to understanding.

Second, have the courage to spread that Good News. Good deeds are not enough. People need to hear about the source of goodness, the giver of eternal life.

Jesus is overcoming the evil that temporarily grips this world. Trusting in his power, what will you do to conquer a part of the world for the kingdom?

Lord, thank you for the gift of the Book of Romans. Continue to inspire us as we stay in your word. Amen.

 

Honored Servants of Christ

Romans 16:1-16 (NLT)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea. Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. Also give my greetings to the church that meets in their home.

Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ. Give my greetings to Mary, who has worked so hard for your benefit. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys.

Greet Apelles, a good man whom Christ approves. And give my greetings to the believers from the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet the Lord’s people from the household of Narcissus. Give my greetings to Tryphena and Tryphosa, the Lord’s workers, and to dear Persis, who has worked so hard for the Lord. Greet Rufus, whom the Lord picked out to be his very own; and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.

Give my greetings to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who meet with them. Give my greetings to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and to Olympas and all the believers who meet with them. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. All the churches of Christ send you their greetings.


It takes people to make a church, and each person has a story.

As Paul commends and greets several people near the end of of his letter Romans, it is possible to find the outlines of a few of their stories. In the process, we can learn quite a bit about their social status and how they liked to gather. Paul’s words also give us some critical insight into the role of women in the development of the church.

We begin with Phoebe. Now, Phoebe is the one person we’ll talk about today who is not a member of the Roman church. Paul is “commending” her, essentially establishing her credentials so the Romans will accept her when she arrives in Rome. He calls her a “deacon,” using the word in a formal sense, indicating he sees her as a servant leader in her home church in the Greek port town of Cenchrea.

Scholars who focus on word studies also note she is described in Greek as a prostatis, meaning she was a “patron” or “benefactor.” All this seems to indicate she was a wealthy businesswoman, using her money to support the church and its missionaries. Why she was traveling to Rome, we don’t know. I wonder if she carried a copy of her commendation, or maybe even the very letter we have been reading!

Following this recommendation, Paul begins to greet people in Rome, and compared to other such letters, the extent of his greetings is remarkable. At a minimum, Paul has spent a lot of time with a few people from Rome and has learned of others there, taking an interest in their lives.

As I mentioned last week, Paul also knows he is going to need their support later, and mentioning key people by name certainly won’t hurt his cause. Paul certainly was a loving Christian, but he also wasn’t afraid to do a little politicking to accomplish his mission.

Priscilla and Aquila are known to be a couple, wife and husband. We know from Acts 18 they had to flee Rome after Emperor Claudius expelled Jews for a time, but by now had returned home. Like Paul, they were tentmakers by trade, and worked with him in Corinth and Ephesus.

They also clearly had a strong grasp of Christian theology. We’re told in Acts 18:26 that they helped bring Apollos to a better understanding of the faith at a time when his basic doctrine had a few gaps. It’s possible this couple directly impacted Scripture; Apollos is one candidate in the ongoing debate about who authored the book of Hebrews.

We also can assume Priscilla and Aquila were at least somewhat wealthy. We hear they hosted a “house church.” That means they owned a place big enough for a significant number of people, maybe a few dozen, to gather in worship together.

Skipping over some people we know little about, we next  have “Andronicus and Junia,” the latter name dropping us into the center of the centuries-old debate regarding the role of women in the church. Junia is female, but she also is described as having a relationship to the “apostles.” Some translations, like the one we are using today, make it clear the apostles at least had enormous respect for her, but another strong possible reading of the Greek is that Paul was actually calling her an apostle.

There’s no way to settle the controversy to the satisfaction of all denominations, but one thing becomes clear as we work through Paul’s greetings. Women were extremely active in shaping the early church, leading either by example in ministry or in formal roles.

I personally am very comfortable with women in professional ministry; it seems a natural progression from the radical inclusion women were finding in the early days of Christianity, a time when women seldom had much in the way of status in society.

Next in the list of identifiable people, we hear references to the “household of Aristobulus,” to “Herodion,” and to the “household of Narcissus.” These are likely people who were freed slaves, or their descendants. They were associated with or took on the names of powerful families they had served.

In this, we’re reminded that early Christianity was enormously attractive to those on the lower end of the social spectrum: the slaves, as well as the outcasts, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed. Yes, as we’ve seen, rich people understood Christianity, too, but the best of them, the ones we remember today, imitated Jesus in reaching out to the people on the edges of society. Their wealth simply became a tool to better include those in need.

The last one we know anything significant about is Rufus. I wish we knew more. He likely was the son of Simon of Cyrene, the man forced to carry Jesus’ cross.

As we read in Mark 15:21: “A passerby named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the countryside just then, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.)” Did the father’s story of bearing the cross alongside the bloodied Christ contribute to Rufus’ conversion?

There also is this matter of greeting each other with the “holy kiss.” When we pass the peace in worship, greeting each other “in the name of Jesus Christ,” we are practicing a vestige of what Paul is referring to here. In early Christianity, men kissed men and women kissed women on the lips in greeting. (Men and women were separate during worship.)

I guess we’re just more comfortable shaking hands in our culture. Plus, it’s getting near cold and flu season.

As we better understand these people, we see a deep, intimate connection. We see people filled with hope despite lowly circumstances. We see people with resources using them for the benefit of the kingdom. We see commitment to core Christian principles, and a willingness to correct each other in love as they all grow together spiritually.

As we look at them, I pray we see ourselves.


It’s impossible for me to develop a sermon with this much historical context unless I have some scholarly help. This week, I’m particularly indebted to Douglas J. Moo’s “The NIV Application Commentary: Romans.”

The Mission

We are in what I think of as “the long goodbye” in Romans, a typical conclusion for one of Paul’s letters. As we explore Romans 15:14-33, let’s break it into pieces and consider what the apostle is saying.

I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. For by God’s grace, I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit.​

Paul treats these Roman Christians he has yet to meet as knowledgeable about their faith. But like us, even knowledgeable people need a reminder from time to time about what is important. That’s an important function of Paul’s letter to the Romans: It reminds us of core truths that must never be forgotten by Christians.

There is what Paul calls the Good News, of course, the truth about Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and what that means for a world struggling against sin. Paul also gives us a call to holiness.

Paul’s “acceptable offering” language creates an interesting metaphor. It is as if Paul puts himself in the ancient role of priest, doing all he can do to make the sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. But no longer are animals slaughtered in sacrifice; instead, we rely on Christ’s perfect sacrifice for all sin. Sanctification now happens as we allow the Spirit to make us holy in anticipation of eternal life with God.

So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum.

Paul is happy to declare the great miracles that have occurred during his ministry, but he is careful to give credit to God. He has followed a long, circuitous path as he has spread the Good News, and God has been with him every step of the way.

We should remember the kind of man Paul was before his almost forced conversion. He was a dangerous enemy of Christians, bent on their destruction. But God had need of him, and he became just as passionate a servant of Jesus Christ.

This also is a good time to remember the miracles associated with Paul in the Book of Acts. If you want a little extra study time, look for miracle stories in Acts 13, 14, 16, 19, 20 and 28. In a couple of them, it’s interesting to note how Paul suffered for doing God’s work.

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
   and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places.

But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.

When we call Paul an “apostle,” we specifically mean he spread the Good News where it had not been heard, staying long enough to establish Christian communities before moving on. His desire to continue such work remains, but he also is seeing a refinement to his calling. God is about to send him in a new direction, and to do so, he will need fresh relationships and a support system based in Rome.

For us, Paul’s situation is a reminder to seek whether God is calling us to make adjustments in how we serve the kingdom. We want to be committed in our work, but perhaps it is a dangerous thing to become too comfortable in our work. We must remain ready to adapt.

But before I come, I must go to Jerusalem to take a gift to the believers there. For you see, the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. As soon as I have delivered this money and completed this good deed of theirs, I will come to see you on my way to Spain. And I am sure that when I come, Christ will richly bless our time together.

Before going to Rome, Paul is hoping to bring some healing to a serious rift in the church, the one between Christians of Jewish descent and Christians of Gentile descent. The dispute over whether Gentiles should be made to live like Jews if they want to be Christians has created hard feelings. The very Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem has fallen on difficult times, and despite the rift the Gentile Christians have cobbled together a significant gift to help them.

Rather than sending someone in the role of courier, Paul wants to deliver the funds himself, to ensure the good-hearted intent of the gift is clear and fellowship is restored. This is a dangerous strategy for him. Once a budding leader among the Pharisees, Paul is now a pariah among Jews who do not believe in Jesus. But he believes there is an antidote to this danger:

Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit. Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem. Then, by the will of God, I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other.

The antidote, of course, is prayer. Yes, Paul clearly has God on his side. Yes, Paul has been able to do great signs and wonders. And yet Paul still humbly covets the prayers of other Christians.

Why do we pray? There are lots of reasons, but here’s a practical one you may not have considered: The Christians who have exhibited the greatest power and most effective ministries in history have rooted all they do in prayer. Why question what works?

We also see that Paul has an unusual concern about Jerusalem. He fears that once he gets there, the Jewish Christians may reject a gift from “unclean” Gentiles. He’s praying their hearts be accepting and full of love.

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen.

Paul, in the midst of so much contention and so much concern, speaks of peace so freely. We’ve seen a lot of strife and anxiety in our world the past few months. I pray that we continue to sense God’s peace, and to be bearers of peace to others.

Joyous Gentiles

Romans 15:7-13 (NLT)

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote:

“For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles;
   I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written,

“Rejoice with his people,
   you Gentiles.”
And yet again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.
   Praise him, all you people of the earth.”
And in another place Isaiah said,

“The heir to David’s throne will come,
   and he will rule over the Gentiles.
They will place their hope on him.”


I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Let’s focus on Paul’s concept of the Gentiles, the word for people not of Jewish descent.

The Bible as a whole is a very Jewish story. While God is the creator of all people and things, what we now call the Old Testament is told very much from a Jewish perspective, a viewpoint that continues into the New Testament.

By the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are quickly established in the biblical narrative as God’s Chosen People, the ones who desire, seek and finally possess the Promised Land.

Non-Jews are merely supporting actors on the stage, people who rise and fall depending on their interaction with the main characters. And yet, there are clues all along regarding how God loves all of creation, and how God’s close relationship with the Jews leads to salvation globally.

As I’ve already noted earlier in this Romans series, we can see the broadness of God’s plan in the first promise made to the man eventually called Abraham.  God tells him to go toward Canaan. There will be blessings for those who bless you, God says, and there will be curses for those who curse your venture. But most importantly for our meditation today, the father of the Jews is told “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

In our text today, Paul quotes from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah to demonstrate how the plan for the Jews was designed to become a plan for all people.

Our problem in understanding this plan has been a problem of time. God’s plan plays out over thousands of years, and individually, we are just mist, curling into a brief shape and then vanishing.

For the Jews, it is easy to get lost in the idea of being special, set apart as an example of holy living before God. They can become so focused on their unique relationship with God that they forget the whole purpose of their existence, to be a light to all the world so that salvation may spread.

For Christian Gentiles, it is easy for us to forget that our Savior is a very Jewish carpenter, a descendant of Abraham. Often this forgetfulness can express itself simply as disinterest in the Old Testament, but the effects also can be much, much worse. Some of history’s most horrific acts of madness have occurred when people calling themselves Christians have seen the Jews as enemies, persecuting and killing them.

Paul offers us a broader way to see Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the bridge allowing the promise of salvation to be exported from the Jews to the Gentiles.

We see the transition happen in Jesus’ ministry. Mostly his ministry is a very Jewish one, reflecting the Jewish perspective on Gentiles. Just look at Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs.” In the story, he does ultimately point out the power of faith and hint at the unexpected grace to come, but the rude reference comes as a shock.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 20, we see Jesus transition from Jewish Messiah to global Christ. Here, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people. Greeks—to a Jew, just a particular kind of Gentile—ask to see Jesus.

The odd thing about the telling of this story is we don’t know if the Greeks ever spoke to Jesus. The whole point of the story is that Jesus sees deep meaning in their arrival. Gentiles are seeking him, and now it is time to die for the sins of all people, Jew or Gentile. If you keep reading in John, it is clear Jesus’ mind is set on the cross once those Greeks ask to see him.

Christians, you know how the story continues. Jesus goes to the cross and dies. And then, glory of glories, there is the resurrection.

Word spreads, and spreads, and spreads, and here we are today, in Ten Mile, Tennessee, on the other side of the planet, worshiping Jesus Christ. Mostly we are the descendants of a bunch of Gentiles, knowing we have eternal life because of a promise made to and through the Jews thousands of years ago.

I guess we’re just a bunch of lucky dogs!


The featured image is “We Would See Jesus,” James Tissot, circa 1885.