miracles

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.

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The Abundant Life

Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

One of Jesus’ great, oft-cited miracles is the feeding of 5,000 men, plus however many women and children were present. There’s an additional miracle going on here we sometimes miss, however. Jesus’ gracious, divine Spirit overcomes what should be a crushing human burden.

Note how the story begins: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” This is a sign to readers that we need to back up a little in Matthew. Something important has just happened, something tragic, something painful.

That event was the senseless death of John the Baptist, a holy man slaughtered in the context of a courtly scene nearly pornographic in its intensity. King Herod, a puppet of the Roman Empire, had taken his brother’s wife for his own. John the Baptist had publicly condemned the marriage, leading to the prophet’s imprisonment.

On the occasion of Herod’s birthday, the wife’s daughter danced in a way pleasing to Herod, so pleasing that he promised to give her anything she wanted. After consulting with her mother, the daughter asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Cornered by his own offer, Herod reluctantly ordered the executioners to do their work, and the gruesome reward quickly arrived.

The nastiness of the world stains this scene mightily, even if some of the ugliness must be inferred. In addition to the callous murder of a prophet, there is layer upon layer of incestuous behavior, both in Herod taking his brother’s wife and Herod’s lust for her daughter, presumably his niece. There also is the wife, who apparently was quite happy trading up to a marriage that would put her in Herod’s court—she is, after all, the one who initiated the beheading, clearly unhappy with John the Baptist’s public critique.

An Intrusion?

Sin came crashing down, killing Jesus’ cousin, the one who had recognized the presence of the Christ while still in the womb, the one ordained by God to declare the messiah’s arrival. Jesus needed time to grieve. He also had to come to terms with another sign his own suffering and death were not far off.

Naturally, Jesus wanted some privacy. The human part of him needed to pray and grieve, perhaps even to cry. But when he arrived at the shore of the deserted place where he headed by boat, it was no longer deserted. The people had run on foot from the towns to be in his presence, in particular, to bring their sick.

How would we react to our much-needed respite being interrupted? Except for a few true saints among us, not the way Jesus reacted. At our best, maybe we would be polite; maybe we would send a spokesman to ask the people to go away, with a promise to appear at such-and-such town on a specific day and time.

It’s a normal reaction when we’re under the stress loss and anxiety can bring. We physically hurt, pain knotting in our heads, our chests or our stomachs. We tend to overreact to what others say or do, and that can make us fearful of being with people. We feel like we cannot be much good to anyone else.

But Jesus looked around—I imagine him taking a very deep breath—and, filled with compassion, began to heal, a process that at times seemed to drain him. Ultimately, he began to feed all those people, despite what seemed like a dire shortage of food.

In feeding these people, Jesus was sending one of those messages designed to turn the world upside down. Sin cannot win. Brokenness and scarcity will not triumph. The eternal, all-powerful God, the one who made all things, offers abundance in all things, even when his heart is broken by his own creation.

Bearers of Grace

Anxiety and fear do not represent the normal order of the universe as God made it to be. We are human, but as Christians we are to be like Jesus as much as humanly possible, allowing the Holy Spirit to strengthen us at times we think we can go no further, particularly if we’re called to show God’s grace in a particular moment. We cannot forget that while Jesus provided the miracles, he also told the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

I’ve known a few people who seemed to be really good at taking that deep breath and doling out grace. One of my favorites was a man named Bob Loy. Bob had every reason to feel crushed by the world.

He had lived for decades with about 30 percent lung capacity after an accident that nearly killed him. By the time I knew him, he was elderly. His wife became very ill; while staying with her at the hospital, Bob slipped and fell, breaking his leg near the hip and putting himself in the hospital.

While Bob was laid up, unable to move, his wife died. He couldn’t even go to the funeral. His sister also died about the same time. Again, he couldn’t go to the funeral. This was a man who had every reason to give up.

But not Bob. Through his pain, he kept looking around what had become a very tiny world for him, a hospital room. He was certain every day somebody near him needed God’s grace, and he was going to be God’s vessel for that grace. I know for a fact that he brought at least one nurse to a belief in Jesus Christ while flat on his back in that hospital bed.

He also showed me a lot of grace. I was a new pastor, and he constantly was encouraging me, even as pneumonia took over those weak lungs and he had to keep pulling off his oxygen mask to speak.

A Near-Death Experience

Bob had a secret that explained his attitude, a secret he shared with me after we had known each other awhile. When he had that accident decades earlier, the one that scarred his lungs so badly, he had a vision of an entryway to heaven.

His had been the classic case of dying on the table and being brought back. He said his experience was indescribably beautiful, a vision of a stream, a vast plain, and the most glorious mountain he had ever seen. He knew God was there, and if he crossed the stream, he could not go back. He also knew he had a choice. A young man at the time, he chose to return to his family, he told me.

But he did not forget the vision. He had seen what eternal victory in Christ looks like, if only briefly, and from then on that vision shaped his life. I knew Bob only late in his life; when it came time to preside at his funeral, I heard story after story of the lives he had changed through the years with his joyous version of the story of Christ, a story he both told and lived out every day.

I don’t think Christians have to have a near-death experience to understand what Bob understood. We have embraced the story of a Savior who shows us repeatedly that when it comes to the things that matter—love, hope, joy—there is eternal abundance. We simply need to learn to dwell in that abundance.