St Barnabas, 16th June 2013
Reading – Romans 16:17-27
What the Lord has said to us so far …
Today we are coming to the end of our sermon series on Romans, and there has been no doubt this has been an extremely significant series in terms of our life together here at St Barnabas. We are at a critical point where we face many challenges over the next few months. And precisely at this moment the Lord has led us through the latter part of Romans and I believe spoken to us powerfully by His Spirit.
To recap: we began just after Easter when we came to Romans 12. We saw that if we have received God’s mercy then we are part of the body of Christ. God does not just call us into a living, personal relationship with Him, wonderful though that is. He also calls us into a new relationship with our fellow believers and makes them our brothers and sisters in the very deepest sense. The church, that is St Barnabas and all who are gathered here this morning, is our family and Christ’s body. We belong to God and to each other. And while we may all be very different from one another, and while we each have our own gifts and ministries, nonetheless we are called together to be God’s people, sharing our very lives with each other.
That’s why the hallmark of our existence is meant to be love – deep, sincere love marked by true generosity of spirit and genuine compassion towards each other. And as we grow in love for each other, so that love has to flow out of our gatherings and out of this building into the wider world. Our love is to be patterned on the very love of Christ for us. So it needs to reach out to all we meet, even to those who hate us, to those who do us wrong. For that is the way we take up our cross and follow Christ.
And when you understand that, you begin to realise what love truly is. It’s not a feeling, or even primarily an emotion. It’s a radical decision to seek the good of whoever we meet, no matter who they happen to be. So as we moved on to chapter 13 we saw how our love flows into submission to the authorities, respect to the rule of law, and radical obedience to God’s commands. Love has a hard, practical edge, and it involves making clear choices about how we behave and the attitudes we hold.
But none of this is possible if our life as a church is marked by division and a spirit of condemnation. That’s why Paul spends so much time in chapters 14 and 15 talking about the weaker and stronger brother. For although we all have a common faith, each of us will see our faith working out in rather different ways. But instead of passing judgement on each other, or looking down on those who take an opposing point of view, we are called to build each other up, and make sure our own conduct does not cause someone else to fall away.
That’s what true love looks like in practice, when we deal with the nitty-gritty of getting on with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Nobody ever said loving our fellow church members was easy. We all have our different weaknesses and strengths. But the key principle – and it’s the one to which the whole letter of Romans has been building – is the one Paul spells out in Romans 15, verse 7, a verse which I hope will be very familiar to you by now: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. Because that takes us right back to the grace and mercy of God, where all this teaching begins. God accepted each one of us despite our sin, our failure, our shortcomings. That’s the reason He sent Jesus to die for each one of us – so how dare we treat our fellow believers any differently?
I hope you can see just how important is Paul’s teaching in Romans 12-15. So can I ask you to keep coming back to it, to read it slowly in your own time, to discuss it with each other, to see how it applies to St Barnabas? If there is one piece of Scripture that should shape our common life, this is it, and it is something we should all seriously pray about and take to heart.
Not just theory
And then we come to Romans 16. I don’t know about you, but after chapter 15, verse 7, the rest of the letter comes as a bit of an anti-climax. We have a review of Paul’s ministry in chapter 15, verses 14-22, and then a description of his travel plans, in verses 23-33, and then in Romans 16 we seem to have the contents of his address book. And we may well be tempted to ask, why is any of this stuff important and how is it relevant to us today?
I think the answer lies in the fact it shows that when Paul wrote about the body of Christ, he wasn’t writing a learned thesis, or putting forward an interesting theory – he was writing from his own experience. Paul was not, as I used to imagine, some kind of solitary church planter, who would mosey into town, hit people with the gospel and then roll on to the next target. No, everywhere he went he formed deep relationships and strong networks. And if you want any proof of that, just look at this list of names in Romans 16.
Now I was very merciful to … this morning, by starting the reading at verse 17. But it is worth beginning at verse 1, because when you look more closely at the list what strikes you is the extraordinary diversity of the people listed there. For example, the first person we come across is Phoebe. What’s so remarkable about that? Well, a little over 20 years previously, Paul had been a card-carrying Pharisee. Every day he would have thanked God he was not born a woman or a Gentile. Yet the very first person he mentions here is a Gentile woman who has been a great help to many people, including me.
If you wanted proof how the love of Jesus broke down barriers, then this is it. The body of Christ in Paul’s time truly was a witness to the way Christ united people in the faith, no matter their background or status or gender. So when Paul sends greetings to all these people in Rome, it should not surprise us that he mentions both men and women. Priscilla, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, the mother of Rufus, the sister of Nereus, are accepted as much part of the church as the menfolk. You also have wealthy individuals like Priscilla and Aquila, who could afford to travel widely and had a church meet in their house, alongside people who were slaves, or at least servants – those in the households of Aristobulus, and Narcissus. You have some who are Paul’s relatives, some who are his dear friends, some who have worked very hard in the Lord. I don’t think Paul is simply trying to be nice to these people. He clearly had deep bonds of affection for all he greeted, and the fellowship in Christ that the early church enjoyed was obviously real. Which leads to an interesting question – how Paul would describe each one of us if he was writing a letter to St Barnabas today?
Now I am not saying that people in the early church found fellowship easy. You only have to read parts of Acts, for example, to see how many times unity was threatened by personal disagreements, and controversies about the faith. Indeed in this letter Paul wouldn’t have to write in such great detail about the need to accept one another, and to love like Christ, if there wasn’t a real danger that the unity and fellowship of the church in Rome was under threat. After all, we all need to work at our relationships in the church. We all need to heed Paul’s teaching in Romans 13, verse 8 to let no debt outstanding except the continuing debt to love another. We all need to make sure we give no reason to make our fellow brother and sister in Christ stumble.
So briefly, how do we do this? I believe there are three clear points that come out of this chapter.
First of all, be welcoming. Let’s listen rather closely to the instructions that Paul gives about Phoebe in verse 2: I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of His people and to give her any help she may need from you. It seems clear that the church in Rome did not yet know this lady. Perhaps she was the one taking the letter Paul was writing from Corinth to Rome. But even though on one level she was a stranger, on another she was already their sister in Christ.
So how was the church in Rome to treat her? As Paul says, in a way worthy of the Lord’s people – that is with love, respect, generosity. In simple terms, that meant giving any help she might need. You see, generosity is one of the best signs that a church has truly understood the gospel. It’s why as we have seen, when Paul teaches about love, he gives this simple command: Practise hospitality. I don’t know if you have ever noticed but the gospels are full of Jesus eating and drinking in other people’s houses – we have an example in our reading this morning. Offering food and drink is the clearest sign that our love for another person is real and genuine. And in the culture of the day it would have been unthinkable that when Phoebe arrived in Rome, the church would have told her to put up in a tavern round the corner, or give her money to buy her own food. They would have opened their hearts and their homes to her.
We have another example of hospitality later on in this chapter where we read that Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings. Of course there were no separate church buildings in that day. You had to meet in people’s houses, and you would have to have been a fairly wealthy person to have a house big enough to accommodate a congregation. Yet there is no hint here that Gaius begrudged opening his house to the church, even some of the people who came along came from a very different social class or background. And although Gaius did not know it at the time, his name has been recorded down through the ages as an example of generosity we are called to follow.
We are called to be welcoming. But that is not to be the same as being gullible, simply accepting whoever comes our way. Because sometimes in the interests of fellowship and unity we have to be watchful. Sadly there always have been and always will be false teachers who will seek to exploit our generosity of heart and our willingness to love. It is no accident that even after all these warm greetings to the church in Rome, Paul issues one last, final warning in verse 17: I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. The whole of Paul’s teaching in Romans 12-15 is about unity in love, and making sure we do not put obstacles in anyone’s way. So if you were to ask why false teachers are so dangerous, the answer is clear – they threaten our very identity as the body of Christ.
This isn’t to say that false teachers can be spotted a mile off, or that their error will be immediately obvious. Indeed the thing about false teachers is that they can be extremely nice, polite people, with the gift of the gab, just as Paul describes them. So how then do we know whether someone is a false teacher or not?
Well, let me paint the following scenario. Many years from hence, you will be looking for a new minister. A warm, supportive bishop highly recommends a friend of his who is perfectly charming and instantly puts you at ease with his witty conversation and his dry sense of humour. You can see why the bishop has put his name forward, indeed you may be under immense pressure to accept him. But before you do, can I suggest you ask some very basic and direct questions?
And begin by cutting straight to the quick: does he believe that Jesus died in his place on the cross for his sins? Look for a straight yes or no. Don’t be deflected by a long-winded answer or be blinded by some piece of theological brilliance. See if there is evidence of a personal conversion, find out if he has a genuine, living relationship with the Lord, discover what he understands of the Holy Spirit at work in his life. And if he describes a different gospel, or if he shows no real love for Jesus, then be gentle but firm. This is not your man, even if the bishop tells you otherwise. Because it really is so important for you to hold your ground. Not only for the sake of the church today, but future generations who will thank you that you have stood firm for the gospel.
Yes, be welcoming, and let your natural default position be a broad generous love. But under the guidance of the Holy Spirit make sure that when it is appropriate you are wary and you are also wise. Listen to what Paul goes on to say in verse 19: Everyone has heard about your obedience so I rejoice because of you, but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. What does it mean to be wise about what is good? Well, you will get a fuller answer in our next sermon series from the book of Proverbs, but for now we can at least state that wisdom comes from knowing clearly what God commands for us.
So, for example, when it comes to marriage, we know from Scripture that it can only be a relationship between a man and a woman. Now there are many people who will spin all kinds of clever arguments to confuse us or to undermine our confidence in the word of God. But being wise about what is good means we cling on to God’s revealed truth even when we are misunderstood, insulted, even hated for what we believe. Or to put it another way, being innocent about what is evil means if God’s word says something is contrary to God’s will, then that particular thing is, and always will be wrong, no matter what other people say.
Above all, be rooted in the gospel
And this leads to my final point this morning, that if we are to live out our identity as the body of Christ, if we are to grow in our relationship with God and with each other, it really is so important we stay rooted in the gospel. The problem with so many churches is that whether they realise or not, they have over the course of time, become rooted in other things – social justice, or liturgical worship, or warm cosy fellowship. None of these things of course are wrong in themselves, but when they become more important than the gospel of, that is when the church loses its way, when it finds its foundations are more like sand that the solid rock of Jesus Christ. And history of denomination after denomination bears that out – even and especially the history of the Church of England.
So it is no surprise that Paul ends the letter to the Romans as he started it – by going back to the gospel. In Romans 1:16 he confidently proclaims: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. The gospel is the power of God. And if we are earnest about revival in this land and in this generation we need to retrieve our confidence in that gospel and in that power of God. Because it is the gospel that can alone build up the church. It is the gospel that can alone sustain and nourish us as the body of Christ. It is the gospel that alone gives us the strength to accept one another as Christ accepted us. It is little wonder that Paul’s final prayer is this (Rom 16:25-27):
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him to the only wise God be glory for ever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
So may our prayer be that we too are established by the gospel so that as the body of Christ here in this place God is glorified and many come to the obedience of faith.