July 30 2017 Sermon
1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. 9For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15— hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
16 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.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me?
When was the last time you sat down with pen and paper to write someone a letter? Not a thank you note, not a birthday card, not a get well card, or some other sort of brief or pre-printed note. I’m talking about a blank sheet of paper and a pen with the intent of crafting several paragraphs or more about a particular subject, then folding it up, placing it into an envelope, finding a first class Forever stamp, and walking out to the mailbox to send it, remembering to flip up the little red arm on the mailbox signifying to the mail carrier the content of the mailbox.
When was the last time you did that? To whom were you writing? Was it a joyous piece of correspondence or a more serious one? If you haven’t sent a piece of mail like this lately, then when was the last time you received a letter like the one I described in the mail?
Every couple of months I receive a letter in the mail from Edgemoor Drive in Houston, Texas from my great uncle (my father’s oldest uncle). It’s written in pencil on yellow legal paper and the entire letter is written in uppercase. I’ve only received these letters from Uncle Lewis the last couple of years since I’ve been in full time ministry. I suppose there is something of interest to him with me being the only United Methodist pastor (only pastor period) in our extended family and so that’s why he started writing.
The letters include everything from marriage advice he’s learned after 72 years of marriage to Sara to his perspectives on interfaith relationships against the backdrop of his work to liberate a World War II concentration camp, to church governance when a colleague of mine was suspended for presiding at a same sex marriage, to his concern as a church Trustee that they were spending too much money on a church renovation, to sharing his passion for helping mentor young adults that lost their way ending up in jail for one crime or another.
I can’t remember the last time that Uncle Lewis and I sat down across from one another in the same room. But as I read and reread each new letter, a lifetime of wisdom, glimpses into his life with God, love for his departed Sara, and passion for serving the church run off the pages. I would say that our letters back and forth to one another these past few years have been a ministry of mutual encouragement, perhaps a smaller and more condensed version of what Paul attempts with the church in Rome.
After the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, most of the New Testament is comprised of epistles or ancient letters that Paul sent to various churches throughout the Mediterranean. In the letters, he attempts to settle matters of practical theology with churches he began and others he has heard about but not yet visited. Romans is Paul’s master thesis on how salvation is offered through the grace of Jesus Christ for both Jew and Gentile. When he writes to the church in Galatia, he’s trying to help clarify whether Gentile Christians need to adhere to the Mosaic covenant or the Jewish Law. In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he addresses a major division that is present in the community and offers recommendations on how to cure it.
Some times Paul is trying to encourage his churches through a difficult patch. Other times he is trying to offer definitive answers about what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ. The ministry of teaching and proclamation is especially important because claims about Jesus were somewhat fluid at this time. The ecumenical councils hadn’t yet declared what the official position of the church was. Understandings and positions regarding Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the early church were a dime a dozen.
The epistle to the Romans was written in order that Paul might introduce himself and his message prior to an upcoming trip. Paul had spent nearly a decade planting and visiting churches in the Mediterranean and he had the hope to visit Spain to continue his work. He had never visited Rome but intended to pass through on his way to Rome and probably raise some funds for ministry while he was there.
Although we only read the Salutation and Prayer of Thanksgiving from the letter today, it gives a brief synopsis of the contents of the entire letter. As I told our Bible study group Wednesday night, you have to stick with it and read all of Romans to see what Paul is doing. By the way, all of you are invited to Bible study at 7pm Wednesday night. If you only read a snippet you might only hear something like ‘for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ from the third chapter. Well that doesn’t sound particularly encouraging.
Read on and you will see how our lives are made right with God by faith. ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God.’
If that wasn’t enough to soothe your soul, Paul provides encouragement and assurance in this way noting there is nothing that can create a chasm between you and God. Not a single thing.
‘38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Paul is making moves explaining the condition of sin in which we find ourselves and the journey by grace that restores our life with God and one another. Part 1 is our condition. Part 2 is God’s grace working to make things right. Part 3 is our response. How shall we live with one another? This way.
‘Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’
Each one of us having experienced the transformative and restorative grace of Almighty God is called into ministries of mutual encouragement and life with God as Paul taught the church in Rome. Mutual encouragement can take on various forms. Some of you have the gift of being able to speak words of compassion, comfort, and hope into the lives of those around you when they’re down, out, and hopeless. You promise God’s presence to your neighbor when all they know is suffering and despair. You remind your coworkers that hope is just over the horizon when their life is in a tailspin.
Others of you have done the soul searching work and grown mature in your love of God and neighbors and you can show others what the next level growing in grace looks like. Your ministry of mutual encouragement to help others love God from a position of maturity is greatly needed. Forming one’s life with God takes intentionality, discipline, small daily steps toward growth, and perseverance through the difficult patches. No one just stumbles onto a mature faith. It requires roles models and mentors. It takes time and work, and it’s done best when it’s done in community with four or five brothers or sisters for accountability. In such a setting, you ask one another, how is it with your soul? How is your life with God? They’re not asking how your day was. They’re asking for you to examine how you’ve trusted God’s grace and the ways in which you haven’t done that. It’s all for the sake of love and growth.
Mature faith is not the result of a one time decision when you confess Christ as Lord or accept Jesus in your heart. A mature faith is the result of daily decisions to seek and trust God, offering forgiveness and hospitality to friends and strangers, and clinging to goodness, love, and peace. It’s living into the instructions that Paul commends to the church in Rome and encouraging and helping each other to do the same. Maturing in faith is our response to the restorative work that God has done in our messed up lives through Jesus Christ. We need to help one another respond to God’s grace, daily.
If we are a community of mutual encouragement then we yearn for everyone who ventures into this holy space to grow in grace until they are made perfect in love. It also means we will speak truth and grace to one another as we each cultivate life with God. It means we’ll ask one another heart questions that matter for our life with God. Are you more loving today than you were yesterday? Is your heart full of joy or spite? Do you know that God’s grace is for you, no matter what you’ve done in your life?
Let’s ask the important questions. Our life with God depends on mutual encouragement.
Bless you in the name of the Almighty, Son, and Spirit. Amen.