Now, those who are mature in their faith can easily be recognized, for they don’t live to please themselves but have learned to patiently embrace others in their immaturity. Our goal must be to empower others to do what is right and good for them, and to bring them into spiritual maturity. For not even the most powerful one of all, the Anointed One, lived to please himself… (Romans 15:1-3a, TPT)
As Pastor John began to teach on Sunday, he reminded us that throughout the book of Romans, Paul emphasizes that followers of Jesus, the Church across the globe, ought to be different in the way that we live and, especially, in the way that we love others. Different how? Not in an exceptional, holier-than-thou, separate way. Paul never advocates for that kind of behavior, even when he exhorts us to live holy, faithful lives. His exhortations in all of his letters–including this one–move us toward two main themes:
Make much of Jesus Christ, and be transformed by the lavish love and extravagant grace of God.
Let that love lead us out so that all others might know they are invited in.
Pastor John asked us to consider how the grace we have received into our lives goes out from us. If we have been transformed, how does that transformation move outward? Outside of gathering together to worship and learn and encourage one another, how are our individual churches being the Church to the world around us?
This past year has challenged many churches to think beyond our own walls. The pandemic changed everything for a season, and that season is ongoing. We all had to get creative, as meeting together in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to was not–and in many places, still is not–an option. For a lot of churches, cultivating an online community became a priority. Checking in on one another and communicating more regularly replaced canned Sunday morning greetings. In some places, including here at City Park Church, churches became food distribution centers, meeting the very real physical needs of their surrounding communities. The normal programming had to be rethought and reconfigured; we had to be flexible and lean into what it means to love our neighbors–all of our neighbors–well. In some places, love of neighbor has been walked out in beautiful ways and has led to flourishing in the midst of the hard. In other places, the challenge to move outside of traditional constructs and beyond old ways of thinking that center and separate “us” from “them” has proved too difficult a burden to bear, and sadly, division has been the result. This lingering season has certainly given us all, as followers of Jesus, an opportunity to examine what we believe we are to be about, and also to put our love into action in new ways.
As we read the first few verses from this week’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is abundantly clear–as it has been over and over again throughout our study–that it’s not about us. The love and grace we’ve been given, the transformation that has resulted, the maturity we’ve grown into as we continue to walk with Jesus, the unity and community we experience with one another–these are meant to outshine the image of Jesus to those who don’t yet know him. We share life together, bear with one another in love, build each other up, share the hope that we have, and live beyond ourselves so that everyone–without exception–will know that this Jesus way of living is wide open and available to them, too. We are not to be gatekeepers who wield power to proclaim who’s “in” and who’s “out”, or rule-enforcers who highlight the messy and prescribe clean-up measures that must be taken before coming in. We are included in the world that God so loves, the world that he gave everything to restore to its original design. We are included in this story of love and redemption and grace… and so is everyone else who God so loves. So we get to be the joyful includers who have, ourselves, been graciously included.
Pastor John brought up John 3:16, a verse that is familiar to so many of us, and reflected on how we–followers of Jesus–have often made that verse all about us. He explained that we’ve made it about what we get out of the deal, and forget that the emphasis of this verse is that God so loved… and God gave… What did God so love? The world, right? Yes… but it’s important that we read this as it was written, and not through the lens that paints “the world” as the ungodly, unsaved, unredeemed “others” that are outside of the church, outside of the “chosen.” The word that John actually used in his gospel is a word that shows up all over scripture that we have probably only ever read as “world” because that’s how it was translated for us in English. Unfortunately, when we read “world,” it limits our view and our understanding of what was originally written.
The Greek word that was originally used is kosmos. If you’re like me, that probably makes you think of our English word cosmos, which is a much more expansive word than world, right? It is. In English, and also in Greek. The word kosmos literally covers everything. The entire universe, the physical earth, the inhabitants of the earth–including all of the ungodly (the definition specifies this), world affairs, Jews and Gentiles, literally all things and everyone. God so loves all of it, everything he created, the people and the very ground we all walk on, that he gave everything to gather all of it–all of us–in his eternal, exravagant, loving embrace.
God accepts–no exceptions. Do we?
God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive. Is ours?
Pastor John asserted that Paul only preached inclusion–never exclusion–because he had experienced the radically inclusive love and grace of God in the person of Jesus Christ. He told us that,
“Whatever contributes to exclusion works against the redemptive intent of God, shown through Jesus.”
If that’s true–and I believe it is–then we have to acknowledge that there are churches (maybe even sometimes our own?) full of people (maybe sometimes even us?) who claim to love and follow Jesus, who are actively working against God’s intention for the kosmos he so loves. Why would we do that? How have we gotten so far from God’s redemptive intention toward all that he has made? Why have we moved in the opposite direction of the inclusive love that brought us in? Why do we resist accepting one another as we are? Why does exclusion hold such appeal for the people of God?
I’m going to let these questions linger… I hope we will all humbly and honestly assess our own hearts and motives, and ask the Spirit to show us what we can’t see on our own, within us and within our churches. Where have we moved toward hostile exclusivity and forgotten that the redemptive, restorative, rescue we have received is offered to everyone else, too?
Followers of Jesus, and churches that proclaim his name, should look like Jesus. It’s clear that Paul believed this. Do we? What would it look like if every church, everywhere, demonstrated the radically inclusive, restorative love of God? What if invitation, rather than exclusion, was practiced by every part of the body of Christ?
As I wrap up, I want to include the benedictions, literally the “good words,” that Paul wrote in this portion of his letter:
May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus! So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! (Romans 15:5-7, MSG)
Now may God, the inspiration and fountain of hope, fill you to overflowing with uncontainable joy and perfect peace as you trust in him. And may the power of the Holy Spirit continually surround your life with his super-abundance until you radiate with hope! . . . And now may the God who gives us his peace and wholeness, be with you all. Yes, Lord, so let it be! (Romans 15:13, 33, TPT)
Imagine how beautiful it will be when all of Jesus’ followers in all of the kosmos reflect the kind of maturity, harmony, unity, hope, joy, peace and wholeness that Paul prays for in these verses… I want to live in a world that looks more like that. Yes, Lord, so let it be!
Laura’s words are gorgeous. She captured the essence of Paul’s heart in his letter to the Romans. It’s interesting (or tragic) to think of the verses that have been taken out of context and used to harm and exclude others. One cannot read the entire letter and come away with the conclusion that cruelty or exclusion is Paul’s message.
I won’t take the time to go all the way back through the letter, but let’s look at some of Paul’s thoughts from the last few chapters:
Chapter 12: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others…Love must be sincere…Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves…bless and do not curse…Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position…as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good…
Chapter 13: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. …Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law…clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ…
Chapter 14: Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters…God has accepted them…why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt…stop passing judgment on one another…make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification...
Chapter 15: Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself …May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had…Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…
It is difficult to come away from this entire letter with the mindset that Paul was teaching an exclusionary message or a “me” centered gospel. The entire message and ministry of Jesus Christ is love-centered and others focused. There is no “us” versus “them” in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Jesus is the gate into the kingdom and his arms are open wide. Revelation 22:17 tells us: The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life.
The Spirit and the bride. The bride is the “C” church, the global body of Christ in all its beauty and diversity. The church is people. The church is you. The church is me. Would those around us say that they hear the bride (both individually and collectively) saying “come…anyone…everyone…come…drink freely…come”?
Do we accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted (us), in order to bring praise to God… (15:7) Pastor John pointed out that this verse says accept not except. I’m afraid too many people have heard the message that we (the church) will accept you with some exceptions. You are accepted as long as you look like us, do what we do, interpret scripture the way we interpret scripture, assimilate into our culture, prioritize what we prioritize, read who we read, sing the songs we sing, include who we include, exclude who we exclude, and then you’re good. Don’t question us, don’t be different from us, and we’ll accept you. That was never the message of Christ who was quite often in trouble (with the religious) for accepting “tax collectors and sinners”. I guess a good question would be are we clothed in religion or are we clothed in Christ?
I think we forget that when Jesus told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, it also means those of us who call Jesus “Lord” have become citizens of his not-of-this-world kingdom. We have transferred our citizenship from an earthly kingdom to the kingdom of God. The apostle Peter reminded us of this in chapter 2 of his first letter when he wrote: ... you are resident aliens and foreigners in this world… Live honorable lives as you mix with unbelievers… for they will see your beautiful works and have a reason to glorify God…
We are foreigners in this world. In the Old Testament we learn the people of Israel were conquered by the Babylonian empire and taken captive–they lived as exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah, a prophet during this time, wrote: This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29: 4-7 NLT)
Are we, the spiritual exiles of the world, working for the peace and prosperity of the community in which we live and praying for its welfare, or, are we looking with contempt upon the world, placing ourselves in a position of moral superiority toward those around us? Have we assimilated so deeply into the culture of the world that we no longer heed Paul’s words to live a cheerful life, without complaining or division among ourselves … [so that] we will appear as shining lights in the universe, offering the words of eternal life? (Ph 2: 14-16)
Maybe, if we honestly reflect on how the world experiences the church, we’ll admit we’re not doing so well. How do we fix it? How do we look like Jesus? As I head toward closing, I want to share an experience Laura and I had earlier in the pandemic which ties in beautifully to Romans 15: 5-7 that she included above:
May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus! So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it!
Shortly after the pandemic began, Laura shared with me about an opportunity to be part of a virtual choir. We both decided to participate, so we downloaded our music, and learned our parts. When we decided we were ready to record, each of us in our own homes, pulled up the video of the conductor (Eric Whitacre), followed his lead, recorded our parts, and submitted them. It would have been easy for us to assume we were alone in this project; however, we learned that we were part of a choir of 17,572 singers representing 129 countries, and the end result was gorgeous. The only way this immense project was able to be successful was that we all sang the same song and followed the lead of our conductor. All 17,572 singers, each one with a unique voice, representing various cultures, ethnic groups, ages, following one conductor, singing one song, sharing one message. (You can experience the song, Sing Gently, here.)
I think this is a perfect illustration of what the church is to be–the church meaning you and me– each singing our own part– following Jesus as he leads us in the one song of God’s love and acceptance.
Make much of Jesus Christ, be transformed by the lavish love and extravagant grace of God, and let that love lead us out so that all others might know they are invited in.