Hardly a week goes by without one person or another offering me something to read. It may be a book or a newspaper article or a posting on the Internet. Let me say very genuinely that I greatly appreciate this input. And here is the reason why: It gets me reading things that I likely would never have been exposed to were I just left to my own devices. I find myself broadened, enriched and often challenged by this reading.
One of my best sources is my wife Karen, who reads far more widely and voluminously than I do. This past week she sent me a short piece that she found on the web entitled “10 signs you belong to a great church”. They were compiled from the Bible by a young pastor in Nashville, Tennessee. Here is what he included in his list. See if you can recognize Messiah in any of them: sound doctrine; striving for relevance; putting Jesus before religion; Christ-centered worship; a passion for discipleship; a heart for the nations; an investment in the next generation; small groups; thriving community; and lastly, transparency.
If you go to the web or search through a list of Christian books you will likely come up with dozens of such lists with very little effort, and while they may offer a smaller or a larger number, by and large most of them correspond on the majority of points. In this morning’s reading from the New Testament Paul is getting ready to wind up his long letter to the Romans. Over the course of fourteen chapters Paul has taken us through the monumental themes of the Christian gospel: from the fallenness of the human race to the glorious hope of the redemption of all creation through Christ’s death and resurrection, from the privileged position of the Jews with their possession of the Law to the inclusion of people of all races and nations in the gracious promises of God. In the latter chapters, from twelve onwards, he moves on to the practical implications of those doctrines, the difference they make to our lives today—all that is involved in presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice to God and being transformed by the renewal of our minds.
Now in chapter 15, as this great letter is about to come to its close, Paul offers not ten but just three indicators of what it means to be truly living for Christ, to be “strong” in the faith, as many of the Roman believers liked to think of themselves. We can summarize them by thinking in three directions.
Outward in service
The first of them is outward—outward in service towards others. In the opening verses of this morning’s passage Paul instructs the Romans that we are not in the church to please ourselves. Rather, he says, “Each of us must please our neighbors for good, for the purpose of building them up.” Then he goes on to cite the example of Jesus: “For Christ did not please himself.”
When we put our trust in Jesus we enlist as followers of the one who came not to be served but to serve. Many people look for a church that fills their needs. And on a certain level there is a legitimacy to that. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be in a church where the gospel is proclaimed with power and relevance. There is nothing wrong with looking for a church where the Holy Spirit is clearly present in the worship. Yet we also need to be in a church that challenges us, that occasionally takes us outside our comfort zone, that calls us into the service of others.
We can easily be tempted to think of a Christian as someone who has had a particular experience—being born again or being baptized in the Holy Spirit. I do not want to underplay the importance of those experiences. Yet they are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are beginnings, intended to lead us into the path of service.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who first referred to Jesus as “the man for others”. As Jesus was the man for others, Bonhoeffer maintained, so his followers, you and I, live under the call to be men and women for others.
Our relation to God is not a “religious” relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable—that is not authentic transcendence—but our relation to God is a new life in “existence for others”, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation…
Paul has already stated much the same principle in chapter 12, where he calls upon us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, and then in the verses that follow goes on to show how that works in acts of humble, practical service: prophesying, teaching, serving, encouraging, giving, leading, and acts of compassion.
As I look around here at Messiah I see so many examples of this kind of service—and so much of it goes on beneath the surface, without those who render it ever calling attention to themselves. This, our passage this morning teaches us, is a sign of authentic discipleship.
Upward in worship
The second direction in which we are called to look is upwards. Paul’s desire for the Romans is that they may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, quoting from the Old Testament Scriptures, he goes on to use five different words to express the same truth.
In verses 6 and 9 it is “glorify”, which makes us think of the divine glory that enshrouded the top of Mount Sinai with clouds and thunderings such that the whole mountain shook. In Hebrew the word is kabod, which originally had the sense of weight or heaviness. So it is that true worship often drives us to our knees, as we encounter the unspeakable presence of the Eternal One.
Paul’s second word, in verse 9, is “confess”—which really means to speak out. We often use it before the recital of the creed. “Let us confess our faith as we say…” It tells us that our Christian convictions cannot remain a private experience. It was Jeremiah in the Old Testament who said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (20:9). So we cannot contain the praise of God within ourselves.
The third word, in verse 10, is “rejoice”. Christian praise will always be joyful. I specifically requested that our opening hymn, “All people that on earth do dwell,” be sung this morning because it contains words that I love: “Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell”. There is a place for mirth, for spontaneous, unrehearsed joy in our worship. We see it from time to time when the smaller children start dancing during the livelier hymns. What a shame that the rest of us are held back by our adult inhibitions!
The next word is simply “praise”. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew verb hallel embedded in our English word “Hallelujah”, “Praise the Lord!” Here we recognize that in worship we join with the angels and of all those strange heavenly beings who stand around the throne of God, worshiping him day and night.
The final word our New Revised Standard Version Bible renders once again as praise, but the word means “to extol” or “to commend”. Just as a salesman commends the quality of whatever product he is trying to sell to you, so our praise expresses the excellence, the beauty, the wonder of who our God is.
Forward in hope
Thirdly we look forward. In the church as much as in almost any area of life we struggle with the temptation to hark back to “the good old days”, some ideal period in the past. It may be the time when we had a significant spiritual experience, when we first came to know Christ as a living reality or when the Holy Spirit came upon us in a fresh way. Others look back to some golden era, say the 1960s when the church was still in its ascendancy in this country, or perhaps all the way back to the early church before things began to be corrupted in the Constantinian era.
But notice Paul’s concluding words in this morning’s reading. Are they, “May the God of nostalgia fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in nostalgia by the power of the Holy Spirit”? No, Paul writes of the God of hope. As followers of Jesus we believe that the best days always lie ahead of us. That is certainly true in an ultimate sense, when we will stand transformed in the new heaven and the new earth. I believe it is also true in a more immediate sense, as we look to the nearer future. Paul himself has declared this in chapter 8, when he affirmed that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”.
In the Tate Gallery in London there hangs a most remarkable work by a man who in his time was hailed as England’s Michelangelo. George Frederic Watts has faded into obscurity, but his painting “Hope” remains a classic piece of Victorian art. Painted entirely in drab colors of brown, gray and green, it depicts a blindfolded woman hunched atop a globe. Clutching a lyre that has but one string and with her ear practically touching it so that she can hear its feeble melody, she gently plucks it with her finger. G.K. Chesterton scoffed that the painting might more appropriately have been entitled “Despair”. But Watts defended it, saying, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.”
(The painting, I might say, is a favorite of President Obama and inspired the title of his second book, The Audacity of Hope.) The point is, though, that genuine hope does not depend on the surrounding circumstances. It is easy to hope when everything is going well, when all the indicators are positive, just as it’s easy to invest in the stock market when it is gaining points every day. No, the real test of hope is when the chips are down.
Paul on the other hand, speaks about “hoping against hope”. He cites the example of Abraham, who did not waver concerning the promise of God. He writes about the hope that is not dashed by disappointment and suffering, but which actually springs out of it and grows stronger in the midst of it. Why? Because we have experienced the reality of God’s unquenchable love through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so we look and move onwards.
And so today, as we leave this second-to-last chapter of Romans, may you look outwards to the needs of others, upwards to God in praise, and (in Paul’s own words) may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.