What a fitting way to end our daily readings in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome – talking of revelation. The gospel has been held up high in this letter – that the righteousness of God is available to all through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son. Right at the end of the letter Paul reminds us that this was always God’s plan, ‘the mystery hidden from ages past’. God didn’t change his mind when he saw that Israel couldn’t keep the Law. Rather, the Law and the Prophets pointed to Jesus and salvation by faith. It was just that the understanding of it had been hidden and has now been revealed.
So it is today. I am forever grateful to God that he opened my eyes to see him and my heart to receive him. Without that revelation I would be lost. As I look around me at the many people who I would dearly love to come to Jesus, again I realise that it will only be through revelation that this will happen. I can witness, I can act, but I am dependent on the Spirit of God to move in revelation in people’s lives.
Oh God of revelation, reveal yourself I pray.
This list of names, particularly those of the women, together with the roles that Paul identifies them with, has been frequently used in debates about the role of women in the church and particularly in regard to leadership. I am not going to go there in my reflections today, so sorry if you were hoping for debate or affirmation.
What God has highlighted to me today from this list is the mix of genders that Paul refers to. In what was a much more male-dominated society than we have today, Paul highlights the contributions both men and women have made to his ministry and the work of God more generally. It has made me stop to think: if I were to list the people who have and are contributing to God’s work alongside me, helping me in my calling, would that list be as representative of both genders as Paul’s is?
Wouldn’t it be so much easier if Christianity was just about my relationship with God – a personal faith. People make life messy. People annoy, disappoint, anger, frustrate and hurt me. If only I could focus entirely on my personal relationship with God, go deeper with him, forget others, ignore the church.
Whilst that might seem a preferable route to follow, the apostle Paul concludes his letter to the church in Rome by taking time to name, commend and thank many different individuals. Paul, the great theologian, reveals his dependence on others and his gratitude for co-workers. Just imagine being one of those that Paul mentions here. Wow! The apostle Paul named me! But who am I in comparison? Yet it seems he thinks we’re part of a bigger team, a family.
That’s it, the church is my family. Yes, they may annoy, disappoint, anger, frustrate and hurt me. But I would be lost without them. As Paul does here, may I constantly recognise the joys of being part of God’s family. Let me also give thanks, personally and corporately, that God doesn’t allow me to live in isolation.
Kings Hill is a bit of an island. It is not a through road to anywhere, but sits nicely off an ‘A’ road, sheltered by trees and an obelisk! Although part of Tonbridge and Malling borough, it feels very different from the places that surround it and seems to set itself apart as a place that is like no other. It is very easy for that same sense of independence and uniqueness to infiltrate the mindset in the church. Should we relate to other churches outside Kings Hill? ‘Why?’ would be an answer, after all, ‘what have they got to do with us?’
As I read through this final part of chapter 15 today, I spent some time considering the response of the church in Macedonia and Achaia towards the church in Jerusalem. Okay, so Jesus was a Jew and their base is in Jerusalem, so we owe them a measure of thanks. But Paul, their spiritual father, came from Tarsus and was sent out by the church in Antioch. No Jerusalem mentioned there.
Fundamentally, the church in Macedonia and Achaia recognised that they were part of one church worldwide. And when a part of that church was in need, they had a duty to step up to the plate and help.
We live in an age when we fill our days with multiple activities, leaving ourselves little space for engaging with those outside our immediate sphere. We live in times when we stretch ourselves financially, leaving ourselves little flexibility to assist those in need outside our immediate sphere. The church in Macedonia and Achaia were on to something here that we need to rediscover.
I desperately want to see people come to know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. I am frustrated by the lack of visible progress I have seen in this over the years. Passages like today’s bring me back to a realisation of what is so often missing, or should I say ‘who is often missing’.
Paul says he will only speak of what God has been doing through him, the thing he has ‘said and done – by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit’. I think for most Christians, the Holy Spirit is given lip-service: we acknowledge his presence, but relegate him and his actions to the background – to work in the shadows where we don’t really understand. What a different picture Jesus painted of the Spirit. Jesus said the Spirit would be our guide, teacher, comforter, companion, empowerer and ever-present being in our lives. That seems to be a much more up-front role, doesn’t it?
What an example Jesus showed us of how to live alongside others. In verse three we are reminded that Jesus endured insults. These were uncalled for, unjustified, but Jesus had other priorities on his mind, rather than standing up for himself and his reputation. Similarly, here was Jesus living closely with a group of guys who consistently misunderstood, got it wrong, put their feet in it. Whilst we see some correction going on, I somehow think that ‘fixing the disciples’ or ‘correcting their theology’ would have been much higher up on our list of priorities than it seems to be for Jesus.
Jesus allowed them to go on a journey of revelation, all the while loving them. What a good example Jesus was of how we should be with one another.
And so this week we come to the end of our journey through Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. We began with the truths of the gospel, that we are all guilty before God and in need of his forgiveness. Praise be to God, through faith in Jesus, he has provided us with a way to receive his righteousness. And this goes for Jews and Gentiles alike, all are included in the same way. We then moved into the more practical outworking of this as we live as his body, loving one another.
For me today, chapter 15 felt a bit like Paul was on the homeward stretch. Again he draws Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. Then he relays his desire to visit the church in Rome. It is interesting that Paul obviously believes that it is God’s will that he should visit the church in Rome. So he asks the church to pray for his protection in Judea. For him, the two are linked: if God keeps me safe in Judea, then I can go to Rome. Conversely, if I am not rescued from my enemies in Judea, then I will not be able to go to Rome. That all sounds logical. What Paul didn’t envisage is that his enemies in Judea would conspire to have him arrested, but then through that, he would then travel to Rome! Even when we recognise God speaking to us or putting a desire on our hearts, we must be prepared for him to work it out in a way that might completely surprise us.
God keeps bringing me back to basics. Today I am reminded of how Jesus summed up God’s commands to us, his followers: love God and love others. What is patently obvious is that nowhere in this instruction is anything that is self-centred. Love for God and love for others trumps it all. My rights, my desire to not be offended, my freedom….. none of that is included in Jesus’ command.
Personally I could turn up to church in jeans and a T-shirt. Theologically I don’t believe God would have a problem with that. It is my right, and I would be most comfortable doing so. However, I know that for some in my church, that would be an unhelpful distraction. It would not aid their worship of God but hinder it. Theologically I would disagree with them. So what! This is not about theological correctness, but about love. If by compromising on asserting my rights I enable someone else to draw closer to God, then I have done a loving thing.
I wonder what life, and in particular church life, would be like if we all adopted the same approach on every area of our lives together?
Mindfulness is all the rage nowadays. It is everywhere: books, podcasts, in our schools. Not that this is in essence wrong. We do not want to be living our lives oblivious to our surroundings and the impact of choices we make. Similarly, we want our children to think about what they are doing, where they are, and the world around them. In our passage today, the apostle Paul takes this ‘modern’ thinking on mindfulness and gives it its rightful focus.
For a Christian, we need to be mindful of God in all we do. There is nothing that should be outside the remit of God-mindfulness. We should not be living our lives in such a way that we bring God into our days at particular moments – maybe a morning devotional time, tough decisions at work, asking for help with our kids, bedtime prayers. No, everything we do should be God-mindful. I am not saying that I should ask God whether to have poached or scrambled eggs for lunch. But I should be aware that God is with me while I cook those eggs. He is there when I turn on the TV, pick up that book, look at my neighbour, cuddle my children, write this blog….
To look down on someone or to condemn them – those are the two sides of the ridge we must walk along, without falling off on either side. It is often the case that those with a more progressive, liberal reading of biblical texts, can come across as the ‘enlightened ones’, those who have seen the light and freedom and are now not constrained by archaic rules that keep people shackled below. On the other side, those with a more traditionally conservative reading of the bible, can condemn those who have fallen from a life of holiness and embraced sin, more intent on keeping in step with culture than ‘God’s Word’. Both are to be avoided.
This is the dilemma of the Christian life. The apostle Paul exhorts us to be convinced of our own convictions, yet at the same time recognising that we are all God’s servants and that God can ‘make stand’ two people with opposite views on a subject. That doesn’t make sense to me. I want to be right and for God to vindicate my wisdom. But God is our master and I bow before his wisdom that far out-stretches mine.