Romans 15:4–13 (NRSV)
4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel for Jews and Gentiles Alike
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; 10 and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”; 11 and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; 12 and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” 13 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.
The greatest of all holiday traditions is when family and friends come together. We travel to one locations from across town or in some case across states, for no other reason but to be together. I love that. To be able to see those I love, all together at my grandparents, or my sister’s house. No one cares what you have done that year, they only want to be together. In the case of my family we watch movies, we laugh, play games, sing hymns, staying up late talking about just about everything, and laugh some more. I think I romanticize it a bit, but I love my family. I wonder often what it would be like if church was like one of those family gatherings.
I have often thought about this, because that is the sort of thing that I do. When I look at the life of Jesus I find that in a lot of ways that is exactly what being a follower of Jesus was like. His first miracle was performed at a gathering of family and friends, a gathering to celebrate the joining of two lives into one. And that miracle was focused on letting the party continue, He wanted the conversation and the celebration to continue. Then he goes out walking from town to town and people join his journey, they live life with him. Eating what he eats and walking where He walks. While they walked they talked, while they ate they laughed and discussed the topics of life and faith. These disciples became more than friends they became family, to the point Jesus looked down from the cross looking at his mother and his closest friend saying, “This is your mother and this is your son.”
But the crazy thing about this group of friends is who they were. Initially we could say that they were all basically the same because they were all Jewish. But that is similar to saying that all Americans are the same. None of us are exactly that same, and that is part of the beauty of our nation. We all have different ancestry, areas of interests, and have made different life choices. Some might even say that all Christians are the same, but again that is not exactly right either. Some enjoy rich ritual, while others desire silence. The Jewish people both as a secular culture and a religious body have differences. They had different political parties so to speak, and they have denominations. Some of those groups were very ritualistic and others were highly mystical, some were militant and others tried to figure out how to live best in their given situation. How did a group of fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot end up traveling around the country with a former carpenter or mason? They did have something in common. They all had a desire to know God in a greater way, and Jesus said follow me.
When we look at the world around us, the people that we meet and interact with there is something we all have in common, each one of us is seeking something. We seek meaning in life, or maybe we have given up on that quest so we seek to survive. We want things to make sense and when we cannot quite grasp it we fill the voids with other meanings. Everyone we talk has some sort of explanation about their journey through life, they have found some sort of meaning and when asked most will share what they have learned. I have found those conversations interesting. This journey is one of those things that this season of Advent reminds us about. There is this anticipation of fulfillment on the cusp of our understanding, we gets glimpses and shadows yet it stand just beyond full view. It is like little flashes in the darkness, like lightening that illuminates the night sky.
So we are here, in this state, seeking answers and trying to interpret what we observe. Anticipation yet not even really knowing what it is we are seeking. Those that first heard this letter Paul wrote to the churches of Rome probably felt a bit like us today. And Paul tells them, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
Listening to those words give me the sense that they understand my personal condition. They understand that at times life just doesn’t make sense and they too seek to find what it is I am looking for as well. It also gives me the assurance that this condition has been with humanity for a long time. Generations prior to the writing of the letter had also struggled with this thing we know as life. Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.
The histories of humanity were recorded for our instruction. The sacred texts of scripture were written for our instruction. They were written so that we generations from the events recorded in those ancient texts could learn how our ancestors dealt with the issues of their day. Wisdom is taking those words and translating and applying what we learn to our issues today. And when we do this especially with scripture, Paul says by the steadfastness and encouragement that we see in those words will give us hope.
Those issues that seem to plague us today, we can find hope in scriptures. When we are faced with the conflicting sides of oil pipelines and sacred lands of indigenous people, scripture can give us hope and encouragement in how to proceed in the face of this problem. When we have the uncertainty of election recounts, scripture can provide hope in the uncertainty. When our heart aches when we see photos of the children from Aleppo, Syria scripture can give us guidance, encouragement and hope. In every situation of life scripture can provide instruction. What we do with that instruction is another matter entirely.
The issue of how we apply the instruction that we gain from scripture is what divides us as followers of Christ. When I was a first became a pastor I was a member of a ministerial alliance in the community we lived. Every year this group of churches would come together to have joint services for Thanksgiving, during holy week, and on the national day of prayer. I had the privilege as the newest pastor in town to speak at one of those thanksgiving services. I remember the discussions on how we would proceed with the service, what we could do and what we couldn’t because we had every imaginable denomination represented and the service itself was being held in a Roman Catholic church. Every group had important aspects of worship they wanted to include and then there were the dogmatic regulations which dictated if those could be done among people of different faith communities. Communion was one of those issues. It is central to worship in many faith traditions, yet every denomination has a different understanding of the instructions given. Oddly the Quaker pastor was the most stubborn in this discussion, saying that communion is absolutely necessary and they all looked at me with horror because I was going to drag them into a war between the Protestants and Catholics. But I explained how we observe this communion between God and mankind, and they all agreed that they could participate in that. So a Quaker preacher spoke at the Catholic Church. The interesting thing about it was that the priest spoke to me later that year saying that the people of the church enjoyed that time of silence and they incorporated it in their Mass. We all have different interpretations of what scripture says and how it applies today, and at times these interpretations can be divisive. But they do not have to be.
Paul quickly writes a prayer for these people before he moves on. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Let that prayer sink into your souls for a moment. May the God of patience and inspiration allow us to grant grace to one another in Jesus. As we gain wisdom from instruction we receive from scripture to face these dark days of life, we need to recognize that there are different perspectives. Although we might not agree with the conclusion that someone has Paul urges us to extend the Grace Christ gave to us to those around us.
This is extremely difficult to put into action. I am a very opinionated person, and I try to tone it down as much as possible, but sometimes I just can’t help myself from getting into a debate. Even when the debate is doomed and I have no chance to persuade anyone to change their minds. How can I extend grace to those people on the other side of an issue when everything we believe seems to clash? Those beliefs I have are the interpretation of the teachings I have encountered over the years. And they just happen to have a different interpretation. Yet Paul says live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus. When those ideological clashes occur we need to step back and find the area we can proceed in harmony, and encourage one another to pursue those things. During that thanksgiving service so many years ago, that is what we did. Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, and Quaker all joined together worshiping God together. Because we realized that each of us wanted the other to follow Christ more intently. We were not trying to convert but to encourage just as Christ encouraged.
Paul goes on to say, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” How has Christ welcomed us? When he was on that cross, he cried out to the Father saying, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” We do not know what we are doing, we go through life thinking we understand and then suddenly the floor seems to drop out from under us. We do not know what we are doing. We think we are doing right but in many cases we are on the wrong side of the issue, we have good reasons and we might even have the most correct answer but go about it in the wrong way. Paul goes as far as saying while we were enemies of God Christ died for us. While we were enemies Jesus welcomed us. While we opposed him he said forgive them. Do we do the same to those around us?
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction. We read these word and I hope we realize that at times our anticipated future might be the opposite of the anticipated future of another. We glean understanding from a passage and someone else might glean a different teaching. Welcome those people as Christ welcomes you, listen to them and encourage them in accordance to Jesus Christ, because we are all walking together through this journey of life and the portion of the pathway we tread might be a bit different from the one that they are walking. Ours might be smooth while theirs might have rocks. Ours may have mud and theirs may have roots. Ours might be clear and theirs might be covered in ice. Yet the path is leading the same direction, so be patient and encouraging helping one another through our own personal struggles so we all can continue on to Christ. We are all seeking and sometimes we all need a little encouragement to get us through.