October 30, 2011 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Aunt Helen met me at the door. She was actually my “great aunt,” a sister of one of my grandparents, I can’t remember which. It was 1977. I was 21 years old and driving across the country from Los Angeles to South Bend, Indiana. I had stopped to spend the night with family in Denver.
I spent the night before and the night after in cheap hotels, eating fast food for dinner. But that night in Colorado I was given a home-cooked meal and lots of conversation. I hadn’t seen them in years and before I arrived I couldn’t bring up their faces out of my childhood memories. But now I sat at their table and told Uncle Casey and Aunt Helen about my college years and my plans to study philosophy at Notre Dame. They told me old stories about my mother and the rest of the family.
The next morning I drove on east and connected with Interstate 80 for my trek across the Midwest. I went refreshed because I had met family along the way. That’s what Paul was hoping to experience before too long as he wrote to the church in Rome. As we heard last week in verse 20, his ambition was to preach the Gospel where it had not been heard before. So now in verse 23 he says there is “no further place for me in these regions.” He’s planted churches across Asia Minor. I had a rest stop with Aunt Helen on my journey east. Paul wanted to push farther west.
Paul’s plan, he says, is to “come to you when I go to Spain.” Rome is to be a stop on the way to western end of the empire, to the Iberian peninsula. He’s hoping for two things when he sees the Romans. Verse 24 tells us he hopes “to be sent on by you,” and then “once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.” The word for “sent on” has overtones of being supplied and supported in his journey with money and food. Like missionaries today, Paul needs the support and equipping of the local church to continue his mission.
Yet it’s not just money and resources that Paul wants. He’s said over and over that he’s earnestly desired to come to Rome for years. He wants to spend time with these believers, to enjoy their company. He’s looking for conversation and a home-cooked meal and especially worship together. As we’ll see in a couple weeks, there are people he knows now there in Rome. He would like to renew old acquaintances and make new friends in the Roman church.
Those two aspects of Paul’s expected visit to Rome are not a bad way of describing what we do here each Sunday. Refreshing and sending are two basic dimensions of our worship together. We gather to enjoy each other’s company in the company of God and we also equip each other to go back out into the world and serve Christ. We shake hands and exchange hugs and listen to each other’s stories of the past week. And we also teach the Word and give help and resources so that we can share the Gospel in our community and throughout the world.
In other words, the church is a “pit stop.” Some of you who are racing fans could describe it better, but the pit is where a NASCAR or Indy driver pulls over right in the middle of a furious race. Her crew runs out to refuel the car, clean the windshield and change all four tires is less than fifteen seconds. She may get fresh drinking water and shouted words of encouragement.
Paul needed a pit stop in the race of his missionary journeys. You and I come here on Sundays as a pit stop in the crazy rat race of life. But Paul had another stop to make first. In verse 25 he tells the Romans that he must first go to Jerusalem “in a ministry to the saints.” What’s he’s talking about is an aspect of Paul’s mission that captured his heart and mind for a couple years. As we read New Testament stories and get a picture of that ancient city in our minds, we may not realize that Jerusalem was a place stricken with poverty.
In fact, in New Testament times, Jews of the Dispersion, that is Jewish people scattered around the Roman empire in other places, regularly sent money to help their poorer compatriots in Jerusalem. But the early church would not have had even those resources. Money and food distributed to faithful Jews would have been withheld from the Christians. Moreover we know from the beginning of Acts that some of the first church members sold their homes and gave the proceeds to help the poor. But that could only last for awhile. Eventually they all were in need.
Along with preaching the Gospel, winning people to Jesus, and starting churches, Paul saw bringing an offering to the poor Christians in Jerusalem as part of his mission from God. It was so important to him that he not only mentions it here, but also in Galatians and I Corinthians. In II Corinthians he spends two whole chapters talking about how important this offering is and why those in Corinth should be generous in this collection.
In verse 26, Paul commends churches in two areas, Macedonia and Achaia, for their cheerful willingness to share with their poor brothers and sisters. He said they “have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”
If Paul said nothing else about this, it would still be a fine example of the basic principle that Christ’s mission and so our mission as a church has two dimensions: we bring people to Jesus and we help people in the name of Jesus. It’s why we teach Sunday School and house the homeless. It’s why we give to Covenant World Missions and to Covenant World Relief. Christ calls us to minister to people’s spiritual and physical needs.
Yet in verse 27 Paul offers a little extra motivation for the other Christian churches to help out the church in Jerusalem. He repeats that they were pleased to do it and then says, “and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.” Jesus came through the Jewish people. It was Jewish Christians like Paul who went out and brought Jesus to the Gentiles. All those Gentile Christians owe their salvation to Jewish Christians. So, says Paul, it’s only right that the Gentiles share their material blessings with Jewish believers.
A sense of mutual obligation can be a good thing. When I stopped with Aunt Helen and Uncle Casey in Denver, they fed me and gave me a place to sleep. And because my 1971 Chevrolet Vega was overloaded, it blew a transmission seal on the way over Vail Pass into Denver. Uncle Casey helped me jack up my car and pump some oil into the transmission so I could go the rest of the way. I owed them a lot.
Years later when Aunt Helen’s granddaughter was in financial trouble, my mother sent her money. I think she remembered what they had done for me on my way to Indiana. She was trying to repay that debt. She took on my obligation like Paul has taken on himself the obligation of the Gentiles.
That’s why Paul has another stop to make before he goes to Rome. There were no money orders or wire transfers in his time. He wants to personally carry this monetary gift to the church in Jerusalem. It’s not that the needs in Jerusalem are more important than meeting the Romans or evangelizing Spain. For Paul this mission back to Jerusalem is part of what the Gospel is about, part of carrying out Christ’s mission in the world.
This offering is important to Paul in an even deeper way, a way that fits with the great theme of Romans we’ve been hearing all along. When Paul carries and gives Gentile gifts to poor Jewish believers, it will be another way that the unity of Jew and Gentile in Jesus Christ is demonstrated and made visible. That business about the Gentiles owing the Jews for their knowledge of Christ is not just a sweet bit of rhetoric, it’s part of Paul’s point in writing this letter. If the Church is really one body in Christ, then we all need each other. The Gentiles needed the Jews and now the Jews will need the Gentiles.
It’s the way the Church of Jesus Christ works. You need the brothers and sisters sitting around you this morning and they need you. As I’m sure we will hear from our brother René next week, the Christians in Africa need us, and we need them.
So the offering Paul is bringing to Jerusalem is not just money. As we read last week in verse 16, the Gentiles themselves are a gift Paul is offering to God. Their financial gift is a symbol that Greek and Roman Christians are themselves being offered up to God in unity with their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is where the Jewish people came to offer their sacrifices in the Temple. Paul carrying bags of money there is not just routine administrative work in the business of the church. It’s a deeply spiritual symbol that now the Gentile people themselves are an offering to God and that there is one whole and complete people of God now in Jesus Christ.
So Paul says again in verse 28 that after he’s completed this offering, he will “set out by way of you to Spain.” Then in verse 29 he adds, “and I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.” That fullness is the fullness of a whole mission completed, of the Gospel preached both in Word and in action, in spiritual blessing and in physical blessing.
That’s the fullness of blessing we want as a church together. We want to share Christ and help people believe and be saved through His grace and forgiveness. And we want to share Christ and help people be fed and housed through His love and compassion. It’s all one blessing. It’s all one mission of the Church.
Yet on the way towards that mission, like Paul, we need the pit stops. Paul couldn’t get to Spain without the help of the church in Rome. We can’t get our mission done without each other’s help in finding the rest and refreshment we each need to carry on our walk with Jesus.
Even before he gets there, Paul needs the Romans. In verse 30, he needs their prayers offered up for him as they worship together. He appeals to them in the language that the Church came to understand as expressing the Trinity: “by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in earnest prayer to God on my behalf.” When we pray, when we worship, we meet Jesus, Spirit, and God the Father as one God. That’s the God to whom we pray as Christians, no other.
The translation “join me in earnest prayer” is too wimpy. Literally Paul said, “join me in my struggle, my agony, in prayer.” What Paul is about to attempt is a spiritual battle, and he has enemies. That’s why his first prayer request in verse 31 is for his own protection. He asks to be “rescued from the unbelievers in Judea.” We know from the book of Acts that Paul had many enemies among the unconverted Jews in Jerusalem. To them he was a spiritual traitor who had deserted the faith of their fathers. In Acts 9 we read how they tried to kill him at the beginning of his ministry. They hated him even more now.
We also know from the end of Acts how part of this, at least, turned out. Paul was captured by his enemies. But his prayer was answered in a strange way. They didn’t kill him, and his captivity proved to be the way he would get to Rome. It wasn’t at all what he’s expecting here in his letter to the Romans. It’s a reminder to us that God’s answers to our prayers may not be exactly what we expected.
Paul’s second prayer request is for his mission: “that my ministry to Jerusalem might be acceptable to the saints.” He wants them to ask God for the Jews in Jerusalem to be humble and willing to accept help from the Gentiles. It would be a blow to their pride, and it would be their admission that the Gentile Christians were equal partners with them in Jesus Christ.
That again is how Jesus brings us together in His Church. Those of you who have gone on mission trips have stories of how you met some poor Christians in Africa or India or Mexico. All you could think of was their need, how little they had, and yet they offered you a meal or some other gift, humbling you with their generosity. Accepting that gift was a way of expressing your equality, your unity in the Lord.
In verse 32 Paul returns to the pit stop theme, “so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.” As I just said, Paul’s plans didn’t work out quite how he expected. James 4:15 tells us to couch all our plans like Paul did here, in terms of what God’s will for us actually turns out to be. Paul got to Rome. He just went as a prisoner. We aren’t told how it turned out from there. One part of church tradition says that he was set free, that he actually was refreshed and blessed in Rome and then traveled on to Spain. Another tradition says he died there in that first captivity.
Yet Paul placed himself in God’s will, in God’s hands. He took that offering to Jerusalem, even though it resulted in his captivity. And even while a prisoner in Rome, the end of Acts shows us Paul free to preach and teach Jesus to everyone who will come to the house where he is chained. Even the Roman guards heard about Jesus. So however it turned out, Paul found his pit stop in Rome. He found freedom and peace to worship and to serve and to receive that fullness of blessing that he desired.
May this place, this time on Sundays and in our gatherings together through the week be a holy pit stop for you and me and for all who come through our doors. May we encourage and supply each other and send each other out refreshed for the race. May we be a humble community of equal partners in Christ where Paul’s closing benediction in verse 32 comes true each time we are together, “The God of peace be with all of you.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2011 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj