Read the passage here.
Recently, we started a series on the gospel of Matthew, which we’ve paused for this Advent season. However, prior to that, we spent a couple of years working our way through the first five books of the Old Testament – the Pentateuch. And we tried to immerse ourselves of the story of humankind, or rather, the story of God’s redemption of humankind. What we saw was that God created the universe and it was very good. But human beings rejected God’s kingship over the universe, desiring to be gods ourselves instead. What we saw was that this simple choice led to disastrous consequences. We alienated ourselves from each other, we alienated ourselves from creation, and what’s worst, we alienated ourselves from God.
But God, in his infinite mercy, would not leave us in this fallen, broken state. He purposed to redeem creation through the family of Abraham. We followed Abraham’s family through the land of Canaan, through slavery in Egypt, out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and back into Canaan.
We have yet to see, though I’m sure you are familiar with the story, Abraham’s family settle in the land of Canaan, find a king, see the kingdom split, and then exiled. So what we see are those disastrous consequences of sin following the people, no matter where they wind up. Even though they were chosen as the means of God’s redemption, sin was still a pervasive reality.
And what they knew was that the promise, given to Abraham but covering the people, had not yet been fulfilled. But they also knew – or tried to know – that God was faithful. They knew that, even in their exile, removed from the land of promise, having lost their identity, wondering when salvation would come, that God would be faithful.
And this, more than anything else, is why we celebrate Christmas. This is why we celebrate the birth of Jesus. (Maybe this isn’t actually why, but shouldn’t it be?) Because in the midst of sin, in the midst of fallenness and brokenness, in the midst of anger, and grief, and anxiety, the Messiah has come. The one in whom the promise would be fulfilled, the king who would reclaim his kingdom, the God of heaven and earth has come.
Our passage today is from the Revised Common Lectionary. We are reading the New Testament reading for today: Romans 15:4-13.
The first thing to consider is that the lectionary reading is a pretty abrupt disregarding of (at least) the previous few verses in Romans 15. If we take a look at the missing verses, we see:
1 We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. 3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”Romans 15:1-3
Without getting in to the larger argument and structure of the letter to the Romans, what Paul is getting at here, in the first few verses of chapter 15, has to do with division within the church. What’s happening is that there are people in the community who come from a pretty wide variety of backgrounds. Many of them come from a Jewish background, but many of them do not.
Naturally, what arises in the church is people who think other people should be doing particular things, and those other people wondering what the big deal is. It’s to these, and related issues, that Paul says “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak” (v. 1). And he goes on to relate this to Jesus’s ministry. In short, Paul is pointing to the fact that a significant part of Jesus’ ministry, how he related with others, is to give up his own privilege (as the son of God) for the sake of those he came to minister to.
Now to our specific passage today, Paul says that this – this kind of living (kenosis), this kind of community – was pointed to in the scriptures, by which he means what we call the Old Testament. So, he goes on to say:
4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, 6 so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:Romans 15:4-9
And then, by way of proof, Paul points to several Old Testament passages:
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.”
10 Again, it says,
“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles;
let all the peoples extol him.”
12 And again, Isaiah says,
“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
one who will arise to rule over the nations;
in him the Gentiles will hope.”Romans 15:9b-12
We won’t go into the O.T. background of each verse (you can see the references in the footnotes of your English bible). But as you can see, Paul is referencing a number of verses that indicate that the knowledge of God – and we can infer, salvation or redemption – is not limited to the Jews, but is to be extended to the Gentiles. The point that I want to make is that the “Accept one another…as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God,” in verse 7 has to do with the kind of community that Paul is encouraging them to be, in light of the redemptive purposes of God that is revealed in scripture. And it’s not just a community made up of people who are like us, who believe the same things we believe, who behave in the same ways that we behave. Rather, God’s purpose is that all will know that YHWH is lord.
Now the thing about it is, I suppose, that Paul is writing after the Messiah, Jesus, has come and gone. The Christians in the Roman church are no longer living under the Old covenant, but the new. And yet we see that the old racial, cultural, national divisions are still alive and well. And 2000 years of church history later, we still struggle with people who are different from us.
And what we also know is that these differences won’t matter when Christ comes again to bring His kingdom in fullness. I don’t believe that we will magically become one ethnicity, one race, speaking one language. I simply think that they will no longer matter.
So what do we do in the in-between time? Well, I think there are several things we don’t do.
We don’t try to make everyone like ourselves. We don’t assume that there is only one way to be human, one way to love God, and one way to live in this world as the people of God. (which is different than saying the people of God can do whatever they want)
We don’t try to divide people up so that like people are only with like people (which is often just a different way to say we only want to be with people like me). In the church, I believe that there is a place for children’s ministry, youth ministry, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, young adults’ ministry, young couples’ ministry, seniors’ ministry, Korean ministry, First Nations’ ministry, Ukrainian ministry, Scottish ministry, German Ministry, Philipino ministry, and etc. (It’s amazing how many ways we can divide people up, isn’t it?) Nevertheless, I also believe that the goal should be to be one body. I believe that the goal should not be to create separate ministries, but to minister to every person.
We don’t build walls around ourselves. We don’t build walls that make it difficult for people to get in on what God is doing. And we don’t build walls that keep us from seeing what’s going on in the world around us. We don’t build walls because the gospel of Christ is for the redemption of the whole world. And if the people of God are going to be a sign, a foretaste, and an instrument of the kingdom of God, it’s precisely in this world in which we find ourselves, that God is calling us to do so.
Then what is it that we do in fact do? I think what we do is what Paul recommends. That we take on the mind of Christ, who became a servant on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises given to Israel might be realized, and that the whole world would know God’s glory. We try to live, in this in-between time, in the midst of sin, fallenness, and brokenness, as a people for whom that sinfulness, fallenness, and brokenness are no longer the defining features of our lives. We try to live with people who are different from us, who believe differently than we do, who behave appallingly (to us), who are exasperating (to us), who are confounding (to us), to take hold of the life for which God is calling us heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards all men. These are the words (paraphrased) of the angel to Mary regarding the birth of Jesus. It’s taken as a kind of catchphrase for the Christmas season. And generally speaking, we mean well when we use it in various Christmas decorations. We usually understand that Christmas is a time when we’re supposed to be nice to each other. We understand, at Christmas, that charity is especially important. We’re more likely to volunteer at soup kitchens or homeless shelters. Because Christmas time is a time of peace on earth, and goodwill towards people.
But the gospel points to much more than that. The scriptures point to something much more substantial, much more significant, than merely being nice to one another. It points to a new kingdom. It points to a new creation. It points to the work that the Messiah has done, and will complete when He comes again.
So, we live in the in-between time. We live in the in-between, waiting for the fulfillment; knowing that the wrong things will be made right. And how we live with one another, how we live in the world, how we love those who we find hardest to love, points to what kind of kingdom we are waiting for. It says something to the world about what kind of king we serve. What we do in the in-between time matters.
So, what does Christmas mean to you? As we prepare, as we wait, what is it that we’re preparing for?