“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcision/Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.’ Again, it says, ‘Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.’ 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.’ May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15: 7-13
1. This joyful lesson is part of St. Paul’s closing proclamation in this magnificent epistle, and might be the key to understanding the whole of Romans. It sounds to our ears like a statement of obvious fact, 2000 years after its writing. After 2000 years of the spread of the gospel and building the church around the world, and the inclusion of all peoples into the promises first given to Abraham and his descendants. The name “Gentiles” is given to all who were not Jews under the terms of the first covenant. It is a common translation of the word “ethne” that Paul uses that can also be translated “nations” or “peoples” or even, “cultures.” It also has a sense of “outsiders,” “not like us;” the uncircumcised, the unclean. We, here, are a Gentile church, demonstrating the truth of Paul’s teaching, and rejoicing in it.
But for Paul and those of his generation it was a revolutionary revelation, the unveiling of a hidden mystery. It became for Paul the passionate vision that defined his life, that determined where he went and what he did and how he did it. All his writings that we now study for our theology and spiritual instruction were written not in libraries or studies, but on the road, as letters to the churches, often from a prison cell, as he journeyed across Asia Minor and Europe in obedience to his calling.
He explains further as chapter 15 continues, where he writes
“of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God.”
Note 15:16, “because of the grace given me by God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” This is liturgical and sacramental language: the Greek could actually be awkwardly translated “called by God to be a liturgist of Christ for the nations, serving as a priest so their offering is acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” He links that with his preaching, and powerful works of the Spirit, to say he is advancing the sanctification of the Gentiles, in word and sacrament, in healing and power spiritual ministry. This is a fitting mission statement for any ministry or church.
Paul goes on to tell the Romans he is on the way to visit them, to preach in the very heart of the empire, and then to go on to Spain, and even beyond. And he exhorts them (15:30) to strive together with him in prayers to God, so he can continue on his mission. He is driven by the vision that the Gentiles – those trapped within all other religions, political systems, cultures, ways of life – will turn from falsehood and from the power of Satan, to be liberated to glorify the true and living God, receive his mercy, and come to obedience, to submission to Him in every aspect of life. Paul is utterly convinced of the truth of this gospel, and nothing dissuades him from it, not even persecution and suffering, and he is not ashamed to proclaim it boldly and confidently. He incorporates the church at Rome, and by extension the entire church to our day, into this vision.
And as we have learned from this year’s preaching in Romans, it is not incorporation of Gentiles into the system of circumcision and the Law that sanctifies them, but by adoption into God’s household, by the way of Faith, through the faithfulness of Christ: In Romans 10 he has already said,
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
2. This is Paul, that Pharisee of pharisees, a Jew who perfectly followed the Law, who viciously persecuted the young Christian church in Judea, but who was completely and utterly transformed when he was knocked to the ground by his encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus and saw everything in a totally new light. He cites here Isaiah 11, the “root out of Jesse who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles” which he as a well-schooled Jew would have interpreted as the future coming of a descendant of King David (Jesse’s son), to restore the glory of that original kingdom, and then extend its power and reign so that it would be the true global empire, defeating and surpassing Egypt and Babylon and Assyria and Rome. But now as he writes he knows better, he knows that the Son of Man, the messianic descendant of David has been united in one unique person with the Son of God, incarnate, crucified, resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father. All are invited to his eternal kingdom, headquartered in heaven, that cannot be shaken. Now in Christ he sees the full meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy that he quotes here:
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit… And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him… Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.”
And the ultimate result in Isaiah 11:
“for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
From that small, harassed band of twelve tribes, who wandered from Egypt in Sinai, defending themselves in Palestine, who were given the first revelations of the truth of God, and who were given the privilege of building his Temple and worshiping him in psalms and sacrifices, among whom the Son of God became man: the gospel of Christ went forth. Paul understood that the revelation of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Messiah was not to be contained or limited to an ethnic cult religion only for those with the right genealogy. It is for the world to know that God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost, that the Holy Trinity is a household of perfect love, from which the Son of God went forth to deliver all mankind from captivity to sin and death, and to invite all of us into that holy fellowship, to become his brothers in the household of God.
This is the message of faith, of obedience and of the knowledge of the Lord that Paul, and all the apostles took up as their responsibility. Paul at the very end of Romans calls this “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but has now been disclosed and through prophetic writings has been made known to all the nations, according to command of God, to bring about the obedience of faith.” To the Ephesians he wrote of “mystery of Christ made known to me by revelation…[and]. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In other words, as Paul says in many places, through adoption, the Gentiles, all of us, are made members of his covenant family, forever, through the faith of Christ.
So with this new insight, new horizon for their calling, The apostles did not form a board of directors for the new organization called the church, that sat around a table plotting growth strategies and receiving quarterly reports from the field. Each one of them obeyed the Lord’s instructions given at his Ascension — (Matt 28: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”)
Those apostles of old, all Jews, trained to scorn Gentiles, paid a great price, most of them martyred, all of them leaving home and comfort, all persecuted and exiled, to see to it that the gospel would be preached to all nations and that the earth would be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.
3. As we all know, this has continued through the centuries, and has been the calling of the church since then. The church, the manifestation and forerunner of the eternal kingdom, has spread across the globe from that small, persecuted beginning in Jerusalem, always looking forward to the day of redemption when the Son of Man appears. “You shall be my witnesses…” (The Greek word also means, “martyrs”) the Lord told his disciples, “after the Holy Spirit has come upon you, in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After the Ascension, while they were gazing up after Him, an angel told them to stop staring up and to get on with their business, because like he ascended, the Lord will also return from heaven, to judge and find faith and to fulfill all things. And they carried out that mandate, not through imperial conquest (though sometimes accompanying it), but through preaching, the sacraments, the building of the church, serving and teaching, healing the sick, caring for the poor and the orphaned, by martyrdom and inviting others to know the truth about God. It has been undertaken through bringing the gospel of Christ’s love, the obedience of faith, into all places, the and also into all quarters – into the shaping of family life, education, health care, government, and the cultivation of the means of provision, through caring for the poor and needy. Through living out the real presence of Christ in worship and fellowship, and showing forth the truth. It is why we are here.
And that priestly and preaching ministry continues even now. It turns out this is not a completed task, not old business. This ministry of accomplishing the obedience and sanctification of the Gentiles continues, until that day when the Son of Man appears and redemption draws near.
A few weeks ago I experienced the blessing of a short-term mission trip to Uganda and Kenya – something which I encourage everyone to do, by the way. I spent some days at Uganda Christian University, an educational center led by the Anglican Church of Uganda, where now thousands of African students learn not only theology and church work, but study law, education, business, health care, the liberal arts, and a host of other subjects, all under biblical authority and Christian perspective. Uganda is now a country where 85% of the population claims some form of Christian faith, and God is a very real presence in all of life. But as recently as 1875 there were no Christians at all in that part of Africa. Largely in response to a letter that was printed in the London newspapers, missionaries from the Church of England and the Roman started arriving there in 1877, and began schools, clinics, dug wells, and planted churches. People began to come to Christ, to be baptized. In 1885, the king of the tribal coalition in that region began to be threatened, and demand that Christians be restrained and renounce their faith. Late in that year Anglican Bishop James Hannington, appointed as bishop of East Africa, entered eastern Uganda from western Kenya and established a preaching station in that remote part. The kabaka, the king, eventually had him confronted by warriors, and ordered his execution. That Anglican bishop, along with a Roman priest who protested this action and was himself beheaded, and a few of their followers, became among the first of a long line of martyrs who suffered and died in the service of the gospel in that land.
A few months later, in June 1886, 25 young pages who served in the palace of the king were also ordered to renounce their new Christian faith, and to perform vile and immoral acts that would solidify their renunciation. Some of these men were as young as 14; and all of them refused. They were on the king’s s orders brutally tortured, and wrapped in papyrus reeds and burned to death. Since then Uganda, which is still a troubled and unsettled country, with poverty and corruption abounding, has become one of the world’s centers of Christian leadership. In 1977, Archbishop Janani Luwum was martyred on the orders of Idi Amin, and even today many Christians suffer from the horrors of rebel and Muslim groups in the outlying parts of the country. Christians of course are being killed regularly in Kenya, CAR, and many other places, as we all know. The national motto of Uganda now is “for God and country” and June 3, the martyrs’ day, is a national day. Not only is the country 85% Christian, but the Church of Uganda is now the second largest Anglican body in the world at 12 million or so, after England – the largest being Nigeria, and the third being Kenya. This is a local example of what is now a true phenomenon – that Christianity has become since WWII a faith that is no longer largely European and north American, as it was until then, but one in which over 2/3 of Christians are in the global south. And it is the work and faithfulness of those called both to service, and to martyrdom, used by God and led by the Holy Spirit, that charts the beginning and progress of this new vision of sanctifying the Gentiles for the glory of God.
“I would rather be ashes than dust…” was ostensibly said by Jack London, in a carpe diem self-expressive way, and that’s how it is typically used now by those who want to justify living earthly life to the fullest. But it obviously borrows from liturgical imagery, and expresses the spirit of those whose who have been gripped by the passion to serve the Lord at all costs, including St. Paul. For what did they really have to lose if they gained the blessing of the Holy Spirit using them in the sanctification of the nations, and the fulfillment of God’s mission.
4. It is a blessing, even if unlikely to involve martyrdom, or even leaving all behind to serve in distant places. We also can pray, participate, and even go. We can and will be used in ways we don’t control, or anticipate, and be blessed richly, if only in the knowledge that God has made use of us.
On my recent trip to Africa I also went to Kenya to visit a slum mission project that I have a long relationship with. After I arrived in Nairobi, in typical African fashion, I learned I was also going to be traveling with a senior pastor to visit some churches that he supervises up near Mt. Kenya, in villages called Weru and Iriga. On the way there, I was told that of course I would be preaching on Sunday. Well that was not unexpected. So on Sunday just four weeks ago now I was in that small brick church in a very muddy village, surrounded by hundreds of local people, mostly farmers who grow coffee, tea and bananas, and their children. So, walking in, I was told that not only was I preaching, but that my subject was to be God’s expectations for marriage and family life, which was an issue they were concerned with and wanted to learn about. This was not at all what I had prepared even in the brief time I had to think about it, and as you might know not exactly a subject I have any expertise in. I considered getting my wife on the cell phone to have her whisper in my ear, since she is the expert, but it wasn’t really practical. It gets better, because as I walked into the church, not only was I to preach, but in a few minutes I would be leading the adult Bible class on this subject, and later in the day we would travel to another church where I would lead a seminar for members of a number of churches who would travel there for the event. There was absolutely nowhere to hide, and nothing for it but to plow ahead. So I called upon some recent studies in Hebrews that touch on this subject, and then opened up to Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 where Paul gives some instruction on these issues.
It was not long into these moments when it became obvious to me that it wasn’t my knowledge or ability that was doing the teaching, and that the Holy Spirit had taken over. Concepts, thoughts, ways of expression were coming to mind and mouth that were not of my own formulation. The translation into Swahili went very smoothly by the local pastor, and they even laughed at my jokes! Truly a work of the Spirit. And in that way I could be used, not in my own strength, to participate in the work of bringing the nations to obedience, to the sanctification in this case of the challenges of family life in a world in which Satan seems to be doing everything possible to undermine it, even in more traditional societies like that one. It was for me one of the few times in my life where I have been acutely aware of the promise that the Lord will provide the words and guide the mind when we are called upon to give testimony to Him.
You might find the idea of doing this type of thing something you would rather avoid, either out of fear of becoming ashes, or even of returning with some feverish missionary mania that you might be suspecting me of right now. But I can also say that these situations bring more blessing than you can imagine, such as knowing you are in the hands of the Holy Spirit who will not forsake or misuse you. It can also be the blessing of being in a culture where relationships are more important than tasks, and where the joy of being in fellowship and in God’s presence overtakes awareness of the time that is passing, or how long the sermon is. Or being prayed for by believers who you know really trust God and live in his presence continually.
These are rare occasions, and not the usual fare I realize. But one more story before I finish. I received a Thanksgiving greeting recently on Facebook from a young man I first met in Kenya three years ago, and have visited and kept up with since. He came from the edge of the Mathare slum, in the Huruma district of Nairobi, from a family with a mother, lots of brothers and sisters, but has no idea who is his father. He seems to have adopted me, and calls me dad now. He wrote,
“Happy Thanks giving too
I thank God for you dad
I remember that time when we were at mamba village…
it was my first time ever to experience father’s love…
it was very good feeling…. God Bless you Dad Charlie”
And he says this helped him see what it means that the heavenly Father loves him, and will never forsake him, that nothing can separate him from his Abba, Father in heaven. I can tell you honestly that this was not something I had in my planner as one of my goals for that day. And it didn’t happen from any great effort on my part. It came from simple conversation, taking interest in someone else, sharing time together. And I can say that you don’t have to go to Africa to share in this way. Probably not too far from your front door or your desk is someone with such a need.
But isn’t this essentially what our calling is? Isn’t this what mission is? To show others that the Father loves them, will never forsake them, and invites us to live with him forever? It is not appealing or catchy programming that will beguile the wayward into church. It is the great privilege we have of extending the Love of God to all who will receive it. By continuing on our journey to the household of God, going with Christ as he takes his brothers there to the throne of the Father, and inviting others to go with us. Who will we take with us? And the invitation is open to all the Gentiles, to all of us. “For there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”:
All of us have a guaranteed end, in which we will appear before the Lord on the last day. Whether we end our earthly life as ashes or as dust, all will be raised on the last day when the Son of Man appears, as the gospel reading teaches, and the completion of redemption draws near. We are on the way to that great resurrection, if we hold fast our confidence. SO as we go, let us pray and hope to take others with us, to invite all who will come and confess, who would call on the Name of the Lord, to join us in the household of God, to know the love of the Father in heaven, who with the Son and the Holy Spirit will always give grace to help, who will never leave us or forsake us, who as God with us, Emmanuel, is with us always, even unto the end of the age.