Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 4, 2016
Romans 15:4-13 Commentary
Acoustics are everything when it comes to how a text is heard but in these days of political turmoil—a roiling pot of many feelings that is bubbling up in also the church—Paul’s call to “accept one another” for the sake of God’s greater glory is bracing. Right now a lot of people I know—including the one I see in the mirror each morning—are having a hard time accepting other people across the rhetorical, political, and social divides running through the land and through the church. As I write this, the U.S. Thanksgiving is 6 days away and I know as a fact that there is high anxiety among many families as to how this will go.
But that only means we need to pay more attention in this Advent Season to what Paul is saying. It is not totally clear what may have prompted these words. But clearly something was rocking the boat in Rome. So Paul appeals to the fundamental core of the Gospel to call people back to their Christian senses. Jesus himself, Paul says, came to earth to endure the punishments and guilt and insults that properly fall on us sinful people, not on God’s Son, the sinless one. But he endured it to create a new day in which we can accept one another.
Paul has another tactic here: the Christians in Rome were mostly Gentiles. They were not Jews, had not been among God’s chosen people originally. But now they had been welcomed through Paul’s preaching because that’s just how it goes in Christ: in baptism we become all one people no matter what our ethnicity, gender, background, or heritage. “This is the heartbeat of the Gospel itself” Paul is as much as saying. “This is how you got into the church in the first place. So now that you’re in, don’t live in ways that reject or isolate others because of differences of opinion or something. That just takes a wrecking ball to the very core of the Good News.”
Paul’s language here echoes his more famous passage in Philippians 2 about adopting the mind of Christ but also the mindset of Christ and the trajectory of Christ: from glory to despicable death back to glory again. Jesus did all that for us so we can surely commit any number of mini-sacrifices ourselves in order to get along with others. What kinds of mini-sacrifices? Perhaps sacrificing you need always to get in the last word. Perhaps sacrificing your desire always to be proven right (and thus others proven wrong). Perhaps sacrificing your alleged right always to speak your mind (“Hey, it’s a free country, ain’t it?”) and opting for silence in that it may be the only way literally and metaphorically to keep the peace.
We all have a hard time letting things drop or letting things slide. But what if sometimes it’s the only way to stop something in a congregation from blowing up? What if that is what we need to do in order to stay in a good relationship with someone and so “accept one another” as Paul here advises?
And make no mistake: the stakes here are high. What appears to be on the line is something we rarely tumble to thinking about when we are in danger of not accepting each other: the very glory of God! Whatever else we might think about when conflict arises, God’s glory probably seldom makes the cut. We might worry about our own reputation or even the reputation of the congregation. We might worry about how a controversy will affect giving to the general budget of the church. We might worry people with young children will transfer to the hip church down the block and so create bad momentum for the congregation in its membership numbers. But the glory of God? We too seldom worry about that.
But Paul could see the connection clearly. He stated this in other places, too, including 1 Corinthians when he told the Corinthians to knock off their arguments, bickering, and lawsuits because it was reflecting badly not so much on them but on the Christ who is supposed to shine forth in glory from his people.
“Remember who you are!” Paul said again and again. “You are baptized, you are one in the Lord. Now act like it!” And when you do, you will be filled with the joy and the peace and finally with the hope that God desires for us to experience.
We are entering Advent and the holiday season as a fractured people in the United States and around the world. And we are a fractured church where accepting one another seems a bit harder than it used to be. Of course, accepting one another need not mean tolerating beliefs or actions that are themselves at variance with the Gospel. Threaten the Gospel itself and Paul would see red. But within the normal bounds of the things that tend to make us unaccepting of one another, Paul is clear: God’s glory cannot shine forth from people whose actions betray the very heart of what Christ came to accomplish and the manner by which he accomplished it.
In the church during Advent and at Christmas we sometimes give in to the wider culture’s desire to keep everything upbeat, cheery, merry, and twinkly. It seems like a bad time to address head on the things that are keeping people apart and tearing at our larger unity. Let’s just keep everything all nice and Normal Rockwell like, shall we? But given the reason why Jesus was born into the world—and given the shape and manner of the ministry that birth ultimately led to—we as preachers actually err when we do NOT address head on our lack of acceptance one of another.
Christmas is exactly the time to talk about this. Why else do we think Jesus came to this world in the first place?
Few things move us like unity among people. If a movie or television show wants to tug at our heartstrings, it could hardly improve on the tried-and-true method of climaxing the drama by having estranged people come back together. Do you remember the first Home Alone movie from some years back? McCauley Culkin played Kevin, the little boy accidentally left home alone when his family went to Paris for the Christmas holidays.
There was a minor sub-plot in that film involving Kevin’s spooky neighbor–a gruff old man whom the neighborhood children avoided. But then Kevin and this old man meet up in church during a children’s choir rehearsal a few hours before the Christmas Eve service. The old man’s granddaughter was in the choir but he had to come to the rehearsal to hear her. A falling out with his son years earlier made him an unwelcome presence at the actual church service. Innocently Kevin suggests the old man just call his son, but the man says he’s not sure he dares.
Of course, the man does call, and so the last scene of the movie shows Kevin staring out his living room window, witnessing the old man hugging his son and sweeping his granddaughter up into his arms as they all head toward the man’s house for Christmas dinner. It’s just a small little scene in a silly little movie, and every time I see it I start to blubber! I try to hide it from my wife, but she always knows, rolls her eyes, and so knows again that at bottom, I’m a sap and a sucker for melodrama!
But really, is there anything more beautiful than reunions of family and friends long separated by a chasm of some kind? I am quite certain that some of you are right now wishing to get back together with a son or daughter, a grandchild, an erstwhile best friend. Most of us know people with whom we were once close but now, well, something went wrong. I’d wager that there are any number of people in this congregation who pray daily for a reunion with someone, and a few of us worry that it will never happen before we die.
Unity is mighty important to us. It is to Jesus, too. That’s why he was born among us.
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