Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 8, 2019
Romans 15:4-13 Commentary
I didn’t have much money when I was in college. So I tried to drive as far on a tank of gas as I could. As a result, I ran out of gas in the middle of the night twice … in the space of less than a month. Each time I called my relatively nearby dad to ask him to help me out. The first time he said virtually nothing. The second time, however, he quietly but intensely said, “For Pete’s sake, why don’t you just fill the tank once in a while!”
Paul fills Romans’ chapters 12-15’s spiritual “tank” with calls to be loving, submissive, tolerant and peaceful. But God’s adopted children know it’s hard to be that Christ-like. Nearly all of us can probably, in fact, point to our failures to, for example, love our neighbors even in just the past few hours.
Since I find it strange that the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday begins with verse 4, I’m adding reflections on verses 1-3 that those who stick to the RCL’s guidelines may simply ignore. Paul adds another challenge in verse 1: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Or as Eugene Peterson so beautifully paraphrases this, “Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter.”
The apostle isn’t primarily talking here about physical or mental strength and “failings.” He’s talking, instead, about the kind of strength that allows some Christians to apply their Christian freedom to a wide variety of practices. The consciences of those whose faith is what Paul calls “weak,” by contrast, won’t let them do at least some of those things. So some Roman Christians’ consciences wouldn’t, for instance, let them eat meat or do much on the Sabbath.
So how do God’s beloved people relate to those with whom we disagree on the kinds of issues that seem peripheral to the gospel? Paul begins by answering that those whose consciences allow them to do more things should not only tolerate, but also support those who are spiritually weak. His picture is of a mom who carries her worn out child to bed. One person’s strength can, after all, help make up for another’s weakness.
Paul understands, however, that it’s most natural for even God’s adopted children to live for ourselves and seek what’s best for us. Yet he also calls those who are spiritually strong to please not ourselves, but our sometimes “weak” neighbor (2). The apostle says that those who follow Jesus look out for others like a good student might keep an eye out for one who struggles. Strong people don’t just look straight ahead, but also sideways and behind us, especially at those whose faith is weaker.
I never met anyone who could build people up better than my friend and colleague Bill. He always looked for ways to compliment people, especially those who were spiritually “weak.” And even when he had to say something negative, he said it with a gentle smile and loving tone.
Of course, Paul understood how difficult that it is for God’s adopted sons and daughters to support and please each other. So what’s the key to our godly care for people whose faith is somehow weaker? From where do Jesus’ followers get the “fuel” to love, submit to and tolerate such neighbors?
In our text Paul points to Christ’ example and God’s power. Jesus Christ gave up his unlimited strength to “bear with” our not only our “failings,” but also even our sins. He somehow gave up his infinite power and wisdom to become like us in every way, except for sin.
Christ never acted in his own self-interest. He always acted for the good of others, of you and me in order to build us into the people God created us to be. In doing so, Paul reminds us in verse 7, Jesus Christ accepted his Jewish and gentile adopted brothers and sisters who are, by nature, his enemies.
I personally preach a great deal on the gospels because, among other reasons, they lovingly describe the Jesus who is the world’s best example of someone who bore with the failings of the weak. The Spirit can also use studies of devotionals on those same gospels to provide “fuel” for our Christ-likeness.
Yet Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice, pleasing and building up others doesn’t provide enough “fuel” on its own to equip you and me to serve each other. All by itself even his example is little more powerful than, say, Paul or Mother Teresa’s. Paul too understood that we need even more than a perfect example. He realized that, for example, simply asking his brothers and sisters in Christ to bear with weak people is like asking them to lift a church building all by themselves.
So in verse 5 Paul prays, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.” We can’t, after all, love God and each other unless God’s Holy Spirit gives us the “fuel” to do so.
God alone can equip us to support those whose faith is weak. Only God can empower us to live not to please ourselves, but the weaker people around us. Only God can equip us to accept each other as Christ accepted us. In fact, only God can unite God’s dearly beloved people in following Jesus. So much, after all, divides us. We naturally live not for others, but for ourselves. On top of that, we assume that our opinions about debatable matters are the only right ones.
So God’s family members look for ways to both deepen our fellowship and emphasize the things on which most of us can agree. God’s adopted sons and daughters also try to see things not only from our own perspective, but also from that of those who don’t necessarily agree with us.
Yet we still can’t create unity any more than we can make pigs fly upside down and backwards. Only God’s Holy Spirit can unite our hearts. God alone can equip you and me to together glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course, this too requires the kind of “fuel” that is the endurance and encouragement that only God can also give. Cultivating Christian unity is, after all, much more like a marathon than a short sprint. It takes a lot of time, energy and patience. It also more closely resembles an uphill run than a flat or downhill one.
That’s why Paul also prays, in verse 13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” He understands that hope is always in far shorter supply than misery. That’s one reason, I think, why former American President Obama’s presidential campaign resonated with so many people. He talked a lot about hope to people whose hope things like racism and the terrible economy were quickly draining.
As we look to the future, after all, it’s easy to lose hope. We wonder what kind of economic and ecological mess we’re leaving our children and grandchildren, as well as neighbors, nieces and nephews. It’s easy for God’s beloved sons and daughters to even worry about what will happen in the next few months.
So Paul prays that God will fill us with so much assurance that even in the worst circumstances God is fulfilling God’s purposes that our hope overflows. That the hope with which God fills us will be like that tea that you keep pouring until it just spills over the sides of your cup. After all, though Paul doesn’t say that, our hope may overflow onto people who are short on it, thereby giving them a bit of hope.
Yet Paul also lifts our vision to see how God has graciously included not just individual Christians, but also Christ’s flawed Church in God’s plans for the world. God’s love is, after all, inclusive, not exclusive. No people or any part of our world are in principle separated from God’s mercy.
Paul calls his fellow Christians to “unity … so that with one heart and mouth” we “may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5-6). When we break the unity for which the apostle pleads and for which Christ prayed, we, in some fundamental ways, break God’s heart. So brothers and sisters in Christ do what we can, equipped by the Holy Spirit, to build Christian unity, both on a local and international level.
Of course, substantial theological differences still mark Christ’s Church. Yet we leave little room for God to fill us with all joy and peace in believing when we focus on those differences. So while we recognize the theological differences that we have with other Christians, we also at least look for ways to understand and even minimize those differences. Jesus’ followers work with Christians with whom we disagree to, for instance, serve the poor and take care of God’s creation. You and I look, as well, for opportunities to welcome and join other Christians into our worship. God’s people also look for ways to build friendships with Christians whose theological emphases are slightly different from ours’.
Sometimes it feels as though we’ve running out to gas as we try to do those sometimes-hard things. God, however, by the Holy Spirit, promises to “fill our tank” so that we may love the way Christ loved us.
Andrew Gross’ The One Man’s Leo is a young man in Auschwitz where his fellow prisoner Alfred is a famous scientist. Alfred tells Leo, “We must continue to have hope. Where there is hope, there is life. And where there is life … there is more to learn, isn’t that right?
“Well, here’s to hope, then,” Leo says. He lifts his teacup and hands it back to Leo. “And here’s to more to learn.” He raises the cup and takes a last sip of tea. “Where our true hope lies. Are we agreed?” “Why don’t we just leave it at hope, shall we.’ Leo answers.”
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