Few things are arguably in shorter supply in both our culture and the Church of Jesus Christ than unity. It’s not just that the Church has long been divided into Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant camps. It’s also that 21st century churches and denominations seem to be dividing nearly as often as some of us change our clothing. It sometimes seems as though our understanding of theological orthodoxy is more important for many of Jesus’ friends than the unity for which he prayed shortly before he died.
It’s against that ancient, dark backdrop that this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul relentlessly talks to Rome’s Christians about unity. Of course, he promotes it in the context of divisions within the early Church. In Romans 14 the apostle explicitly addresses the division between “strong” and “weak” Christians. He in some ways summarizes the appropriate Christian response to that division with his call in Romans 14:1 to “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.”
The New Testament scholar Orrey McFarland writes about the root of that acceptance, “The Christ-event – Christ’s death and resurrection for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles – reveals the nature of God’s grace: it is a gift given without consideration of worldly wealth or status.” He goes on to note that the grace of God for all people overwhelms the divisions that plague the Christian community.
Of course, while that grace forms the basis for the Christian community’s unity, it doesn’t obliterate social and ethnic differences. It, instead, embraces and unites those who bear those differences. God’s amazing grace even gives Jesus’ followers permission to look for ways to celebrate our distinctives without letting them divide us from each other.
Throughout his letter to the Roman Christians Paul also addresses the divisions that often fall along the lines of Jewish and non-Jewish people. Those fissures are nearly as old as humanity itself. The Old Testament Scriptures, in fact, speak of God’s desire that Jewish people in some ways keep themselves separate from non-Jews.
Yet it’s not just true that God always longed for God’s Jewish people to be a blessing to non-Jews in ways that would point them to the God of heaven and earth. It’s also that Christ’s life, death and resurrection changed the nature of the relationship between non-Jewish and Jewish Christians. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reaches back into the Old Testament Scriptures to celebrate God’s grace to God’s non-Jewish as well as Jewish people.
Of course, the divisions between non-Jewish and Jewish Christians, while still present, don’t dominate Christian conversations the way they did in Paul’s day. So Romans 15’s preachers might spend some time reflecting on what divides Christians today. Among the modern divisions are those aligned with theological, liturgical and ecclesiastical perspectives. Equally as, if not more, contentious are differences of political, environmental, and socio-economic opinions.
Jesus Christ’s friends even dispute what Paul in Romans 14:1 calls “disputable issues.” We argue about the identity the non-negotiables about which all Christians agree. Those disputes all too often lead to arguments about on what God’s dearly beloved people can agree to disagree. Christians, in fact, sometimes so vigorously dispute about those disputable issues that we separate ourselves from Jesus’ followers with whom we disagree.
While Paul pleads for Christian unity against that backdrop, he clearly recognizes that such unity is highly elusive. The apostle understands that any unity among God’s adopted sons and daughters depends heavily on God’s gracious help. After all, he writes, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement to you give you a spirit of unity among yourselves” (5).
It’s a recognition that, as I wrote in an earlier commentary on this passage God alone can equip us to unite with people whose faith Paul calls “weak.” Only God can empower God’s dearly beloved but naturally schismatic people to live not to please ourselves, but those people around us whose faith Paul would call “weaker.” Only God can equip us to accept each other as Christ accepted us.
That may also help explain why the apostle ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with a prayer that the God of hope will so fill God’s adopted children with you and peace that we may “overflow with hope” (13). After all, Christians are so deeply divided from each other that it’s easy to lose hope that we’ll ever be united. It’s tempting to lose hope that Jesus’ friends will ever be anything but a badly fragmented body of believers. So Paul prayerfully pleads with God to help Christians, as the Message paraphrases verse 13, “brim over with hope.”
Paul’s recognition that only the Holy Spirit can unite divided Christians may also help fuel his call to Rome’s Christians to “accept one another … just as Christ accepted you” (7). In doing so, he’s offering Jesus as a kind of inspirational example to those whom God longs and equips to unite.
The Greek word for “accept” one another is proslambanesthe. It’s also variously translated as “welcome” or “receive.” It often connotes an exchange of pleasantries or general appearance of hospitality. But the New Testament scholar Jennifer Vija Pietz sees something far deeper in Paul’s use of that verb. She suggests that the apostle connects a relationship to that acceptance. Those whom Jesus’ friends welcome are those with whom we enter into a meaningful relationship.
That’s, after all, the nature of the acceptance Christ graciously extended to his adopted brothers and sisters. He didn’t just welcome those who were naturally alienated from him. Christ also graciously entered into a relationship with people who’d naturally made ourselves his enemies.
Yet as Pietz continues, “Presenting Christ’s own ‘welcome’ as the standard for how Christians are to welcome one another sets the bar high — far above simply greeting one another as we take our seats in the sanctuary or the pastor issuing a general welcome to visitors from the pulpit without anyone taking time to speak with them after the service. Christ’s acceptance of all people came at the cost of his own life. His service to God and people who’d turned away from God meant laying down his own life. It is this gift of ultimate love that empowers Christians by the Holy Spirit to also serve each other in ways that build up all members of the community, even when it is difficult or costly to oneself.”
God, Paul continues, equips God’s dearly beloved people to extend this welcome to each other “so that with one heart and mind [we] may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6). This at least suggests Paul worries that the Christian community’s divisions hamper our glorification of God. Unity among God’s diverse adopted children, by contrast, amplifies and enhances that glorification.
Of course, as we noted earlier, substantial theological, liturgical and ecclesiastical divisions still characterize the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. They will likely continue to do so until Christ returns to usher us into the complete unity that will characterize the new earth and heaven.
However, Christians’ focus on, even obsession with those differences leaves little room for mutual joy, peace and trust in the God of hope. So this Sunday Epistolary Lesson summons preachers to help Jesus’ friends to look for ways to at least try to understand those differences and to work together for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good. Jesus’ friends may not yet be able to worship with Christians with whom we disagree. Those who wish to follow Christ Jesus find ways to work and pray with each other for the common good
While Jonathan Haidt writes about American divisions in the May, 2022 issue of The Atlantic, he could have said similar things about numerous countries. He notes, “The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.
It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 4, 2022
Romans 15:4-13 Commentary