Ever deepening & broadeningSermon passage: (Romans 1:8-17) Spoken on: May 3, 2015
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Sermon on Romans 1:8-17
Title: Ever deepening & broadening
Speaker: Ps Enoch Keong
The passage, especially verses 16 and 17, is well known to Christians. However, it is also a passage that is rather difficult to interpret, as it is filled with ambiguities. But as I was reflecting on the text, I thought we can perhaps see what Paul is trying to get at from a verse that carries with it some degree of inappropriateness. I am referring to verse 15, which says, “…I am eager also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome.”
Have we spotted the inappropriateness? The letter was written and sent to the church in Rome, which was perhaps a group of people formerly unconnected and even not known to each other, until they had heard the gospel, embraced it as God’s truth, and came together to form the church in Rome. In other words, as a church, the Roman Christians are people who already heard and knew the gospel. Why, then, would Paul want to go to their city and preach the gospel to them all over again? And, as if the intention is not already somewhat inappropriate, Paul, furthermore, confessed his enthusiasm and excitement to do such a thing. The NIV can only be correct to render the Greek into, “…I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.” What is going on here?
The reason behind Paul’s intention and enthusiasm probably goes something like this: the Roman Christians have had an initial experience of the Gospel, received salvation and become followers of Jesus. But the gospel is meant to do much more than just bringing about initial salvation. The gospel seeks to dig deep into peoples’ lives, into cultures, into societies - yours and mine - so as to purge the dirt, mend the hurts and to inject into each God’s goodness and holiness, till grace abounds. The problem observed in the Roman church suggests that the Christian therein did not know about the fullness of the gospel, or the way in which the gospel is calling people to live, and Paul was simply excited when he thought about telling them how good and wholistic that the gospel is.
And when we see that preaching the fullness of the gospel was Paul’s main intention, we will also begin to see how the ambiguous sentences start to fall into place and form one single coherent message.
What comes to mind when we read verse 11 that says, “For I long to see you, so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” Some of us in reading this verse may be imagining the apostle Paul standing amongst the Roman Christians, putting his palm on their heads or backs and begin transferring special gifts, just as the way kung fu masters transfer their internal strength to the disciples in the novels and the movies, “You, receive the gift of prophesy. You, receive the gift of healing. You, receive the ability to interpret tongues. However, Paul probably had never done anything of this sort. In Paul writing, it was never him or any other humans but always and only God who imparts spiritual gifts to people. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, “For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy…”
In this case, what would ‘imparting of some spiritual gifts’ be referring to? Recent scholarship are inclined to think that spiritual gifts actually refer to the content of the gospel, especially the aspects of it which were not written down by Paul in the letter. The reason supplied for such an interpretation is that since Paul in 1 Corinthians employed the phrase ‘sowing spiritual blessings’ (1 Cor 9:11) to mean preaching the gospel, then spiritual gifts herein could refer to ‘the strength and wisdom to obey’, which comes with the grasping the gospel message.
Yet, which aspect of the church needed strengthening and what was the problem in the Roman church? The problem is something well-known, namely, the strained relationships between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. In light of this, strengthening would in turn be referring to the gospel causing the divided church to learn acceptance of one another, enable them to reconcile with those that have a different blood flowing in their systems and become a strong and an united church.
But what is it that made Paul thinks that the fullness of the gospel could bring about a harmonious church? The gospel is first of all about Christ, about his love and death and resurrection, for the glory of God and for the entire world, that is, both Jews and non-Jews. The gospel is also about God being willing to forgo his wrath against sinners, whatever color they may be, and let them to instead share his glory. The Christians in Rome, both the Jews and non-Jews, needed to hear that God embraces people of all ethnic groups in Christ. Still, so what if they hear about all these?
To the apostle Paul, the preaching of the gospel is not just the telling and re-telling of Jesus’ story. The gospel, to him, is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, and the gospel is that which reveals the righteousness of God from faith to faith. In other words, Paul is saying that the gospel is active, it is an active power deposited in the lives of Christians, which not only declares us as righteous before God but also brings about transformation in God’s kairos moments. From faith to faith highlights the fact that the gospel is not only active but aims at growth, in that Jesus’ followers shall grow in terms of spiritual maturity and in numbers. The gospel is tirelessly bringing about all these, and brothers and sisters, you and I are the witnesses of the gospel at work.
But of course, we are no robots and the gospel is not an operating system or driver software. Christian as followers of Christ are responsible for responding accordingly when the Holy Spirit whispers, flashes, reminds, nags at, shouts out loud or haunts us with the gospel’s bidding.
This tension between the power of the gospel and human will notwithstanding, Paul simply had faith that the gospel will mend the age-old great divide between the Jews and Gentiles. But, question, is all that Paul had written and all that we have talked about this morning nothing but theory? To word it slightly differently, Paul hoped that through his communicating and their grasping of the gospel message, the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome would start accepting and loving each other, and that they would do things in gospel-style. Is Paul’s hope nothing more than what we call a fat hope? Since the Jews only wanted the Jewish’s way and the Gentile only wanted the gentile’s style?
When we want something badly, our focus and attention would be on the desired object or outcome. And more often than not, we would in turn disregard other factors involved, no matter how important they may be. Let us imagine a stereotype situation to illustrate the point. When an ah-girl or an ah-boy goes to mommy and ask if she or he can be out this coming Saturday with some classmates and be back only slightly after 10pm. And after the initial “no” from mommy who’s number one concern is the child’s safety and not mixing with the wrong companies, and when the child continues the pleading by saying, “But mom, we are just 2 bus stop away”, mom goes, “So?” “But mom, the group project is due on Monday”, the child give a legitimate reason this round, but mom who is thinking about nothing but safety again replies with a, “So?” “But mom, Saturday is the only time when the entire group can meet to first buy the necessary materials and then finish up the project. We need more time.” “So?” I won’t continue this imaginary conversation, or I may make new enemies for suggesting inappropriate parenting style. But I hope the point has been made clearer, that the gospel message or whatsoever words of wisdom or advise simply doesn’t get into us easily when we are fixated on what we want.
For the Jews in Rome, they cherished racial purity, and therefore wanted to worship their God but without the barbaric practices in their church. To worship God appropriately with the appropriate mix, males and females – but only Jews – was their number one concern. As for the Gentiles, I suppose they were firm subscribers of the understanding that ‘the truth will set you free’, although the Gospel of John where we find these words was written some 10-25 years later. In other words, the gentile Christians regarded the Jews to be people who were observing restrictions unnecessarily and were bulldozing with their cultural preferences. Jews and Gentiles Christians in the Roman church, each wanted their own ways, badly. To get them to accept and love each other because of the gospel; is it but some fat hope?
Friends, when we want what we want, and when the gospel points us in a different direction, what would we do? I can’t say for us, neither do I know how the Jews and Gentiles ended up after reading Paul’s letter. Whether the bidding of Paul – which is in fact the bidding of God – was perceived as nothing more than ‘fat hope’ is something we weren’t told. But in my own life journey, although I did not use words such as ‘fat hope’ on the gospel, yet in one particular situation at least, I was as good as having regarded the gospel’s bidding as some ‘fat hope’; till I was alerted to the fact that there’s something more to life for sinners saved by grace, namely, that ours is a journey into glory.
Let me share with us a piece of my journey as a Christian. My story is old, at least older than some of the younger members here. It happened in my first church. A Christian brother and I simply couldn’t get along with each other. By the way, both of us are Chinese. We have never tried doing things to hurt or harm each other, and we were happy to see good things happening in each other’s lives. But we just can’t accept and love each other very well. And what’s the problem, we were way too alike in terms of personality. Well, compatibility happens when people are unlike one other, you like to treat, I like to eat, we are friends. You like to lead, I am happy to follow, we get along well in a group. As for me and this brother of mine, it was a like-pole repel situation. This strained relationship went on for a few years. The 2 of us are well aware of it, and I believe we were both rather bothered by it. But neither of us tried sorting things out, and we weren't willing to be more accepting of each other.
Then, one afternoon, while I was walking on the streets and worshiping softly and singing away. I remember at the very moment when I was singing the chorus of the old song that goes, “For you alone deserve all glory”. Just at that very moment, walking and worshiping, and wasn’t thinking about the strained relationship with that brother. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a thought just dropped into my mind. Nothing really impressive, but I like to share it with us, “Enoch, will you reach heaven with amnesia, and forget every unpleasant encounter you have had with the brother and have an altogether fresh start with him?”
No way, right? We will enter into glory, but not with amnesia. That prompting, we call it this morning the active power of the gospel at work, led me to take the first step and make amends. My brother and I could finally admit to the ‘problem’ between us, and the relationship became much more harmonious than before.
So, is all that Paul is saying here theory? Not in my case, and I believe it will not be in our case. For the gospel is an active power at work to bring about joyous obedience.
Friend, we are travelling toward glory, and if I may be a little frivolous in my word choice, we are travelling toward a gospel-style place and reality. I am forever thankful for that prompting that afternoon, for it has hammered in the gospel message and helped me go gospel-style in at least my relationship with my brother, which effects I will carry into glory.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are all called on the journey towards glory, what are we bringing there? Paul exhort God’s followers, in all aspects of life to go gospel-style. The gospel, he reminds us, is “the righteousness of God revealed… from faith to faith”. The gospel is the gift of life eternal, the power that produces transformation and the timely help to grow more and more akin to gospel-style. I pray that we will open more and more aspects of our lives to the fullness of the gospel, and may our Good Lord also do the work of such opening up of ourselves unto him, as he once did in me when I sang, “For you alone deserve all glory.”