Have you ever taken a good look at a lemon? We’re going to take a good look at a lemon. If you were to describe it to me, you might say something like… It’s yellow, deliciously tart, or smells good. You might say… Lemons make great lemon pie/cake and lemon aide. Some might say… Yuck, it’s bitter, sour, or it makes great furniture polish. Whatever one might say to be sure every lemon is indeed … a lemon.
Now we are going to take this lemon and say mean things to it. Why? Well, let’s just say humor me. How could you be mean to this lemon? You stink. You taste bad. You smell funny. You don’t look like the other lemons. Now we’re going to step on it and kick it around. Now that we’ve been really mean to this lemon – we call that bullying, I want you to think about what Jesus would say to this lemon after all this verbal and physical abuse. Jesus might say… I love you just the way you are. I made you perfect from the very beginning. I delight in you. We all need Jesus to take us with all our bruises, and make some good old fashion lemon aide.
In our culture bullying has hurt many people. In fact a 13-year-old recently committed suicide in our community because she was bullied. We all need to understand what Paul has to teach in the letter to the church at Rome – love one another with the attitude and mind of Christ Jesus. Never let something get in the way of loving another person just the way they are even when presume they are not like us. We are all created in the image of God no matter whether we are on the left side of an issue or the right side of an issue.
It is Peace with Justice Sunday and for us that means that we walk the talk of our Wesleyan theology in our brotherly and sisterly love toward one another. Hear these words from our text that comes from Romans 15.1-3, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” Peace with Justice Sunday invites us to practice the Golden Rule (Luke 6.31). We are invited to ponder the meaning of the prophet Micah’s words, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Paul is very clear in his closing remarks as he instructs the church not to contend with those who contend with you. Be at peace with one another bearing with one another in our strengths and weaknesses.
Paul was someone who understood how to bully in his younger years, and he understood what it meant to be bullied in his latter years. And, Jesus intervened in his bullying by stopping him in mid-track on the way to Damascus. Paul suffered damage to his physical vision but gained his spiritual sight. Paul knew what it meant to be spiritually blinded by hatred toward another person. Surely we can hear the love and wisdom in Paul’s message for us today. Paul proclaims with his mouth the Good News then examples his transformed life in the way he opens up his heartfelt longings about his hope to go to Spain and his fear of taking the offering to Jerusalem. Then Paul gets busy nosing into the churches’ business without any fear or intimidation to ensure that the people protect their faithfulness to God.
Let’s take time to remember some of Paul’s journey. Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus in 34-35 A.D. (Acts 9) and the letter to the church at Rome was most likely composed in 57 A.D. Twenty years of being a radically converted Christian gave Paul wise insight into the Christian faith beyond the use of physical eye sight. Because of his radical conversion, Paul’s physical vision was damaged but his spiritual sight was sharpened. It would be 10 more years of ministry before Paul would loose his life in Rome under Nero’s persecution of the Christians.
When we listen to the letter to the church at Rome, we hear the depth of spiritual wisdom and the depth of personal love for the people that Paul possessed. As we conclude our time in Romans we see the depth of Paul’s personality in and through his descriptions of travel plans and personal greetings. There is no doubt that Paul is the man chosen by God to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. He has heart and passion to reach what we might call the more liberal side of Christianity – the Gentile population (Acts 11.1-3, 15).
Paul was fully convinced in his proclamation of the Good News. The letter is to the church at Rome is laid out in a concise manner describing the plan of salvation: fallen nature (1-3), forgiveness found in Christ Jesus (3-5), transformational process of the Holy Spirit (6-8, 12), and the requirement of a life of holiness through the restraint of one’s personal freedom for the sake of unity and peace (13-15). God has pursued his people from the very foundation of the earth, and he continues to chase after us today. Through God’s word, God demonstrates his love toward us over and over again. We never have to guess whether or not God loves us! Do you remember being a kid and playing with daisies? We would pull the petals and declare…He loves me. He loves me not. Rest assured God loves us and there are never any daisy petals that say… He loves me not… in the Kingdom of God. Every petal says…He loves me!
Paul’s letter to the church at Rome captures the wholeness of God’s love for us in great detail as expressed through the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the beginning God creates a pathway of communication through the Law (the Father’s preventing grace). Because we could not sustain the communication link, God sent his only Son to reconnect the communication link (the Son’s justifying grace). To be sure the Father and the Son together sent the Holy Spirit to develop a communication link between God, our selves, and our neighbors (The Spirit’s sanctifying grace). This love story is sung through the letter in such beautiful details that warm the heart to seek faithful obedience.
Can you think of a time when you wrote a letter? Letters have a particular purpose. A business letter might convey some truth telling much like the part of the Paul’s letter that describes the Law and the legal aspects of the old covenant relationship (the Father’s official relationship). A friendly letter might comprise of snap shots in the life of the friendship that point to the development of the relationship much like the call of accountability that Paul writes about (Jesus the brotherly relationship). A love letter on the other hand entails more intimate details in the relationship as we see in Paul’s description of his traveling plans, offering for the poor, and greetings to his colleagues (the heart felt relationship from the Holy Spirit). Some theologians call this letter a diatribe that implies that Paul is answering presumed questions. To be sure Paul’s letter was written with the primary purpose of convey details of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – what we might call doctrine – in a particular situation in the church at Rome that was being undermined by the very people who created her because of their deeply held convictions. One might even call this letter the Gospel of Paul.
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday to remind us of the fullness of our three in one God. To be sure Paul’s letter reflects the fullness of his relationship with our Trinitarian God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. How do we know these qualities are true? We base faithfulness on our understanding of the Trinity in Scripture. God is distant and vague only if you know simply his preventing grace (1-4). God is Savior – forgiving of our sins – only if you know the justifying grace of the cross & resurrection (5-8). God is known intimately and communally in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (12-14). As we come to embrace the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – we experience God as practically experientially not just reasonably philosophical. The Trinity is surely the focal point of the Wesleyan view of theological reflection.
Paul’s ministry as described in the last two chapters of his letter to the church at Rome is in the image of our Trinitarian God. His conclusion reminds us of the importance of equality, submission, respect, and intimacy in our faith relationships. Equality is demonstrated between nationalities (Israeli/Roman Empire), ethnicities (Greek/Hebrew), denominations (Jew/Gentile), gender (male/female), and ages (young/old) (16.1-16, 21-27). Submission is demonstrated in his proclamation of the Good News and not Paul’s own agenda (15.14-21). Respect is conferred upon Paul’s colleagues when he defers the letter writing to a trusted friend (16.21-27). He also respects his associates who serve in the ministry with him offering their very lives in support of the Gospel. Intimacy can be noted as Paul hopes to visit the people at Rome. He shares his travel plans and discusses his challenges that he will face in Jerusalem as he offers the contributions to the poor (15.22-33). Paul’s life is an open book to those with whom he shares the Good News. Paul understood that conflict would arise that we should always love each other from the foundational truths of the Gospel. Being neighborly rests in the shape of the Trinity.
Paul certainly was not afraid of conflict or addressing conflict. In fact when we read the letter passage today Paul is getting busy getting in their business particularly warning the church against false teachers, division or schisms (16.17-20). Paul in many ways was attempting to hold together to factions of the faith – whom we might call liberals and conservatives. When we read Paul, we can soon discern that Paul had been a most conservative Jew who is perhaps the most liberal apostle! When we reflect on the state of our church today, it has not change from those early warring factions in the foundation of the growing church.
When we read through the pages of the letter, it is clear that Paul comprehends the depth of the human identity from depravity to the flesh to the sinful nature to the natural mind each part forms steps toward justifying grace and the promise of God for a transformed mind and will that takes on the character of Christ Jesus. Once we behold the deposit of the mind of Christ and the will of the Father then the Holy Spirit comes to begin the recreation into the image of God as was the original intent. If we choose to give ourselves over to the transformational process, we will soon find ourselves fully convinced for the need of personal righteousness. Our mind becomes made-up about the way we should treat our neighbors. We discover that we can possess the humble attitude of Christ Jesus by speaking in one mind and one voice with the purposes and plans of God himself.
Paul’s concluding remarks to the church at Rome continue to emphasize peace in the midst of differences. Paul concludes that we must refrain from judging one another (14.1-13). We must avoid offending one another (14.14-23). We must be unity whether we are weak minded or strong minded (15.1-13). Whenever we have questions of conscience we are to remain standing strong together, shoulder to shoulder. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6.12).
Paul continues with sharing his calendar of events – past, present, and future (15.14-33). As Paul concludes his writing he affirms the leadership of the church at Rome. He take time to intentionally greet the leaders among the people beginning with the women – Sister Phoebe who seems to be the mail carrier of this letter (The Expositor’s Bible, 160-61). He goes on to name Priscilla, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis, Rufus’ mother, and other sisters among them (16.1-16). Sharing warnings about schisms that divide and put obstacles in the way of unity (16.17-20). And, final words of benediction conclude the writing of Paul to the church at Rome that affirms the fulfillment of the prophetic words of the Old Testament.
Paul stands with those who stand with him in ministry. To be sure our faithfulness does not function in a vacuum. Our faithfulness is guided by those who are in our inner circle. Our faith is not autonomous, individualistic. It does not focus solidly on salvation of our own soul but leads us outward to the expression of salvation in community. Salvation is not self-centered nor private neither is it solely dependent on God alone. We are required to expend faith that God alone can bring salvation, all the while living in the community of faithful witnesses. Personal holiness does not stand on its own merit but leads us to social holiness. Our faith can neither be philosophical nor devotional. Faith keeps us open to the entire word of God from the beginning to the end. We cannot edit out parts that do not suite our taste or our culture preferences or our family of origin traditions. We cannot afford to focus on the parts that we prefer but seek to the whole counsel of God in its fullness. Scripture becomes all-inclusive text that guides our everyday lives, and not just a Sunday morning thing.
Let’s review. Our song for this sermon series on Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has been… Head. Shoulders. Knees. And, toes. Head helps us to remember to accept the mind of Christ as our own thoughts. Shoulders helps us to remember that we bear with one another in unconditional forgiveness. Knees teach us to bow our knees in humility toward one another through prayer. Toes remind us to walk out our faith. Eyes. Ears. Mouth. And, nose. Eyes… We need to pay attention to what we watch. Ears… We should make good choices about what we are listening to. Mouth… We should do everything in our power to speak good and not evil toward one another. Nose… We guard our appetites and protect ourselves as to where they might lead. Paul surely guides us to a foundational understanding of how to live our Christian faith in our everyday walking around lives.
The invitation remains open to all who would follow in the footsteps of Christ Jesus… will you join me in this dynamic transformational experience we call the Christian journey of faith?