Get Along with Each Other (Romans 3:1-8)

So, what difference does it make who’s a Jew and who isn’t, who has been trained in God’s ways and who hasn’t? As it turns out, it makes a lot of difference—but not the difference so many have assumed.

First, there’s the matter of being put in charge of writing down and caring for God’s revelation, these Holy Scriptures. So, what if, in the course of doing that, some of those Jews abandoned their post? God didn’t abandon them. Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Scripture says the same:

Your words stand fast and true;
Rejection doesn’t faze you.

But if our wrongdoing only underlines and confirms God’s right-doing, shouldn’t we be commended for helping out? Since our lies don’t even make a dent in his truth, isn’t it wrong of God to back us to the wall and hold us to our word? These questions come up. The answer to such questions is no, a most emphatic No! How else would things ever get straightened out if God didn’t do the straightening?

It’s simply perverse to say, “If my lies serve to show off God’s truth all the more gloriously, why blame me? I’m doing God a favor.” Some people are actually trying to put such words in our mouths, claiming that we go around saying, “The more evil we do, the more good God does, so let’s just do it!” That’s pure slander, as I’m sure you’ll agree. (The Message)

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman Church is a hefty sixteen chapters of dense material and extended arguments of intense reasoning. Likely,

Likely, Paul felt compelled to be so verbose because of the church’s situation.

The Roman Church, at the time of Paul’s writing, was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Jews and Gentiles have a complicated history together, to say the least.

The Roman Empire was firmly in control of Palestine and did not always treat the Jewish people well. In addition, the religious backgrounds of Jew and Gentile were as different as you can get.

Whereas the Jewish Christians had a long and rich history with God and the Old Testament, the Gentile Christians were green believers, fresh from centuries of paganism and esoteric rituals. Now, the two of them were together in one place, worshiping Jesus together.

Jews and Gentiles together made for a potentially combustible situation.

Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul goes back and forth addressing the two groups of Jews and Gentiles. The overarching problem was this:

  • The Jewish believers tended to look down on the Gentile Christians and thought they needed to become Jewish to really be the kind of Christians God was looking for.
  • The Gentile believers tended to dismiss their Jewish brothers and sisters as backward and stuck in tradition.

Each group thought the other must become like them. So, Paul, bless his apostolic heart, had a hot mess in the making with these believers.

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul is directing his comments toward the Gentile Christians. He wanted them to gain some appreciation for the Jewish people. After all, they were chosen by God to become a nation of priests and prophets for the world. Discounting that history would be to neglect and even invalidate their shared salvation.

For Paul, to have two churches, one Jew and the other Gentile, would be a complete travesty of Christ’s redemption for humanity.

Jesus sought to bring disparate peoples together and not keep them divided. The cross freed us by eliminating the barriers which separate us. The Roman Church needed to work together at being one people under the lordship of Christ.

There was to be no ethnic, religious, or political one-upmanship on Paul’s watch.

Truth be told, both Jew and Gentile did not always do so well with their respective histories. So, there is no ground for boasting or trying to argue for their own way. In fact, the unfaithfulness of people simply shows the incredible faithfulness of God in greater relief. 

If there were no sin, grace would not be needed; no cross would have existed. Just because the foulness and degradation of sin brings out the gracious, faithful, and forgiving character of God in Christ, does not mean that sin is okay or that we can flippantly wave it off with uttering some mumbo-jumbo cheap grace which devalues the majesty of God.

For example, when antebellum southern slaveholders in nineteenth-century America argued for their peculiar institution by saying that snatching black Africans from their homes was a good thing so that they could get out of their religious animistic worldview and be exposed to Christianity, I am positively sure that the Apostle Paul rolled over in his grave and begged Jesus to resurrect him early and send him to tackle such an affront to the cross of Christ!

Sin is never to be excused through twisted human mental gymnastics.

Paul worked laboriously to unite the churches he established and bring differing people groups together under Christ.

  • This does not mean is that all cultural and personal distinctions are ignored or erased.
  • This does mean that we value one another’s differences and gather around the shared value of knowing Jesus Christ.

The Church was neither going to become Jewish nor Gentile but something altogether new – one new people out of the two. Paul framed the matter this way to the Ephesian Church:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-18, NIV)

Solitary righteousness is an oxymoron. Righteousness can only be truly lived and expressed with other people.

Yes, there is freedom in Christ. Yet, that freedom must be continually applied through making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

So, get along with one another.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to seriously lay aside all unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and harmony: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so, may we be forever all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, faith and love, with one mind and one mouth, glorify Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 17:20-26 – The Need for and Importance of Unity

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (New International Version)

What is the Church’s identity?

What is the Church all about?

Why is the Church important?

The Church’s Identity

The Church is made up of people who have been reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and brought to new life in the Spirit. This special relationship that believers and Jesus enjoy with their God is a covenant relationship, and, so, the Church is a covenant community – receiving the blessings first promised to Abraham in the Old Testament that all nations would be blessed by grace through faith. 

God mercifully acts on the Church’s behalf through choosing, adopting, and redeeming people. This new covenant community receives the promises of God and exists to follow Jesus Christ in all things. 

So then, the Church is not a voluntary society, like other human institutions. Rather, it is divinely called by God. The Church is the community of the redeemed whom God has joined through the Spirit to Christ. Therefore, an individual, theologically speaking, does not join a church; instead, God joins the Church to Jesus.

The Nicene Creed

This ancient ecumenical creed describes the Church with four identifying marks:

  1. The Church is one. The unity of the Church comes from being in fellowship with God through Jesus in the Spirit – expressed through the bond of love and a common worship which includes the spiritually forming practices of preaching, liturgy, and sacraments. Since believers serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit who exists in unity, so Christians are to work toward maintaining their unity through the bond of peace.
  2. The Church is holy. The Church is holy by virtue of Christ’s finished work. Therefore, the members of the Church are saints, called by God to live in holiness and participate with him in carrying out his purposes on earth. As God is holy, so believers are to be holy in all they do. Since Christians are holy through God’s justification in Christ, so the Church as saints must uphold justice in the world.
  3. The Church is catholic. This means that God’s people are found in all parts of the world throughout all times in history, including every race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Since the Church includes all kinds of people from different cultures, these believers must work together. The Church, across all kinds of denominations, ought to minister together to the total life of all people through gospel proclamation and good works done in the Spirit.
  4. The Church is apostolic. Apostolic means “to be sent.” The Church is not only a people who are gathered for worship and teaching; they are also sent into the world as salt and light to those who remain in darkness. Where the Church goes, the rule and reign of Jesus goes with them so that good news is spread to all nations.

The Church’s Mission

  1. The Church is called to love God.  The Church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the house where God dwells. The Church exists to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Christians are to develop intimacy with Jesus through the Spirit.
  2. The Church is called to love one another. The Church is the Body of Christ and is to be a haven for saints. The Church exists for community and is the place where believers are strengthened in faith through the proclamation of the Word in preaching and sacrament.
  3. The Church is called to love its neighbors. The Church is the people of God, being a hospital for sinners. The Church exists to serve the kingdom of God so that God’s benevolent and gracious rule might extend to all creation.

These three dimensions define the Church as being a “missional” community of redeemed persons who are concerned and focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ. The forward direction of the Church is to come ever closer to Christ through faith, be strengthened in that faith together through the Word of God, confidently stepping into the world to engage it with the love and grace of God so that others may come to faith in Jesus Christ.

The Church’s Importance

  1. The Church is a Trinitarian community, birthed as a free expression of God’s love through Word and Spirit. As people created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed for his purposes, believers reflect the image of the triune God.  The Church was important enough for Christ to die for.
  2. What the Church “does” flows from its identity as a redeemed community, being the people of God. So, then, the Church’s mission is not so much about establishing evangelistic programs so much as it is to listen to the Spirit of God and live in the power of the Spirit as it rubs shoulders with unbelievers.
  3. Just as the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Church is sent into the world armed with the grace and love of God as if believers were ambassadors for Christ in a ministry of reconciliation.
  4. God has moved in a “downwardly mobile” way to bring reconciliation to all of creation. God has gathered the Church on earth to be sent as witnesses of Christ’s person and work through humility, meekness, and gentleness so that God’s mercy and peace might become realities in this world.

Therefore, the Church is to glorify the triune God by embracing its missional identity and mandate by making disciples of Jesus Christ through worship, community, and outreach. The Church is to aim its love toward God, one another, and neighbor through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

The Belhar Confession

This Reformed Confession of faith directly addresses the need for and importance of Christian unity, which was of great significance to Jesus in his high priestly prayer.

We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.

We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another.

We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:

That we love one another;

That we experience, practice, and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another;

That we share one faith, have one calling, are of one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope.

That together we come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ;

Together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity;

Together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another;

That we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.

Amen.

Romans 2:12-16 – Doing, Not Just Hearing, Makes the Difference

If you sin without knowing what you’re doing, God takes that into account. But if you sin knowing full well what you’re doing, that’s a different story entirely. Merely hearing God’s law is a waste of your time if you don’t do what he commands. Doing, not hearing, is what makes the difference with God.

When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God’s yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ considers all these differences. (The Message)

Every single person on planet earth has been created by a good Creator in the image and likeness of God, without exception.

Because we are all stamped with the Lord’s divine image deep within us, there is a universally inherent sense of justice, rightness, fairness, integrity, morality, and love. Particulars of ethics may differ from culture to culture, yet all persons and societies have a broadly similar innate understanding of right and wrong.

Within the ancient Roman Church were a mix of Jews (the historical people of God who were given the law and the covenant through Moses) and Gentiles (non-Jewish persons). The Apostle Paul wrote his lengthy and probing letter to them because the two groups of Jew and Gentile were at odds with one another.

The Gentile Christians could not understand the Jewish Christian fondness and insistence on ancient rules and particular commands, and so, they looked down on their brothers and sisters in the faith as being hopelessly locked into outdated traditions and practices.

Conversely, the Jewish Christians could not understand the Gentile Christian affinity for a freedom that seemed to not care about the religious importance of food and eating, seasons and holy days, and outward signs of Christianity, and so, they tended to look down on their brothers and sisters in the faith as ignorant, immature, and in need of ritual practices.

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

Romans 3:22, NLT

The Church back then was almost like putting a group of people with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) with a group of people with A.D.D. (Attention-Deficit Disorder). At the least, it’s going to very interesting to watch them try to live and worship together; at the worst, it’s going to spark an all-out battle for supremacy.

Paul was intervening somewhere in the middle between the interesting situation and the pitched battles so that the Church would not turn into total war. The last thing he wanted was two churches: one Jewish and one Gentile. No, there is one church, just as there is one God. Paul was determined that these knuckleheads are going to have to learn to get along.

Since Paul himself was a Jewish Christian, he tended to get pretty testy with his fellow Jews. Although Paul often went back-and-forth throughout his letter to the Romans, addressing Jews, then Gentiles, he most often had more to say to the Jewish brothers and sisters.

And that is what’s happening in today’s New Testament lesson. The Apostle Paul is directing his words chiefly toward the Jewish believers. He is lifting the Gentile believers and placing them on the same level as the Jews. Although the Gentiles weren’t the ones who received the law, they’ve always had that law deep inside them.

God is not only the God of the Jews. He is also the God of those who are not Jews. There is only one God. He will make Jews right with him by their faith, and he will also make non-Jews right with him through their faith.

Romans 3:29-30, ERV

Not only ought the Gentile Christians to be respected because of their inherent sense of God’s law, but this also makes them accountable for their own words and actions. In other words, there’s no excuse for any sinful talk or behavior.

What’s more, the real issue isn’t whether one group has the law, or not. The rub is whether one actually obeys and does the will of God. It doesn’t matter whether one hears the law read aloud in a Jewish synagogue or whether one hears the law spoken in the individual conscience. All are responsible for acting on that voice and engaging in deeds of justice, peace, and love. All must connect with the stamped image of God within us.

I’m not sure what is worse: committing overt sins or observing the sin and doing nothing about it. Indifference is at the core of most sin – both for the perpetrator and the passive spectator seeing it. Each one is living against both their conscience and by what they’ve heard and been taught.

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice. This is a consistent theme in the New Testament: 

Jesus said, “The people who are really blessed are the ones who hear and obey God’s message!”

Luke 11:28, CEV

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirrorand forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.

Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

The danger is that we have the potential to deceive ourselves into thinking we are okay just because we know the right things and believe the right things. Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodox truth; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Whenever the Gentile Christians in Rome refused to love the Jewish Christians, they were not hearing God and doing his will.

Whenever the Jewish Christians listened to law and gospel, but then had no intention of changing to accommodate the Gentile Christians, they were being disobedient.

And whenever we hear about how God forgives us in Jesus’ name, but then we insist on not forgiving another person, we are not being doers of the Word.

So, let’s take a lesson from the ancient Roman Church: Live by faith. Be attentive to all persons in the Body of Christ. Include them and care for them. Pay attention to God’s Word. Include it and engraft into your life. Because care of the Body and care of the Word go hand-in-hand together.

May the God who created a world of diversity and vibrancy,
Go with us as we embrace life in all its fullness.

May the Son who teaches us to care for stranger and foreigners,
Go with us as we try to be good neighbors in our communities.

May the Spirit who breaks down our barriers and celebrates community,
Go with us as we find the courage to create a place of welcome for all. Amen.

John 13:31-35 – Love One Another

Stained glass by Edgar Miller (1899-1993)

When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” (New International Version)

The Church was formed to represent Christ on earth. The Church is a new community of believers in Jesus, called and empowered by the Holy Spirit for mission.

Christianity was never intended to be just a personal faith; it was designed by God to be the community of the redeemed. Christian community is vital to every individual’s faith.

“No one can have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother.”

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Loyalty and commitment to God translates to having a dedicated and devoted spirit to one another in the church. 

One of the last commands Jesus gave to his disciples before he went to the cross was to “love one another.” The Old Testament instructed the Israelites to love each other (Leviticus 19:18). Yet, Jesus gives new meaning to the command through four distinctions of loving one another.

A New Model of Love: Jesus

Our Lord’s life and teaching gave new meaning to the command to love each other. Notice what Jesus did in the Upper Room just before giving the command to love one another:

It was almost time for the Jewish Passover festival. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go back to the Father. Jesus had always loved the people in the world who were his. Now was the time he showed them his love the most.

Jesus and his followers were at the evening meal. The devil had already persuaded Judas Iscariot to hand Jesus over to his enemies. (Judas was the son of Simon.) The Father had given Jesus power over everything. Jesus knew this. He also knew that he had come from God. And he knew that he was going back to God. So while they were eating, Jesus stood up and took off his robe. He got a towel and wrapped it around his waist. Then he poured water into a bowl and began to wash the followers’ feet. He dried their feet with the towel that was wrapped around his waist. (John 13:1-5, ERV)

Jesus modeled a service-oriented love of compassionately meeting the need of another, regardless of who that person is. It is instructive to us that Jesus washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, along with all the other disciples. 

Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This demonstrates God’s love for us.

Romans 5:8, GW

We are to love everyone in the community of saints, and not just our friends or the ones we like. Loving one another also means we will be realistic in understanding that community is messy and downright hard work.  

A New Motive: Christ First Loved Me

Jesus has loved us with a love that took care of our brokenness once for all. Because of that love, we are now motivated to love each other. John would later say in his first epistle: 

God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him. This is what love is: it is not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which our sins are forgiven. Dear friends, if this is how God loved us, then we should love one another. (1 John 4:9-11, GNT)

Love is an attitude and a frame of mind. The motivation for the Christian is different than anyone else’s motive:  We are so thankful for Christ’s love to us, that we cannot help but extend that same love to one another in the church. 

This kind of love transcends human willpower. This is love as a grateful response for the grace shown us in Christ.

A New Motivator: The Holy Spirit

The Spirit energizes and enables us to love each other. Jesus also said in the Upper Room: 

If you love me, you will do as I command. Then I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit who will help you and always be with you. (John 14:15-16, CEV)

There are times when we may lack the ability or spiritual energy needed for the work of loving each other. It is in those times that we need to check our spiritual electrical box to make sure we haven’t tripped a breaker by trying to live the Christian life on our own strength. 

We need the Spirit. The Spirit gives us the zeal we need to love one another. 

We typically don’t do anything in life unless we have the motivation for it. The Spirit is like the Christian’s personal trainer – encouraging, exhorting, getting in our face, comforting, and spurring us – toward the new way of love. 

A New Mission: World Evangelization

All people will know we are Christ’s disciples if we love one another. The way we treat each other in the church is foundational and fundamental to the mission of loving our neighbors who don’t know Jesus.

“Mission is putting love where love is not.”

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)

When the church has a healthy and even supernatural dynamic of loving one another, they joyfully proclaim the good news to every person that Jesus is the answer to the terrible brokenness of this world.

Community is necessary to mission. Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) was a British missionary to India for forty years. After retiring and returning to Britain, he found his homeland was very different than when he left. He was astounded to find Britain had become very less Christian and was now predominantly un-Christian. It was clearly a post-Christian society. What to do about it? Here is Newbigin’s response:

“I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation.  How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? 

I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel [the only way society can discern who Jesus is] is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one. But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.”

Conclusion

The implications of community for our faith are significant. If we keep other Christians at a distance and give them the stiff arm, we are really giving God the stiff arm. Jesus identifies so closely in love to his people, that to love them is to love him.

The late African-American preacher E.V. Hill told the following story about an experience with a white Christian leader in the 1950s:

“As a freshman at Prairie View College (part of the Texas A&M system) I was actively involved and was one of two students selected to go to our denomination’s annual meeting in Memphis. The trip through the South was by car—three whites and two blacks traveling together. I had no idea how we’d eat or how we’d sleep. So great was my anxiety and hatred over how the trip might turn out that I almost backed out entirely …. In all my experience I had never seen a white man stand up for a black man and never felt I would. 

But then Dr. Howard, the director of our trip and a white man spoke up. ‘We’ll be traveling together,’ he said. ‘If there isn’t a place where all of us can eat—none of us will eat. If there’s not a place all of us can sleep—none of us will sleep.’ That was all he said, but it was enough! For the first time in my life, I had met a white man who was Christian enough to take a stand with a Christian black man.” 

May the Spirit give us the courage together to love one another.

Gracious Lord, I pray for those who will believe in you through the good news of forgiveness in Christ. I pray that all of them may be one just as you are one. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent the Son, Jesus, and have loved them even as you have loved us. Righteous God, may you help us make you known in the world so that the love you have for us may be in them through the cross of Christ. Amen.