“Hi. My name is Andy and I am a sinner.”
That introduction is similar to what you would hear at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. AA is a very helpful program for many people for a couple of reasons. First, everyone is equal. You can be a high-level executive, high ranking government official, a blue-collar worker, or even someone who is homeless, and it is not supposed to matter. When you walk in the door, none of that matters. You check your status at the door. Second, everyone encourages one another. Everyone in the room learns that you are never victorious over alcohol. You are only one sip away from slipping back into a trap from which you are trying to break free. So, participants encourage one another to stay sober.
So, equality and encouragement are two marks of AA.
As Christians, I can see parallels. For instance, on this side of eternity we are never victorious over sin. Because of Jesus, we have overcome sin, but we will struggle with sin until the day we die. But unlike an AA meeting where everyone is equal, you need to know that your sin is worse than mine. (And, of course, you think the same way about me.) And instead of encouraging one another, we criticize, we judge, and we gossip about others.
It makes me ask the question, is an AA meeting more like the church that Christ wants to build?
Of course, not every person who attends an AA meeting keeps the standard, and not every Christian, nor every church, fails more than it succeeds. But we are humans, and we do sin, and that sin often causes more division in the church than not.
In Romans 15.1-13, Paul appeals to the church at Rome (and by extension to all churches for all time) to welcome one another in spite of the differences. The goal Paul expressed in this chapter was one of hope, of peace, of unity, and of bringing glory to God.
Since Romans 8, this series on Romans has been called, Life in the Spirit. If we are living in the Spirit, or might I say, if the Spirit is living through us, then we, the church, should be far more welcoming of others that may be different than us. Paul has made that clear in Romans 14, and now, as he writes the final set of instructions before he concluded the letter, he made this appeal one more time.
Paul’s aim is for the church at Rome – consisting of Jew and Gentile – to come together for the sake of bringing God glory. To do so, they will need to set aside tradition, and personal preferences, in order to honor one another, and thus to honor God.
But is that goal Paul’s goal, or is it something more? And how can we reconcile that the Jew (formerly called Israelites) were God’s chosen people in the past (Old Testament), if Paul is calling for them to be in harmony now?
Unity Provides Hope
As I mentioned during the two messages on Romans 14, Paul was writing to the weak and the strong. We must remember that he was writing to the saints in Rome (Romans 1.7), so they have faith, but this idea of weak and strong relates to how they practiced their faith – specifically with relationship to liberty (although not sin). In Romans 15.1, we see that Paul considered himself in the strong camp. But being in a position of strength requires responsibility or as Paul wrote here, it brought an obligation to those who were strong.
The reality is that those who are weak cannot carry those who are strong. That is true in a literal sense, but it is also true figuratively. And here, Paul says that the strong ones need to bear with those who are weak. The words are reminiscent of Galatians 6.2 which says we are to bear one another’s burdens. But in Galatians 6.1, we are instructed to help others overcome the sin in their life, and to be on guard so that we do not fall prey to that sin while helping others.
Helping other people in this way brings hope. Think about it. If you are in need of carrying something and you don’t have the strength, then you appreciate the help and are relieved when it is offered. That relief is hope. In a moment, you have moved from thinking something was impossible to knowing it can be done. And all because someone lent their strength to you.
We all have different strengths. And as it relates to Paul’s words here, we are to use what strengths we have – particularly in matters of faith – to support and sustain those who are weak. In fact, as I mentioned a moment ago, we have an obligation to do so. It is not an option, or, at least, it is not supposed to be an option.
You may recall Romans 12.3-8 where Paul wrote that we are members one of another. As such, we aren’t to think more of ourselves than we ought to. Instead, we are to help others. And, as the body of Christ, we are indeed to help one another because, after all, we are members one of another. Sometimes I will help you and sometimes you will help me. That is how God designed the body and thus that is how the church is to operate.
And when we do, we can have hope because we do not have to face life’s challenges alone. But to be united and to bring hope, we must see that unity requires something of us.
Unity Requires Acceptance
In Romans 14.1 and again in Romans 15.7, Paul used the word welcome. In 14.1, the idea was for the strong to welcome the weak. In 15.7, the strong and the weak are to welcome one another. But the word welcome may not be strong enough.
If someone says, “Thank you,” to you, a natural response is to say, “You’re welcome.” But what does welcome mean in that instance? Let’s say that you are in a store and someone drops something. You pick it up and hand it to them. They say, “Thank you.” You respond with “You’re welcome.” Does that mean they are welcome to drop it again so you can pick it up again? Does it mean they are welcome to follow you home while you cook a meal for them? Does it mean they are welcome to ask you for your car keys so they can take your car?
See, being welcome is really extending an invitation. And that is what Paul meant here. But in our watered-down understanding of English, we don’t really think about it. It would be better to use a term like accept or receive, for instance. The Greek work here (a form of proslambano) means to “take to oneself” or to “take as a companion.” In other words, we are to treat the person like we would treat ourselves, which echoes Jesus words of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
So, to welcome someone here is to accept them even in the midst of disagreement. Paul did not say, “Get them to agree with you and then accept them;” rather, we are to accept them wholeheartedly, which can then lead to unity.
We must also note that Paul did not say that either side was to change their thought processes. Again, the issues of disagreement in Romans 14 and the conclusion of that argument here is not a matter of sin. It is a matter of preference. And in 15.7, Paul addressed the entire church, not just the strong. So, Paul’s point here was not about uniformity, but about focusing on the person, not on the issues. It was about unity, not creating tension. And to do that, it requires acceptance of one another.
I should also note that Paul used Jesus as a model here. We are to accept others because of the example Jesus set for us in welcoming/receiving/accepting us despite our different way of thinking (a thinking that leads us to sin). Of course, as we saw in Romans 8.29 and 12.2, God does want our thinking to change to match His. And as we learn to welcome each other, we are having our minds transformed – together – to become more like Him.
Unity Fulfills God’s Promise
As I just mentioned, Jesus is the example. But he is also the source. Our need for unity (and hopefully our desire for unity) does not come from thin air. Jesus taught unity. And Jesus knows unity. The word Trinity is derived from tri-unity. And Jesus brought together a group of disciples that were anything but united. Even on the path to Jerusalem, these disciples were not together, but after the resurrection, they experienced a type of unity that we should desire. As it says in Acts 2, they were together in all things. That is full acceptance.
We see that unity is God’s purpose for the Jew and Gentile in verses 9-12. These verses are from each part of the Jewish Scriptures. So, that fact shows that this unity was God’s plan: it was written down in Scripture from the beginning. The Jewish Scriptures are what we call the Old Testament. But the Jew does not have a New Testament. Instead, they call their Scripture the Tanakh. I taught about this in a daily video back in Romans 11, but for now, let me just show the origins of that word.
The Tanakh (TNKH) is an acronym of the three parts of the Hebrew Bible. (Hebrew words do not use vowels as we do, so don’t worry about the difference between the a and the o you will see in a moment – those are for our benefit. The ending h helps denote the sound.
- T – Torah – The Law, or Instruction, or Pentateuch and consists of Genesis – Deuteronomy
- N – Nevi’im – The Prophets (including the history books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings)
- K – Ketuvim – The Writings – Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.
What Paul wanted to show in Romans 15.9-12, is that each section of the Jewish Scripture contained a promise of God about the unity between the Gentile and the Jew. And the plan is progressive in nature, but it is also a reverse of the idea that Paul wrote about in the middle part of Romans 3, as I will explain in Monday’s video.
For today, let us quickly look at this progression.
- In verse 9 (from the Nevi’im – 2 Samuel 22.50, also Psalm 18.49), we read that the Jew was going to praise God in the midst of Gentiles.
- In verse 10 (a quote from the Torah found in Deuteronomy 32.43 at the end of the Song of Moses), the Gentiles are invited to rejoice with his people (being the Israelites).
- In verse 11 (from Psalm 117.1 in the Writings, the Ketuvim), the Gentiles are praising God on their own.
- And in verse 12, we have another quote from the Nevi’im (the Prophets, from Isaiah 11.1) that Jesus – the root of Jesse – is the great uniter and the source of all praise.
So, it was not Paul who dreamed up the plan for the Jew and the Gentile to be reconciled. Paul taught that truth. He wrote that truth. He lived that truth. But it was God’s design, as promised in Scripture, and now made possible through Christ.
And that brings us to the purpose of unity. So, as a reminder, unity provides hope. Unity requires acceptance. Unity fulfills God’s promise. But the real reason we should desire unity with our fellow brothers and sisters in Chris is because…
Unity Brings God Glory
Sometimes unity may seem out of reach. It may be that some idea or some person just seems beyond the idea of unity. Again, as I have tried to clarify multiple times in Romans 14, and now 15, this unity, and acceptance, is necessary in the place of fighting over preferences. Sin is a different matter. Paul never condones sin, but these past couple of chapters are not about sin, they are about preferences and destroying what God wants to do in spite, or even because of, their differences (14.20).
God can, and will, use our differences for His glory. We already saw that in Romans 12.6-8 where Paul wrote about a few different gifts God has given. We don’t all have the same gift because that would be redundant. But we must all use our gift to serve one another and accomplish what God wants us to do.
And that brings us a related word for unity. The word harmony is also used in this passage (15.5). What is interesting about harmony is that you can’t have harmony unless you have differences. The melody is the melody and can certainly stand on its own; however, by itself it can sound shallow. However, when other notes are included in the background, those notes, which may not sound meaningful on their own, and may even sound contrary to the main melody at times, bring a certain depth and richness to the music. A vocal soloist might be amazing, but a good choir is hard to beat. A violin can be a moving instrument, but an orchestra can affect the masses.
That is what harmony can do. It can take something that is good and make it great. And God deserves great. So, when we work, and live, in harmony with one another, despite our differences, God can be glorified. And Paul makes it clear that we are to accept one another to bring glory to God just as Jesus brought God glory by accepting us (15.7).
“Hi. My name is Andy, and I am a sinner.” I am a sinner because sometimes I find it easier to not seek unity. I find it easier to want others to believe exactly as I do. I realize that others feel the same way about me, so it is easier just to accept that we are different, rather than accept one another. And according to our passage this week, whether I am strong or weak on any particular matter, I am to seek unity with that other person or group, just as s/he or they are to seek unity with me.
The truth is that we do not always get along with other people, and that is true of family members as well. But Christians are members of God’s family, and we are meant to be united in our devotion towards the Father, and to the Son, as guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus gave up everything for us, so we should be willing to put aside our preferences and accept our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, which will bring hope to them (and many others) and ultimately bring glory to God.
What’s Next?: What is keeping you from being united with someone who is a fellow believer? Maybe it is someone from this church, maybe not. Perhaps the issue is sin, and that matter needs to be handled – through prayer, through confrontation, etc.
But perhaps the issue is simply a matter of preference or a misunderstanding. God didn’t make us relational beings so we would let little things keep us from being in fellowship with one another. And true fellowship is more than simply putting up with someone; it is fully accepting them. So, who do you need to approach and ask forgiveness? Or who might you need to forgive? Or who do you just need to call to begin relating with one another again – welcoming/accepting one another for who God made you to be? Take time to consider these questions today. You might find a sense of relief. Or you might get a real benefit from it in some way. Because if we can find unity with one another, it is God who will get the glory.