From May to September 1787, a group of delegates met to discuss, debate, and draft the document that became the Constitution of the United States of America. But ultimately, that document, and the purpose behind it, meant very little at that point. Granted, it was a great victory for the potential of a unified country, but the individual states still had to ratify it on a state-by-state basis.
To help convince the states that a centralized government was needed, three men, led by Alexander Hamilton, wrote the Federalist Papers from October 1787 (beginning about a month after the Philadelphia Convention ended) to May 1788 (ending about a month prior to the ninth state voting to ratify). The Constitution was meant to join the states into a “more perfect union” but the interests of the individuals in each state was difficult to bring together. However, the ideas of things like “a common defense” were major selling points, and the influence of the Federalists Papers cannot be overlooked.
That “more perfect union” has never been perfect; however, that union has been strained at time, sometimes more than others. Of course, we have the Civil War in the 1860s, but that was just the result of decades of internal battles finally breaking loose. Other disputes over the past 150 years have manifest themselves in various ways, but this country has always found a way to remain a union, sometimes because of attacks from abroad (e.g., WW2 or 9/11).
But today that unity is under attack from within, with some even suggesting that a second civil war is more likely than many are willing to believe. Whatever the case, when we think of various aspects of our country like politics, the rural/urban divide, the distribution of wealth, etc., it is often easier to consider our country The Divided States of America, realizing that the “more perfect union” this country’s forefathers imagined, fought for, and died for, is becoming harder to recognize over time.
But another challenging union was also imagined and died for; that union is the church. The church is meant to be a union of people with Jesus and people with one another. Like a country, the unity of the church can never be perfect (at least on this side of eternity) because it consists of people like you and me. The Bible is clear that people are sinners, and we sin because we want our way, and that means that we cannot truly ever be united – with each other, or with God (apart from Christ).
But that does not mean that unity is not to be more than an ideal. Unity is ideal, but it is an ideal for which we are to aspire. That is true not because I say so, or even because someone like Paul said so, but because God say so through His Word.
At first glance, our passage today might not lead you to that thought. But as we unpack these verses in context, I think we will see it more clearly. More importantly, I want to make sure we understand why the unity of the church matters.
United Together Through a Connection with Paul
You may recall the message from last month on Romans 16.3-16. In that message, I mentioned that Paul likely only knew a handful of the individuals he mentioned. However, he obviously lists the names of over 25 people, so he knew about them even if he did not know them. The point there was to have the church at Rome greet one another. Now, a paragraph later, the greetings are extended from those who are with Paul. In between, as we saw last week, Paul warned the church about those who would seek to cause divisions and create problems for the church.
This approach by Paul is showing that the church at Rome, which consists of many he may not know, is linked with others whom they do not know either. Interestingly, the list of individuals in verses 21-23 are from different locations and backgrounds as well. But the ultimate point is not just about individuals, and it is not just about greeting one another; rather, it is about individuals who do know each other (and those who have yet to meet) greeting each other because of their connection to Paul. Certainly, we could infer that Phoebe or the husband/wife team of Aquila and Priscilla might have known most of these same people in Rome and in Corinth (from where Paul was writing). But it is Paul who was writing and thus the connection is certain because of a linkage with Paul.
United Together by Extension with Others
The people listed in verses 21-23 are with Paul, but they also represent an extended connection with other groups from other areas as well. Timothy was from Lystra (in southern Galatia, Acts 16.2-3). We do not know the origins of Lucius, but Jason is likely the man from Thessalonica (Acts 17.5-9) and Sosipater is likely the same as the man from Berea from Acts 20.4. Jason and Sosipater are very likely with Paul to accompany him in delivering the collection to the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15.25-26).
The three men mentioned (not including Lucius) are from different areas and even different continents (Asia and Europe). Therefore, Paul’s connections with these men (and many others) spread far and wide. In Romans 16.16, Paul said that all the churches greet the church in Rome. Of course, that may be a hyperbole, but overall, Paul knew people in churches throughout the eastern part of the Roman empire, so he was able to make that statement more accurately than anyone else (probably).
In the following verses we also see a few other names. Tertius was the recorder for Paul. We know Paul had very poor eyesight (see Galatians 4.15 and 6.11, for instance), and it was quite common to have someone write for you in that day (an amanuensis). Erastus was the city treasurer in Corinth, and Gaius was the owner of a house in Corinth that housed the church (or at least a part of it) there (see 1 Cor 1.14 for the connection to Corinth). (This same Gaius mentioned in Acts 19.29 had joined Paul in Corinth as Paul traveled to Ephesus. The Gaius from Derbe in Acts 20.4 is very unlikely to be the same man.) Finally, we have the name Quartus, of which we know nothing (other than his name means fourth).
But again, Paul knew these individuals. And through Paul (at a minimum), these individuals knew (or knew of) the people in Rome. Paul shared their greetings towards Rome to make a connection between the cities, and more importantly between the people of the churches. It was a way of bringing together those who were distant. But ultimately, that connection is not due to Paul, it is due to Jesus.
United Together by the Blood of Jesus
Of course, the connection with Paul is a human one. And it is important! But the connection with Paul is real because the connection with Jesus is real. And the connection with Jesus is real because of the sacrifice He made for us.
The idea of greeting people is good and healthy. But imagine receiving a greeting from someone you don’t know. It may be ok, but it will likely mean far less than receiving a greeting from a close friend or family member. But because of a connection with Jesus, the people of Rome received a greeting from Paul, whom most had never met (in Romans 1, the extension of grace and peace) and his companions. Think about it, because of Jesus, you have a connection with Paul. A man that lived 2000 years ago and wrote a few letters to help a few gatherings of people living in different cities and regions then, is able to help us by those same writings today. Why? Because of Jesus.
If you look closely, you will notice that your Bible does not likely have verse 24. The reason is that the verse does not appear in many of the most reliable original manuscripts. However, the verse is included in the footnotes of the translations that do not include it. Regardless, the connection with Jesus is stated explicitly in verse 24, where it is almost identical to verse 20. So, whether the verse should be included here or not, we cannot dispute Paul connecting the church at Rome, and by extension, connecting us directly with Jesus, by His blood, and through His grace.
I began today’s message with the US Constitution. People who were divided by geography and in some ways by ideology were able to come together in agreement to form “a more perfect union.” That union has persevered for 232 years since the Constitution was ratified. It has been tested even to the point of bloodshed. But that document, and those principles, have stood the test of time so far. Only God knows what may happen in the future, but even if the United States cannot stay united, the church must do so because the bond of a brother or sister is meant to be stronger than the bond of one citizen to another.
For those who follow Jesus, our bond should be strong. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are together in Him, and one day will be together with Him. That is a connection that may be tested, but by the grace of God, it cannot be broken.
But can we do something to strengthen that connection? That togetherness?
I think we can.
Our What’s Next has three parts today.
Connections Because of Jesus
I want you to take a moment to consider some people you might not know if it wasn’t for Jesus. I will start the process. Susan and I would not be here in Fairfax, except for Jesus. So, we wouldn’t know you and you wouldn’t know us. So, that’s one (and two). Now, take a moment to think about (and perhaps write down) a few others. Take a moment to simply thank God for those people in your life.
Greetings Because of Jesus
Next, I want you to think about the idea of greetings. Paul sent greetings. Paul’s partners expressed their greetings. And Paul asked the church to greet one another. So, think of someone or some people whom you could greet this week. Perhaps it is someone you just thought of and prayed for a moment ago. Make a note of anyone who comes to mind and then contact them this week.
Sending Greetings in the Name of Jesus
Now, I have an assignment for you. I have the number of people (residents and staff) in the nursing homes in both Tarkio and Rock Port. I want us to take a moment to write greetings to each of these individuals. We will collect the cards and then have them delivered as a way for each of them to feel connected. Before signing the card and/or writing a short note, take a moment to say a prayer for the person who will receive it.