Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

With One Voice


Scripture reading: Romans 15:1-12.

Sermon text: Romans 15:13-33.

In 1898, the United States fought the Spanish-American War with Spain. In 6 weeks, American forces took nearly every Spanish colony worldwide, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. While this war propelled the U.S. onto the world scene, it also brought a more local benefit. Participation by both Northern and Southern soldiers helped heal serious wounds left by the American Civil War over 30 years earlier, especially as the sons of Union soldiers followed former Confederate officers such as Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler to victory over Spain.

The Roman church in c. A.D. 57 faced no serious disunity such as that the U.S. suffered  after the Civil War. However, the disparate groups in the church included Jews wondering about their roles in the church; Gentiles coming from paganism and requiring instruction; new believers, mature believers, native Romans, and other Christians from throughout the Empire. The congregations throughout Rome would encounter many opportunities to split along any number of fault lines over the years. How would the Romans remain united?

St. Paul offered the Romans an excellent example to follow to retain their unity. In chapter 15 of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul called on the Romans to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Those who followed Jesus’ example would hold the church together through the severe challenges the Church would endure in the decades to come. These decades would include Nero’s persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the chaos of Roman civil unrest.

St. Paul continued his thought from chapter 14, where he had encouraged the Romans to accept and instruct weaker Christians. St. Paul taught the Romans, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” The strong in the congregations would find themselves tempted to magnify their strengths to the expense of weaker believers. Instead, St. Paul said, the strong must “please” others in the congregation. This would accomplish two goals.

First, the mature believers would gain humility by pleasing new believers. Mature members of any group will find themselves tempted to intimidate newer members. We see this everywhere in human societies: On college campuses, in military organizations, and in social groups. St. Paul understood the Church must overcome this temptation and prove herself above normal human groups.

St. Paul also understood that patience by the strong believers would set a good example for growing Christians. As I mentioned last week, no Christian comes into the Church as a perfect person. We all need someone to teach us and patiently guide us as we grow in our faith.

How would the Roman Christians accomplish these goals? “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” The Son of God Himself knew this temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. When Peter cut off a servant’s ear trying to defend Jesus (incidentally, Peter swung at an unarmed man, not one of the trained guards), Jesus told him, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Instead, Jesus accepted arrest, even though He knew it would end in His crucifixion.

St. Paul reminded the Romans the Scriptures themselves gave them the same instructions: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Jesus’ example only reinforced what the Romans could find in the Old Testament. Believers could see how others in salvation history had endured persecution and hardship; they could then follow those examples, knowing Jesus Himself had done so.

By pleasing one another — by putting others before themselves — the Christians would demonstrate the difference between the Church and the world. St. Paul prayed for this result: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” When the Roman churches accepted members regardless of social status, ethnicity, or language, the unity of the Church would stand against the rigid social status of ancient Rome.

St. Paul reminded the Romans again that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, brought unity to both Jew and Gentile through His sacrificial death on the cross and His glorious resurrection. In the Church, Gentiles praised the God of the Jews: “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.”

As St. Paul drew this letter to a close, he expressed his confidence in the Romans Christians, knowing they possessed the spiritual maturity “to instruct one another.” As the Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul had already traveled throughout the Empire from “Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum,” encompassing the eastern half of the Empire. St. Paul knew God had called him “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.” Others had traveled through Egypt (St. Mark wrote his Gospel there), Persia (St. Simon the Zealot), and even to India (St. Thomas). St. Paul knew God had called him to carry the gospel into new areas of the Empire. He hoped to travel to Spain, stopping in Rome on his way.

Unfortunately for St. Paul, events derailed his travel plans. The trip to Jerusalem St. Paul mentioned in verse 26 resulted in his arrest by Jewish authorities. Following an attempt on his life, St. Paul appealed his case to Nero, the Roman emperor. When St. Paul finally arrived in Rome, he went as a prisoner of the Empire.

What do we find in this chapter for us today?

St. Paul’s lessons regarding the strong remain very timely in our day. God has blessed our congregation by bringing new believers into our family. These believers need to see examples of maturity and humility in us as we love each other, comfort one another, and rejoice together as we see God working in our lives and in our community.

St. Paul’s lesson regarding unity weigh even more heavily on us. The Church in the United States has rarely united on many issues. Even worse, it seems we often look for reasons to disagree with one another. In the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s often said that putting 2 Southern Baptists in a room will reveal at least 3 opinions. Many of these differences don’t rely on essential matters of doctrine or of practice; most of them revolve around believers with strong personalities determined to have things their way. These situations call for more humility among believers.

I find a great lesson in bringing unity to the Church in verses 30-32: “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.” We cannot waste time and energy fighting others when we spend our time praying with them, asking God to bless His holy Church and to bring new believers into our congregations. To paraphrase a familiar proverb, “The church that prays together, stays together.”

The saints in Macedonia and Greece (Achaia) provided a wonderful example of unity. These saints had united to provide for their fellow saints in Jerusalem. The eastern half of the Empire often faced poverty and famine as the emperors constantly diverted grain from Egypt to Rome to appease the poor in the capital. The believers in Macedonia and Greece had put aside their differences to use God’s blessings to bless their poorer spiritual relatives.

As we gather here today, we come from different backgrounds, different parts of our country, and different levels of spiritual maturity. We unite around Jesus, the Messiah who died for us and rose again for our salvation. Our unity will provide a witness to our community that God’s peace rests here, that His Spirit works here, and that His people deeply care about everyone in our lives. The “God of peace” blesses unity in His people. Pray that His blessings continue to bring unbelievers to the cross of Christ, our common Lord.