Sunday, September 4, 2011

Those Who Have Never Been Told

Those Who Have Never Been Told

Romans 15:14-33

copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder

September 4, 2011

Those who have never been told of him shall see,

and those who have never heard of him shall understand.

Many things may crowd into our consciousness this morning, with the onset of Fall just around the corner. They crowd into mine anyway, maybe they do into yours too. Some among us will be having to deal with children returning to schoolrooms and fall activities, jump-starting lives from the doldrums of August into the frantic pace of fall. Soon will come the first fruits of planning by our education and music program people for the months to come – so much riding on this coming week in our homes and in our church!

Then, before we get entirely carried away by our own little family and church program concerns, our world in microcosm, the memory of September 11, 2001 invades our collective consciousness this coming week, and we are reminded that next Sunday, 10 years will have come and gone since that horrible day, and that so many things that we were as a people and as individuals have changed in countless ways large and small because of that day. Life often does that, throwing our careful plans and preparations out the window like so much confetti.

Then there are these word from Paul, which, taking into account the swirl of events around us, seem to me almost as fresh as if they had been written last night.

In most ways, Paul strikes me in this chapter, near the end of his letter to the Christians in Rome, as a man who believes he knows the nature of his calling, and who has a fairly clear sense of his future. Doesn’t it seem that way to you? He knows the shape of his own calling in ministry, his gifts for the task, when he says, “I have written to you rather boldly...because of the grace given to me by God to be a minister of Christ to the Gentiles...” and “Thus I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named...Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.” Paul was confident that he was called to take the gospel to those who had not heard the name of Jesus before.

Paul seemed to have a fix on the shape of his future when he wrote, “But now, with no further place for me in these regions, I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you when I go to Spain. For I do hope to see you on my journey and to be sent on by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little while.”

Paul reflected that there was only one thing remaining to be done before he set out for Rome, tossing it off almost as an afterthought, as if he rechecked his shopping list and said “Oh yes, and before I come I have this one remaining little task to do...” He wrote “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia (pronounced a – KEE’ – ya) have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”

As was the case for us after September 11th, it turned out for Paul that the present task invaded all his future plans and rearranged his dead certainty about the nature of his calling.

Paul knew his calling. He knew he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, to take the message of salvation through Christ to people who not only had never heard of Jesus, but in many cases were totally unfamiliar with the God of Israel. He is absolutely clear about that, he knew his gifts, and he felt sure about the way God intended him to put them to use.

Still, when Paul said that he was ready to move westward in the Mediterranean world because there was “no further place for me in these regions,” his statement strikes us as incredible. By the time Paul was declaring there to be no further place for his ground breaking ministry in “these regions” (think of the modern countries of Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, the former Yugoslavia – when he mentions Illyricum, we should think of modern Kosovo), there couldn’t possibly have been more than a few thousand Christian believers at most in the entire area! In the cities to which he had gone, the number of believers was tiny in comparison to the population in general. Yet as a church planter, Paul believed the churches had to develop their own continuing evangelism efforts. He was a planter, not a cultivator. He knew his calling.

Paul had a fix on his future. Paul looked right past the present task of carrying the offerings of the Gentile churches to Jerusalem and had firmly fixed his sights on his next mission, on Rome as a staging area to take the gospel to Spain. Here was a man with a plan!

But it turned out that the present task, his journey to drop off the offerings of the Gentile churches in Jerusalem, turned into the vocation that defined the rest of his ministry, not his certainty about the nature of his calling, nor his carefully laid plans for the future. The present rearranged the remainder of his ministry.

If you remember the story of Paul from his letters in the New Testament and from the account of his work in the Book of Acts, you will recall that while this letter we read this morning was filled with his immediate future plans to visit Rome and then Spain, what actually happened after he put this letter in the mail was that he went to Jerusalem, was promptly arrested by the authorities there, was very nearly killed, and then languished in jail for two full years before he was finally sent to Rome under guard to stand trial in the imperial court. That’s the last we see of him in Acts, sitting in jail, ministering to his captors. As far as we know, he never met the folks in the Roman church, and it is very unlikely that his dream of going to Spain was ever fulfilled.

So was his ministry a failure? Hardly! One scholar wrote,

“Proverbs 19:21 says that human minds devise many plans, but it is God’s purpose that will be established. Paul would have heartily agreed ... But this should not lead to shoulder-shrugging fatalism. On the contrary, one of the most important lessons of Romans 15 might be put thus: God allowed Paul to dream of Spain in order that he might write Romans. No matter that Paul probably never reached Spain. What mattered was that he wrote this letter, which has been far more powerful and influential than any missionary visit, even by Paul himself, could ever have been. Perhaps ... half our great plans, the dreams we dream for our churches and our world, and even for ourselves, are dreams God allows us to dream in order that, on the way there, we may accomplish, almost without realizing it, the crucial thing God intends us to do.”[1]

Life has a way of taking place without regard to our arrangements. It is often said that life is what happens to us when we have made other plans. Henri Nouwen once said, “Interruptions don’t interrupt my work, interruptions are my work.”

Paul was interrupted. He was thrown off the course he had set for himself. Just the way our nation was cruising along before September 11, 2001, filled with plans for anything but war, but then the vagaries of life happened to us, the unexpected came our way, and all the tragedy and seeds of blessings that we have come to know in the years that have passed since – how can it have been ten years!?

Ann Ulanov, professor of psychiatry and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, was interviewed on the Public Broadcasting program Frontline the winter following 9/11, and had some very helpful and useful things to say about the task that invaded our plans and preparations[2]:

“One of the hardest things about the Sept. 11 attacks is that people were just shoved into a place of spiritual crisis. They’re suddenly at the head of the line: Do you believe in anything? Do you care about anything? Where does meaning come from? Is the abyss of love stronger than the abyss of death? Is there any resurrection? How can I bear even to imagine being trapped in that building? I cannot go down. Will I be burned up? Will I be hurled out the window? Will I jump out the window? How can the person I love – who was incinerated, jumped out a window, thrown out a window, crashed in a plane – how can their last minutes be redeemed? How can I bear what they’ve suffered? Was God with them? Was God not with them?”

Professor Ulanov went on to say,

“...Christian tradition has an answer, and I’m sure other religions do too...

“Namely, in prayer time, it’s not the same as ordinary time, ego time, which has a past and a present and a future. Prayer time does not ... maintain that there is a past and a present and a future ... In prayer time, you can pray backwards. You can pray for Augustine. You can pray for Jesus on the cross. And you can pray for the man you loved or the woman you loved or the mother you loved in the office or in the plane.

You can pray that, at the moment of terror, blinding terror, that they had a sense that something was with them; that something was standing there ready to receive them; that at the same time they had terror and panic and regret and rage that their life was being stolen from them, they might also have felt a presence, something receiving them in the hour of their death, something comforting them in abysmal fear they must have suffered.”

Here is a thought that might get our Fall season started and interrupt our customary thoughts about what the church ought to be. It’s not an original thought with me, but it seems to me to be a large part of Paul’s motivation in his ministry in the first century: To a large degree, the church exists for those who are outside of it! How shocking! Perhaps our calling and our future is not to look to the church for ministry, but to look outside the church for the people in the world that need the ministering hand of Jesus Christ.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon, Volume X, pp. 758-759.