< December 09, 2007 >

Commentary on Romans 15:4-13

 

Several years ago my pastoral duties included leading a short mid-week worship service at a local nursing home. One week almost all the patients present had some form of dementia. As I stumbled through the liturgy,

one woman quietly repeated over and over, while staring into space, "I love you and you love me. I love you and you love me." I thought this was a lovely and appropriate refrain for our worship.

But suddenly we were interrupted by another resident, who stood up and said loudly and angrily, "I have a lot of questions." I stopped mid-sentence and said, "I have a lot of questions too. What are your questions?" She shot right back, "What about the Jews?" Paul would have appreciated that moment. In Romans, he interrupts his own praise of the love of God in Christ to ask also, "What about the Jews?" (Romans 8:39-9:5).

Afterwards I talked further with my questioner. She was not Jewish herself, but she said, "God made all these promises to the Jews. What happened?" Furthermore, she told me that she was dying of cancer. She needed to know whether God could be trusted in the face of a terrible present and an uncertain future. She needed hope. So do we all - not sentimental optimism about the future, but a strong confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God, even and especially in the midst of tragedy.

Today's passage, arguably the climax of Paul's letter to the Romans, begins and ends with hope, and it gives the character of God as the basis for that hope. In v. 4, "steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures" is the source of hope. In v. 5, "the God of steadfastness and encouragement," to whom scripture witnesses, gives hope. In v. 12 the Gentiles hope in the Messiah from the line of David, and in v. 13, the final and familiar blessing sums up the passage, and indeed, the letter as a whole: "May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope."

In fact, hope threads throughout the letter to the Romans:
   

  • Abraham, the model of faith, "hopes against hope" that God will make good on the promise of an heir, despite Sarah's barrenness and both her and Abraham's advanced age (4:18).
       
  • Through Jesus Christ we also "rejoice in hope of sharing the glory of God;" indeed, present suffering, far from dashing our hopes, disciplines us in patient endurance, building a character capable of hope (5:2-5).
       
  • Again, in Romans 8:18-25, the present is a time of suffering, but we live in confident hope of the redemption of our body, the liberation of all creation from futility, decay and death. This hope, says Paul, is for something that cannot be seen at present, "for who hopes for what they see? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

So by the time we get to the grand finale of Romans in today's lesson, we have learned that hope and steadfastness go together, and that God is the source of both. We learn also that Paul finds reason for hope in the way he sees God working through his own ministry, by bringing Gentiles to faith in Christ the Messiah of Israel. Such Gentile worship of God shows that God is keeping the promises made in scripture.

How do we now experience and proclaim the hope that Paul proclaims? How do we as pastors answer the question posed with such intensity by the woman with terminal cancer: "What about the Jews?" How do we speak to the doubts voiced by members of our congregations as they face tragedy and mystery?

In Romans, Paul neither minimizes his own anguish and questioning of God (9:1-3) nor solves the mystery of God's ways of dealing with humanity (11:33-36). But he does give grounds for hope, in two ways. First, he reminds his hearers of the scripture's witness to the truthfulness and faithfulness of God. Second, he turns their attention to God's presence in their midst, precisely and especially in the experience of mutual love and service between people who previously were enemies. "Welcome one another," he says, "as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (v. 7).

This is the gospel in a nutshell. Christ has welcomed us, all of us, and brought us home to God and to each other. Let us not be sentimental about this welcome; to open our arms to those who otherwise are strangers and even enemies is nothing short of a miracle of grace. The experience of that welcome is the way we learn that "hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).