Sunday, October 28, 2018

Priestly Service: Sermon on Romans 15:7-33

Along a pathway in Jerusalem, an old man, his robes hanging loosely around his thinning frame, leans atop his staff while he slowly walks. His mind is on the troubled but hopeful fate of his people. He's seen too much, he thinks. Glimpsed things he ought not know. In time, the kings will run this city into the ground. Enemies will come and lay it waste. Years will pass. And in God's hands, its fortunes will turn. Beyond the darkness will be light. He knows that. He's seen that, in his mind's eye. Beyond all the darkness, light.

As he gets lost in thought, he stumbles. It's happening to him again. The wind picks up, e'er so subtly; his robe flutters around him, and he clutches his staff all the harder. The road ahead fades from view as his mind falls down the rabbit-hole. Unshakeable feelings dance across his bones. Pictures and symbols flash through his head, like a whispered melody whose fullness he can't grasp, only the rhythm and the gist. But that's enough. He calls for a scribe – his scribes can't be far away; he never leaves home without them. As one rushes to his side, he steadies himself and begins turning his visions into poetry. What does old man Isaiah see?

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you! For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried on the hip. They you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house. Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows? For the coastlands shall hope for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from afar, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has made you beautiful. Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you. Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations...” (Isaiah 60:1-11c).

Oh, for the day when the nations would send their wealth to Zion! Oh, for the day they would approach, having learned the good news! Oh, for the day when they would make Zion's heart thrill and exult! Oh, for the day when even distant Tarshish in Spain will know and come!

Hundreds of years pass since old man Isaiah at last rests his weary bones. Another man sits, lost in thought, in a room in Greece – in the Peloponnese, in the grand city of Corinth. He itches to get on the road. He has places to be, and most certainly things to do. All he really has to do before he and his traveling companions set out is polish off this letter for Phoebe, a merchant from the nearby port town of Cenchreae, to take west to the imperial city when she sallies forth on business. And as Phoebe goes to the imperial city, he himself can go to the holy city for one last crowning achievement before this man of Tarsus aims to reach Tarshish.

This man, Paul, finally has the fulfillment of years of work at his fingertips. Ever since he started his second major tour of the Roman world, announcing good news and planting and nurturing local gatherings devoted to Jesus, Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord, there's been a dream he hasn't been able to shake from his head. If he could just convince these churches – populated as heavily as they are by Gentiles, ex-pagans, people from the 'nations,' to share their wealth! So everywhere he's gone, he's been asking them to set aside funds – every week, if they can – so that, little by little, he can gather it from them, from among these nations, and have it carried to Jerusalem for the impoverished church there. He says as much to his own scribe, who writes: “I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When, therefore, I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you” (Romans 15:25-28).

That's Paul's vision, which he's been cultivating side-by-side with his evangelistic and church planting work for years. Coin by coin, the treasury has finally come together. Churches in each place have appointed people to go with him on the journey, so that together they can keep this prized sum safe and secure. This is what he's been hoping for all along. And it hasn't been an easy sell to the churches by any means. Paul knows that, in every place, Gentiles have always tended to resent the Jewish population for a number of things, but one of the key resentments is the fact that Jews scattered among the Greek cities pay an annual religious tax to the temple in Jerusalem. With so many local temples in need of maintenance, and with tax bills pressing down on the city where they live, Jews insist on snatching wealth out of the local economy and shipping it off to a city in Judaea to support some temple there. A drain on the local economy, is how many Gentiles saw it, to take money that could help with local concerns and send it instead to Jerusalem. And as soon as some of these Gentiles accept the news about Jesus, this Paul guy wants them to start doing something like it – setting aside money that could bolster the local economy and instead committing it to help people in a place they've never seen?

So it's been a hard sell for Paul to get them on board. He sees things differently. These Gentiles struggle to get a grasp on what would connect them to this Jerusalem place and the people who live there. For Paul, it's plain as day. His converts aren't unconnected to Jerusalem and its Jewish world. “Salvation is of the Jews,” the Lord Jesus had said (John 4:22). It was there that the disciples were to wait, and there that they began to bear witness to the risen Christ: “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus told them, “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And for as far as Paul himself has traveled with the gospel – all the way to the fringes of what we'd today call Albania – it's a circuit always anchored to the gospel's home in the holy city where Jesus rose from the dead. “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum,” Paul says, “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19). It was through ministry emerging out of that Jerusalem church that anyone in Macedonia or Achaia or Asia had heard the good news. And it was because the good news united them to the promises God had long ago made to Israel, that the good news could be good news to them.

They had received the gospel out of Jewish lips, passed along from the Jerusalem church, some of whom had themselves touched the risen Christ with their hands, smelled his very breath with their noses – and now that church was in poverty and in need of material blessings. But the Jerusalem church is no needy stranger; they're the spiritual benefactors of all the world, wherever the good news has spread through Paul's ministry. So it only seems right, to Paul's mind, to answer sharing with sharing. The Jerusalem church wasn't stingy with their spiritual inheritance – at the very least, Paul had made it his life's work to take that spiritual inheritance and spread the wealth around in the heart of pagan nations by discipling them in the Lord's name. How better to answer that than for the churches among the nations to not be stingy with their material goods, the very thing the Jerusalem church most needed? “If the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also be of service to them in material blessings” (Romans 15:27). Made sense to Paul.

He had worked for years to get the churches he'd planted to understand that point clearly and crisply – for the Greeks and others that he led to Christ to understand that they belong to the same family as the poor saints in Jerusalem. And by making this offering, the Gentile churches were saying that they understood that truth. The same sort of truth that Diaspora Jews confessed when they submitted that temple tax: we are one with you. This money Paul was gathering – the very giving of it was a symbol of recognition that it was indeed into a tree growing from the holy root of Abraham that these Gentile converts had been grafted through union with Christ by faith (cf. Romans 11:13-20). Now Paul just hoped that the Jerusalem church would see that the faith of these Gentiles was enough to fully graft them into the same tree – enough, all on its own, to make them real and equal sharers in Israel's spiritual inheritance. If the Jerusalem church accepted this offering, the way the temple would accept the temple tax from Diaspora Jews, then it meant the Jerusalem church was admitting these Gentile churches as outposts of the same body: equal partners, equal sharers of all spiritual blessings, on the terms of the faith that they obeyed.

Paul hoped it went well. That was the big question on his mind. Through his letter, he asked the churches in Rome to pray: “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 … my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints” (Romans 15:30-31). If it's acceptable, then that clinches it: the churches in the most quintessentially Gentile places, and the church in the most quintessentially Jewish place, will have both admitted their common spiritual blessings on an equal level. A concrete partnership in Christ between the most Jewish Jewish church and the most Gentile Gentile churches.

And if that works, then... could this, just maybe, be what we've all been waiting for? Paul wonders that. After all, centuries ago, Isaiah the prophet saw... what? Saw glory begin to overtake Israel as wealth from the nations flooded toward Zion, toward Jerusalem. Might it start here? Might it start now? Might this collection be the opening salvo of Isaiah's prophecy? At one time, early in the process, Paul hadn't been sure if he himself would even accompany the funds on their way to Jerusalem (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:4). But now, after thinking about it over and over... how could he not? If this really could be the opening of what Isaiah saw, an offering for God's true temple, the Church, in Jerusalem... How could Paul pass up the chance to himself be the priest mediating that great sacrifice? To be the priest offering the firstfruits of the prophesied 'wealth of the nations' in Zion?

That's how Paul is coming to think of himself, by this stage. He announces in his letter that God had given him grace “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16). That's priestly talk. Paul finds himself with a priestly calling to offer up the converted Gentiles as a living sacrifice, which he hopes will be made acceptable through the Holy Spirit's sanctifying power; but not just that, he also imagines himself a priest who brings the financial offering from the Gentiles, a sacrifice consisting of 'the wealth of the nations,' to Jerusalem to present it before God there. He likely hopes to be the priest who offers up the global sacrifice Isaiah saw, or at least the firstfruits of it. And he then hopes to travel to Spain, where he likely believed Isaiah's “Tarshish” was, so that he could reap a gospel harvest among the Gentiles there, too.

Sadly, we don't know for certain if Paul ever reached Spain. Nor do we know, on the way, how the offering was received when Paul finally got to Jerusalem. Paul's later letters have no reason to belabor it, and Luke doesn't talk about this project at all, other than maybe one contested reference. Some scholars conclude that it was rejected. Others think it was accepted and a success, but that Luke just has other reasons not to mention it in his history. What became of Paul's priestly service? At least we know that, however the Jerusalem church reacted to his collection, God received his Gentile converts as an acceptable living sacrifice.

Again, years passed. Twice as many years as separated Isaiah and Paul. That's how much time separated Paul and Martin. Martin Luther. A German monk and professor turned reforming firebrand, five hundred years ago. An imperfect vessel, still, he recovered some needful truths and staked his life for them. Among those truths was the realization of the priesthood of all believers. Priesthood isn't reserved for apostles like Paul or pastors like me, much less to the bishops or the pope in Rome. Priestly service is the calling of every believer, and the priesthood that makes priestly service possible is therefore shared with every believer.

Seeing this, Luther insisted that “we are all consecrated priests by baptism.” It's because the whole church is united by faith to Christ the way a wife is to a husband: that's what baptism is about. “As Christ by his birthright has obtained” the dignities of priesthood and kingship, “so he imparts and communicates them to every believer in him, according to that law of matrimony … by which all that is the husband's is also the wife's. Hence all we who believe on Christ are kings and priests in Christ...” That was one of Luther's keenest insights, right up there with the recovery of justification by faith alone. As we celebrate the anniversary of Luther's Reformation breakthrough this week, this is part of what we're celebrating: the Apostle Paul isn't the only one whose ministry is a priestly service; so is mine, and so also is yours.

When Martin Luther wrote those things, some of those he had in mind were noblemen. Some were soldiers. Some were traveling merchants. Some were cobblers. Some were carpenters. And some were farmers. Luther said that his dream was to work toward a day when a young farmhand would know the scriptures better than all the popes and bishops. He believed that it was possible for a farm boy to not just be a priest, right there amidst his vocation, but to be both a farmer and a well-trained priest, learned in God's word and serving God as a priest right there in the fields among his crops.

Today, here, not too many of us in this congregation are farmers. Some of us have pursued occupations that Luther wouldn't be familiar with. And yet, like our farming ancestors, we set aside a day toward the end of the harvest season, and we celebrate a good harvest. We ourselves may not be the ones out in the field, harvesting crops. But God has provided some level of material blessings to us. In that sense, the 'harvest' has been a good one – sufficient to sustain us. And as a token of thanks, we've brought some 'produce' into the sanctuary this morning. In our case, it isn't fresh fruits and vegetables; it's canned goods and assorted non-perishables. This is the form of our Harvest Home.

Unlike Paul's collection, the goods we've collected here won't go especially far – not in the geographic sense. The food pantry is in our own broad community. The material needs aren't distant from us. And this Harvest Home offering doesn't have the same kind of rich theological significance, the same prophetic import, as Paul's attempts with the collection for Jerusalem. That's true. But Luther would remind us that we're still priests. We offer up a sacrifice, and with it, we minister to the needs around us. And it's only fitting that we share our material blessings, because we've received spiritual blessings from Christ, who bids us give to him by giving to the poor, with whom he identifies: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. … As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

The work Paul was talking about is still going on. He summed up his mission as being “what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience” (Romans 15:18). His gospel was all about Jesus as the risen Lord “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). This gospel revealed long-sealed mysteries that were now to be “made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).

And we live among those nations. We ourselves, most of us, are 'Gentiles' – 'nationals,' 'ethnics' – descendants of pagan idolaters however far back – and so are the people Paul was given grace and apostleship to reach. To what end? So that, through him, Christ might bring us to obedience – the obedience of faith – by announcing among us the good news that makes it possible. This gospel, spread from that earliest Jerusalem church through Paul's ministry to the churches he founded, and through later generations of priestly believers to the ancient Germanic and Nordic and Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tribes and beyond, have gotten that same good news down to us – so that we, too, might be brought to the obedience of faith as dutiful priests. And part of that priestly obedience is to raise up the priestly service of generous hearts, and to make a priestly offering of material blessings “for the sake of his name among all the nations.”

What we have before us today is such an offering. But not the only one we're to make. We are always priests, making offerings from our wallets as we earn and give, and the sacrifice of praise from our lips as we speak and sing, and the living sacrifice of our bodies as we serve. All of it is a holy calling. May this Harvest Home be acceptable and sanctified. And may the offering of ourselves and of those we can serve and reach also be acceptable and sanctified (cf. Romans 15:16). “May the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (Romans 15:33).

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