First Things First

by Rev. L. John Gable

First Things First by Rev. L. John Gable
January 21, 2018

Whenever I start a new book I am always interested in the opening sentence.  Obviously the author has a story to tell, often times a very long story, so how to begin?  “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” is a great start.  “In the beginning God created”, better still.

In some ways, for me, the hardest part of writing a sermon is in knowing how to start.  I know where I want to go and what I want to say (at least most of the time), but how to begin?  How can I get you, better encourage or entice you, to stop thinking about whatever it is you are thinking as you come in to the sanctuary and get you (encourage or entice you) to start thinking about what I want you to  think about, and this not simply for my sake, but for your sake and we believe ultimately for God’s sake.

If you were with us last week you know that we are beginning a study of Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps the clearest and most systematic presentation of the Gospel we are given, which includes some of the most difficult and challenging teachings, as well.  This letter was written to the church at Rome, Rome being the greatest and most influential city of the day, during Paul’s third missionary journey, so roughly 54-57 AD.  Paul did not found the church in Rome as he had so many other churches in Asia Minor and Greece, but he was intending to visit there and hopefully soon, as he states in our passage for this morning.  First, however, he intends to return to Jerusalem with an offering he has been collecting for the saints in the Mother Church there who were undergoing persecution, and then he intends to set sail for Rome, ultimately on his way to Spain, the then known “end of the world.”  Paul’s intention in writing is to introduce himself and to present his understanding of the Gospel, so that as we read in verse 5: he might bring about “the obedience of faith among the Gentiles”, that meaning, among the Romans themselves.

Now this is where Paul needs to tread lightly.  The Roman Church was founded by an evangelist other than Paul, which is a good reminder to us that while the New Testament, our primary source for Christian teaching and early church history, is admittedly “Paul-heavy”.  The vast majority of the New Testament writings and letters are seen through the lens and given through the pen of Paul, which means we can tend to forget that there were other apostles and evangelists out there also telling the Jesus story and planting churches.  Paul’s expertise was in going in to virgin Gentile territory and winning new converts, but he needed to change his tact in Rome because someone else had already done that work.  He was writing in order to gain a hearing so that he could present his understanding of the Gospel message without offending his listeners by speaking ill of their beloved founding pastor, whoever that might have been, in any way; not necessarily an easy task for any newcomer, much less someone like Paul who can at times run rough shod over people.

Friends, this is a good word for us as well as we approach others, particularly others who hold views or beliefs which differ from our own?  Do we open with criticism or praise?  Do we focus on their faults or their virtues, their successes or their failures?  Our points of disagreement or agreement?  In our desire to speak the truth, we also need to be cautious that we aren’t simply beating people up with the truth.

This is also an encouragement to us to check our attitudes about the successes of others.  Apparently the church in Rome was faring quite well, even without Paul, the “rock star” of the early Christian movement.  How would Paul handle that?  Too often we feel threatened by the success of others, even in the church.  Shortly after we arrived in our former community I was out making calls when I noticed that the church closest to the one I was serving was in the midst of a huge building project.  That can be an ominous sign for a new pastor trying to get a start in a new community.  I had not yet met the pastor of that church so I stopped and went in to introduce myself, and then asked if he would take me on a tour of their new sanctuary project, so we donned our hardhats and he showed me around.  What they were building was beautiful and the ministry they had in that community was strong and growing.  Before I left I asked him if I could pray for him and their church and this building project, so we stood in that open space and prayed together.  The very next Sunday morning Pastor Bill told his congregation the story of my visit because he was amazed that another pastor was so excited about what they were doing.  He had never seen that happen before.  To this day I am thrilled when I hear that other churches are growing and expanding.  We are not in competition here, at least not with our brothers and sisters in other churches.  We are Kingdom-builders, and wherever and whenever God’s Kingdom is growing and expanding we need to be celebrating, as well as doing our part in Kingdom building right here!

So this is a snap shot of what Paul is facing as he writes this letter to the Romans and with that being said, where to start, how to begin, given all he wants to say to them?

Look with me at verse 8:  He has gotten past his opening greetings and salutations and then opens with “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.”  Great start!  That opening sentence allays any fears or concerns that the Roman church might have had as to why Paul was writing, much less why he was planning to visit.  We are doing just fine, so is he coming to criticize us, to correct us, to try to change us?  Paul puts their anxieties to rest by saying “I am giving thanks for you.

Have you ever experienced angst over having to have a tough conversation with someone, a spouse, a child, an employee?  This is a good way to start. “I am thankful for you…I appreciate who you are and what you do…I love you.”  These are not just nice words to say in order to butter them up for the hard truth you are about to give them.  Rather, this kind of approach puts us in the right mindset.  It helps us check our anger, our resentment, our critique and criticism.  Start with an attitude of love, of thankfulness and appreciation.  It will temper the harder truths you need to share and will make those truths easier to hear.

He goes on to say he is thankful for the believers in Rome, “because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.”  Paul recognized that these new friends he was yet to meet were not opponents to be won over; they were companions who already were sharing in the ministry he was doing.  Together they were ambassadors for Jesus Christ, sharing the Gospel and planting churches.  As we have often been reminded, “The One who unites us is stronger than anything which seeks to divide us.”  We need to keep that in mind, particularly when we come in contact with others who practice their faith in Christ in a way which is different than the way we do.  Who are we to complain or criticize if they are doing Kingdom work?  And apparently the Roman church was doing it pretty well because Paul writes “your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.”

This past summer our youth directors Dan and Amy Rexroth and their girls Grace and Sadie traveled to Romania to visit churches and ministries we have supported for years in preparation for a trip they plan to lead in the future.  Dan had been to Romania with Tab as a young adult and he was stunned to see how many ministries there have Tab’s fingerprints on them.  He told me, “Tab’s name is everywhere.”  We have invested in that ministry and it has borne fruit for the Kingdom and they are grateful for our support.  I love that, and I understand it, because everywhere I go I love to hear Tab stories from people I just happen to meet who have been touched or helped in some way by one of the many ministries we are involved in, the Rec program, the soup kitchen, our outreach and benevolence, the media ministry.  I love to hear those stories, not just for Tab’s sake, but for the Kingdom’s sake.

Theologian Karl Barth, in his commentary on the letter to the Romans writes, “Paul simply gives thanks for the fact that there are Christians in Rome.  Special gifts or remarkable deeds are less important than the fact that the flag has been planted, that the name of the Lord is announced and received, that the Kingdom of God is being waited and proclaimed.  This then is faith: (human) faithfulness encountering the faithfulness of God.”  So with Paul, I can say, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.”  And we can offer this same prayer whenever and wherever we see Kingdom work being done by others.

Paul goes on then to further explain the reason for his visit.  In verse 11 he writes, “For I am longing to see you so that I might share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.”  We can understand exactly what Paul’s desire and intention was.  He wanted to strengthen and encourage the believers in Rome to keep up the good work and he knew that he had some gifts and skills and abilities and insights to help them do just that, but then we can almost hear him thinking out loud, “Oh, maybe that sounds a little heavy-handed, like I am going to come in and try to correct or change them”, so in verse 12, a continuation of the sentence he has just written but can’t edit (there is no backspace or white out for parchment) he softens his offer by writing, “or rather, so that we may be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith, both yours and mine.”  A teacher is a fool if he or she believes they have nothing left to learn.  A pastor is naïve to think that he or she is alone the purveyor of the truth.  Teachers and preachers, each and every one of us, would do well to remember that we don’t learn anything new when we are the one who is speaking.  We only learn when we are listening and engaging with others.  That is one of the reasons I love the Bible studies I am part of, the Saturday morning men’s Bible study and the Wednesday morning pastors’ Bible study.  I could go in and teach those classes, but I find I learn and grow in my faith when I see myself both as teacher and as learner, as pastor and as fellow student/disciple of Jesus.  Like Paul, I know I have something to share, and even some responsibility to share what I have been given, given my education and training and years in the ministry, but I also know I have much to learn, and I do, from you.  So, my question of you is, where are you being “mutually supported” and encouraged in your faith, right now?  Where are you sharing with others what you have learned in your walk of faith, and where are you receiving from others something of what they have learned?  If you are not in any kind of a Bible study with others, here or elsewhere, let me encourage you to join one soon, for your sake and the sake of the others with whom you will study, and ultimately for the sake of the growth and expansion of the Kingdom of God.

Paul ends this opening section of his letter by stating that he is “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians” that is to the cultured and the uncultured, the educated and the uneducated, “the wise and the foolish.”  His indebtedness, or some translations say his “obligation” is not only that he knows he has the opportunity to learn and to share with others regardless of who they are, their rank or level of education, but his indebtedness or obligation is also to Christ Himself, the One who sought and saved him.  One commentator states this plainly when he writes, “Obligation to Him who died produces obligation to those for whom He died”, so for this reason, Paul writes that he is “eager to proclaim the Gospel to those also who are in Rome.” Paul is a man under authority.  He has been called and commissioned by Christ to share the message of God’s saving grace, as have we.

So, friends, let this be our heart’s desire and life’s purpose: to share the Gospel with those who do not yet know the love of Jesus Christ.  We too are indebted to live our lives for the One who gave His life for us, and in this we join Paul in his desire to “bring about the obedience of faith among all people” to the ends of the earth.