A number of years ago my wife's Grandma Shelton died at the age of 94. She was a gracious and respected Christian woman whose life had influenced many people. I think that at the age of 90 she was still leading a Bible study at the Church - and a second Bible study at home during the week for those who couldn't come to the one on Sunday! Her life was marked by her practical care of other people. On one occasion one of her grand-daughters said to her, "Grandma, when I grow up, I want to become a nice old lady like you!" To this she replied, "Well, dear, you had better start practising now!"
This focus of life on ourselves begins at an early age. It's not all wrong, of course! Quite a number of the bad qualities in us are really a design gone wrong! A new baby is born into the world as a very demanding creature. The new mother can feel like a slave. And those very demands to be fed, to be kept comfortably warm, to be kept dry and clean, to have company and comfort... are normal and necessary.
Jesus recognised that, as we mature to adulthood, there is still a positive way in which we are to care for ourselves. We are not meant to put ourselves down or to neglect caring for ourselves. Jesus says we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
The problem comes when this self-satisfying and self-protecting outlook continues as the only or dominant part of a person's life. And in our age there is such an emphasis on self-fulfilment, no matter what. We sometimes get the impression that it's wrong to spend our time caring for a little old mother in a nursing home, that a mother shouldn't be "tied down with the kids," that a career should take precedence over a marriage... These ideas are so prevalent in our society. I have, not only the right, but the necessity, to do what I want to do.
In Romans 14 Paul spoke of this in terms of our Christian freedom and care for our brother and sister. We noted the call of Assembly to look at our freedom to drink alcoholic beverages in the light of our care for our aboriginal brothers and sisters who struggle with a massive problem. Paul said, "For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord" (vv. 7-8).
This theme continues into chapter 15 - "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves" (v. 1).
So, Paul says, "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (v. 7).
Remember 12.1? "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship."
Now he is saying again, because of God's many mercies to you, because of what God has done for you in Christ, because Christ has accepted you - "Accept one another"! Don't say, God has accepted me, now I'm free to please myself. Rather, God has accepted me, now I'm free to live to his glory, that glorious plan of which we all fell short - live to his glory by accepting and caring for one another.
We have the example of Christ himself. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippians, "Christ Jesus... being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant " (Phil. 2.5-7) Isn't that incredible? In very nature God, yet of his own free will making himself nothing so he could take the very nature of a servant! Paul prefaced those words with "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus."
Now, in Romans 15, he is saying, "Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy" (v. 8).
So - accept one another. Jew is to accept Gentile, Gentile is to accept Jew. Uniting Church members from different denominations are to accept one another. Charismatic and non-charismatic are to accept one another. Our love is to reach out to Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal... We are to accept others because Christ has accepted us.
When we do that, there is a blessing and fulfilment that comes back to us. We see it in this wish of Paul's - "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (v. 13).
In chapter 1, Paul wrote that he had heard of the faith of the Roman Christians. He explains here that he is not writing to correct some error of doctrine or practice (as was the case with a number of his other letters). His boldness was because of the special ministry that God had given him as an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul had endeavoured to break new ground, not building on a foundation laid by someone else. He had now proclaimed fully the Good News about Christ all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum - the region on the east of the Adriatic Sea.
His present plan was to go to Spain. He wanted to go via Rome, to be supported and encouraged by them on the way.
He was currently receiving an offering from the churches in Macedonia and Greece to help the poor among God's people in Jerusalem. Then he will come "in the full measure of the blessing of Christ" to Rome.
Notice Paul's confidence - and his qualification. "So after I have completed this task , I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ" (v. 28). And verse 32 - "so that by God's will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed."
Paul was well aware, not simply of the many who had responded positively to the Good News, but of the active hostility and opposition of those who hadn't. He also refused to make a simple equation of his will with God's will. Undoubtedly, he had prayed much about the next direction of his ministry. He had certain convictions about the way God was leading him. He still qualified those convictions with "by God's will."
Some people think that to pray, "if it is God's will", is an easy let-out in our praying, an excuse for our lack of faith. Yes, it may be that. But there is an aggressive and demanding note in some praying that doesn't reflect a life submitted to God. Prayer in Jesus' name is prayer according to his will, prayer that arises from a life committed to him and open to him.
So it really brings us back to the issues with which we began. Is my Christian life meant to be just self-fulfilling and self-satisfying?
Think about Paul - not just in his commitment to getting the Good News to the Gentiles, but in his openness to the will of God, no matter what.
We know what Paul didn't know just then. He would go to Rome, but not on his way to Spain at all. He would be unjustly treated. He would be kept for two years in a Roman jail in Caesarea while the authorities hoped for a bribe. As a prisoner on a ship bound for Rome he would be shipwrecked. He was not coming to Rome free to do what he had become convinced God wanted him to do at all!
Dare we live with openness to our fellow-Christians? Dare we live with true openness to the will of God - no matter what?
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