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To Boldly Go

Romans 15:14-21

 

Do we have any sailors here this morning? Anyone here like to head out on the bay on a big sailboat? Or even one of the inland lakes on a smaller sailboat? When I first became a therapist, I had to have a counseling supervisor, so I joined a local supervision group. Several of us newer therapists met once a month with a more experienced supervising therapist and talked about the cases we were working with, making sure we were on the right track in our thinking and methodology. Well, several of the people in my group, including the supervisor, loved to sail. And one guy owned a big sailboat. So for one supervision session over the summer we all got together and went out West Bay on his boat. And there was this moment when he turned off the small navigation motor on the boat that helped him get around in tight marinas, and hoisted the sails, and they snapped full and we were moving, but there was no sound. We were gliding silently across the bay, the only sounds our own chatter and the seagulls overhead. It was really something.

 

Now, imagine for a minute that you’ve decided to go sailing. The problem is that you know next to nothing about sailing. So you to the store and you purchase several books to find out what’s involved. You carefully read them and then you talk to a veteran sailor who answers questions for you. The next day, you rent a sailboat. You examine it closely to make certain that everything needed for a successful sailing experience is present and in good working order. Then, you take your boat out onto the lake. Your excitement is at a fever pitch, though you’re also afraid. But you follow the instructions you’ve read and the counsel received from the experience sailor, and you launch your boat into the water. You carefully monitor each step and hoist the sail.

 

At that precise moment you learn a crucial lesson. You can study sailing. You might even be able to build a sailboat. You can seek from the wisest and most veteran of sailors. You can cast your boat onto the most beautiful of lakes under a bright and inviting sun. You can successfully hoist the sail. But – and this is a big “but” – only God can make the wind blow!

 

As he begins to close out his letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes it absolutely clear that the only wind in the sails of his ministry, the only source of power and provision and the only one bringing results, is the power of God through the Holy Spirit. In recent years it’s become popular in the church to bring leadership and management principles from the world of business into the church. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with strategic planning and effective visioning and making sure that our ministries are in alignment with the overarching mission of the church. Paul engaged in all of those things.

 

The problem comes when we reduce our ministry to NOTHING BUT those things. We can strategically plan and build the best boat, with fantastic sails designed to catch the wind like no other, and fill it with the best sailors in the world, but without the wind of the Holy Spirit filling our sails, we aren’t going to go anywhere. Ultimately, the success and growth of the body of Christ, and our own church, comes not from our own individual talents and abilities and strategies and plans. It comes from God’s work flowing in us, through us, and around us, filling our sails, and taking us to places we dare not even imagine. But there’s still a role for us to play. Jesus’ invitation, to his own disciples and to us, is “Come, follow me.” The Christian life is a life spent intentionally, actively following Jesus. As individuals, and as a community of followers. But our sails are filled not by our own strength and intentions and desires alone. They are filled by the power and intention and the desires of the Holy Spirit. Turn with me to Romans 15:14-33.

 

We are a missional people. God has a purpose for your life. Something he has created and gifted you to do. And that purpose of God for you is a piece of the puzzle for God’s purpose for his church. As followers of Jesus, we are a people with a purpose. We know that we were born, and born again, to love God and love our neighbors. And we love our neighbors by meeting real, practical needs and by sharing with people the hope that we’ve found in Jesus and inviting them to join us as followers of Jesus.

 

Paul understood his purpose. He knew that God had called him, gifted him, and resourced him with unique experiences enabling him to be the perfect person to really spread the good news of Jesus beyond it’s Jewish roots. Paul’s purpose was to take the good news of Jesus into the world of the gentiles. Now, Paul’s purpose might be different than yours and mine. But Paul knew his purpose, and he threw himself into it with enthusiasm. With everything that he had, for the long haul. Look at V. 16a. And down in V. 21, he gives us what we might consider his “life verse.” It comes from Isaiah 52:15.

 

And Paul sees his purpose as sacred. Service in the body of Christ is always sacred service, whether you’re on the platform leading worship, or facilitating a small group, or volunteering in the children’s ministry, or cleaning carpets and bathrooms. Service in the body of Christ is sacred work. Look at the last half of V. 16. The imagery Paul uses for his work is of a Jewish priest ministering at the altar in the temple. Now, as a well-educated Jew who was a pharisee, Paul knew very well that in the Old Testament world, he wasn’t a priest. But he also knew that in Christ, God had completely transformed the worship of his people. Bloody animal sacrifices have been replaced by obedient followers of Jesus who offer their praise to God. The temple has been replaced by the community of believers, the church. Not the building, but the people. We together are living stones that make up the church. And the priests have been replaced by all who follow Christ.

 

Psychologists today talk a lot about the importance of self-image. How we perceive ourselves has a huge impact on how we live. Imagine what Paul’s priestly self-perception did for him. Imagine what that same priestly self-perception can do for you. No matter how others treated him, Paul knew who he was as a servant of God. Everything he did was worship, no matter how mundane the task. For the follower of Jesus, all of life becomes part of the liturgy of worship. A pie baked for a neighbor becomes an offering to God. Holding and loving a child becomes an offering of worship. Treating an employee fairly and with dignity is an offering of worship. Teaching a Sunday school class, preparing a meal, vacuuming the carpets, everything we do, here, and at home and at work, is a part of the liturgy of worship.

 

And the goal is to become a community of mature and maturing believers. Look at V. 14. The word goodness means “upright conduct.” And for Paul, that meant kindness and generosity toward others. It isn’t a legalistic following of a bunch of rules. It is the ability to treat others with kindness and to be generous with our time, our talent, and our treasure. And we are to be filled with knowledge of Christ and pouring that knowledge into one another. Instructing one another. He isn’t just talking about a pastor who teaches everyone, but all of us, together, taking our turn to share, to instruct, and to encourage.

 

But Paul also knows that his purpose will never be completed so long as he draws breath on this earth. He knew that God’s purpose for him wasn’t Paul-sized. It was God-sized. Look at Vv. 18-24. Now, in Paul’s case, his purpose was to share God with the Gentiles. And he did that. Throughout the entire eastern part of the Roman Empire. From Jerusalem and Antioch into Greece and what we today know as Turkey, he had established churches and raised up local leaders to continue the work. He’d poured himself out with passion and endurance. And look at what he has been through. “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:24-28). If anyone deserved to retire, it was Paul. But having endured all of this in the relatively civilized world of the Roman Empire, what is Paul planning to do next? Look at V. 24.

 

If this is how he was treated in the civilized world, so to speak, how did he expect to be treated in what they saw as the uncivilized lands beyond Rome’s western boarders, in France and then Spain? We may retire from our physical labor, from our jobs, our careers, but we will never, ever retire from the purpose for which God has created us. That flame will burn until our lives are finally snuffed out and we stand in the presence of God for eternity. As followers of Jesus, we are a missional people, a people with a purpose.

 

Now, look at Vv. 25-29. Not only are we missional, a people with a purpose, we are also a generous people. Before he can go to Rome, Paul needs to finish up his work in Corinth and then head to Jerusalem with an offering from the Greek believers all over the territory Paul had covered for the believers in Jerusalem, who were under intense persecution, and because of that, they were in great need. They were losing jobs and businesses because people wouldn’t do business with them and wouldn’t hire them. They were being threatened and imprisoned. Unbelieving Jews were trying to crush their spirits and destroy their movement. They were poor, destitute. But help was on the way from their brothers and sisters in Christ in the gentile world.

 

Now, there are two things we need to notice about this generosity. The first is that it is spontaneous. Paul says that they were pleased to give. They did it from joyful, generous hearts concerned about their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. But it is also an obligation. Paul also says that the gentiles “owe it to them.” The good news of Jesus had first been heard among the Jews in and around Jerusalem, and from there it spread outward, by Jews at first, to the surrounding lands, and that included Paul’s own work among them as a Jew. This generous gift is both an obligation and a spontaneous gift. The sense is that the gentile believers understood their debt to the courageous Christian Jews in Jerusalem and gave spontaneously, with joyous hearts.

 

Our giving, our generosity, in the body of Christ is both an obligation and a joyous opportunity. Sometimes people ask me how much they should give? Should they give a percentage based on their net or their gross income. My answer is always the same: you’re asking the wrong question. The tithe, giving 10% to God, is a part of the Old Testament law intended to guide the Jews in their giving and support of the ministry of the priests at the temple.

 

A heart ruled by greed, which is really fear of not having enough, asks, “How much do I have to give.” A heart filled with joy and grace says “Wow. Look at what God has given for my salvation. How much can I give? Is 10% enough? This much I know … I can’t give too much.” And what has Paul spent the entire letter, up to now, talking about? The depth of our sinfulness. The depth of God’s amazing grace. And our response. Right? In light of all of that, is “How much do I have to give” the right question? No! The right question is “How much CAN I give?”

 

Look at what Paul says about this kind of generosity in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” The people lest expected to give, gave, and they gave generously.

 

A church whose sails are filled by the power of the Holy Spirit is a missional church. It is a generous church. And it is a praying church. Look at Vv. 30-33.

 

Paul desires prayer for two things – rescue from the unbelievers in Jerusalem, and that his service for Jerusalem may be acceptable. In other words, that they will receive the gift from the Greek churches and not turn it away because it was given by Gentiles. The purpose to which God had called Paul was God-sized, not Paul-sized, and Paul felt the immensity of the task. So he wanted prayer from the Christians in Rome. In fact, he saw this as their participation in his ministry. They would never set foot on the mission field with Paul. To this point he had never met most of them and had never been to Rome. But they were an integral part of the work, and key to his fulfilling of his purpose. Who is praying for you? Lifting you up? Praying for your effectiveness in the kingdom of God? And who are you praying for? When you are praying for someone, you are participating in their work. And when they pray for you, they are participating in yours. And together, we fulfill our purpose as a missional, generous, praying people of God, living into God-sized plans, not us-sized plans.

 

The end of Paul’s story is interesting. I say that because he tells us that he more or less knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. On his way to Jerusalem, he stopped for one last goodbye to the Christians in Ephesus. And while there, he told the elders of the church, “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:22-24). He more or less knew he was going to be imprisoned and tortured. But he was still planning to make it to Rome. He had started dreaming far beyond his present circumstance, hoping that somehow he could make it eventually to Spain to share the good news of Jesus there. And Rome was going to be his launching point, just as Ephesus and Corinth were his launching points in the eastern part of the Empire.

 

We know for sure that Paul made it to Rome, but not as he expected to go. He went in chains, having been arrested in Jerusalem by the Jews and imprisoned and beaten. The Roman authorities actually protected Paul there because he was a Roman citizen. They couldn’t free him. He had been accused of a crime, but only Romans could carry out a death sentence. The Jews couldn’t do it themselves. Finally exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case before Caesar, and he was taken, in chains, to Rome.

 

We don’t know if he ever made it to Spain. We know that he was executed in Rome. Some think that he made it to Spain. That he was freed in Rome and was able to go to Spain as he had hoped and dreamed, and then was arrested again upon returning to Rome and executed. But neither Scripture nor history can attest to this. What we do know is that he wound up in Rome under house arrest awaiting trial before Caesar, and that he was eventually executed there.

 

And we know that he is absolutely certain that he had accomplished everything God had asked of him. Look at V. 19, written to the Roman Christians from Corinth as he prepared to leave for Jerusalem with the Greek offering. And then, under house arrest in Rome, he wrote to his friend Timothy that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (92 Tim. 4:7-8). And yet, he never stopped dreaming, hoping, praying, to be able to do more. And that’s why, knowing what awaited him in Jerusalem, he went anyway, and yet hoped to be able to go to Rome as a free man and from there into the wilds of western Europe with the good news of Jesus.

 

And even under house arrest, chained to a soldier in Rome, he kept going. The book of Acts ends simply, with these words: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” You and I will eventually retire from our careers, if we haven’t already. One day I will retire from being a pastor and from being a therapist. But we will never retire from the purpose for which God has created us. Why? Because it isn’t our own strength and ingenuity and talent and passion filling our sails. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, and that is a breeze, sometimes a wind, sometimes a storm, that will never, ever stop blowing. Let us pray.