The story is told of a monastery where the monks lived under a vow of silence. But once a year, the monks would gather and one of them was allowed to say one thing to the others. So one year it was Brother Cedric’s turn, and he got up and said, ‘Brother Gerald never does his floor-sweeping duty properly’, and sat down again. Another year of silence passed and this time it happened to be Brother Gerald’s turn to speak. And he got up and said, ‘My sweeping is infinitely better than Brother Cedric’s washing up.’ Another year of silence passed and this time it was Brother Cuthbert’s turn to speak. And to everyone’s surprise he came in with a suitcase and dressed in civilian clothes. And he got up and said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m leaving. I can’t stand all this bickering.’
And that’s what many people see as they look at the church, isn’t it? Christians disagreeing and divided – distracted from making Jesus known; and pretty unattractive to the world around when they do try. And Romans, which we’ve been looking at, is preventative medicine to stop that happening to churches.
Now people often say Romans is all about the ‘I’ question – ‘How can I be accepted by God?’ And it does answer that question – it says: by trusting in Jesus – trusting that when he died on the cross, he paid for the forgiveness of all our wrongdoing, to make us acceptable to God. And if you’re still not really clear where you stand with God this morning, that may be the one thing you need to hear – that we’ll never be accepted by God by trying to be good; but only by trusting in Jesus to forgive us the countless ways we’re not good.
So Romans does answer the ‘I’ question – ‘How can I be accepted by God?’ But that’s not the aim of it. The aim of Romans is to answer the ‘We’ question – ‘Once you and I have been accepted by God, how can we live and witness unitedly for Jesus?’
And, as we’ve seen, the biggest obstacle to that in the church in Rome was Jewish and Gentile Christians falling out: Jewish Christians saying, ‘You Gentiles ought to keep the whole law of Moses – circumcise your kids, lay off the sausages – and we question whether you’re really acceptable to God if you don’t. And Gentile Christians replying, ‘You don’t have to keep the whole law of Moses any more – and maybe the fact you do shows you don’t really trust that Jesus is the way to be accepted by God.’ And that’s why, in Romans, Paul had to go back over the question, ‘How can I be accepted by God?’ Because he had to say to both groups, ‘Look, you’ve been accepted by God by trusting in Jesus; and they’ve been accepted by God by trusting in Jesus. So you’ve got to accept who God has accepted. And you’ve got to get on together in church life – with all your differences on secondary things – to show the world the primary thing you have in common – namely, Jesus as Lord.’
So to start with, would you turn in the Bible to Romans 15.5 – because if anything sums up the aim of Romans, it’s this prayer of Paul’s. This is his prayer for the church in Rome and for our church and any church:
5May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (15.5-6)
And v7 then sums up the application of Romans:
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
So let’s now turn over to Romans 16 to get Paul’s closing messages. And I think there are three: 1) Guard the unity of the church; 2) Express the unity of the churches; and 3) Live up to the gospel.
First, GUARD THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH (vv17-20)
I urge you, brothers [and sisters], to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. (v17)
So who are these people? Well, it seems likely that Paul still has in mind the problem between Jewish and Gentile Christians – because we know from chapter 14 that it caused divisions; and in the same chapter, Paul uses that word ‘obstacles’. He says (I paraphrase slightly) that when Gentile Christians are cooking parish lunch for the church, and they insist on doing sausage casserole, they’re putting an obstacle in the way of their Jewish brothers and sisters. They’re insisting on their own way, in a secondary matter – so that other Christians are offended and there’s disagreement and division. And Paul says, v17:
I urge you, brothers [and sisters], to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned [ie, contrary to the primary truth that Jesus is Lord, and that secondary matters are secondary.’].
And then he says what makes divisive people tick. Look at v18:
For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.
And at this point, we need to remember we’re not just to be on guard against people like this, but also against being people like this – because we all have it in us to be divisive in church, don’t we? And Paul says: when we are, we’re not serving our Lord Christ, but our own appetites – our own egos.
What we’ve seen in Romans is that, for me to serve the Lord Jesus means, first of all, accepting you, if you’re trusting in Jesus, because God has accepted you. You may have a different skin colour, different background, different interests; and different opinions from me on baptism, the timescale of creation, spiritual gifts, how we should do church and 101 other secondary things. But I’m to work at getting on with you. And you with me.
And we’ve also seen that to serve the Lord Jesus means flexing as far as we can, without compromising the gospel, so that we can live and witness unitedly for Jesus. So, eg, I’m not that keen on some of our music here – you know, Elgar’s about the newest band in my collection. But Jesus isn’t out to be Lord of just Elgar types, is he? He’s Lord of all. And church must reflect that. And I must therefore flex to make that happen. And so must you. We mustn’t be inflexible – like that old gag: ‘What’s the difference between an organist and a terrorist?’ – ‘You can negotiate with terrorists.’
So that’s what it means to serve the Lord Jesus. Whereas, v18 says: divisive people are serving themselves – their own egos and agendas. So, take secondary issues – ie, things that are not the essentials of the gospel and where Christians can and do legitimately disagree. If you find yourself arguing your opinion very strongly on those issues, it’s good to ask, ‘What’s my agenda? Is it to live and witness unitedly for Jesus? Or is it to get people agreeing with me?’
And likewise, you can have very strong views on how you think things ought to be done in church. But if you find yourself about to voice them to someone else, or maybe in a planning meeting in your ministry area, it’s good to ask, What’s my agenda? Is it what’s best for everyone and for the whole cause of the gospel? Or is it what’s best for me – my preference?’ That’s why, in meetings, my previous vicar Mark Ashton, would always write at the top of his agenda in big red capital letters, ‘Keep mouth shut!’ Because he knew how often we need to sacrifice our personal agenda on the altar of the Lord Jesus’ agenda –and that leaders, especially, need to do so.
So I take it Paul still had in mind the problem of Christians dividing over secondary things. But he must also have had in mind the problem of people in the church denying primary things – denying that Jesus is Lord and God, or denying the implications of his Lordship.
And that, sadly, is the situation in this diocese. The bishop here teaches that sex is not just for heterosexual marriage. Whereas the Bible, through which Jesus exercises his Lordship, says it is just for heterosexual marriage. So the bishop is denying Jesus’ Lordship over that area of life – which actually means he’s denying Jesus’ Lordship full stop. Because to pick and choose where you’re going to obey Jesus means you’re not actually treating him as Lord at all. And that’s why we’ve had to say we can’t accept the oversight of the bishop here because that would be to tolerate his denial of Jesus’ Lordship. And you can’t agree to disagree on primary matters in the way that you can on secondary ones.
Now people sometimes say we’re being divisive. But look carefully again at v17. Who causes the division? Who’s culpable? Who’s responsible? It’s the person who’s gone ‘contrary to the teaching you have learned’ – which means the teaching of the Bible. And end of v17, keeping away from them is not divisive; it’s a necessary response to their divisiveness in moving away from the gospel.
Now look on to half way through v18. Paul says (vv18-19):
18…By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people [by which he means ‘unwary’ people – people who are too trusting of Christian leaders and teachers; I hope you’re not like that. The thing to do is to learn from the most trustworthy teachers you can find – but then distrust them!] 19Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.
Ie, be discerning! Don’t uncritically trust any professing Christian teacher or leader or writer – they may not even really be Christian – despite their dog-collar or position (or whatever). Always ask yourself, ‘How does what they’re saying compare with, v17, ‘the teaching you have learned’ – ie, the teaching of the Bible?
That’s why we encourage you to have the Bible open as we preach, so you can be asking, ‘Is he really saying what the Bible’s saying?’ And I would much rather you were sound asleep for 20 minutes than that you believes anything simply because I’d said it.
Well, read on to v20:
The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.
And my reaction to v20 is, ‘Why does he suddenly come out with that?’ It sounds like a complete change of subject. But it’s not. One writer, Ronald Knox, said this: ‘It is so stupid of modern civilisation to have given up believing in the devil when he is the only explanation of it.’ And something like that can be said about the problems in the church. Because it’s Satan – the ultimate deceiver – who lies behind false teaching in the church. And it’s Satan – the ultimate destroyer of relationships – who lies behind our sinful divisiveness. And as he looked at those problems in the church, Paul must have been tempted to be depressed and even worried about its survival. But he wasn’t. And nor should we be, because, v20, Satan is a defeated enemy and when Jesus comes again he will be overthrown as soon as you can blink. And meanwhile, v20, the grace of the Lord Jesus will see to it that his church not only survives, but thrives and grows – that’s the story of the last 2,000 years.
But let’s be on our guard. Let’s not do Satan’s work for him – which is what we are doing, whenever we’re being divisive or being tolerant of false teaching. That’s the first thing. By God’s grace this is a remarkably united church. But let’s guard the unity of the church.
Secondly, EXPRESS THE UNITY OF THE CHURCHES (vv16b, 21-24)
Paul was concerned for unity within each church (singular). But he was also concerned to express the unity between churches (plural). And that’s the point of the greetings he sends from other churches. Eg, look back to the end of v16:
All the churches of Christ send greetings.
And then look on to v21:
21Timothy, my fellow worker, sends his greetings to you, as do Lucius, Jason and Sosipater, my relatives.
22I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter [ie, Paul dictated it], greet you in the Lord.
23Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here [that is in Corinth] enjoy, sends you his greetings.
Erastus, who is the city's director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings. (vv21-24)
And if you’ve been here, you’ll remember that in chapter 15 Paul talks about how he’s taking a collection of money from the mainly Gentile churches in Greece to the mainly Jewish church in Jerusalem – again, to express the unity of the churches.
Now that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to have multiple churches in one place. Nor does it mean that churches in the same place should do everything together: God means different churches to work in different ways as different units in the same mission. But it does mean that we should work to express our unity with other churches. That’s one reason I want to be in a church that’s visibly connected with others – which is one purpose of a denomination. And that’s why even churches that call themselves independent have denominations – like the FIEC, the Federation of Independent Evangelical Churches. It sounds a bit of a contradiction – being independent but federated – but it shows that right, Christian instinct to express the unity of the churches.
And there are two important ways we express the unity of the churches worldwide. One is through our mission partners – such as Latin Link (which we heard about from Alan Tower this morning) and such as our link church in Kenya. In fact, my phone rang as I was preparing this on Thursday and an unmistakably African voice said, ‘Hello, Ian, this is Lazarus.’ Well, the only Lazarus that sprang to mind was the one Jesus brought back from the dead. But having ruled him out, I suddenly remembered the one I met doing our pastor’s conference in Kenya last summer. And it turned out he was in London visiting family; he’d just arrived that day; and he wanted to phone me and send on to you greetings from his church in Kirinyaga. That is impressive, isn’t it? That’s how much they value our relationship with them. They are exemplary in expressing the worldwide unity of the churches.
But the other way we do that is through our welcome of internationals. Year by year, we seek to reach out to the thousands of internationals studying and living in Newcastle who aren’t yet Christians. But we also provide a spiritual home for those who are already Christians. And your commitment to that side of our church’s life – in paying for its staffing and expense, and in the large numbers of you involved in it – is also exemplary.
So, guard the unity of the church; express the unity of the churches. And then the parting shot of Romans is this:
Third, LIVE UP TO THE GOSPEL (vv25-27)
Look down to v25:
25Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him— 27to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. (vv25-27)
That’s quite a mouthful and we can’t digest it all in the time left. But if Romans is about the ‘We’ question – ‘How can we live and witness unitedly for Jesus? How do you establish a healthy, God-glorifying church?’ – Paul’s answer, v25, is that God establishes churches like that by the gospel – by the essential message about Jesus. And that’s very striking, because we tend to think that the gospel is for those who are not yet Christians – which of course it is – it’s God’s means of calling them into relationship with him. But v25 is saying that once you’ve become a Christian, you don’t move on from the gospel, you don’t grow out of the gospel – as if the gospel gets you started but then you need something else to tell you how to live the Christian life and be a church. No, you spend the rest of your life learning to live up to the gospel – both individually and in church life.
Now many books have been written recently on how to establish good churches. Let me quote some titles – and there are no prizes for guessing they’re all American:
Seven steps to transform your church.
Eight characteristics of highly effective churches.
Ten things successful churches don’t do.
Twelve keys to a being a productive church.
Thirteen strategies for reinventing your church.
And I’m not going to say you can’t benefit from books like that – a few years ago we benefited from using that book The Purpose Driven Church. But what Paul says at the end of Romans – and has been saying all the way through – is this: be a gospel-driven church. That is, start from the gospel – which in three words is: Jesus is Lord – and then live up to the two massive implications of that.
Implication no.1 is this: if Jesus is your Lord and Jesus is my Lord, then we have to accept one another, live and witness unitedly for Jesus with one another and be totally committed to one another as family – not just as an hour-a-week club. Now humanly speaking, this group of people would never have got together – probably never have met; certainly never have got on – apart from God calling us together through the gospel. And he wants us to live up to that calling so that the world sees something supernatural about our life together.
And then implication no.2 of the fact that Jesus is Lord is this: if Jesus is not just my Lord and your Lord but the rightful Lord of everyone in the world today, then we have to work together to tell them about him. We mustn’t be complacent due to size, because what drives us should not be the number who are here; but the number who aren’t – the number around us who know little or nothing of Jesus. And we mustn’t be parochial, either. Because the end of v26 reminds us that God’s plan is that people from all nations might believe and obey him. So we must plant more churches. And we must send and support more mission partners.
Some of those books I mentioned have some useful things to say about how to establish good churches. But if we just lived up to the gospel – that Jesus is Lord – everything that really matters would flow from that.
Well that’s the end of Romans. And, back in their monastery, if Brothers Cedric, Gerald and Cuthbert had read it and believed it and lived up to it, then far from having people leave, they’d have had people beating a path to their door and saying, ‘We like the look of what you’ve got and would like to have it too.’ Please God, may people be able to say that about our church and so be drawn, through us, to Jesus.
Let’s pray. And I’m simply going to pray some of the verses we’ve just seen from Romans:
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give us a spirit of unity among ourselves as we follow Christ Jesus, 6so that with one heart and mouth we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And now to him who is able to establish us by the gospel, by the proclamation of Jesus Christ, to the only wise God be glory – in this church, and forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.