I went to the grocery store yesterday, and I had kind of an interesting experience.
I was wearing a new T-shirt that I had just gotten; last Sunday actually.
I got it because I ran in a race last Sunday that consisted of running a little over 3 miles through the woods. The course went up and down hills (one giant hill, actually), through a variety of small ponds and streams, over, under, and through a variety of obstacles consisting of barbed wire, mud, barricades, and fire, finally to arrive at the finish line slathered with mud and grinning from ear to ear. 🙂
It was a race I had looked forward to for a few months beforehand, and it didn’t disappoint.
By the end of the race I think everybody felt like they had earned the T-shirt.
So like I said, I was wearing my T-shirt yesterday at Rhodes, and as I was leaving, a woman who was also leaving at the same time, she saw my T-shirt, and asked if I had run in that race.
We had never met before, (at least that I could remember), but she had run it also, on the same weekend. We had a short conversation, sharing our experience of race day.
And I felt like there was a sense of camaraderie between us, even though neither one of us knew the other one at all.
As far as I know, all we had in common was a shared experience that had nothing to do with our jobs, our families, or even the community we lived in.
Literally the only thing we had in common was running this race.
And that’s all that really mattered right then.
I don’t know her name, where she works, or if she even lives in the area.
But because of my T-shirt, we talked about an event that was bigger than either one of us.
Talking to someone who was there, and who had been through it the same as I had been; it’s different than trying to tell someone about it who wasn’t there and can’t really appreciate what we went through.
Well, I’d like to suggest this morning, that these first seven verses of Romans are kind of like Paul’s race-day T-shirt.
But there are a couple of things we need to know before that really makes sense.
First, that Romans is pretty different from the rest of Paul’s letters on one important point.
He had never met the Christians in Rome.
He knew them as well as I knew this woman I met at Rhodes yesterday.
Most of the letters we have that Paul wrote to his churches…most of them he was writing to friends, people who he knew; people he had introduced to the gospel himself.
But that isn’t true of the church in Rome. It had been going strong for probably close to 10 years before Paul wrote this letter, and he wasn’t responsible for any part of it.
So you might be wondering why he wrote the letter in the first place.
He wrote it because he was planning a trip…kind of like Christine and I did on Sabbatical; we planned lots of trips, and visited a lot of churches we had heard about, but never been to.
Paul was planning a trip to Rome, and he was also hoping to gain some support from the church there for a mission he was contemplating to Spain.
Now, keep in mind Paul had a pretty big personality, and the early church had been through a lot. So even though he hadn’t probably met them, they had most likely heard of Paul.
And just like today, depending on who you listened to, they had probably formed some pretty strong opinions of Paul already.
So he writes this letter, and all of that is one reason I think it’s so long, and so detailed.
Because he wants to give them the whole story, and spell out as clearly as he can what he believes and what’s important to him.
He wants to introduce himself properly…and at the time, a letter was a pretty good way to do that.
Now, I know Christine and I have been out of the loop here for the past three months or so.
A lot has changed, both for you, and for us.
You’re a different congregation, and we are different pastors.
But even with our absence, the truth is, we know each other better than Paul knew the church in Rome. We’ve been together long enough to know what we’re in for.
We know each other’s weaknesses, strengths, likes and dislikes.
But just because we know each other doesn’t mean we should ever be too comfortable, or too complacent, to be surprised…to be able to meet the ‘other’ as if for the very first time.
If you’re married, or if you have a good friend who’s been with you for a really long time, you probably know what I’m talking about.
There are times when your spouse or your loved one seems like a completely different person. They surprise you, or they do something completely unexpected, or take up a hobby you just never saw them doing.
It’s almost like you need to be re-introduced.
Paul introduces himself in one sentence, and it’s a big one. That one sentence that we’re looking at this morning is 7 verses long, and by my count contains 24 theological terms and at least 10 verbs.
In English, it’s a complete mess.
But back then, in this situation, it made sense for Paul to pack as much as he possibly could into this first sentence of his longest letter…because that first sentence sets the tone for who he was, and what’s important to him.
But you know, what I found really interesting about these verses, especially in light of the experiences we’ve had over the past 3 months and the lessons we’ve been learning…what I find most interesting this morning isn’t necessarily anything that’s there…it’s what isn’t there.
Here’s a guy who has a lot riding on establishing a good reputation with the Roman church; with a bunch of people he’s never actually met.
And as wordy as Paul is, and as much as we might think of him as a kind of arrogant personality and even a braggart, we don’t hear anything about ‘tent-making’ or his being a “missionary”, or even the term “evangelist”.
Now think for a minute about when you meet somebody new.
What’s one of the first things you ask, if it doesn’t come up before you have the chance to ask something? Or what’s one of the first things that they ask you?
“What do you do?” Meaning “What’s your job?” “What function do you play in society?”
I know I’ve said this before…it’s a way of establishing a pecking order.
It’s a way of establishing a sense of worth, kind of a hierarchy of value.
But the only terms Paul offers here for himself are “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ”.
And back then, the word ‘servant’ meant more like a slave than a butler.
So the first thing Paul does in this letter is kind of destroy that hierarchy that we’re usually pretty good at protecting.
He’s not interested in giving his laundry list of credentials…at least not at this point.
The rest of this one sentence gets into the heart of what’s most important to Paul.
The gospel of God; Jesus Christ our Lord; the spirit of holiness and the obedience to which believers are called.
I learned an interesting concept a few weeks ago. We were listening to a lecture on communication…and what the guy said made sense to me.
He said that whenever two people try to communicate, there are actually 6 people present.
If I’m talking to someone, there are two of us in the room.
Then there is the person that each of us perceives.
Finally, there is the person I am striving to make the other person perceive (and the person they are striving for me to perceive).
If you didn’t follow all that, let’s just say we all use smoke and mirrors to cast ourselves in a certain light when we’re interacting with other people.
I’m not judging that…it’s just reality.
See, we’re all a little bit like chameleons. We all have the ability to show off certain traits while hiding others; especially when we’re introducing ourselves to new people and they don’t know us that well.
We call it putting on a good face.
It’s a natural thing to do…we want people to think well of us, and so we put our best foot forward (or at least what we think is our best foot).
What’s so interesting here, is how Paul adjusts the smoke and the mirrors to draw attention away from himself and towards the gospel of God; which is the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.
We could learn from Paul.
What’s the first thing people know about you, when you’re making an introduction?
Probably your job, your family status, and if you’re really going in depth, maybe a few hobbies that you have on the side.
But at the end of the day, none of those things describe who you are.
They contribute, for sure…but our primary identity is not our job, our family, or our hobbies.
I’d even go so far as to say our primary identity should never be found in our church affiliation.
You and I and everyone else; first and foremost, we are children of God, who shine with the light He breathed into us.
We get so hung up on our agendas and making ourselves look good, that I wonder when our faith actually enters the picture.
Even among our closest friends and family.
When you meet someone for the first or the fiftieth time, what is it that you reveal?
Paul’s introduction, like any other, invites his readers to experience a kind of camaraderie. He’s using language that builds upon a shared experience of a bigger event; the one happening behind the picture; behind the mask we all wear that says ‘I’m OK, you’re OK, and everything is going to be OK’.
The truth is, maybe I’m not OK, maybe you’re hurting, and maybe things aren’t going to work out.
And that’s exactly why I think we need an identity check not unlike Paul.
When we wrap so much of our identity in what we do, like we’ve all been trained to do…then things like success and failure become extremely important.
If I’m a Pastor, and I fail miserably at Pastoring, it’s a crushing experience.
Likewise if I’m successful, I get puffed up and become so heavenly minded that I’m no earthly good.
Thinking of myself as a Pastor is incredibly easy to do.
Thinking of ourselves in terms of what we do…it’s a temptation each of us must struggle against every single day.
We are so much more than how we earn a paycheck.
In other words, I am not a pastor.
I am not fundamentally a pastor. I am not, and never will be at the core of my being…a pastor.
I am a child of God. Just like you.
A child of God, with infinite value and infinite worth in the eyes of my heavenly Father.
And on really good days, like Paul, I try to be a servant of Christ who redeems me.
Beyond those two things, nothing else is fundamentally important.
I don’t want to get to retirement age and then wonder what I am because I’m no longer pastoring.
I don’t want to get so wrapped up in what I do…that I forget who I am.
So the question I’d like to leave with us this morning is Who are you?
We’re at the brink of a new beginning right now, so it makes sense to me to ask the question.
In light of the statement that Jesus is Lord…in light of the faith that you proclaim and the grace that you’ve received…who are you?
Nobody can fit their whole identity on a T-shirt, or in a sentence at the beginning of a letter.
But we have to start somewhere.
How’s this…at least for me, when I look at you, I’ll try real hard to see a child of God…and I’ll try real hard to see that in the mirror, too.
How about you?