Romans – Digging Deep: Catching Fire

Catching Fire

Romans 1:8-13


Tens of thousands of people are ready to leave their families, their jobs, and their lives behind for a one-way trip to Mars. As of September 2013, the Mars One mission had received more than 165,000 applications to join. Hundreds of thousands of people willing to risk everything, leave this planet, become bona fide Martians, and never come back. If we ever do move past sending professional astronauts to and from Mars and actually develop a presence there, and that is exactly what NASA’s Orion spacecraft is being designed to do, the journey will be full of risk. The launch, a six-month journey, landing safely on another world, and then, when you get there, you have to survive. Sending a team of professional astronauts will be a round-trip that lasts more than a year. Actual colonists would likely never return. For some, it’s the sense of adventure and the chance to leave a real legacy. But for many, the reason hits much closer to home.


Years ago, The Hayden Planetarium in New York City ran an advertisement in New York newspapers inviting those who would like to make their first journey to another planet to submit an application. They weren’t actually sending people anywhere. It was a psychological experiment. Within just a few days, over 18,000 people applied. The planetarium staff gave the applications to a panel of psychologists to review them. The psychologists concluded that the vast majority of those who had applied wanted to start a new life on another planet because they were so discouraged by life on this one. As we continue our walk through the first part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find Paul dealing with potential discouragement in the hearts of the Roman Christians. Turn to Romans 1:8-13.


The great city of Rome was a discouraging place to be a Christian. In AD 58 the population of the city had grown to well over one million. Almost half of the inhabitants were either bond-servants (if you were here last Sunday you’ll remember that a bond-servant was a slave who had earned his freedom but chose to remain the property of a good master because of the life that master provided), or recently freed slaves. Like most cities today, Rome was a great place to live for the elite, the powerful, the wealthy, but challenging for everyone else. Lower class people lived in terrible high-rise apartment buildings that had no sanitation or water available above the first floor. These lower class people were often on the verge of rioting, especially if they couldn’t get enough food. Crime was everywhere. As is common today, especially in larger cities, the poor settled in ethnic neighborhoods and policed them themselves, so these neighborhoods became little governments unto themselves and they did their best to maintain an unsettled, uneasy peace to avoid Roman government interference and persecution.


Becoming a Christian often meant challenging this uneasy social order and the relative safety and security it provided, because the true body of Christ recognizes no racial, ethnic, socio-economic, or gender-based boundaries. So the Roman church was bringing people of different ethnicities, from different backgrounds, young and old, rich and poor, local and foreign, male and female, together, a condition that was seen as inherently dangerous in Rome. Just as Christ himself did, the body of Christ has always challenged the social order. And for Jews in Rome who became Christian, not only did they upset their neighbors and possibly their neighborhoods, they often lost their family and extended family. Life in Rome was hard for anyone who wasn’t wealthy and powerful, but for a Christian, it was much worse. People paid a price, a very steep price, to follow Christ. Eventually Christians and Jews were kicked completely out of the city and sporadic persecution broke out, worse under some governors and emperors than others. Chuck Swindoll says “They must have felt like squirrels living among angry giants, any one of whom might decide to crush them on a whim.”


What a discouraging place to be trying to follow Christ. We’ve all found ourselves discouraged in our faith. We’ve all gone through those times when we wonder if we’re on the right track, when we wonder where God is or what God is doing, when the everyday circumstances of life just seem to be weighing us down, when we just can’t seem to catch a break. The word discouraged is the word courage with the prefix dis- in front. The prefix dis- means to move away or to tear asunder. A discouraged person is someone who is more than just down or hitting a rough patch. A discouraged person is someone whose courage is leaving them or whose courage is being torn from them. Discouragement is what happens right before you give up, right before you quit. A discouraged person is someone who has almost lost all of their hope.


You know how Facebook shows you memories, things you’ve posted on this day in the past? Well, this past week a memory popped up from January of 2012. Zeke was still with us then, and I guess I got home last that day, because when I walked in Becky said “Be careful with Zeke. He’s hanging from the edge of a cliff by his fingernails.” Zeke was 6, and he heard her say that and yelled “I already fell off!! I feel like I fell off the Grand Canyon!” Ever felt like that? Like you might still be holding on, but you feel like you’ve already fallen? If there’s a shred of hope left it isn’t much? Paul doesn’t know these people personally. He’s never been to Rome. But he knows what Rome is like and he knows what they’re up against, and so while he never once confronts them, they’re still doing okay, he confronts the possibility of discouragement head on.


So to fight discouragement, you have to encourage. You bring courage and stamina and hope back. And Paul does that first by affirming them. Look at V. 8. “I know it’s tough there. Might be one of the toughest places in the empire to follow Jesus right now, but you’re doing it, and you’re doing it well! In fact, even though no apostle has been there, wherever there are Christians in the world, they’re talking about you, about your faithfulness, about your strength in Christ. You all, who have less foundation that almost anyone, are an example of faith in Christ for the whole world!” We call these words of affirmation.


Anyone here familiar with the idea of “love languages?” It’s a concept that was developed by a Christian therapist named Gary Chapman. It started as a resource for married couples but now its being used in parenting and even in the work force. The basic idea is that while we all need to experience and express love, and there is a universal nature to the language of love, there are also about five dialects: physical touch, acts of service, gifts, quality time, and words of affirmation. And while we each need to experience all of these, each one of us tends to have a primary and a secondary love language. It’s the way of expressing love that we tend to hear and recognize as love the easiest. Becky is totally acts of service. I am words of affirmation and physical touch. So in a healthy couple, each person learns to speak the love language dialects that their partner hears the easiest. And that’s exactly what Paul is doing here. He is affirming them.


Gordon MacDonald is a well-known pastor and author, and he tells a story about a husband and wife team from his church who are three-day-a-week volunteers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The wife works at the information desk at the main entrance. Her mission: To welcome and provide information for people entering the hospital for the first time. Her husband oversees a reception area for families and friends of cancer patients who are in surgery. His mission: To ensure that they are comfortable and cared for until the surgeon comes to tell them what has happened in the OR. When Gordon MacDonald asked them, “Why do you do this? You could be snorkeling in Florida” they said:


Because we are aggressively appreciated. Mass General practices a culture of appreciation. You can hardly go 15 minutes during the day without someone on the MGH staff stopping you (from hospital president to the cleaning staff) and saying thanks and something like “We couldn’t do what we do without you.” We’re made to feel like an important part of a world-class medical team. We’ve never felt so completely valued in any other organization.


He said, “Are you telling me that you receive more appreciation at the hospital than you got when you once poured yourself into work at our church?” They answered slowly, firmly, maybe even sadly: “There’s no comparison.”[i] We need to be affirming of one another. That means we tell one another not only that we appreciate what they do, but what we appreciate about them. And churches today are well-known for being anything but affirming. That’s why people feel like they have to be fake when they come to church. Because no one affirms you when they see you. No one appreciates the real you. In fact, they might just react negatively against the real you.


But we have to understand that being affirming doesn’t mean we don’t challenge one another or help one another to grow. I saw a quote this week that said “The liberal church says ‘You’re welcome here and you don’t ever need to change.’ The legalistic church says ‘If you change you’ll be welcome here.’ The body of Christ says ‘You are welcome here just as you are. But don’t worry. Jesus won’t leave you in that state.” That’s grace. Jesus saying “I love you just as you are. I died for you just as you are. Nothing could ever make me love you more than I do right now, because I love you to infinity and beyond. And I am transforming you. Its what I do. I love, and I transform.” This should be the most affirming place a person can be, because here they encounter the body of Christ. Affirming, and transforming.


But Paul doesn’t stop there. Look at V. 9. Not only does Paul affirm them, he tells them that he’s praying for them. The word “always,” as in “always in my prayers” is kind of like the phrase “pray without ceasing” that Paul uses everywhere. The idea isn’t really of being in a time of intense prayer all day every day. It’s has more the sense of “I pray every day, and when I do, at some point, I pray about you. I pray for you.”


Over the past couple of years, it’s become popular for some journalists to mock the offering of “thoughts and prayers” after a natural disaster or a terrorist massacre” Comedienne Samantha Bee threw a profanity-laced fit over “thoughts and prayers” after the Orlando massacre, and [political policymaker Corey Ciorciari] mocked such goodwill expressions after the police ambush in Baton Rouge: “Thoughts and prayers didn’t seem to stop the last 193 mass shootings this year,” he wrote. “Maybe we should try something different?” Now, I get what they’re really saying. They’re really expressing outrage and grief that these kinds of things, these tragedies, keep happening and they want community and government leaders to get serious about finding a solution, whatever that might be. One journalist, who attended an outdoor candlelight vigil for slain police officer Matthew Gerald at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge and then wrote an article supporting offering “thoughts and prayers,” quotes a pastor who spoke at the vigil:


Pastor Ryan Firth says, “It seems that our community has been in disarray for the past few weeks. If we’re being honest, it has been in disarray for years.” His message is based on Jesus’ words in John 16:33: “I have overcome the world.” Maybe not quite yet, but they are trying. A series of pastors and speakers exhort the crowd to sympathy, charity, and forgiveness. Another speaker says, “Anger, frustration – take it and discard it. We are here to love our neighbors as ourselves.” One must consider that these Christians know something that eludes the likes of Samantha Bee and Corey Ciorciari and the rest of us urban sophisticates: In the end, thoughts and prayers do matter. They matter more than most other things. And they are, for the moment, what’s keeping the peace in Baton Rouge and many other communities like it.[ii]


But the point in saying “I’m praying for you” isn’t to just say that, and I think that might be a little bit of what Samantha Bee and others are reacting to. The point is to actually pray for them. So here’s what I’ve tried to start doing. Paul says, “For God is my witness …” How many of us, if we said, “I’m praying for you. And as God is my witness, if I’m not and if I don’t, may I go blind …” how many of us would be blind right now? All of us. When I tell someone I’m praying for them, the first thing I do is pray WITH them right there if it’s appropriate to do so. Over the phone. Via text. Whatever. I probably won’t hold up the line at Meijer, but I might say, “Hey, let me wait for you over here and after you check out, I’ll pray for you before we leave.” And if they’re in a rush or say no, that’s fine. Praying for someone isn’t an excuse to be an inconsiderate jerk. But that’s the first step – I try, if I can, to pray with them right there. And then I pray for them whenever they come to mind. If someone “is in our thoughts and prayers,” they’d better really be in our thoughts and prayers. That can’t just be a sentiment, or a kind thing to say. It must become our reality.


Paul affirms them, he prays for them and he tells them he’s praying for them, but then he does one more thing. Look at Vv. 10-13. He expresses a strong desire to share his presence with them, and he wants to experience their presence as well. He knows that he can encourage and strengthen them. But he also knows that they can encourage and strengthen him. In Paul’s case, he hadn’t yet been able to make it to see them yet. Travel wasn’t as easy then as it is now, and it isn’t very often easy now, and Paul’s agenda, circumstances, and God’s will had kept Paul from making it to Rome just yet. And now he’s moving in the opposite direction. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. But he wants them to know that he wants to be there, that he’s serious about it, and that he will be as soon as he can get there.


But here, we’re already in each other’s presence. We’re already together. When you show up, and I show up, we’re already here. The key is to show up. Sometimes you’ll need an affirmation and a prayer and a friend. And sometimes you’ll give an affirmation, offer a prayer, and be a friend. That’s what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. Sometimes you need to open your hands and receive. And sometimes, you need to open your heart and give. Affirmation, prayer, and presence. These are the gifts Paul gives to the Roman Christians to counteract any discouragement they may be feeling. God has given us each other to share these gifts with one another as well. Imagine walking out of here after the service and seeing people talking with one another. Some of the conversations are light. Others are heavier. Deeper. Imagine seeing people praying for one another and just being a part of one another’s lives. The Roman church, without any influence from an apostle, had caught fire, and word of their faith was traveling through the empire without Facebook and Twitter. May we catch the fire of Christ as a body too, through affirmation, prayer, and presence. So stay for a few minutes today. Chat with someone. Pray with someone. Be a friend. Let us pray.

[i] Gordon MacDonald, “The Thankful Exchange,” Leadership Journal (Fall 2013)

[ii] Kevin D. Williamson, “Thoughts and Prayers in Baton Rouge,” National Review (8-15-16)