Today you may receive any number of solicitations through the mail for charities and missionaries of various kinds. I’m told that longer letters get a better response than shorter letters. I would have guessed that it would be the other way around today, but apparently not. In any case, you may get a lot of requests for money and sometimes for money and prayer. Indeed, a lot of money is spent on sending letters to ask for money and when you give once you often are put on a list so that you continue to get asked for money forever. The apostle Paul was also looking to raise mission support from the Christians in Rome for planting churches in Spain. He says in our passage today: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while” (Rom 15:24). So Paul is a missionary who plans to go plant churches in Spain—this being the first time in the letter that he has actually revealed his planned destination is Spain—and he is going to stop by in Rome to visit for a while and enjoy their company and be helped on his journey to Spain by the Christians in Rome. The Greek verb meaning “to being helped on one’s journey” had already become a technical term for mission support. So while Romans might be considerably longer than a letter you might get from a missionary today it has a similar purpose: Paul is raising mission support. Thus Paul says:
- This letter is an invitation for the Christians in Rome to support a missionary named Paul.
- Those requests you get in the mail are usually just asking for money but Paul is inviting them to something more. He does ask for prayer. Paul asks for the Christians in Rome to strive together with him in their prayers to God on his behalf that he might be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea and that his service for Jerusalem might be acceptable to the saints. So Paul wants their prayer support. He has been a missionary in the eastern Mediterranean planting churches in key population centers and now these churches are self-sustaining and equipped to reach their surrounding regions. The churches in Macedonia and in what today is the nation of Turkey largely consisting of Gentiles had taken up a special offering for the poor among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Paul was part of a group taking that offering to Jersualem so he encourages the Christians in Rome to support him as he does so with their prayers. Paul’s request for prayer is serious – he has ample reason to be concerned about this trip and about how this offering will be received. Thus he wants the Christians in Rome to support him as a missionary as he does one final and potentially risky task in the eastern Mediterranean before moving west. He isn’t looking for an empty promise to pray where the people are like, “Sure I’ll be praying for you” and then they don’t actually strive together with him in their prayers. He is looking for their actual participation alongside him as a missionary that they support. In fact, Paul’s need was not so much for money as it was for other kinds of support. In Romans 16, he mentions his patron Phoebe who would have bankrolled his missionary journey and also paid for sending this letter to be read to the churches in Rome. Paul was looking for something more than money from the Christians in Rome – he was looking for their support so that he would know the languages and be able to get the right introductions and the like. He was inviting the Christians in Rome to strive together with him in reaching the people of Spain – not that they would necessarily go with him to Spain but nevertheless that they would participate with him in this mission.
- Thus Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome that was not unlike other letters at the time in some ways but is definitely modified in other ways. It was common in letters, for example, to offer a polite apology when asking for things. The author basically says, “I’m sorry for asking for this because you are already inclined to do it anyway.” Or, “I know you don’t need a reminder to do this but I’m still writing to remind you.” Paul says, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another, but on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder.” Paul uses these traditional conventions, yet Paul is not writing empty flatteries. The way this passage opens “you are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” is in reply to Romans 1:29 where he described fallen humanity saying, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.” Paul is appealing to the Christians in Rome, therefore, not as people who still live in the old age but as those who already belong to the new creation in Christ Jesus. And again, for another example, Paul boasts of his accomplishments much like you might read in other letters at the time, except that Paul only boasts in Christ Jesus. In this way, Paul is inviting the Christians in Rome to join him in work that they can be appropriately proud of – proud of in Christ Jesus – to work with Paul who could boast of what Christ accomplished through me. Thus Paul urges these Christians who had been distracted with boasting and their rights and their personal opinions to focus not on themselves but on what Christ can do through them to reach people where Christ had not yet been named. (Romans serves then as a reminder to us to focus not on our wants and preferences but to focus on reaching others who are different, who speak a different language, and who live in a different land.)
- Paul’s work is largely unrepeatable but it does give us ideas about what God’s mission is today.
- I mean that it is not as if we can be the first people to plant churches in Jerusalem, Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia, and Illyricum, or even Spain. The apostle Paul founded the church of Jesus Christ among the Gentiles with signs and wonders. He planted churches in regions where Christ had not already been named. That work of Paul is fundamentally unrepeatable. That foundation has already been laid. Unlike Paul’s work, we will always to some extent today be building on someone else’s foundation. He wrote to the Christians in Rome because he wanted to complete the circle, if you will – that is, you may have seen some of those ancient maps that are in the shape of an oval where the scale is greater going east and west than it is going north and south. It appears that Paul has this picture in mind when he says that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ. His task was to plant churches in those regions in strategic locations so that those churches could reach their surrounding regions. He had finished doing so from Jerusalem to Illyricum – that is, through Asia Minor, Greece, Macedonia, and as far as Illyricum. Illyricum is the name of the Roman province to the northwest of Macedonia and Greece, which today includes northern Albania to Croatia to Bosnia. So Paul has planted churches in the eastern part of the oval and now wants to go plant them in Spain in the western part of the oval. Whether he ever was able to do so or not, we don’t know, but we do know that eventually churches were planted in Spain and throughout the rest of the Roman Empire and beyond to what is truly the end of the earth. So we can’t lay that foundation.
- But Paul’s work does give us ideas as to what God’s mission might involve for us. We can support translation efforts so that those who do not yet have the Scriptures in their own native tongue can read it in their own native tongue. This support can go beyond just writing a check. We as a church have supported the work of Scott and Vicky Satre with Wycliffe Bible Translators with a place to stay on their furlough. I’m sure that they may have ideas on how else we might help in that work that does not require knowing that language. We can support those who speak a different language and live in a different land so that they can reach their neighbors with the gospel and plant new churches. You also have the opportunity to meet Bishop Titus from Kenya who will be coming to the Bible discussion and dinner tonight at 5 pm in fellowship hall. I know that he will have ideas on how you might help plant churches in his region so that they can be self-sustaining. So no matter what God’s mission might involve for us it can be more than just writing a check. You may never visit the nation, but you can strive together with those who are there in your prayers to God and in your support for them here and in other ways as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.