In our 2nd reading from Romans, Paul is nearing the end of his letter to the Christians in Rome. He is giving them many encouraging words by telling them that they should welcome everyone in the name of Christ. He tells them over and over again in this text that they should live in hope.
What type of hope is Paul talking about? Is this a hope for a more successful and prosperous life? Or maybe this a hope that I will get what I want for Christmas? Or maybe this is a hope for my Chicago Cubs long, long, long awaited World Series victory?
Not quite, Paul isn’t taking about an individualistic hope that something good will happen to me, myself, or I. The hope that Paul is talking about in Romans 15 is a communal hope. It is a hope that involves groups of people coming together to give glory to God. It involves each person being part of something bigger than themselves and lifting up one another in the name of Christ. This is a radical hope that brings people together instead of allowing all of these things divide them.
Paul was writing these words of hope in our lesson today for the Roman Christians. He wants this hope to unite all these people from many different backgrounds. There are two groups in particular that would have made up the Christians in Rome. There were the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. They each had their own culture and traditions. They had their styles of music they thought should be played in worship, which festivals they should observe, and even the type of foods they could and should eat. These were very important issues to the Christians of Rome. These issues could have possibly divided this small group of Christians.
As we near Christmas this season, think about your families Christmas tradition compared to others you have seen or attended. My family is a well-oiled machined on Christmas. We have a specific schedule that we stick to no matter what! We got up early in the morning (well the argument could be made that my brothers and I didn’t really sleep at all), we opened our stocking first, then (when my parents woke up) before we eat anything we would open our presents. We opened one present at a time, with the youngest going first. Each of us opened one present and then we would go in order again until all the presents were opened. After we were done opening presents, then we would eat breakfast which was almost always pancakes. After that we headed to my grandparents on my mom’s side to spend the afternoon. We had lunch (grandma would make lasagna and her world famous…at least in my world, baked beans), then we opened up presents with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in much the same way that we did at home. Everyone watched while one person at a time opened up their present. After we had opened all the presents we had a quick nap and we headed off to my other grandparents for dinner and then opened up presents with the other side of the family. Like I said it was a well-oiled machine. We had this same routine every year, over and over and over again. It worked like a charm there was no reason to change it. After I got engaged with Laura, I headed out to her family’s Christmas in North Carolina. I was shocked and amazed and somewhat taken a back. It started out ok, we went to a candlelight service on Christmas eve, that was a must. But when I woke up the next morning, it was complete and utter chaos. There was no system in place. This was just not how Christmas was supposed to go, there was no order opening up presents, some people even got up to have breakfast before opening any presents. Some people didn’t open their stocking first, which I thought was mandatory. Laura’s family even invited someone who I had only just met the other day, and I swear that Laura’s family didn’t even know that person very well. But there they were opening up presents with us. This would not happen in my family. Laura’s mom would just randomly hand people presents to have them open them. I opened 2 in a row at one point! We weren’t even sure what we would do the rest of day. Laura’s family said we would figure it out after we had lunch. What do you mean we would figure it out after we had lunch, this was not how Christmas worked! What do you mean the day was not intricately planned? This was not Christmas!
If we are passionate about how our Christmas day routine, imagine how passionate people were during Paul’s day trying to figure out how to live, work, and worship together in Rome not just one day a year but every single day all year long. But, Paul did not give up, his ultimate hope was that Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians would be able to come together singing praises to God and spread the gospel in spite of their differences. He hoped they would be united over what brought them together rather than what divided them.
Paul’s hope is the same for Christians today as it was then. We have many differences that can divide us even within our own community. Our different worship styles, our different backgrounds or cultures, our different routines for Christmas day, and even our love of a good football team such as the Green Bay Packers or our love of a bad football team such as the Minnesota Vikings. However, we are encouraged to celebrate our diversity and come together united under Christ.
Not only should we put up with one another, but Paul hoped that we would welcome one another. This means welcoming people even outside of our own community and comfort zone who do not look like us, who are not members of our immediate family. Perhaps this is someone who dresses quite differently from us, celebrates different traditions, looks different, perhaps this one is even sick or without a home or in serious difficulty. No matter how ‘difference’ is defined, we are to welcome everyone with that vision that Paul had for the Roman Christians around 2000 years ago. We will begin to realize the hope that Paul talks about when we begin to welcome those who are different than us.
As we anticipate the coming birth of Jesus, Paul encourages us to push the bounds of our community. He implores us to celebrate the diversity that each one of us have and to be united in the one who brings all of us together; Christ. Christ who conquered death once and for all on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem.
Even though we have many differences in background, culture, tradition, and many more things. Each of us is united in the waters of our baptism. Just as Paul talks about in our Romans text, it is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that is received in our baptism that each of us is able to unite in the hope to which we are called to live as Christians.
During this time of year, we have seen and will continue to see many people who are visiting Messiah for the first time. They will come from different places than we have, they might celebrate different traditions than us (they might even have a strange way of opening presents or root for a football team that wears purple or even maize and blue), and they might look different than us. Of course they wont be nearly as good looking as most of us (I wont name any names) But no matter these differences, we are called to welcome with a radical greeting.
So may be a part of Paul’s vision of hope. A vision of a Christian community that welcomes all people, from all different backgrounds (even those that celebrate Christmas different from us) coming together to praise, worship and serve our Lord and Savior. Amen