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Endings - Romans 16

Testwood Baptist Church, Sunday November 10th 2007

 

Readings
Psalm 90
Romans 16:1-7, 22-27

 

 

I have a family member who is one of those rare people who support Norwich City football club, and back in the days when they were in the top division – well before things like the Premiership had been invented – this relative went to Carrow Road to see the Canaries play. Well, by the 88th minute the score was still 0-0, and the friend who had given them a lift said, “look, if we leave now we can get ahead of all the other traffic and be home quicker”. You can guess the rest, I’m sure – just as they were going through the turnstile to the car parking area there was this great roar from back inside, where they couldn’t see, and sure enough they had missed the only goal of the match. I am told that in sports it often happens that a team throws away a match in the closing minutes, maybe even in the last match of a whole competition. Somehow it seems that we humans find it very hard to finish things well.

I wonder where you were on January 21st this year? If you were here at Testwood Baptist in the evening, you would have heard Gordon give the very first sermon in this series – “An introduction to Romans”. Well, here we are almost 11 months later: here we are at the end of the book. I’ve heard most of the sessions, and I have here a small prize for the person who has persevered to the end of the race and can tell me he or she has heard every single part! Here it is – a fair trade chcolate bar!

You may have guessed from what I have said so far that part of what I going to talk about tonight is the matter of endings. How do we end something? How to we end it well, and achieve what we often call “closure” on something? How does Paul end this longest of all his letters? Just so you have some warning of other things we are going to be looking at, I’m also going to do a sort of overview looking back at the whole letter, and finish in the way Paul himself does, with a look at the mystery that is at the heart of our faith.

Before I get going on any of those things, I thought we’d read together a psalm that many commentators think represents ending thoughts of Moses, although strictly speaking, we don’t know when this psalm was written down. It is Psalm 90, and when I say “read together”, I mean that in its most literal sense. The words are going to be up on the screen, or you can follow them in your Bibles if you have a New International Version. We’re going to be reading alternate verses, me to you and you to me, all of us to each other. The verses I shall read are on the left, with white background, and those you will read are on the right, with yellow background. The very last verse of all we can read together, in unity.

[Psalm 90]

When Gordon asked me to speak on this chapter I looked through it and thought, what on earth am I going to do about all those names – 35 of them, plus numerous others not named. We often joke about Old Testament passages which consist of genealogical lists of names (we’re back to the Simpson’s episode I talked about a few months ago), but here we have a New Testament example. Why does Paul do this? Why go through a kind of Christmas thank-you list with all these people? Some think that, as at this stage he had never personally visited the church at Rome, he was keen to highlight all those personal links he did have. But quite apart from that motive, one of the things it shows us is the great variety of people that Paul related to and worked with. We find named here Tertius, to whom Paul dictated this letter, and Phoebe, who according to some of the manuscript copies of this letter actually carried the letter physically to Rome. Here we have men and women, and judging by the names we have Greeks, Romans, Jews, Persians, important people, slaves – in short a real-life catalogue illustrating the principle he wrote about in Colossians 3 – “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”. Some names we recognise since they are still in use today, like Mary or Timothy, but others are unfamiliar, so we may miss the fact that Quartus, whose name just means “Number 4”, was probably a slave.

I think there is another thing about that too. There is an ancient Egyptian saying “to speak of the dead is to make them live again”. In the church I was at this morning, part of the Remembrance service was to name people from that congregation who had died in war. None of the names were familiar to me, but it was very moving to hear their names spoken again, recalled for family friends, and congregation. These people about whom Paul wrote were alive at the time of the letter, but they have been long dead now. The fact that Paul bothered to name them means that we know their names, we know they lived and participated in this work. How else would we ever have heard of Epenetus who Paul tells us was the very first Christian convert in Asia – we don’t learn about him from the book of Acts – or Persis, a lady from what we now call Iran? These people live again for us, because Paul named them. But the matter goes deeper still. You and I, if we have attached ourselves to God in Christ by faith, you and I who were dead have been called into life because Jesus our Saviour spoke our names. The dead of whom and to whom he speaks – and here of course we mean spiritual death, being dead in our sins – those who were dead live again because of His voice. He speaks your name, He sings His songs of deliverance over you, and because of that we who were dead can live again. When Paul speaks these names, he is repeating the same process in miniature, on a human scale – he is giving these otherwise forgotten people continued life.

However, quite remarkably, not all of the people Paul mentions are unknown. You probably noticed one of the names in the middle there, “Erastus, city director of public works”. Well, Paul most likely wrote this letter from Corinth, and in a marble block near the Roman theatre in Corinth was discovered the Latin inscription, “Erastus, commissioner of public works, laid this pavement at his own expense”. The job title is not quite the same – the one Paul gives is a slightly different rank in public office – but the name is unusual enough, and the job title close enough, that most people accept that this is, in fact, the same person Paul knew. This is one of the exciting things about archaeology – most of the time it can only give you background details or circumstantial evidence, but then all of a sudden, once in a while, you get something very direct. The other picture on this slide is the port of Cenchrea, where Phoebe had her home church, perhaps served as deacon – this would certainly have been her setting off point for the trip to Rome.

Let’s talk about endings now. Quite apart from sports matches that are lost or won at the eleventh hour, we all know that the way in which something comes to an end is really important. How many jokes are spoiled because we get the punch-line wrong? How many films or books just fail to really stir us because they just sort of fade away into nothing? How many business meetings or interviews fizzle out and lead nowhere? How many personal relationships end in dissatisfaction and frustration because we can’t work out how to resolve things well? Paul always draws his letters to a close with some kind of personal message – just as he always opens them with a personal variation on the standard letter-writing greetings of his day. So, no matter what difficult or complicated things he has had to say, whatever challenges or difficulties he has spoken of, he ends by acknowledging the human beings who will be receiving his letters. He never gets so wrapped up in his doctrinal explanations, or the practical out-workings of these teachings, that he forgets the need to establish human contact in the best way he can within the limitations of a written letter. Romans has a particularly long version of this personal message, a whole chapter of it in fact, but if you flick through his other letters you will see the same pattern.

What about our own endings? We both anticipate and avoid endings – just yesterday I was reading “the thought of endings brings both dread and satisfaction”. This sermon will come to an end before too long, and that’s more likely to bring satisfaction than dread! But I am going to spend a little time talking more about the dread. Our culture spends a lot of time avoiding thinking about endings – endings are frightening because they are little deaths. Every time something comes to a conclusion we are forced to think about mortality, about this world’s unerring passage towards disintegration. In Biblical terms this is all part of the Fall – the world as it now is, is heading back towards dust. In one sense we can celebrate that death is a defeated enemy – it is one of the great affirmations of our faith that those joined in this life to Christ can be assured that they will be united with Him in the afterlife. But we still have to face these little deaths all the time – television shows come to an end, machinery wears out, jobs finish, friends move away or grow apart, pets and people die. Paul reminds us, most soberly, in this letter that some partings between people are absolutely final – according to what he wrote early on in the letter, some partings may well place two people on opposite sides of an absolutely unclimbable wall. Assurance of salvation is a great and wonderful reassurance for many people, at certain times of their lives, but let’s not let it close our eyes to the reality of other deaths, other losses and partings. Believing that Death is defeated does not mean that we go blithely about our lives in happy pretence it is not real. It means, rather, that we can – in full awareness of its horror and unnaturalness, which brought even our Lord to tears when he saw its effect on his friends – we can face it head on and say to it, “yes, you are real, you ravage people and nations, but I need not live in abject fear of you”. The Christian offer of Life, Life in all its fullness, makes sense only when the reality and inevitability of death is confronted. The world outside, looking for spiritual reality, will, I believe, be won over more by a healthy attitude to death than a happy-go-lucky attitude to life. Reading the end of a letter helps us, in a small way, to meet once again the reality of death.

We have spent the better part of a year on this letter – that’s no bad thing, because as Gordon said two weeks ago there’s a lot in it, and we have been careful not to hammer away at it every week but to sprinkle all kinds of other things, like baptisms, in between. But the risk we all run is that we end up each week looking at minute details and not seeing how the whole fits together. Does this picture mean anything to you? Let’s see if we can ring a few bells. Back in my youth I was fascinated with Thunderbirds – it used to come on at a weekend lunchtime and one of my treats as a boy was being allowed to watch it at a time of day when normally TV wasn’t allowed. Anyone else do this? Who else remembers with great fondness “This is a job for International Rescue” or perhaps “We’re not going to make it, Mr Tracy”? With a master-stroke of television planning, they reran the whole lot at just the right time for my own children to be keen on it – of course I had to watch it again myself, help Ruth and Paul read the magazine, collect the Pro-set cards and so forth. But anyway, I don’t know if you remember the opening sequence, but what you saw was a picture like this, and then the scene pulled back to show this…

I remember very well every week sitting there trying to work out exactly which part of the whole thing you were being shown at first – easy enough with the main 5 vehicles, but much more tricky if you got to see a little part of Lady Penelope’s car, or the Mole, or whatever. It was a great game, and week after week I played it. All these years later, I still try to work out the big picture given only a small part of it – I think that’s why I like translating poetry from crazy ancient languages so much! Now, what we’ve been doing over the course of this year is to have lots of close-up pictures of parts of Paul’s description of God’s International Rescue plan. We’ve been able to take a good look at the numbers on the different vehicles that are used, or part of the working machinery. We’ve said, with Paul, “This is a job for International Rescue” and no doubt at times most of us have said, “We’re not going to make it, Lord”. Now, let’s make sure we take time as well to step back, to let the frame expand so we can see the big picture, some of these fantastic rescue craft operating each in their own element, bringing deliverance to every tribe and nation on earth.

When it comes to Bible study and getting hold of the big picture, something that works well for a lot of people is trying to write your own introduction to a book. Some Bibles have short explanations starting each book – I well remember the Good News Bible I first used had these – but rather than just turning to that, look over the book and try to write your own. What many people find when they do this for the first time is that their book introduction describes their situation right now. The bits of the book that speak very directly into your present circumstances leap out at you, and tend to dominate the way you see the whole book. But there are three parts to reading the Bible – what does it say, what does it mean, and what does it mean to me – and we need to make sure we keep going on all three fronts. So if your own summary of Paul’s letter to the Romans this year reads like a personal diary of what has been happening in your life since January, well that’s great, but next year try writing another introduction and see if it turns out reading quite differently. Let’s all work away at making our Bible reading a healthy blend of the personal and the universal.

I sometimes wonder if Paul would have written a second letter to the Romans, if he had had the opportunity to hear what people have made of this letter over the years. I expect most of us have had times where something we thought we said clearly has been heard completely differently by someone else. Part of the art and skill of a diplomat, or a negotiator, is to think how one person’s words are being heard by another person. So far as Paul is concerned, his two letters to the church at Corinth make interesting reading – in the second he is clearly angry at the way some of his earlier words had been taken by some people. We don’t know if Paul wrote a second time to Rome – if he ever did, the letter has been long since lost to history – but it is interesting to wonder what he might have said. But actually, it’s not just the reaction of the church in Rome to his words that might have bothered him – it would be the way other people over the years have taken them as well.

Why am I talking about this? Back on January 21st Gordon listed several Christians whose lives had been radically reshaped – re-formed, we might say – by this letter and the way God spoke to them through it. He mentioned Luther and Calvin among others, whose influence has shaped all the modern Protestant churches. But other people have read parts of what Paul wrote and gone off in some much less healthy directions. Some have read Paul’s words contrasting grace and law, and taken this to mean that Torah, guidance for life in God’s kingdom, a fixed standard of right and wrong, is no longer relevant. Groups like this used to be called antinomians – a word meaning “against the Law”. Others have read Paul’s words concerning the Old Covenant and arrived at a conclusion that God revealed Himself in completely different ways – really an altogether different god – in the Old Testament as opposed to the New. One of these, a man called Marcion who the apostle John spent some time challenging, went so far as to produce a version of the New Testament in which almost every reference to the Old had been removed. Still others have taken verses from Paul a means of church membership control, using his words to justify excluding women or other groups from real participation in church life. Some of the most repressive Christian situations, even today, are well able to judiciously select verses from Paul to justify themselves. That’s kind of scary, when you think about it.

What are we to do about this? How can we avoid this kind of false use of Scripture? We do not have the luxury of being able to ask Paul right now what he meant by a certain choice of word or phrase – though no doubt he will have a long queue of people wanting to question him in Heaven – so how are we to proceed? I think one way is to make sure we read Paul in totality before building a theory based on a couple of verses. A belief that the Holy Spirit inspired the writings of the Bible does not mean we have warrant to build theologies on single verses – it does mean that we have a responsibility to look at the whole picture, and it does mean we can have confidence that where particular passages are hard to understand, then other passages will help us shed light on the matter.

Many false uses of Scripture – and here I am meaning not just the false uses that cult groups attempt, but I am including false uses that authentically Christian groups have, sadly, used: many false uses arise from what you might call a proof-text approach. Someone tells you a teaching, and then gives a list of verses to look up and prove the point. By the time you have read half a dozen verses, most likely you are convinced by it. This is not, I believe, the main way the Bible was meant to be read, though it can help in some situations. To read the Bible in a way that honours both its human and divine authors means that we don’t just snip bits out of context. We read not just a verse, but also the paragraphs that surround that verse, and we find out what other passages have a bearing on it. If it’s a verse that looks as though it contains a serious piece of doctrinal or lifestyle information, then we find out how other Christians we respect have understood it – we tap into the vast riches of insight and illumination that God has given us in the church. The Bible certainly is a gift from God to each one of us, but it is also a gift to the whole household of God, the church through history and across the planet.

Let me give a practical example, using the idea that the grace of God means we don’t have to shape our lives by principles of right and wrong. We know Paul met people saying this – back in chapter 6 he said “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?”, and in chapter 3 there are similar words. If you were so minded, you could take his single phrase “we have been released from the law” as though it meant you didn’t have to have, or live by, lifestyle principles. In this case Paul’s answer is right beside the question – “by no means!” or again “Do we nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law”. Further afield we might notice that Paul writes far more about rule-keeping, and gives many more lists of example rule-breakers, than any other New Testament writer.

So we read a Bible verse in its context – but we also read it in accordance with the kind of writing that the Holy Spirit chose to inspire in the human author. We read a letter differently from a historical book, or a poem. We read practical wisdom for life differently from prophecy. We read books written by a priest differently from those written by fishermen. We read humour and irony differently from accounts of bitter woe and distress. We need to be thinking as we immerse ourselves in this book, not just “what does it mean” but “how does it mean”? This book is not a kind of Haynes manual for humans – it is a wonderful tapestry of all kinds of diverse colours, and it is deliberately so in order that every single one of us, whatever our academic ability, whatever our age or experience, whatever our gender or race: every single one of us can feed on it and delight in it. So let’s read it not just in proof-text snippets to make a doctrinal point, but in life-enriching ways, soaking up all its sweetness and splendour, its tragedy and terror, the parts we comprehend and the parts we don’t.

So how does Paul end this letter of his? As with many of his other letters, he turns to words of praise – what we call a doxology, a Greek phrase meaning “glory-words”. He does this in a rather neat way, to tie together the start and end of his letter, the opening words and the closing ones. It’s a device we call inclusio, or envelope structure, and we find it a lot in Old Testament poetry. Let me show you what I mean. The opening verses of Paul’s letters show his credentials and purpose in writing this letter, and among other things he refers to the gospel, the prophets who wrote the Scriptures and his holy ambition, as Gordon called it two weeks ago, to call people from among the Gentile nations to faith and obedience. Now let’s look at some of the words with which he closes this letter. He speaks of the gospel, the things made known through the prophetic writings, and his desire that all nations would believe in and obey God. Pretty clear, isn’t it, when you put the two side by side. He told us up front what his purpose was in writing the letter, and here at the end he concludes with it. As you look through other of Paul’s letters, see if you can see other similar things happening – you might think of starting with Ephesians and see what turns up.

What else does Paul say? Well, notice in verse 25 that he talks about God establishing the people in Rome by means of the gospel. Moses said very similar things at the end of Psalm 90 – he asked Yahweh, the Lord God, to establish the work of His people’s hands. What do they mean? Well, the desire to have something that outlasts us is set very deep in us. Each of us has a longing to know that the impact of our lives will persist after we have gone. For many people – but by no means all – this longing is partly realised in the form of children. Others seek to be remembered by what they have done – invented something, achieved something rare and unusual, written a book, taken part in a great enterprise, boldly gone where no one has been before. The book of Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in people’s hearts, and that is most profoundly true. In the ancient world this was what was meant by a name – your name wasn’t simply something that people called out to get your attention, but it summed up your reputation, your standing, your place in the world. To have a good name, and to have your good name remembered, was highly desirable. Conversely, to show your utter rejection of someone that had died, you took steps to obliterate their name, to remove it from writings, monuments, and so forth, to systematically and actively forget them.

If you were powerful in the ancient world, you might set up a monument, a Stele as it is called technically. This particular Egyptian Stele is one I am very interested in – it plays a key part in my studies, and the highlighted part is the one and only certain mention of the name Israel in nearly 3000 years of Egyptian written records. This is a very cool monument! Now, we don’t all get to be able to commission skilled scribes and set up elaborate accounts of our life on slabs of granite! But, all of us, as we pass through life day by day, are leaving some kind of history behind us. We are all in the process of creating some kind of reputation, some kind of name for ourselves. So we should be – God’s setting eternity in our hearts means, in part, that we long to have impact on the world and those in it, we long to know we have been significant, that we have meant something. Moses and Paul knew this, and each of them wanted us to be thinking – what kind of monument am I making? What is the real value of my life? What is it that I want God most High, the Lord of Battles, to establish out of my life? In Egypt, if you were well off you spent most of your life preparing the items and inscriptions you wanted in your tomb. That sounds a bit morbid at first – a whole culture obsessed with death – but in fact every single one of us does that as we pass through life. Every choice you make, every action you take, every word you speak, is in fact shaping your own monument, your own name. As we pass through life we are fashioning the Stele by which people will remember us. You are your own scribe.

So what is that Paul wants established here? He wants his audience to be established – he wants you to be established, to be built up in Christ by the gospel. In the Kingdom of God, the name we should be making, the Stele we should be carving out day by day, the household we should be building – those things are fashioned in human lives, not in possessions or our own creations. Paul reckoned that his monument was to be the lives of individual people he had influenced, groups of people whose ministry had been changed for the better by his life. I suspect at the end of the day this will be true for all of us. We all have different callings in our lives; we all express the breath of God that animates these bodies of dust in different ways, but the value of our deeds measured in eternity boils down to much the same for all of us. If you think about it, what is it that can possibly survive into eternity? If you make shed-loads of money, if I write the best book there ever was, if we all labour night and day to make that building out the front really splendid – none of those things will last into eternity. The money will be worthless in a few decades, the book won’t be read in a century or so, the bricks in the building will crumble in a millennium. We will take none of them with us into eternity. What we will take, what can be a real monument of eternal value, is the image of Christ that we bear within, and the deeds of Christ we have carried out to the benefit of other people. Paul reckoned that the name he would establish would be written in the lives of other people. Where are you and I trying to establish our names, our reputations?

Paul finishes his letter by talking about mystery, “the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God”. “Mystery” is a word he likes – he uses it much more than all the other New Testament writers put together – and he has in mind something quite specific. In the New Testament world, there were things called mystery religions. These had layers and circles of initiates, with the inner circles privy to secrets that the outer circles were not. Someone who joined such a mystery religion would expect to enter into the secrets, little by little as they took part in special ceremonies. These mystery religions have modern descendants, of course, societies who present one face to the outside world or those who have just joined, and a different face to those who have made it to higher ranks or degrees. This is not the kind of thing Jesus had in mind: it is not the kind of thing Paul had in mind.

When Paul uses the word mystery, he means three things. A mystery is a truth that humans had not and could not discover, but God has graciously made known. A mystery is something that is not universally accepted even when explained. Finally, a mystery is a truth that has depth: a truth that we can go on exploring and enjoying for ever. But in the Christian world, a mystery is not, absolutely not, something that is deliberately withheld from enquirers or people on the fringes. Christian churches and teachings are to be transparent, so that those looking on can make a free-will choice. We are to be a window. The view through the window may be unexpected, it may be puzzling, it may go on much further than any of us thought and take us places we never expected… but we are not to put curtains and shutters in front of it to hide the view from others.

I want to finish by highlighting some of the places in Paul’s other letters where he expands more fully what he means by this mystery. Here in Romans he tells us that the mystery means that believers are established, set up for eternity, by the word of God – the written word and the living Word. In Ephesians 3 he tells us that the mystery of Christ is that other nations can share in the words of God’s promises along with Israelites. In Colossians at the end of chapter 1 he tells us that the mystery is that Christ, the Word of God, is in you. And to Timothy, in words that seem to be an early creed, he speaks of Jesus: great indeed is the mystery of godliness. As you read through these passages, the same key points come out again and again – the mystery had to be revealed by God, the mystery was foretold in the prophetic words of Scripture, and the mystery came to a focus in the life of Jesus, Son of God and living Word. And that is a good place to finish this letter.

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