Hope Advent 2016

Today’s passage is the climax of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the 8th verse he describe the mission of Christ. He indicates that Christ “has become a servant of the circumcised.” By the ‘circumcised’ he meant the Jews. And then, in a striking parallel, Paul describes himself as a servant or officiant of Christ to the nations, that is the rest of the whole non-Jewish world (15:16). What Christ came to accomplish for the Jews, Paul now parallels in his work with the nations, as an envoy of Christ. He writes in Romans 15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

For Paul the scriptures recall God’s promises, given to the Jews and now extended to the nations. In his day the scriptures were called the Mikra, a Hebrew word for “that which is read” in the synagogues which was the way most people knew anything of them. It was also referred to as the Tanakh which is a Hebrew alliteration for the three sections of the Hebrew scriptures with which it consisted:, the Torah which is the first five books of Moses, the Nevi’im or the Prophets and the Ketuvim, the writings. In Paul’s Rabbinical studies he would have learned the Hebrew scriptures in this form. His Greek speaking readers however would have been more familiar with the Koine Greek Septuagint which had been translated some two hundred years before in Alexandria, Egypt.

So he writes: that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

Steadfastness coupled with the encouragement of scripture gives people hope. There is a traceable thread of hope throughout Paul’s letter to the Romans: He tells u that Abraham, the model of faithfulness, “hopes against hope” that God will make good on the promise of an heir, despite his and Sarah’s barrenness and advanced age. Just preceding our passage for today Paul writes that through Jesus Christ we also “rejoice in hope of sharing the glory of God…” indeed, our suffering in the present, far from dashing our hopes, disciplines us in patient endurance, building a character capable of hope (5:2-5). Again, in Romans 8:18-25, the present is a time of suffering, but we live in confident hope of the redemption of our body, the liberation of all creation from futility, decay and death. This hope, says Paul, is for something that cannot be seen at present, “for who hopes for what they see? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

So he continues: May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul establishes that the basis for hope is the character of God. And the goal of the encouragement and steadfastness is so that we, the community to which Paul writes, the Church, will live in harmony with one another and our living in harmony has an outcome, a purpose: it is that together with one voice we glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does that say when the church becomes known for dissonance, incongruity and disagreement?

Paul instructs the Christian community of Rome to: 7Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9and in order that the nations might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the nations, and sing praises to your name”; 10and again he says, “Rejoice, O nations, with his people”; 11and again, “Praise the Lord, all you nations, and let all the peoples praise him”; 12and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the nations; in him the nations shall hope.”

13May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul declares that Christ has welcomed us, all of us, and brought us home to God and to each other. To open our arms to those who otherwise are strangers and even enemies is nothing short of a miracle of grace. The experience of that welcome is the way we learn that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

So by the time we get to this grand finale of Romans we have learned that hope and steadfastness are inseparable companions, and that through the activity of the Holy Spirit God is the source of both. Paul finds reason for hope in the way he sees God working through his own ministry, by bringing the nations to faith in Christ the Messiah of Israel. Just as the scriptures which brought hope were of Hebrew origin, so is the concept of the Messiah of Israel, the anointed one, Christ Jesus. Paul is declaring that such salvation is not limited to the Jews – but to ‘the gentiles’ or, as the Greek more correctly says “to the nations.” Such universal worship of God shows that God is keeping the promises found in scripture. This is so important because in it we see how Paul is intent on spreading it beyond the culture of birth of Hebrew ethical monotheism. In v. 12 he says the nation’s, that is the non-Jewish world) also hope in the Messiah from the line of David, and in v. 13, the final and familiar blessing sums up the passage, and indeed, the letter as a whole with a wonderful benediction: “May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

In the communities he has founded or with which he communicates, he hopes to make real what has only been promised in scriptures and aims to create an environment where nations and God’s people can worship the God of Israel together, “with one voice” (Romans 15:6). The last quote (Isaiah 11:10 LXX) indicates how the Messiah will rule over the Gentiles and how the Gentiles will be included in the hope given to God’s people by the God of Israel. This inclusion also means that the nations can now rejoice alongside God’s people (15:9 and 15:10).

Paul reminds us of the scripture’s witness to the truthfulness and faithfulness of God. Second, he turns our attention to God’s presence in their midst, precisely and especially in the experience of mutual love and service between people who previously were enemies. “Welcome one another,” Paul writes, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God”

For the community in Rome, this means concretely that the Christ-believers have to embody an ethic of hospitality towards each other (Romans 15:7). At the heart of the identity of the community, there needs to be an attitude of welcome and openness. In Romans 15:5, Paul’s wish for the community describes the content of this life in community marked by hospitality: it is about “thinking the same thing.”

The purpose is unity of thought, but Paul adds that this unity of thought happens “among each other,” according to Christ Jesus.” The unity of thought does not mean that the diversity (“among each other”) disappears. However, the criterion of unity among diversity is Christ Jesus. If Christ remains the decisive factor for the community, then the community can reach unity through its diversity and thus glorify God (15:6). Glorification is important but has to be done as a community.

The house churches in Rome, mixed communities comprised of Jews and non-Jews, it meant that the pagan members of the communities have more value than the Jewish members, that the uncircumcised are any less recipients of God’s grace. Unity according to Christ does not mean that differences are erased. Members do not have to conform to one particular pattern of behavior, but they do have to realize that the essential and defining character of their identity is now Christ. In like manner we too are called to this hospitality. This hospitality is not a lukewarm sort of welcome that would translate in letting anyone come in as long as they adapt to what is considered the “strong” position in the church (Romans 15:1), conform to the customs of the established church, or follow the agenda established by the ones in charge inside the community.

Rather, the welcome Paul has in mind threatens the status of the ones who offer it. It pushes them to the threshold of the community and forces them to accept those who come as they are, without seeking to first transform them so that they adapt to the dominant practice. The criterion is the ethos of Christ, and this criterion is one that does not seek to change those who come to Christ.

How do we experience and proclaim the hope that Paul proclaims? How do we answer the question posed with such intensity by those battling intractable disease and disability? How do we speak to the doubts voiced by those who face tragedy and mystery, oppression and injustice?

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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