A sermon preached on Romans 15:1-7 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on the occasion of her Public Launch at 20 South Prospect Street (Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown).
Gracious and Holy Father: You are the God who spoke the universe into being by the power of your Word. From nothing, you formed galaxies and made a home for us in our world. When we look at this family, this new creation you have raised up, we have a similar sense of awe and of being called forth from nothing, or at least from the dust of the earth. Today, we celebrate all you have done through us and all you will do in the days ahead. Nothing gives us more joy than to exalt you and praise you for your faithfulness! Yours is the glory, O Lord, ours is the joy.
And now, as we gather around your Word once more, renew us in the power and message of the Gospel. Help us, Lord, to remain faithful to it. May we see many lives forever changed by it, and even today, may we know ourselves to be within it. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” This has been our theme for 2019, and now it is our theme for this day.
Romans 15:1-7 comes at the tail end of Paul’s discussion regarding the strong and weak. Fellowship in the church was being broken because of a disagreement over mainly food. This was a result of having a mixed congregation of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. We’re not going to spend much time directly on that today, but we will focus on where Paul lands in chapter 15, specifically verses 5 to 7. Paul ends by calling the weak and the strong toward gospel-centered harmony and unity because of Christ Jesus. When our secondary differences and preferences as individuals are put on one side of the scale, and the cross of Jesus Christ on the other, those differences will always kick the beam! As has been often said, the ground at the foot of the cross is exceedingly level.
As we explore this, we’ll focus on two themes in our time together:
1) Seeing the cost of our own welcome in Christ
2) Seeing then the costly way in which we must welcome others
I. Seeing the Cost of Our Own Welcome in Christ
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
We must never forget how Christ welcomes us. How does he welcome us? As we will sing later on in the service, his arms of love reached for us, enclosed us, redeemed us, rescued us. And what we must never forget is that the Incarnate hands and arms of love that reached for us were nail pierced. That’s the rub, isn’t it? If you’re a believer, you can’t get over the great cost paid on the cross, and if you’re an unbeliever, you can’t yet accept it. I wonder which category you’re in today?
The world wants to say that God accepts us as we are, period. But that is not true. It is not worthy of Christ and his cross say such a thing. The truth is that Christ accepts us in spite of ourselves and at unfathomable cost to himself. The change in wording is slight, but the difference is profound. Here, no one has put it better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he compared what he calls “cheap grace” with “costly grace”:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. … Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “[you] were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” (The Cost of Discipleship, pgs. 44-45)
Three years ago, when I was ordained a priest to serve this congregation, our Vestry did something which caused me some amount of heartburn. They bought a very costly chalice and paten. I am glad they did. This chalice and paten speak to us. They say, “what I hold is more dear and precious than anything else.”
New Creation is not founded upon my gifts, the devotion of our people, the innovation and creativity of our staff, the slickness of our advertising, but upon the body broken and the blood shed for our sins.
Friends, we are here today to celebrate a church founded on costly grace. And as we’re going, the costly grace must change everything.
II. Seeing the Costly Way in Which We Must Welcome Others
“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
We come secondly to Paul’s exhortation to “welcome one another.” And this order is critical, because you do not become a truly welcoming church (or person, for that matter) simply by talking about it or programing it, but by focusing, like a laser, upon Jesus. And, in the light of his grace and goodness, our own affections, thoughts, motives, and actions toward others are tested, undone, melted down and remade. Our lives will be like the costly perfume broken at the feet of Jesus, poured out to be used to his glory. In this, our welcome will be costly in at least two ways.
A. Costliness associated with not becoming ingrown (and keeping the Gospel in the center)
I’m going to take a bit of a side-road here, but I hope it will make the point. This past summer (2018), I had the privilege to lead New Creation through the book of Revelation. I was moved, particularly, by the words of Jesus to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3.
The seven churches fall into three categories: Two are in grave spiritual danger (meaning, Jesus tells them they are about to lose their lampstand). Three are a mixed bag of faithfulness and compromise and two have been proven good and faithful in the midst of persecution.
Now picture a church with the follow attributes: 1) well established, 2) it is hard working, 3) it loves Christian orthodoxy and can therefore 4) discern when someone is a false teacher. Now, what would you say about this church? Would you say it’s healthy or not? Which of those three categories would you put it in? Would you be surprised to know that this church – Ephesus – is one of the two churches in the category of “in grave spiritual danger?” It’s true. In Revelation 2:2-5, Jesus warns the church:
2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…”4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
Why does Jesus say he will remove their lampstand? Because the Love (agape) of God in Christ and his Gospel was being abandoned. The love, which, as Louis Brighton puts it, is “the genesis of all other love and all love’s works” was fading. Why? Perhaps the inward focus at Ephesus led to self-righteousness. Or, did the depths of sin which the Ephesians saw around them, for example, in the perverse sexuality in the temple of Artemis and the exposure of newborns, cause them to disdain their neighbors? To forget God’s love for them?
How about us? Do we disdain our neighbors, or do desire, pray, serve, and work toward sincerely serving them and seeing them won to Christ?
Some of the churches in Revelation were tempted to tolerance and immorality. This one was tempted to intolerance. And this is a persistent temptation the longer you live out the Christian life. The temptation is to believe that you somehow need the Gospel less now than you did when you first believed. But, as Matthew Richards puts it, “to move forward in the Christian life, we must constantly start over.”
If the love of the Gospel is forgotten, something else will take its place at the center of the church. And therefore that body ceases to belong to Christ. The truth is that buildings and bodies continue to exist long after the Spirit of God has departed, leaving a civic club in its place. It happened then, and it happens now. In fact, there is now little trace of the church at Ephesus – the city no longer exists and is marked by only a place-name. Its lampstand was removed.
Not too long ago, I can remember standing right outside this building on the sidewalk, saying to our search committee, “If we move into this building and commit to minister to our community in this way, there will be a spiritual cost to pay. It will cost us something to stand at the center of our community like this. There will be a sacrifice involved.”
But, you know, the costliness of reaching out and keeping the Gospel at the center – the costliness of time and money and resources and people, just to name a few — is nothing, it would seem, when compared to the costliness of not doing so. That’s what the church at Ephesus teaches us.
B. Costliness associated with loving people who are different than us
Paul begins our passage by saying that, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” It’s very interesting – the word bear here is the same word used to describe Jesus’ bearing of the cross.
Jesus calls us toward a costly love where we are able to bear with others who aren’t like us. So, we stop trying to control who comes through the front door of the church and instead start thinking about why the Lord has brought them to us and how we can serve them in Christ.
In fact, we stop waiting for people to come into the church at all, and we start asking how we can go out to them. That’s what we want to be about!
We stop thinking about people and friendships as reputational cred, or giving units, or whatever it may be. As Tim Keller says here, “We are not simply to relate to “our own kind” or to people who give to us and build us up emotionally. … A Christian does not walk into a room and immediately ask: Are these people I want to be seen with? Are these people I will enjoy? But rather: How can I help and build up these people? Who might I be able to serve in some way?” (Romans 8-16 For You by Tim Keller, pg. 164)
I want to end with this invitation: no matter where you are at today, there is room for you to both receive the extravagant welcome Christ gives and to be part of extending that costly welcome to others. Welcome to New Creation Anglican Church.
And so, we give all praise, honor, and glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.