Friday, July 15, 2011

A very wet Hong Kong indeed today.  I thought I would bring the posts 'Introducing Romans' to a close with the following Postscript.  The posts 'Introducing Romans' really belong together, but that would have made the post very long indeed.  Hence the need to break them up.  Anyone wishing to access it as an unbroken whole can do so clicking on the label Romans or on the following link:

Introducing Romans

Have a good weekend!

Postscript to Introducing Romans

We have noted how Paul was spending the Winter in Corinth when he wrote Romans, reflecting on his past work in the East and preparing for his future work in Rome and the West.  Before that however, he was off on what he saw as a crucial journey to Jerusalem.  The last thoughts we have from Paul before he set off on this journey were of those who caused division and opposed his teaching.  Doubtless, he was worried that they may get to Rome before him.  After all, his opponents had caused him trouble enough in the past 10 years or so.

He was also worried that he might meet opposition in Jerusalem when he arrived with the collection.  Paul was well aware that so controversial was his preaching to many Jewish-Christians that they might simply refuse to accept the gift no matter how badly they needed it.  He was right to be worried.  Acts 21 records Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem with the collection.  The day after his arrival, he goes to meet James, the brother of Jesus, and the other leaders of the Jerusalem Church.

Paul gives them a report of his ministry amongst the Gentiles.  They seem to have received it well enough, but what really mattered to them can be seen from how they reply to his report.  Luke tells us: ‘Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.  They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 21:20-21)

Their answer to this concern is for Paul to go to the Temple and demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism and the Law.  It was either a set up or a terrible miscalculation.  When Paul is recognized in the temple led instead to a riot and Paul nearly being killed.  Instead, he was arrested a riot breaks out and Paul is nearly killed.  Instead he is arrested.  We do not hear of him as a free man again.  He is imprisoned in Caesarea for two years before being sent at his own insistence for trial in Rome where we know he was also a prisoner for two years.  What happened to him after that we do not know because this is where Luke finishes his account of Paul’s ministry.

Paul had planned three journeys and had written of his desire to see the Roman Christians.  He was to make two of those journeys and did eventually get to Rome, but not in the way he had hoped.  As for the journey he had planned to Spain, we simply don’t know whether he made it there or not.  Some think that Paul was released after the imprisonment in Rome recorded at the end of Acts and went on to Spain.  Some think he was released, but didn’t make it to Spain.  Others still think that he was not released.  The truth is we will never know!

In Christian mission and ministry, we have to make plans.  God expects it of us.  Otherwise, there is a danger that we will just drift.  Churches, dioceses and provinces often have five year plans for what they will do and often these are formulated with the best will and intentions.  Just as Paul’s plans had been.

It can then be very disappointing when our plans do not work out as we either wanted or expected as frequently they do not.  Coping with disappointment can be hard.  On the occasion of my 25 years in the priesthood, I preached a sermon on some of my own disappointments.  One person who heard it declared afterward that she was disappointed in me.  Disappointment doesn’t always fit with some Christians’ world-view!

But in Romans itself Paul wrote of his sufferings and yet despite them he knew that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).  Paul had learnt through years of ministry that although God wants us to plan ahead, God is greater than our plans and has a plan of his own.  Paul was to write to the Philippians about his imprisonment:

‘I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.’  (Philippians 1:12-13)
No matter how much we may be committed to the Church and to the Gospel, God is more so.  We need in our planning and thinking not only to be open to God’s guidance, but to God overruling and changing our plans.  As the saying has it: ‘man proposes, but God disposes’.

And what is true in mission and ministry is true for us personally.  We all have our hopes and dreams.  We plan for the large and small things in our lives: for our careers, partners, and families.  We plan where we shall live and what we shall do.  We plan for our children and their schooling.  And the big plans give rise to the little plans that govern what we do each week and day.

As Christians, we need to see that our lives are in God’s hands.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan, but that we should not be so attached to our plans that we are not open to God changing them.  At times, we will find this frightening and we will be afraid.  There would be something wrong with us if we were not.  Paul believed, however, that not only did ‘all things work together for good for those who loved God’, he also believed, as he again says in Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

Yes, our plans will change or even fail altogether – that is a fact of life.  For the Christian, however, there is the promise of God that, no matter how much we may be disappointed or how bad things may get, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  As Paul discovered, not only is God greater than our plans, he is greater than our failure and, no matter what, he remains firmly in control. 

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