The Church is for the Glory of God
The church is made up of people who belong to Jesus Christ, people who have put their trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
Now why did they do that?
Well, they came to see:
that they were sinners and sinners cannot hope to stand unscathed in the presence of God.
that Jesus came into the world specifically to deal with this sin problem by his death on the cross
And so they responded by putting their trust in Jesus.
Now God could have chosen to leave such people to live out their Christian faith in private but that wasn't and isn't his plan. Instead he chose to put these Christians, who were now spiritually part of his family, into local churches. The local church, in God's plan, is the natural and ideal place where the Christian can grow in his faith and to serve alongside others
Let me ask you what your relationship is really to this local church? Are you part of this local church because you are following Jesus in the way I've just described or do you just attend meetings without actually belonging yourself?
I'm glad to see you all here this morning, you are all most welcome, but please don't make the mistake of thinking that attending a place of worship is the same as personally trusting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour – there may be a superficial resemblance but the reality is so different.
Some people's experience of local church life is, sadly, not always the happy one it ought to be. And some will react to a less than perfect experience by withdrawing altogether from church life. That is not the way because it goes against what the Bible actually teaches and it is neither safe nor wise to do that.
I want to suggest a couple of reasons why local church life will sometimes be difficult before proceeding to think about the instructions that Paul gave to the local church in Rome back in the first century of the Christian era. He didn't tell them to give up on the church but he taught them how they were to behave in it.
Some reasons why local churches experience problems
God's people who make up the church are still sinners! The person who has placed his trust in Jesus Christ has had his sins forgiven and the Holy Spirit now is at work in him/her but none of us are yet the finished article. We are a people on the move -
You see we all have our rough edges and our sharp corners and they need to be rubbed down. The Spirit of God has started on us and he will continue his work until he has fully accomplished it, but it is not the work of an instant. And God uses the church family in this process! How foolish then to run away from the very place where God wants to pursue his work of making us all more like the Lord Jesus!
Hospitals would all run very smoothly if there were no sick people on the wards but there would be no need of a hospital if no-
God's people come in all shapes and sizes too – there are many more types than Heinz's 57 varieties. We all come into the church with varying degrees of baggage coming as we do from different backgrounds and different sets of life-
In the immediate context Paul has been talking about disagreements that Christians were having over secondary matters and they were dividing into groups – the strong or the weak in faith are the names Paul ascribes to them. This wasn't easy either but it was real!
All these different groupings belonged in the church and had to work out just how to live together – Paul will tell them about how to go about it – but none was encouraged to go it alone. We are not to neglect "to meet together, as is the habit of some, but we are to encourage one another, and all the more as we see the Day drawing near." (Cf. Heb.10:25).
If the unfinished nature of God's disparate people mean that internally the church contains many potential flash points we need to be aware that the church has external forces ranged against it too.
God's enemies have an interest in seeing the church fail. On a human level a properly functioning church will be a challenge and a rebuke to the godless way of life of the man in the street and, unless the Spirit of God is at work, he will not like it.
But the major enemy of the church is not to be identified as the mass of people outside the church but in the evil spiritual forces at work in the world. The devil is a reality. He knows a good deal about God's purposes for the church and he doesn't like what he knows. He knows how God uses the church for preparing Christians for holy living and ultimately for heavenly living and he opposes all such efforts; he knows too that the church in God's plan is to be like a city set on a hill that is evident and visible to all around – the truth of God is made known through the church and it is this truth that sets men free from their spiritual bondage – and Satan doesn't want to lose any of his captives. He knows too that the church is the place par excellence where God's glory is most celebrated on earth and he hates it. As a consequence Satan does all he can to spoil the church, to muffle her voice and to ruin her witness – Christians would play right into his hands if they rejected the church because there were problems to be found there!
As Paul has already spent some consideration time talking about how Christians are to put their faith into practice and is still writing about how Christians are to behave in a church context it is evident that God takes an interest in the quality of our church life. How we behave with regards to the church matters to God, it mattered to Paul and it should matter to us too if we are followers of Jesus Christ.
In Friday's edition of The Times one of our judges was reported as having said that the church was in decline. And the reason the judge gave was that Christianity was just not demanding enough. She cited as examples that the church had no dietary laws, no dress codes and expected very little from its members.
But how foolish all that is! Of course I'm not bothered by dietary laws not by dress codes but when I hear what Paul says of church members and their behaviour I find that he, as God's mouthpiece, has incredibly high expectations.
In order to see what I mean all you need to do is look at the first two verses of ch.15:
Paul doesn't say that Christians are merely to put up with each other, to tolerate each other or to be patient with each other – and let's recognise that that would have been quite demanding if he had. But no, Paul has something far more demanding to say:
Christians are not to live to please themselves even when they are in the right but they are consistently to put the interests of others ahead of their own. The strong is not simply told to restrain himself but to use his strength in the service of others. The strong is not called upon to be patient with the weak but to use his strength in a self-
Of course Paul is not saying that it is wrong for an individual to want to advance in his own walk with the Lord nor is it wrong for him to want to enjoy to the fullest possible extent the benefits of the salvation that has been secured for him by Jesus Christ. What Paul is saying that it is wrong for the Christian to pursue these interests without paying any attention to just how such a pursuit might negatively impact upon someone else.
Paul actually puts it both positively and negatively for us.
We are NOT to live selfishly pleasing ourselves.
We ARE to live with a view to pleasing our neighbour for his good and this will be brought about as we do what we can to build him up.
The Christian church is to be a place that is marked and characterised by the strong foregoing their rights in order to secure the spiritual advantage of his neighbour and in particular his weaker neighbour.
And this is many times more demanding than having a series of petty instructions about what to eat and what to wear!
And yet Paul has not finished. He knows that the ultimate goal of the church is not in becoming some sort of mutual help society. The church can never be properly be described, far less defined, without reference to God. The ultimate goal of the church is for the united service of bringing glory to God as Paul writes:
v.6 "that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Paul spreads out a great vision of a harmonious, loving church where the members regularly and systematically consider others and their interests as more important than their own.
It's a wonderful vision but is it realistic? Where does it come from? How on earth is something like this to be attempted?
Let's turn to find Paul's answers to those questions.
The Example of Christ
Paul has not been engaging in some armchair theologizing, he has been thinking about the hard realities of church life in a hostile world and his mind turns to the example that Jesus set for his people.
Now before going any further I must remind you that Paul is writing to followers of Jesus. So we must make sure we get the order right. We must come to trust him as Saviour before we can properly follow his example! Paul says as much in:
Rom.15:7 "Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."
Paul's vision of the church is consistently founded upon the example of Jesus Christ himself. Where did Paul's idea of selfless service come from? It came from Jesus!
Rom.15:3 "For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.""
Rom.15:5 "in accord with Jesus Christ"
And in many other places the NT reminds Christians about the example Jesus left them:
Mt.20:28 "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
2Cor.8:9 "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."
Why should we take Paul's vision of the church seriously? The answer is simple: it is based upon the example of Jesus.
The Usefulness of Scripture
The vision might be a wonderful one and yes it may well be founded upon the example of Jesus but how on earth are we to make progress? It all seems beyond us.
Paul now tells the Christians in Rome of how helpful they will find the Bible to be in their quest for faithful discipleship. Remember these Christians he is writing to have received the Spirit of God, they have been made completely new people and empowered for living new lives but they still need what only the Bible can bring them.
Rom.15:4 "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
Paul in talking about the example of Jesus had actually proved his point by quoting from the Book of Psalms – if you look at the context the psalm spoke about one who was full of zeal for God's house. How appropriate then Paul's quotation turns out to be.
Now, continuing, he generalizes and tells the Romans and us about the benefits that we can expect to receive from Bible reading.
Instruction which will help us through difficult times
Encouragement as we go through those difficult times
Hope – how hard it is to keep going if we have no hope
And we have a large book, the whole Bible. Some bits are easy and straightforward and even a cursory glance brings us great reward. Other bits are different and we have to think sometimes long and hard but that work too reaps its rewards. But all of the Bible is for us and our benefit – Christian stay away from it to your detriment and at your peril!
So we have the example of Christ, the usefulness of Scripture and we also have the help of…
The God of all grace
But we're never to think that we're on our own with the Bible as though it was up to us to wrestle reluctant impersonal truths from an impersonal text. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Paul prays for the Christians in Rome that God will help them and enable them to do what they are being called upon to do. But did you notice that as Paul prays he prays to God as the source of the blessings that they can expect to receive through their growing acquaintance with the Bible?! The God to whom Paul prays is the God of endurance and the God of encouragement – he is the one who helps us, sustains us, strengthens us, refreshes us, and enables us to keep on going to the final accomplishment of his will and purposes.
We're not to think that you need to be a highly educated person in order to understand and benefit from the Bible – it is God's Bible and he wants his truth to be vital and real to us.
So hear it – listen attentively when it is publicly read in church. Listen to it on tape, CD, mp3, online! Read it too for yourself – God has used it through the centuries to do his people good, he still uses it to teach us and to encourage us today.
But don't stop with a mere hearing and don't stop with a true understanding either but go on to celebrate with the rest of the church the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!"