At first glance, what Paul’s doing in our Epistle lesson for today is difficult to see as an Advent passage, isn’t it? Lot of stuff about Gentiles—which, if you know Paul makes some sense, but if you’re trying to peg it to Advent, well, then, it’s not so obvious.
Well, let’s take a look behind the scenes to see what’s going on here. Paul is wrapping up his letter to the Roman church, a church that is apparently experiencing some of the same growing pains as all the other first generation churches—they’ve got to figure out what to do about the influx of Gentiles.
Remember, the first Christians were Jews. Admittedly, they were Jews that followed Jesus, but at first, Christianity was only an idiosyncratic strain of Judaism. They met in the synagogue and argued on Jewish terms with other Jews why it was that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Some bought it, but many didn’t. The point, though, is that all of the first Christians—even Jesus—without exception—were Jews.
But then a funny thing happened—Peter presided over the baptism of the Gentile officer, Cornelius, and Paul came along telling everybody that God had called him to go preach to the Gentiles, and then there was that big council in Jerusalem where it was finally decided that Gentile converts didn’t have to undergo circumcision before being baptized.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been a part of organizations and movements and churches and clubs that started letting new people in—and it’s a pretty scary thing. They don’t always follow Roberts Rules of Order in meetings; they don’t have any particular investment in the old way of doing things; they have funny ideas about what’s important and what’s not.
You say to them, “Well, here at the Kiwanis Club of Horse Cave, we don’t do things like that. We’ve always done things like this.”
And they look at you with eyes glazed over and say, “So what?”
No, when new folks start the initiation process, everything that used to be is on the way to becoming something different, strange, untested.
So, you can imagine the problems the early church ran into when they started letting in Gentiles with all their new ideas and crazy notions. Those who’d been raised to observe the Jewish law were outraged when the new folks didn’t seem particularly attached to the old ways.
“It’s just not the same,” they grumbled. And they longed for the peace of the old days. Of course, our minds have an interesting way of sanding off all the rough edges of the old days so that they look more peaceful than they ever were. But we can certainly understand their nostalgia.
The Gentiles, for their part, weren’t being particularly helpful. Apparently, they took the view that their eventual inclusion within the new covenant people—the church—meant they could just go on and be whoever they wanted without any regard for their friends and family who were in anguish over how to be faithful in, what amounted to, an entirely new world of faith.
The Gentile converts thought that just because they didn’t have to observe the Jewish law in order to be included that that meant they didn’t have to be sensitive to the folks who’d been there forever and who still felt compelled to observe Jewish law.
“We don’t have to do that stuff, and we’re not gonna do that stuff.”
So, of course, the Jewish Christians felt like not only was their entire world changing, but that their noses were being rubbed in it by those people who were now supposed to be fellow citizens under the reign of God. You can understand why there was some tension in the church in Rome.
Like an irritated parent, Paul writes this extended letter to the Roman church to settle the dispute between the warring factions. To the Jewish Christians he says, “The Gentiles are here to stay. God loves them just as much as God loves you. Get used to it.”
And to the Gentile Christians he says, “The Jews were here first. They’re the original recipients of God’s good promise. You’ve been fortunate to be grafted onto the tree—but make no mistake, it’s a Jewish tree. And just because you don’t have to observe all the trappings of Judaism in order to be a part of the family doesn’t give you the freedom to rub their noses in it”—which is where we find ourselves in today’s passage.
“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (15:5).
That’s pleasant, right? “Y’all better start playing nice.” And if an annoyed parent says it, we know why—to get a little peace and quiet.
But why does Paul say it? Paul’s never even been to the church in Rome, so why does he care whether or not the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians “live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus?”
Paul tips his hands in the next verse: “So that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).
To Paul’s way of thinking, the way that the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians behaved toward one another was a sign to the world of the reign of God established in Christ. In other words, how will the world hear you if you can’t speak with one voice?
If y’all can’t get it together among yourselves, why should we take anything you have to say seriously?
In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the story of the Joad family’s journey from the dustbowl of Oklahoma in the 1930s to the promised land of California, a preacher named Casy, after spending some time in jail for taking the blame for hitting a police officer, meets back up with the oldest son in the Joad family, Tom. He tells about an incident that happened while he was in jail:
Well, one day they give us some beans that was sour. One fella started yellin’, an’ nothin’ happened. He yelled his head off. Trusty come along an’ looked in an’ went on. Then another fella yelled. Well, sir, then we all got yellin’. And we all got on the same tone, an’ I tell ya, it jus’ seemed like that tank bulged an’ give and swelled up. By God! Then somepin happened! They come a-runnin’, and they give us some other stuff to eat—give it to us. Ya see? (382).
If you can’t stop picking at each other and speak with one voice, how will anyone ever be able to hear what you’re saying?
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you” (15:7).
Because God likes us to be nice? No.
Because friendliness is next to godliness? No.
We speak with one voice; we welcome one another because that’s the only way to proclaim to the world the nature of the reign that’s being established in Jesus Christ.
In a world that seems constantly to be constructing barriers to true community, those people who claim to be followers of Jesus have the responsibility to welcome one another because we are the embodiment of the reign of God constituted in hope.
Ours is no small task, no bit of meaningless busywork. We stand as a counter-cultural alternative to the violent ways of this world—so that this world can get a glimpse of the peaceable kingdom promised in the Isaiah reading this morning: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6–9).
But the question Isaiah’s vision raises is: How will the earth be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea? How will we ever live out this outrageous, improbable vision of God’s reign?
Paul says, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Do you see?
We followers of Jesus speak with one voice, we embrace one another—even when we seem to be miles apart—because our call to live in harmony with one another is a sign to the world of the hope that is breaking in upon us through Christ.
The world has no way of understanding Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom as anything but wishful thinking if the church doesn’t embody that kingdom in the way it lives together.
How can we ever expect the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Indians and the Pakistanis, the Chinese and the Taiwanese (or the Tibetans), the United States and the Afghanis to live together peaceably if the church doesn’t show them what that might look like?
The church offers hope to the world precisely to the extent that God establishes the church to give the world a glimpse of the new world God has in store—a world in which wolves and lambs lay down together, a world in which Jews and Gentiles claim one another as family, a world in which black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight are no longer epithets to keep one another at arm’s length, a world in which Muslims and immigrants and refugees don’t have to spend their lives always looking over their shoulder for people determined to fear and hate them, a world in which that which unites us is always stronger than that which divides us.
“Welcome one another, therefore,” Paul says, “just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” That’s what the world is looking for. That’s why this is an Advent text.
We embrace one another in all of our difference, because God in Christ embraced us. Our attention to hospitality, our stance as open and affirming isn’t an add-on to our otherwise kind nature; it’s not some nifty marketing tool to get people to like us.
We open our arms to all of God’s children who walk through those doors—no matter where the come from, or what they do, or how their racial or ethnic family tree is constituted, or how much money they make, or what their sexual orientation or gender expression is—because that’s who we are. And short of that, if we can’t welcome those who’ve sought us out, why should anyone else ever take us seriously?
Later in The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad tells his parents that he’s taking the family to look for a government camp. The family’s tired after having been driven from their land in Oklahoma and treated like animals by people all along the road to California.
When they reach California, the native Californians systematically work to keep the immigrant Okies down, to break their spirit, fearing that if the new people are welcomed, all the natives will lose the control they’ve always enjoyed.
These native Californians receive the labor of the newly arrived immigrants grudgingly and with hostility, taking every opportunity to drive them further down the road.
After the locals come and burn down the camp, the Joads head out to look for a place where they will be welcomed, where they will no longer be harassed, where the hostility of the natives cannot reach them. If they can just find that magical, peaceable land.
“Yeah, but where we goin’?” Pa spoke for the first time. “That’s what I want ta know.” “Gonna look for that gov’ment camp,” Tom said. “A fella said they don’ let no deputies in there. Ma—I got to get away from ‘em. I’m scairt I’ll kill one.” “Easy, Tom,” Ma soothed him. “Easy, Tommy. You done good once. You can do it again.” “Yeah, an’ after a while I won’t have no decency lef’.” “Easy,” she said. “You got to have patience. Why, Tom—us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people—we go on.” “We can’t take a beatin’ all the time.” “I know,” Ma chuckled. “Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’t you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”
In such a violent world where darkness seems to rule the day, where walls are built, and even in the church, we can’t see our way to welcome one another, and we wonder how our perseverance in the struggle to follow Jesus, to live together faithfully makes any difference.
Paul says, “Live together in harmony. Speak with one voice, which glorifies God. Welcome one another. Don’t give up. The world’s counting on you for a glimpse of the peaceable kingdom. They can’t see it without you. Your lives stand as a sign of hope.”
“May 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.”
Which is another way of speaking Advent: “Don’t you fret none. A differen’ time’s comin’.”