"Mankind erected the barriers; Christ died to break them down."
Read Romans 15:7-13
This passage from Pauls letter to the Romans is, although perhaps not instantly recognisable as an Advent reading, full of the message of Christmas. It is Pauls heartfelt prayer for a people he felt deep love for, and it is also a message of encouragement and hope which was not only relevant then but is just as relevant today.
Paul starts by pleading with the congregation. Dont consider yourselves any better than those Gentiles who have come to the faith. You might be Jews and yes, Jesus came to earth as a Jew living and ministering among Jews, but there were reasons for this that stretched way back to Abraham and the early Patriarchs. Gods promises had to be fulfilled.
But Gods promises were not just to the Jews, and to back up his argument Paul uses verses from the Jewish Scriptures - the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament - where there are definite references to Gods future acceptance of the Gentiles into His family
"As it is written - 'Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name'; and again he says, 'Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people'; and again, 'Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him'; and again Isaiah says, 'The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.'"
On the subject of unity, its as simple as this, says Paul. Christ Jesus came into the world to save all men, and that "all" includes not only you but also those others that you might frown at and think slightly less worthy of that saving grace.
A Spirit of unity is what is needed.
Paul pleads with his congregation in Rome to accept the basic premise that in Gods eyes there is neither Jew nor Gentile but one people loved by God and accepted by God as equals.
In our Church today, beset by denominational differences and barriers to unity, where congregations and buildings are slowly crumbling, Pauls message comes as a timely reminder. Within any town, and this is particularly true in Wales where the number of places of worship are almost double that of the rest of the UK because of language issues, there are congregations who hardly ever meet.
We are all part of the same Church, we all worship the same God, we all read the same Bible, all the main denominations would acknowledge Jesus Christ as Saviour. Yet differences, often lost in the mists of time keep us apart.
What does Paul say to us?
"Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you,"
And why should we welcome and accept them?
"for the glory of God."
Not just so we can get to know them a bit better but "for the glory of God."
As we approach Christmas, sometimes with a speed that seems frightening, Paul brings us down to earth with a timely reminder of what its all about.
Christ came into this world for a purpose, it was not on a whim that God decided that he would do this. There was a very real purpose, and that was to bring mankind back into a relationship with its creator, back into Gods family just as the prodigal son was welcomed back into his fathers house.
Jesus did not just come to bring salvation to the Jews, although he came as a Jew and lived among Jews. It is clear from Jesus own words, and Paul shows the Scriptural basis for believing this that Jesus came that all might know the saving grace of God.
And thats the message at the heart of the Christmas story, behind the glitter and tinsel, and beyond the nativity plays and present giving and Royal Variety Performances. A baby came to bring hope to a world that had lost its way, lost the plot.
Paul goes on in this passage to sum up his hopes for the congregation in Rome
13: 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.
What a message for Advent and Christmas. If only that was the message that the world was getting from the Church in the tensions of the seasonal rush of present buying and bargain hunting.
The world needs hope at this moment. There is continuing tension within the Middle East and further afield. Closer to home we continue to see pictures on our TV screens of children who have suffered at the hands of adults, old folk mugged for small amounts of money. Drugs continue to fuel the shoplifting figures and car crime statistics. A recent police strike against the drug dealers in one of our towns led to a drop of up to 50% in related crime on property and shoplifting.
This is the world in which we live. It is difficult sometimes to see within it the hope and peace and joy that Paul wished upon his listeners, but that is the challenge that faces us as Christians.
Its told that there was a cabinet meeting in the darkest days of the last war, just after France had capitulated. Winston Churchill outlined the situation in the starkest colours. Britain stood alone. There was a silence when he finished speaking, and no doubt on the faces of many there was despair, perhaps some ready to give up the struggle. Winston Churchill looked around and said "Gentlemen, I find it rather inspiring!"
And there is something within the Christian message that can echo Pauls word of hope even within the darkest of days. God is there, above all that mankind can do to spoil creation, and there is no situation that can be counted as hopeless while there is the grace of Jesus and the peace and power of God present in the world.
But there is more to Christian faith than hope for now or the immediate future. Our hope rests in the Kingdom of God and the promise of an eternity spent in the presence of God in His Kingdom. Our hope is in the now and the hereafter. In the now because the Kingdom of God is wherever God is allowed to reign, and if that is in your heart then you are living in the Kingdom. It looks to the hereafter because that is the promise of the New Testament "He who believes HAS eternal life"
Our hope lies in the victory of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. It grows as we start to trust Gods promises and act upon them and that add two other benefits, peace and joy
The NIV translates v13 "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him "
This hope is a dynamic thing, as indeed is faith itself - it grows as we grow. The Scriptures talk of us starting off as children in the faith and then growing as we begin to be fed on spiritual food. And it is the maturity that comes with this growth that can help us to face those important moments in our lives when doubts and fears creep in.
Paul wishes his readers "joy" and here again is a word that we associate with Christmas. But what do we mean by "joy"? Is it that brief moment of present giving and receiving, or the welcoming of friends and relatives into our homes for the Christmas period? Or is it more than these?
In the world "joy" seems inextricably joined with "longing". We long for something for ages, we get it and there is a pause in our longing as we enjoy the moment of possession. But its often only a moment and then the longing comes back, directed towards something else, and were caught in this endless cycle of emotional ups and downs.
Can you relate to this? There seem to be so many people out there who are caught up in this. You see them constantly flicking through the pages of catalogues, wondering whether to they ought to be replacing the washing machine or computer they bought 2 or 3 years ago because it hasnt got the latest add-ons. Or wandering round car showrooms because the stereo in their present car isnt working as well as it might.
Sorry, I switched into cynical mode there for a moment.
Christian joy, based as Paul says on a God of hope, is not dependent on things or possessions. Our joy comes from the knowledge and certainty of Gods presence in our lives, and the certain knowledge that nothing - no September 11th, or illness or personal problems can separate us from the love of God.
And it is this Good News, of Gods eternal love for all mankind, this joy, that Paul wants the congregation to extend to all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, whether Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic or whatever.
Mankind erected the barriers; Christ died to break them down.
Paul not only wishes his listeners joy. He also wishes them peace, another word very much associated with the Advent season. There seem to be two barriers to mankind knowing this peace that Paul talks about. One is the tension that pervades our lives. Newspaper stories of atrocities, editorials telling us how badly off we are compared to other countries even when we feel perfectly comfortable, scare stories about health issues and all the other means that editors have at their disposal to up the sales of their paper.
We worry, its inevitable, and these worries mean that there is a tension in our lives which distances us from Gods peace - that serenity, that inner strength that can combat the knocks that we get day by day.
The other reason that we struggle to find peace is that there is an inner tension, and that is more to do with where we are spiritually in our walk with God. If we have committed ourselves fully to Him, if we have emptied ourselves of self and opened ourselves to be filled with His Spirit then there is no room for this tension in our lives.
We probably all know of people who seem to have this quality, an inner peace and tranquillity. But this is something that should be the experience of us all, because the power to achieve this inner peace is available through the power of Gods Spirit living in us.
13: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.
Within this passage from Pauls letter to the Church in Rome we have a very real Advent message. It comes with the Advent message of hope, peace and joy for all of mankind. It also comes with the hope for unity among believers, not just so that they might get along better together, but so that Gods name might be glorified through this unity.
Christ came into this world to bring mankind back into unity with its Creator - to be made right with God. Pauls desire to see unity between members of the family of God is surely Gods desire also - there is nothing worse in a family than to see children falling out or not talking to each other because of petty disputes.
May we all take heed of Pauls words this Advent, offering the hand of welcome to Christians of all denominations in our town. Together growing together in faith, and being filled with the hope, the joy and the peace that comes through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through our lives.
If that was the message that the world saw this Christmas season; peace, hope, love and power instead of disunity, disillusionment, tension and fear, what a difference that would make.