Nearing the end of his letter in Romans Chapter 15, Paul draws together his two big themes: Jesus the anointed King has become the servant of Jews, so that they may glorify God; and he has become the servant of non-Jews, for the same purpose. We, his church, are called to have the same attitude that Christ did.
Paul’s mission was to reach out to the non-Jews with the message of Jesus, but the Jewish Christians weren’t doing a great job of welcoming their new brothers and sisters into the church.
For you and me, in 21st century Australia, the Jew/non-Jew distinction probably doesn’t feel very relevant (although it is alive and kicking in parts of Melbourne and across the world). But we can ask ourselves, are there people who wouldn’t feel welcome in my church, because we wouldn’t really accept them? What about the people who are already there – are there people in my church, whose background is creating a barrier that I am reluctant to ignore? People I tend to disapprove of? Or maybe I just look for someone else to sit with or talk to.
Each of us brings our own baggage to church with us: our families of origin, education, dreams and disappointments, life experiences, preferences and personalities. And they can create barriers that feel very important – even unbreakable. But Jesus broke them. Jesus loves those people, and he died for them. If they are acceptable to him, warts and all, they should be acceptable to you and me too. We have our own warts, don’t we?!
Paul says, ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’. If we think we are the ones who have the true message of Christian faith, if we think we have the right interpretation, then it is our responsibility to do the crossing of barriers, the welcoming, the approaching, the forgiving. He says, ‘I’m convinced that you are full of goodness’ – which tells us that someone thought they weren’t. You and I are acceptable to God because of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (v16) and it’s he who gives us the love and compassion to welcome those who are different from us.