Original Christianity

Romans is all about “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Nobody has to stay stuck where they are. Everyone in this city can become young all over again. We can be rejuvenated every day of our lives. We don’t know how to live that way, but God knows how to take us there. The way forward is to go back, not to yesterday, not to five years ago, but all the way back. God revealed something new 2000 years ago, and he’s still giving it away today. Whenever we have the courage to say, “I’m not satisfied, I’m not where God wants me to be, I know God has more for me than this” – when that restless honesty drives us back to the gospel and we open our hearts to a new beginning, the power of God comes down.

Who of us, thinking of our personal health, is saying, “I have a pulse. That’s enough”? Who in politics is willing to lose, as long as they’re on the ballot? Who in the NFL is okay with sitting on the bench rather than getting in the game? And what Christian can settle for the status quo today? God has called us at Immanuel to make an impact on our generation and the next. How does he help us get there? There is only one way. Go back. Peel off layer after layer of oldness and rediscover in the gospel the great things God can do for us. That’s what everybody needs. It’s why we’re in Romans.

Romans 1:8-15 helps us get back in touch with original Christianity. This paragraph is a keyhole glimpse into the early church. God is showing us because it isn’t limited to the first century. He is opening a door for us to step inside this world. When we look at our world today we are seeing the dynamics of spiritual death everywhere. But God is bringing in something new – the dynamics of spiritual life. He wants us to see it, understand it and enter in. That is why he gave us this paragraph in Romans. Paul makes three things very clear.

The spiritual passion of original Christianity

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. Romans 1:8-10

In verse 9 Paul opens his heart at a deep level: “I serve [God] with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” There was nothing deeper inside Paul than this. What is he saying? He is taking the thought of verse 5, “for the sake of his name” – that is God’s passion in all things – and Paul is internalizing God’s passion as his own passion. If we ask the ultimate Why-question about everything – Why did God create the world? Why did he put us here? Why did he allow evil? Why did God send his Son to the cross? Why is God not forsaking us but, with his hand firmly on the helm, keeping all things moving toward his promises? – if we ask the ultimate Why-question, the answer is “for the sake of his name.” That phrase is the banner draped over the whole length of human history: “for the sake of his name.” Here in verse 9 we see that Paul received that passion of God deep into himself: “I serve [God] with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.”

It wasn’t just a job. It wasn’t his public persona, while his real self came out when he was off-camera. The gospel of Christ went deep into all that he was. Paul saw God’s passion to exalt the name of Christ. He saw God’s passion touching his life in the gift of Christ, and Paul said to himself, “Okay, now I know what to care about. Now I know why I’m here. I will serve God with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.” Talk about a purpose-driven life! This is why you’re here in God’s world. It’s a tremendous reason to be alive.

We can always ask the question, moment by moment, “Why did the Lord locate me in my job? Why did he locate me in my neighborhood? Why am I in this family? Why did he give me an interest in my hobbies and recreations? Why did he give me the circle of friends I have? Why has he allowed into my life the things I don’t want, and why has he kept from me the things I want? As I look around at every aspect of my life, why?” And the answer is, “For the sake of his name.” That is God’s passion in the life you have. You’re part of a story that big. And here is how you can respond. You can sanctify, you can hallow, you can consecrate everything in your life by echoing God’s passion with your own passion: “I will serve God with my spirit in the gospel of his Son. I want to learn how to use my life, moment by moment, as a platform for displaying how good Jesus Christ really is.” That passion is Christianity. It’s the understanding we share as a church.

What is the heartbeat of Immanuel Church? To serve God with our very spirits in the gospel of his Son, for the sake of his name – we have no other passion. 1 Corinthians 15 makes it clear:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. —1 Corinthians 15:1-4

Our ministry is not what we choose; it is what we receive already defined by God. And he himself tells us that not everything in the Bible is of first importance. The Bible gives us a sense of priorities, a sense of proportion. What is of first importance is simple: Jesus Christ crucified and risen again for sinners, and everything else orbits around him. He is the center. He is the center of God’s heart. Now we know what to set apart as holy, untouchable, sacred, primary.

We live in a city where so many people are not ravished by Jesus Christ. I didn’t check The Tennessean this morning. But I’m guessing that the headline story was not “Nashville flooded with joyous passion over the Lord Jesus Christ. The churches filled. Sunday morning traffic jams. Sins confessed. Debts repaid. Marriages restored. Families re-united. The races reconciled. Denominations burying the hatchet. Missionaries commissioned. Justice upheld. Mercy overflowing.” Was that the top story in the paper this morning? If not, then there is a problem in Nashville, Tennessee. The problem is a massive disconnect between the passions of our city and the passion of God. And that’s where Immanuel Church and every faithful church come in. But let’s admit that we ourselves too often feel nothing. We give our hearts away to lesser things. But here is the good news. God is on the move with all his heart for us and for our city. In fact, this passion in the heart of God is the power sustaining the universe moment by moment. This planet isn’t spinning in place and the seasons don’t move forward and the whole universe isn’t running just by gigantic good luck. God is doing this, and for a reason. He always has a reason. He is steering all things toward the ultimate glory of Christ. That is the passion exploding out of the universe right now. Too few people have eyes to see it. It takes nothing less than a miracle of the Holy Spirit to see it. But how could we whose eyes have been opened accept any other passion? Our motive as a church is not the glory of Immanuel Church. We are here for His Imperial Majesty King Jesus – that his kingdom would come into our lives more wonderfully and into the lives of many others, for the sake of his name. We sing a hymn that says, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall.” If we command the angels to fall prostrate, then let every secondary agenda in our own hearts fall as well. When any church goes back and makes Jesus Christ the only issue – it’s our deepest way of seeking the Lord and honoring the Lord and drawing near to the Lord – that church powers up. We serve God with our spirits in the gospel of his Son, and we have no other passion.

The social dynamic of original Christianity

For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. —Romans 1:11-13

Isn’t it exciting to be around people of faith? You see Paul’s wording here: “. . . that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” The social dynamic, the energy, of original Christianity is a spirit of faith. Faith is a sense on the heart of what only God can do. It’s a confident longing for God. And this spirit of faith resonating among us together, expanding our view of God, moving us to prayer, expecting great things from God, attempting great things for God – Paul is describing the social psychology of the early church. They weren’t just a collection of individuals, each one trusting God on his own. They weren’t a debate society, taking each other to the mat on secondary issues. They were together radiating a lovely spirit of faith in God. They were strengthening each other that way and encouraging each other. It was dynamic. It was energizing. It was spreading. Even Paul was strengthened.

Paul himself wants to be a part of it. He says here, “I long to see you.” There is something irreplaceable and powerful and borderline mystical about a human face-to-face encounter. Email might be the crudest form of communication ever invented in the history of the human race. It lacks warmth and nuance and gentleness. It is bare and harsh. It’s okay for information and encouragement. But email easily becomes dangerous. Have you ever sent an email that you thought was reasonable, but it detonated on the other end? Here’s a better way: “I long to see you.” It’s so simple, so powerful. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Revolution is seeing each other a lot.” Getting together changes us. It is both exciting and moderating. It softens our extremes. It humbles us. It makes everything good more powerful. It’s why coming to church matters, why small groups matter, why our 9:00 hour matters. It’s not an arbitrary imposition. It’s an insight into how we grow and are strengthened. I am not convinced that we should have multi-site churches with the preacher broadcast on a screen. Paul the preacher said, “I long to see you.” He was writing this letter to say that, among other things. This letter itself could not accomplish all that he wants: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” A letter is good, but strength passes face-to-face. That happens in church. It’s where strength and encouragement spread. If Paul were alive today, he would write verses 11-12 to Immanuel Church. If the great apostle were to come to Immanuel Church, he would personally benefit. I sure haven’t grown beyond that. Have you? Do you know anyone who has? Everyone needs to be in church.

When we’re alone by ourselves, it is easy to lose steam, get lukewarm, discouraged, distracted. Sometimes we just want to give up. Then we come together again, and it’s like smelling salts under our noses. We perk up! Thank God for the church! He is so wise to give us what we need. We need the social dynamic of faith in God. It’s what he creates in a healthy church. When I was a boy, there was an older man in our church named Alfred Dickson, an immigrant from Ireland. And when the church faced a challenge, his comment always was, “Now we have the privilege of seeing what only God can do.” That’s how to set a tone of faith. It’s oxygen to the soul of a church.

The moral obligation of original Christianity.

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. Romans 1:14-15

A more literal translation is, “I am a debtor.” Implication? “I am not a demander.” When Christ came into Paul’s life, he didn’t demand anything. Paul had nothing to give. So Christ just loved him. How then could Paul demand anything of his unbelieving friends now? It’s all about God’s grace. The very word “grace” appears about 81 times in Paul’s letters. The grace of God changed Paul. He had been a demanding person. But God loved him out of that and loved him into tenderness and humility and adaptability in spreading the gospel to many different kinds of people.

God is not declaring war against you. He is declaring grace and peace: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7). When you and I are walking the streets of heaven a million years from today, the angels will look at us with wonder and say, “Here are the loved ones of God. They were on the earth during the times of the rebellion and darkness. They were dead in their sins. They took their stand as enemies of our Father. But he loved them when they were like that. How free is his grace!” And we will say to those angels, “You’re right. We had nothing to offer him but our sadness and bondage and guilt. But he loved us anyway. No one ever loved us the way he did. We were weak, but he was strong for us. We were confused, but he was wise for us. We were evil, but he was righteous for us. We are here in heaven only because he loved us with grace.” We are debtors – not that we repay God, but we love others with the same grace we’ve received. Nashville doesn’t owe us a thing. They don’t owe us a hearing. We owe them clear communication. Let’s never think, “I’m doing my unbelieving friends a favor by my witness. They owe me thanks.” Let’s never think, “This city is lucky we’re here.” Let’s give ourselves away freely, the way Jesus gives himself to us. The different kinds of people we know, from highly educated people to very simple people – they might not want to hear what we have to say. They might not thank us. But that doesn’t release us from obligation. Paul says here, and with cheerfulness, “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Where did Paul die? In Rome. As we are gripped by the grace of God, we pay a price. But it’s okay. It’s for the sake of his name.

In 1732 two young Christian men in the Moravian movement in Germany heard about an island in the Caribbean where an atheist plantation owner had somewhere between 2000 to 3000 African slaves. The owner had said, “No preacher will ever stay on this island. No one will talk to us about God. I’m through with all that nonsense.” So here were people on that island, all of them enslaved really, without Christ. So these young Christians in Germany made a bold decision. They sold themselves as slaves to this man. They used the money from the sale to pay their own way on board a ship to the island. As they and their Moravian friends waited on the dock at Hamburg, everyone knew they would never see each other again in this world. Some questioned the wisdom of it. Everyone was solemnized by it. They wept. They prayed. The young men boarded the ship. And as it was slipping away, one of the young men raised his hand and shouted the last words those people would hear from them in this life: “Let the Lamb who was slain receive the reward of his suffering.” That is the passion of God. That is the passion of this church. It is not an easy way to live. But it is the only rewarding way to live. God has claimed you by his grace. Let his claim go deep into your heart. If you will, God will use you greatly for the glory of the Lamb in this generation.