Romans 15: On Witnessing

Last night I finished watching Joseph. A bible film, made for secular audiences, complete with blood, violence, and skin, but an excellent portrayal of the story of Joseph. Really brought the accuracy of the time out for me, something that soaped-up Sunday School versions of the story could never do. The very nature of a whip crack against the back, or the madness of a society that revolves around the worship of a man as god might do to people, and yet in the middle of this, what was most amazing was the quality of being a witness Joseph was able to be.

There is a lesson in this. I was amazed by the strength of such a witness. It was different though – often, we are a witness, not to the benefit of God, but to ourselves. If we can prove to others that we are spiritual, then we are a witness. But to be a pure witness – that is, “I cannot do such a thing, for my God forbids it.” He did not say religion, nor did he say church, nor did he even say belief. He said God. And when men asked him why he only said one God, he did not argue with them – he maintained though, that his God would save him, and that he only believed in one. In a time rife with gods, this perhaps was the best witness he could have been. In our a time, a time with no gods, this would also be the best witness we could be. If you were at a meeting, and your boss asked you to do something unethical, and you knew in your heart that it would displease God, and if you said “I cannot do it. It goes against my God,” imagine the witness! Your boss might become angry, he might tell you not to put your religion above the business, and he perhaps might fire you, but the seed has been planted. Your boss knew he was doing something wrong in asking you, and when you replied that you were bound by a higher power not to do such a thing, that will no doubt stir within his mind. As Paul says in this letter, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification,” meaning that we should do good towards our neighbors in the name of God, because in the end, they will be edified because of what we have done. This does not mean we go to our boss and tell him he is going to hell if he does not accept Christ as his savior – doing that creates a rift, creates anger, creates resentment – things that are not fruits of the spirit. It means that we are a solid witness to God, we live our lives with principles, and we stand by them because we know those principles are the right thing, and we share love and peace with our neighbors, whether they love or hate us, because we know in the end, only good can come of our work with them.

But this comes from a basic, foundational belief, and a strength that you know your God will save you, or deliver you from whatever evil befalls you, in good time. This is a very hard step for a man who has little faith in the power of God. You can never be a good witness, if you do not belief God will take care of you, in any and every situation of your life, as long as you afford him the rights to every one of those situations.

There were plenty of very interesting passages in this part of the letter. As I just said, the edification part of the letter should be strongly read and understood, for it is very important. Later on, Paul says that “you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, Paul is talking about a holistic ministry, being from our whole selves – our minds, our bodies, our actions, everything. We cannot only speak about God, nor can we only do things for God, nor can we only philosophize, or even take two of these. We must act in totality for God, glorifying him in everything we do and how we think. For me, this means always turning your mind to God, and always turning your actions, and your day to God. It means living your life in a spirit of abandonment to God, knowing that he will take care of you and your family, with bread to spare.

Something else, later on in the letter that is interesting, is that Paul says, “And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation,” which is strange, because he does preach in synagogues and places where other apostles have been. So my understanding of this verse is that he is telling us he does not preach over those who also preach the gospel. Perhaps he does not accept a lukewarm gospel, and perhaps he considers a lukewarm gospel not to be a true naming of Christ. This is very important, because what he is saying is that we should not preach over someone else’s ministry who is also naming Christ truthfully. Perhaps for some, they may preach over someone else’s ministry and name Christ because of pride, or jealousy, or wanting attention – but these are frivolous things, and Paul speaks against them. He says he will only preach the gospel where there is no foundation. He obviously has no problem working with his peers who are preaching the gospel in other places, and helping them to be better ministers, but apparently, he makes a point not to preach where they preach.

Paul also says that for “if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” The word here is minister. If we are blessed with materials things, it is our ministry to give those things, Paul is seeming to say. It is not so that we can get a better position in the church, or be received better by our peers, or even so that we can be higher in the eyes of God, or -even- so that we can do good things – but it is because it is our ministry, and those gifted with material things, are material ministers, to give their things to those who have little. This is powerful to me.

In the last part of the letter, it is interesting that Paul immediately begins introducing members of the church, starting with the women. I won’t say anymore on this, but I think it interesting that this is how he starts.

I believe the most important element of these introductions is that Paul knows all of these people by name, and he introduces them all by name in his letter. He has taken the time to know their names, he has taken the time to know their heart, and he believes it is in the best interest of his body to also know each and everyone by name. We live in a corporate world, where personal names are often forgotten, disguised by a thick veneer of nicknames, hearsay, rumors, gossip, and lawsuits which threaten our ability to even greet the person sitting next to us at work. Although the society back then wasn’t the same as ours today, it was likely also very cosmopolitan, there being very little time to meet with people and really get to know them. Roman trade was bustling, people could travel easily, immigrants came and went, religions were like seeds of giant trees, falling from the sky – in Acts, Luke talks about a prison ship bound for Rome that had hundreds of prisoners on board – just prisoners. This boat was hardly received, and could very well have been forgotten in the eyes of Rome, when it landed, and the captain knew this, yet in Acts, Paul made it very clear that he was going to stay with the ship, even though he knew he could probably escape and nobody would care if he did.

What he’s saying here is so important, I think. In every service I’ve been to, the most credence we give to names in at one point in the service, where we are to greet each other by name. In the catholic church, this action has been denigrated to a head nod, or god-forbid, the peace sign, holding up the first and index finger in a quasi-hippie recognition. In evangelical circles, it has been degraded to “Hi, my name is Joe,” and that’s the end of it. At the end of services, we leave church immediately (unless we have an interest in the person next to us), and by that time, we have forgotten the name of the person next to us.

Paul not only goes to the pain of mentioning each person by name, but he says that they should “note those who cause divisions and offenses,” which in retrospect, means that he knows each of these people by their name and by their heart, because he has taken the time and pains to understand them, and he evangelizes to his own body the need for them to also know them through his action of telling his body their names, so that they might also greet and know these people. What power is there in a body of believers who know only of the existence of other believers, but do not know them intimately, or god forbid, who do not know of them except through hearsay? There is very little strength in that. Our churches have become gathering grounds for spiritual parties. They need to be transformed into living and breathing communities of God.