Belonging in the Midst of a Broken World

This is an edited sermon manuscript from a message I delivered on November 28, 2021. It was a one-off meditation on what it means to belong as a Christian within a world that seems bent on division and disunity.

If you would prefer to listen to this sermon, click on this link here.

My wife Tori and I were able to spend this Thanksgiving holiday with both sides of our family as my parents and in-laws live in the same town. And after our meals, my daughter had fun goofing off with her grandfathers while the rest of us adults watched old home videos and ate extra servings of figgy pudding and apple pie.

Thanksgiving dinners, in my family at least, are always wonderful occasions to catch up with people that I haven’t been able to talk to face-to-face since the last holiday season or so. And in years past, we’ve had the opportunity to host a considerable number of family and friends around our dinner tables with whom we’ve shared both family recipes and laughs with.

But, I do know that this isn’t always the case for everyone.

Maybe at your Thanksgiving dinner this year, instead of eating deviled eggs, you felt like you had to walk on eggshells. Maybe there was more awkward silences and side-eyed glances than laughter. Maybe you felt a tension so strong you could cut it with a knife.

But it isn’t just Thanksgiving dinner, right? Doesn’t it seem like life in general is getting a bit more tense as of late? The world seems to be growing more and more polarized at the passing of every hour. It’s almost as if over the course of the last twenty years, everyone has begun to slowly forget how to get along with other people. And this phenomenon has sort of sped up over the last two.

However, and just as this issue isn’t only confined to the border of our Thanksgiving tables, it is also not something that simply exists out in the world.

This disunity and discord has wiggled its way into our expressions of Christianity, too. And especially in our churches, it seems as if lines in the sand are now being replaced with lines drawn in permanent marker. But if we as believers are supposed to be known by our love as John 13:35 tells us, and if unity is our greatest witness and apologetic as John 17:21 tells us, where have we gone wrong?

For the sake of the gospel going forth, how do we learn to get along!?!

Belonging in the Midst of a Broken World (Romans 15:1-7)

How are we going to learn to get along?

Or, to say that a different way, how do we recover a biblical sense of belonging within the church across our nation?

Well, and again, Romans 15 might have the answer to the questions we are asking. But we should remember that Romans 15:1-7 are the concluding words of a very long argument that Paul has been making over the course of several chapters within his epistle.

So allow me to attempt to catch us up to speed. Let me quickly give all of us context for what we just read so that we might better understand what it’s saying. After I do that, we’ll again look at 15:1-7 by breaking it up into three sections. And we are going to be thinking along with Paul by considering what this text meant to both his audience and for us today.

But between points one and two, we will be taking a pretty extended excursion. We are going to look at some common objections to Paul’s words that probably should be talked about too. And I am absolutely ok with running down this rabbit trail because I think that doing so will only help us more faithfully apply God’s word to our lives here and now.

The book of Romans is a pastoral letter written by the apostle Paul.

And I want to emphasize that because it is easy to forget that Paul was writing to help real people struggling with a real-life situation when we’re reading through the first eleven chapters of this book. The first half of Romans is very heady. God’s apostle explains to his listeners the gospel and the implications of it. But we shouldn’t think that he did this for no reason. Paul wasn’t a systematic theologian sitting in some ivory tower itching to argue about doctrine. No, Paul wrote Romans for very practical reasons. He was a missionary. And he wanted to see the churches under his care survive, strengthen, and emulate God’s goodness and grace to the communities they were situated within.

It should also be mentioned that the church in Rome was made up of a very mixed group of people.

That is, there were both Jewish believers and Gentile believers who called the Roman church their home. And, if you think back to Acts 15 when Pastor Scott was preaching through that book, you might remember that this is ideal. Different groups of believers from different backgrounds worshipping in harmony was understood to be a sign of the power of the Spirit working in their midst.

However, and just like most of us know all too well, people who are different than each other sometimes struggle to get along.

Should the Roman church gather to worship Jesus on the Sabbath or on a different day? Should they follow the Jewish calendar along with its holiday-feasts or not? For many of them, that had been their tradition their whole loves. They didn’t know how to worship God any other way. Should they drink wine, or should they not? Should Gentile believers be allowed to eat the meat offered up to idols in Roman Temples if they understood that these idols weren’t real gods? I mean, it’s not good to waste food, right? And sometimes it’s kind of difficult to get meat any other way. Or should they all just become vegetarian instead in order to avoid this mess?

These, among many others, were some of questions that the Romans were asking.

And it seems like certain people within the church were very insistent that only their views, or their group, were right. There was a my-way-or-the-highway mentality running rampant. And if you disagreed, you were thought of as inferior or maybe not even a Christian at all by group that held a different opinion.

And, of course, this was creating a schism. It was causing disunity and division.

So Paul wrote this letter in order to help these believers from very different backgrounds, ethnicities, and political persuasions learn how to get along.

And Romans chapter 15 comes right at the end of an extended section where the apostle addresses this problem head-on. 15:1-7 is both a summary of the content before it, and a charge for the believers there to embrace one another and to figure out how to deeply belong despite difference.

And my hope is that this text might be that for us, too.

1. Believers on both side of the spectrum of debate should think first of the needs of people “on the other side” (Romans 15:1-2)

Paul begins by addressing both the “strong” and the “weak” members of the church.

And this would be an odd, almost counter-intuitive way for the apostle to address the Romans if it weren’t for him borrowing that language from believers there who were already using it. Paul is just using their own rhetoric and is reflecting at back at them.

But who are the strong and the weak?

Well, if we were to look back at 14:1, we’d see that the “weak in faith” were those who were sometimes offended by the consumption of meat offered to idols, the drinking of wine, and so on. But these labels likely also represented those ethnic distinctions I mentioned earlier, too. Gentile believers, or Christians who were not Jewish and had never followed the Old Testament law as a part of their worship of God, were “strong” in their faith because they didn’t let their expression of worship become confined to the details of tradition. But Jewish believers who had always understood following God along the lines of tradition and Torah were “weak.”

Paul addresses both of these groups in these first two verses. And he tells the strong to bear with the failings of the weak. That is, the strong should lovingly tolerate their needs. They should accommodate them. But, and more than this, everyone should aim to please their neighbor first before they think of their own self.

When I read passages like this, they always gives me pause.

Honestly, I sometimes can’t help myself to begin to think of ways that this might not apply to me or to my situation. And I’m sure that this is what the Roman believers did too when they first heard the words of Paul’s letter read to them.

So, let’s trace this out.

Let’s take a somewhat extended excursion in order to consider some of the common objections to what Paul is saying here in Romans 15:1-2. In fact, getting good handle on these might allow us to better understand and accept what the apostle will say in the verses that follow.

The first objection that Paul likely heard from those Roman believers was this:

Don’t we have the freedom to make our own choices? Why do we have to cater to them?

If Paul was asked this, I’m sure he would have affirmed it to some degree. Humans have been granted free will. We are allowed to freely choose what we will, and nothing hinders us from such besides our own volition or consequences.

However, Paul would have probably repeated what he reminded the believers in Corinth who were debating similar matters. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul wrote: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own. You were bought with a price…

In other words, those of us who have sworn our allegiance to Jesus are not our own and our choices are no longer just ours to make. We have been bought with the blood of Jesus, and He is knitting all of us who call him Lord into one family. God, as a Grand Weaver, is threading us together into an ever-growing tapestry called “in Christ.”

Nevertheless, it is important to notice that Paul doesn’t give the weak the power to reject or to dismiss the thoughts and actions of the strong. He also doesn’t ask the strong to forfeit their freedom. But God’s apostle does urge both sides to be loving in their expression, to think first of the other, and to use their convictions to build up and encourage, not condemn.[1]

Said in a different way, involuntary uniformity isn’t optimal because it isn’t founded first in love but control. Instead, we should seek a unity that stems from our care for the other in spite of what they think, because now, through the blood of Christ, they are family.

But all in all, I do think that this type of objection is a very big temptation for American Christians today, like me.

Because often, I am inclined to allow my own freedoms, liberty, rights, and comforts dictate how I exercise loving others because that is how much of the world around us operates.

However, that’s exactly opposite to that which we have been called.

Instead of thinking first of our freedoms and letting that dictate our action towards our neighbors, Jesus is asking us to allow the love of neighbor to dictate how we then exercise our liberty, rights, and comfort.

Here’s a second objection to Paul’s words in Romans 15:1-2 that I think could be raised either here or in Rome:

Isn’t the other side not as Christian as we are? Aren’t we the faithful, and aren’t they less faithful than us?

A friend of mine in ministry, at a church much larger than this one, once told me that he had a member of his congregation excitedly approach him one Sunday because so many unbelievers had begun to attend their services. And because of that, they must be doing something right.

My friend replied: “That’s awesome! Who have you noticed that is attending who hasn’t yet pledged their allegiance to Jesus?” To which this man replied, “I’m actually not sure but when I was walking through the parking lot, I noticed a lot of bumper stickers for the other side plastered onto cars. We must be doing something right if we are attracting all of those types of people.”

And of course, most of us know that this man’s statement was silly.

There are god-fearing and faithful Christians who are Democrats as well as god-fearing and faithful Christians who are Republicans, just as there were Gentile and Jewish believers in the church that Paul was writing to in his letter.

But it is really really easy to begin to think that only our group alone is right, and that everyone else is out to get us.

That’s because it’s common to want to only associate with people who think, look, and act just like we do as that’s the comfortable way of navigating life. But as we know, contact without fellowship can quickly dissolve into a lack of sympathy for those who haven’t made choices similar to ours. And when we belittle or minimize someone’s perspective for long enough, that becomes, in our minds, part of their identity. They lose their value as image bearers of God and become that which brings us annoyance and contempt.

Beware of this. That is the way of the Devil.

Here’s a third objection to consider:  

Aren’t there truths worth taking a stand for? That is, aren’t there things that we know we are right on and are obligated to defend? What if the other group really is wrong?

There are truths that we need to defend. There is room and time for Christians to correct and rebuke other believers when they’ve crossed the line of orthodoxy, or when they’re doing damage to others in the body of Christ. Paul does this exact thing in the book of Acts as well as within his letter to the Galatians, just to name a few.

But often, those big truths aren’t the ones we choose to fight our battles over.

I’m speaking very very generally here, but it isn’t things like the doctrine of the Trinity or the humanity of Jesus that work us up. And things like sexual abuse scandals or blatant racism don’t phase us as much as they should anymore. But worship style? A pastors clothing choice? A building project? A vaccine? Watch out!

The reality is, there are truths worth defending, absolutely. But in all cases, when we walk with superiority rather than humility, we can become callous, graceless, and push away even those genuinely curious about why we believe what we believe.

And it is possible to cling so tightly to our right ideas that we can begin to think that it’s our right ideas that justify us and others rather than the blood of Jesus.[2]

2. We should to look to the life of Christ, as well as to stories in the Old Testament, for examples of this type of sacrificial behavior (Romans 15:3-4)

Now that we’ve taken that dramatic excursion in order to address some of the major objections to the lifestyle that Paul is presenting, let’s continue on in our text. And let’s keep all of that in mind as we read the next two verses because Paul’s challenge doesn’t get any easier.

After challenging his audience to think first of love rather than difference, Paul reminds the Romans that this is the pattern that the Old Testament has shown them. It’s also the way of life that Jesus embraced and embodied when he was physically present on earth.

That is, God loved us when we were still enemies to Him. God welcomed us into His camp when we rejected Him. And we are now called to follow suit.

The Old Testament scriptures start by showing us a God who created a world in which humans were meant to enjoy togetherness and vulnerability without the threat of division and sin.[3]

This was lost at the Fall, of course. But God’s people Israel were then offered the Torah-law that, if followed, would enable them to emulate God’s goodness and a portion of God’s ideal for belonging amongst their twelve tribes. And we do catch glimpses of this happening from time to time. But Israel never quite lived up to this. They failed over and over.

However, and as the psalm that Paul quotes in verse 3 predicted, God was going to send His Messiah who would one day live up to this ideal. And as we know now that Messiah has come, and his name was Jesus. And Jesus lived not for His own pleasure but so that all might have the access to eternal life through His sacrifice at Calvary. Or, as Paul wrote elsewhere, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own privilege. Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in the appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.

But what does this have to do with the feud between the weak and strong believers in Rome? Well, Paul is reminding the strong that giving in to the desires of the weak is compatible with their faith as even Christ himself gave up his divine nature while he lived as a fully human man here on earth. In fact, Jesus was sacrificial even to the point of death.

But does this mean that Paul expects Christians to be ok with getting taken advantage of?

Is a sacrificial life synonymous with becoming a doormat, or becoming a person who is constantly walked over?

I’m sure that many of us have heard the story, or at least a variation of the story, about the old man who was traveling with a young child and his donkey.[4]

Well, as this group passed through a villiage, the old man was leading his donkey and the child was walking behind them both. But the townsfolk in this villiage saw the group and complained. They said: “Why would this old man not allow the young child to ride on the back of the donkey?” And so the old man made a change. But as the group went through the next villiage, the old man received another word from people of this new town. They asked: “Why is this child being so cruel to this frail old man? Shouldn’t the child lead the donkey so that the man can ride and rest?” And again, in order to please the people, the group made the change. The next town commented about harsh conditions that the child was under once again and suggested that they both ride on the donkey if the journey was so tough. So the group made the change. But the following town, seeing the overloaded donkey, advocated for the beast, and they complained that this group was going to kill their animal if they weren’t careful. And when last seen, the old man was carrying both the donkey and the boy on his back as they headed toward the next town, dreading the next complaint.

That is to say, we can’t please everybody in everything.

And Paul isn’t really suggesting that we try in his reference to the life of Christ and to the insults Jesus took.

Because even Jesus had boundaries in his ministry. And I’m sure it was a heartbreaking sacrifice for him to have to turn away those asking for healing at times so that he could head to the next town to preach about the coming kingdom.

Jesus chose not to do it all. And, again, we can’t do it all. It’s not heathy for us to even attempt to.

Nevertheless, our actions, or lack thereof, do affect others. And because we are a family knit-together by the blood of Christ, we need to operate as such through mutual encouragement and not indignation or indifference.

Paul wasn’t commanding the Romans to lay down their lives for the comfort of others whenever anyone demands anything from them. But he was reminding them that Jesus laid down His life for them when they were nothing but enemies to Him.

3. We should strive for belonging, even across lines of difference, because unity is an essential part of our witness (Romans 15:5-7)

Paul started chapter 15 by challenging both Jewish and Gentile believers to think of the needs of the other side before their own. If they wanted to overcome this quarreling, they’d need to learn the perspectives of the people who weren’t like them.

They’d need to learn to show kindness to them despite who they were or what they thought.

God’s apostle then reminded the groups that this type of sacrificial action is all over scripture. It was how humans were originally created. It was how Israel was supposed to act. It was the posture that Jesus had all throughout his earthly ministry. And it was what they should strive for now through the help of the Spirit.

But learning to get along just for the sake of crowd control wasn’t the goal. Instead, we see in verses 5-7 that Paul wants the Roman believers to learn how to get along because unity is an essential element of the church’s witness to the effectiveness of salvation.

How would unbelievers in Rome come to know that Jesus was truly Lord? How would people come to believe that Jesus’ blood-spilled truly saves? They could look to the network of house churches which contained Gentile and Jewish believers worshipping together, a crazy unheard-of thing.

And they’d have to stand in awe because this type of unity was not happening anywhere else around them.

In verse 5, Paul offers up a prayer in which he asks God to help encourage and enable these Jewish and Gentile believers to endure as they put in the hard work of learning how to cultivate a spirit of unity amongst the church. He then explains why he’d like to see this happen in verse 6. He wants then to be able to worship with one heart and one voice. Again, though, this isn’t a call for uniformity, necessarily. But rather, even in their difference, Paul wants them to have one purpose.

And finally, verse 7 contains Paul’s concluding statement to the argument he has been making all throughout his letter to the Romans. There’s actually a very strong transitional preposition in the original Greek that we miss in our English translations. And this preposition implies that all Paul has been presenting since the opening of chapter 14 can be summed up in this final sentence.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Welcome one another, despite who the other is. Jesus accepted you into his kingdom even when you were in sin. And welcoming in this way brings God glory and praise.

But how exactly does it bring God glory?

Well, again, the one of the most powerful signs of a renewed and consecrated people of God on whom salvation has come is the mutuality and unity evident within their midst.[5] Disunity and division only point away from Jesus and detract from the gospel. Petty arguments, lines in the sand, and tribalism don’t bring God glory. But Christians learning how to get along despite difference points to the effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrifice and is a sign for those who don’t yet believe to come and join in.

What would make unbelievers stand in awe of the God we serve this season? What would give people pause? What would point to the effectiveness of the gospel and to renewed and transformed hearts here in Alpena Michigan?

A church that stands united for the purposes of Christ despite dramatic difference. Or what about a church where kindness has settled down, but dissention and strife have a hard time getting in?

Or, church where people are willing to change, or willing to set aside their political and cultural views for the sake of the body instead of merely giving up or shopping around for a different place that better conforms with their opinions or preferences.

Or maybe a church where all members are so busy living sacrificially for others that needs are met and there is mutual flourishing. A church where all are accepted in and welcomed in the way Paul describes. A church where you can safely belong, grow, explore, and come to know Jesus as Lord with others on the same journey.

Because grace is a reality, Christians should be the least offendable and the least intentionally offensive category of people in the world. And because Jesus’ death has brought together what was once separated, Christians should have the corner market on welcome and be experts on creative togetherness.

Our strongest witness for the victory of Christ is belonging.

So, for the sake of the gospel going forth, and through the help of the Spirit, let us do the hard work of learning how to get along.

[1] See: Michael F. Bird, Romans, The Story of God Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 497.

[2] Tim Otto fleshes this “Pharisaic impulse” out a bit more in Tim Otto, Oriented to Faith (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 84.

[3] I’ve written about this very thing elsewhere. See:

[4] This is one of Aesop’s Fables titled “The man, the boy, and the Donkey.” See:

[5] See: Michael F. Bird, Romans, The Story of God Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 484.

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