Paul here displays a very genuine pastoral concern for the Church in Rome, even though it is one that he not only hadn’t established, but had yet even to have been able to visit. It’s important to us that we acknowledge a very real truth that this displays to us. See, Paul’s concern was not rooted in his reputation, it was rooted in sincere love for the children of God. As he states in his letter to the church in Galatia, “For do I seek to win the approval of men, or of God? For if I sought to please men, then I could not please God.” (Galatians 1:10). In our generation, we tend to be very focused on the self. We’re concerned about our own church or our own reputation. How oft I have heard the statement, “I want this church to be known as a church that…” In reality, however, our concern should not be for our own church, but for the glory of the Lord and the spiritual health of all of our brothers and sisters. Rather than tearing one another down, we should be lifting one another up. As Paul states in his letter to the church in Corinth, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each of you. I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God alone who gives the growth. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7). See, he’s displaying this utter sense of humility here, like even if no one ever knew the name of Paul, he would still be laboring for the kingdom, because for his, his labor wasn’t rooted in his own selfish ambition, but rather in the concern for the brethern. It was never the “Church that Paul built,” it was always about the Church that Jesus built, and Paul was but one of millions of parts that the Lord used to build it. And he wanted to assure that the Lord was glorified, and how best to do that but through the lives of the children of the Lord?
Thus, Paul states, “I thank my God through Christ Jesus for all of you.” Consider, and be real with yourself for a moment, how often do any of us do that? How often do we just fall on our faces and thank the Lord for our brothers and sisters in Christ? How often do we include in our prayers “and thank you Lord for all believers and especially for the family that you’ve tied me to locally”? See, we’re often so much better at grumbling and complaining. We’re much better at focusing on what annoys us. The sermon went too long. He didn’t put as much as me in the collection plate. She was singing off-key. That one guy is always late. They let their kids go to public school. We don’t personally like a particular preference, a behavior, a clothing style, and we allow the spirit of the world to infect us and suddenly fellowship becomes tolerance at best. A big one that I personally see is different teachers that people study. If someone is reading the writings of a teacher that someone doesn’t like, then they become “unqualified” to be part of the “evangelical elite,” and suddenly they are branded either “confused” or a “heretic.” It’s this same sort of divisiveness that Paul spoke of to the Corinthians, “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas’…Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-12). See, when we allow these lines to divide us, it becomes so much harder to have true fellowship, it damages the community of the Church. It becomes so much easier, during the minutes of “fellowship”, to shake hands with someone and smile, knowing that you’ve “unfollowed” them on social media because you didn’t agree with their studies.
Looking into this passage, Paul neither teaches nor condones any of these behaviors. To the contrary, he strongly rebukes them, even just in his own greeting to the believers. He speaks of longing to see them, “without ceasing I make mention of you in my prayers.” And to what purpose does he do so? “That if, by some means, now at last, I may find a way in the will of God to come to you.” Again, we must remember, this isn’t the church that he went to youth group in, the church of his childhood, full of congregants that he’d known since he was a baptized as a baby. No, this is a church that he’d never been to, full of people whom he’d never met. And here he is, longing to be in their presence, as though an adopted child, longing to meet for the first time his natural family.
It is this very love, this very longing, that is so essential to the true community of the church. We’ve focused so much on making our church services appealing to outsiders that we’ve neglected the comfort and security of our very brothers and sisters. Fellowship was never meant to be a once weekly, five to ten minute period of superficial conversation, rather, it is to be a sharing of one’s lives, one’s souls. In the Book of Acts, we read that “all who believed were together, and had all things in common…so continuing daily with one accord…they ate their food with gladness…praising God and having favor with all people.” (Acts 2:44,46-47). See, for us, “going to church” all too often becomes an inconvenience, an obligation to be fulfilled; for the early Church, “being the Church” was a blessing to be longed for, seeking the presence of the brethern.
There is a very dangerous trait that we seem to be enslaved to. It’s the trait of familiarity. And, when we become too familiar with something, we begin to take it for granted. It begins to lose it’s meaning. There are so many examples that I can give of this, think about the feeling of meeting your spouse for the first time, the love that you had for them, and then over the course of years, you begin to take them for granted. Think of the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father,” I can virtually guarantee that anyone reading this can recite it forwards and backwards, some of us probably in the original Greek; but do we even pay attention to it at this point? Do we sincerely mean it when we say “You’re kingdom come, Your will be done,” or are we just reciting it? Have we become so familiar with it that we just ignore it without even believing it? Consider this fact, concerning the Holy Scripture itself, as an illustration. The average household in America owns 4.4 Bibles. It has blessedly become so popularly printed that there are even lists rating the “best Bibles of 2017” on the internet now. But, consider this also, 57 percent of Americans admit to reading the Scripture less than four times a year, whereas only 26 percent say that they read the Bible regularly. Now, bear in mind, we meet for church services for an hour and a half, once a week, 45 minutes to an hour of that is a sermon, 15-30 minutes of it is a band playing; how much time do we spend fellowshipping with our fellow brothers and sisters? Do we actually know one another, or just the image that a person can uphold for maybe the 10 minutes a month that we engage them directly in conversation? One week is 168 hours. We’ll round up, in the evangelical church, a church service is two hours of that week, thus the average person’s time in church each week is 1.2 percent. So, how much of the 98.8 percent of your life do you spend outside of church longing to be in church? Even moreso, longing to be in the fellowship of other believers?
See, we need, each of us, to guard ourselves against this spirit of complacency that plagues our culture, our churches, our lives. The answer to this isn’t to do more math and determine how much extra time we should dedicate to service, but rather to truly try to live like the early Church. The apostle warns us, “”do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2). We can never let fellowship become tolerance, allowing petty disagreement to interfere with the community of the Church. Rather, we should allow those feelings to help us grow together in holiness, if there is a brother or sister against whom you bear a grudge, you should actively seek to correct that situation. If there is someone that you don’t like, you should go out of your way to love them all the more, constantly praying and seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We can never allow the reverence of the word of God be dispelled, we must remember that it is not a book to be read, nor a textbook to be memorized, but rather, it is the very word of God, handed down through generations and maintained through the blood of countless martyrs who were willing to die rather than allow it to become corrupt. It should never be read to alleviate boredom, but rather it should be fully set apart whenever we even consider opening it. Remember, it is as though the Lord Himself were speaking to you. Would you truly have the TV on if your ears could hear or eyes could see what is written in the Scriptures? Would you have your phone nearby you in case you got a text or an email if you were having a conversation with the Lord?
Lastly, but not leastly, we should long for the presence of other believers. We should long for that fellowship and be sincerely concerned for the welfare of our brothers and sisters. We should count the moments until we are together with them again, remembering Jesus’ words that “where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I with you.” (Matthew 18:20). When we come into the presence of other believers, not only are we in the presence of other believers, but also of the Holy Spirit. That Christ is in our midst. When we become numb to that fact, then we have fully turned away from the faith, as the Lord warned through the mouth of His Prophet Isaiah, “these people draw near Me with their mouths, and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear of Me is taught by the commandment of men” (Isaiah 29:13).
When we come into the presence of the brethern, we draw near to the very presence of the Lord, and for that, we should be very grateful, remembering without ceasing to give thanks unto Him for all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We must never allow the spirit of the world to make us forget that, else we allow it to make us forsake the Lord Himself.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.