Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Wiggly Roman Road: A missional-pastoral tension

I've spent the last couple of years reading through Romans with several people. One of the many intruiging things is Paul's purpose in writing. We get some hints in the first chapter  but the bulk of the explanation is in chapter 15.

Essentially Paul is somewhere in the balkans and has exhausted his missionary opportunities there. His passion is to preach where no-one has preached before and that's no longer possible there. He has his eyes on Spain, and going via Rome is his plan. However, he decides to take a massive detour via Jerusalem to deliver money he's collected from churches for the famine hit Jewish churches, and consequently he's written Romans to be delivered by Phoebe while he makes that journey, before reaching Rome and going on to Spain. Tradition tells us that Paul never made it to Spain but rather ended up arrested in Jerusalem, shipped and shipwrecked to Rome where he was tried and eventually martyred.

Paul is a driven missionary, with a call to unreached people (15:20), but his detour compromised this and meant that he didn't get to preach to people in Spain. Roman roads tended to be straight, Paul's is particularly wiggly. Why?

Peter asked Paul not to forget the poor in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10) and Paul's ministry is intertwined with a commitment to provide for the poor believers in Jerusalem, as detailed in Philippians, 2 Corinthians and here in Romans 15. In his words in Romans, a spiritual blessing - the gospel - has flowed from the Jews to the Gentiles, and a material blessing is now to flow the opposite way (15:27).

The gospel, it seems, doesn't merely unstoppably advance, it creates along the way a culture of practical care for others believers - particularly across the Jew-Gentile divide, of which Paul writes quite a lot in Romans. What does that mean for us? At least a recognition of the Jewish heritage of the church and an engagement between a missionary priority and a pastoral care of believers.

Paul could've taken another path. He could've gone straight across to Rome and quickly on to Spain. Phoebe (16:1) could've delivered the money to Jerusalem - perhaps with less danger than Paul faced... both missions were high value... carrying the money or carrying a mountain-peak of New Testament literature.

Suppose Phoebe took the money, and a letter "Judeans" explaining why Paul had gone on to Spain.
"Dear Judeans, Rejoice that the Gentiles are grafted into the Jewish tree. They have sent you material  blessing for you needs. But, Paul however has higher business to attend to and so couldn't be with you in person. He's gone to Spain..."
Paul's gospel preaching in Spain might also then be changed. He'd perhaps have got there which would be good, but in weighting new people ahead of existing people his appeal becomes an appeal to Christ and his kindness but with a less personal care.

There are false dichotomies in abundance here... and some of us are doubtless called more to pastoral gospel ministry and others to evangelistic gospel ministry (the content is the gospel in either)...  but surely we should at least feel the tension between the two.
  • Do you need more of the tug back to the roots of the faith and care for believers, slowing your evangelistic ministry - new people must hear but needs must be met too? 
  • Do you need more of the push to evangelistic ministry framing your pastorally caring ministry - needs must be met but new people must hear too? Too often church settles for where it is and fails to sacrifice its preferences and needs for the sake of those who don't yet know Christ.
Romans is, I think, a deeply missional letter - Paul's robust teaching on election building a framework for the necessity of preaching, and the persistent theme of God's all-day-long kindness to stubborn sinners... which is good news for the nations, and good news for those who have already taken refuge in the Christ... all of which makes it also a deeply pastoral letter too.

Image - Creative Commons - Hazel Hernandez

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