Do you know your purpose?
It seems that when we know our purpose, when we accept it and pursue it, we are happier. When we don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, we drift aimlessly, like a ship without a rudder.
When we explore the life of Paul, we see a man convinced by his purpose. He knows who he is, what he is, and what he’s here for. And he’s not afraid to tell us.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. (Romans 1:1-5)
In Paul’s first letter, in his introduction, he lays out that he’s an apostle, that he is called specifically by Jesus Christ himself – not by any earthly person or group – to share the gospel. Paul grounds his understanding of himself in the Old Testament but he takes it a step further. Paul says that the God of the Old Testament, who sent Jesus to die on the cross, wants to broaden the relationship past just the Israelites to every, single, individual person who would believe in Jesus.
After Paul introduces himself, he addresses the letter: it’s to the church in Rome, the people who have converted to Christianity there. His letter would be read out loud to the community of faith, maybe even several times, as the church was primarily meeting in a “house church” setting (1:7).
Paul tells his listeners – remember, they’re hearing it orally – that he prays for them regularly, constantly even. And he expresses again his desire to come and visit them. He wants to come and visit them, which would mean he’s before the emperor, pleading his case, professing before the highest human power in the known world. Paul even apologizes that he hasn’t returned to see them yet, that it has been too long that he left them as ‘baby Christians’ without their father figure.
But while Paul knows that he is called to preach to the Gentiles, he tells them that he’s called to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone (1:14). Imagine for a moment that you knew you were supposed to do something, so great that it would make you willing to go anywhere, everywhere, even give up anything to make it happen. What do you feel that strongly about?
Paul knows, with certainty, what he believes in and what he would sacrifice it all for:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).
Paul believes that this news that God has shared with him in the person of Jesus on the road to Damascus (check out last week if that sounds like Greek to you) is worth dying for. But he also believes it’s worth living for as well. Do we get that?
Do you live each and every day, asking what does the gospel of Jesus Christ ask of you today?
Do you wake each morning, recognizing that your purpose is for God to be glorified in your life? That what you’re called to do is live differently and to speak the truth into the lives of others?
Paul gets it. Paul recognizes that it must be pretty important for the God of the universe to appear before him, to go through the effort to turn his life around. Paul knows if God would invest so much in shaping the life of one man, that God must care about humanity an awful, awful lot. If God cared enough to live and to die for the good of humanity, than Paul thinks he should, too.
I think Paul feels so strongly because he sees the flip side. The opposite of the beauty of God’s love is the absence of goodness, truth, and grace. God’s grace is there, of course, because God’s grace is everywhere, but some people choose not to accept it.
Some people are ashamed. Some people know the truth of the gospel but they don’t believe or hold onto it. They let other things contradict them or embarrass them or hold them back because they don’t recognize the power.
Instead of judging, Paul doesn’t say anything about people who don’t know, but he stresses that “God has made it plain” to us, and that God’s “invisible qualities -his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen… so that people are without excuse” (1:18-19).
The gospel has been put out there – Jesus came and lived and died – it’s historical fact, and some people even get the theological undertones. But Paul is very clear that even though some people ‘get’ the gospel, they choose not to believe:
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:21-23).
Paul isn’t going after people who don’t know God, who don’t believe or haven’t heard the gospel. Paul is starting off the letter to the Romans with a warning to those who have heard, who have believed, and who have abandoned their belief. He’s talking about people who were raised to believe but who chose to think that their success was the end result of their effort and that their lives were for their glory.
It’s the kind of life Paul lived before he met Jesus – when he thought he knew best, and that his way was the right one. Paul doesn’t want his hearers, the Jews or the Gentiles, to believe that they are better than they are and turn away from the gospel they know. They “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (1:25).
Now, Paul lays out some steep consequences to their turning from God to ‘not god’ in Romans 1:29-31. He says that these people, who knew God at one time and chose to follow something else become full of things like “wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice,” that they can be classified as “gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful” that “they invent ways of doing evil,” “disobey their parents,” and have no faithfulness, no love, and no mercy.
Sounds terrific, doesn’t it?
When we put something else above and beyond the love of God, when we assume that science or reason or experience somehow is more valuable than God’s love itself, we open ourselves up to all kind of evil, Paul says.
With all of that before us, the purpose of Paul’s life and his warning issued here in Romans 1, we must ask ourselves: why would Paul write this to this baby church? Why would he lay down such egregious scare tactics, and fear?
Paul wasn’t much for pointless chatter – so we must assume that he thought this letter, and this opening salvo of the letter was important to the growth of his baby church. Consider his opening: “You are loved by God. Don’t turn away from that love, or else…”
I’m left with one proposal: that the church at Rome was threatening to fall away and revert back to previous beliefs because of the suggestions of others. Paul doesn’t want to scare his church, but he wants them to have a suitable fear of God. He wants them to recognize the consequences, and know that the God of the universe is calling them to something better.
Church in Petersburg, I ask you: what causes you to falter, to lose sight of the glory of God and the hope to which he calls you to? What keeps you from fulfilling your mission and purpose, to be the people that God called you to be?
We have a mission. We are known and loved by the God of the universe. We are called to recognize that we are saved by grace, and set apart for the purpose of sharing God’s vision for the kingdom of God. It’s why we’re here, it’s what we’re for.
So what are we going to do about it? Over the next twelve weeks, Paul will lay out a plan by which we can be those kinds of people. He’ll call us to follow Christ, by grace, through faith. He’ll call us to be the church.
Are you ready?