January 26, 2020
In the very first Star Wars movie, viewers are introduced to the Death Star, a giant planet-sized weapon that can aim at and obliterate entire worlds with a single shot. Unfortunately, somebody stupidly (or, deliberately) put in a “thermal exhaust port,” a shaft leading directly to the Death Star’s nuclear reactor core. A shot aimed directly at this port, only two meters wide, will blow up the Death Star in one fell swoop.
Of course, Luke Skywalker, with the help of the Force, shoots at the exhaust port at the end of the movie and the Death Star blows up. But the thermal exhaust port design has given rise to some funny memes.
As funny as they may be, George Lucas’s story should give us pause—you can build the greatest powerhouse in the world, but you’re still only as good as your weakest link. What is the church’s thermal exhaust port? How could the enemy break us most quickly and easily?
We’re nearing the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and now, after building cathedrals of theology in his paragraphs, describing in world-changing words the utter sinfulness of humanity, the saving grace of Christ, and the indestructible power of the love of God, Paul ends by talking about—money? Doesn’t he know that no one likes to go to church on Stewardship Sunday?
Paul’s shift may strike us as anticlimactic after such a thrilling theological discourse, just as his plans to go to Jerusalem catch us—and probably caught his first readers—off-guard. I mean, he’s spent a lot of time telling them he wants to go to Rome, and from there, to Spain:
Romans15:23-25 NIV: But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions, and since I have been longing for many years to visit you, 24 I plan to do so when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there, after I have enjoyed your company for a while. 25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there.
Most scholars agree that Paul wrote Romans from the city of Corinth, in Greece. If you’re sitting in Corinth, then it doesn’t take a genius to see that Jerusalem is in totally the opposite direction from Rome and Spain. It would have been about a two thousand mile detour for Paul to go to Jerusalem. It would have taken him off course for months and subjected him to many dangers along the way. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like something that Paul needed to do himself from a practical standpoint. It’s delivering a check, not delivering a speech; he could have handed the job off to Timothy or Barnabas or somebody. This would be kind of like the Pope saying, hey, I’m going to visit Starr Presbyterian Church and bring them some money. In more ways than one: the Pope is, of course, Catholic, and we’re not, and Paul’s family of churches is primarily Gentile, whereas the Jerusalem church is primarily Jewish. There’s some history of conflict there over circumcision and the need to follow the Jewish law; the two sides come from different theological backgrounds.
So why is it so important to Paul to go deliver this check? Well, he sees the Jerusalem church as the Christian movement’s thermal exhaust port. They’re the weakest link—and the church is only as strong, in Paul’s view, as the weakest link.
Romans 15:26-27: For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.
Paul recognizes that his segment of the church, the Gentile church, is growing, while the Jewish roots of the church are struggling; and it’s important that the church care for its weak member. Paul recognizes that while the Gentile church is blessed with spiritual blessings, they owe their very salvation to the spiritual blessings that come to them from Jerusalem; it’s because of the love of Jewish brothers and sisters that they know Christ. And while it’s not in the text, Paul probably believes it is important to preserve the church where people actually knew and touched Jesus, where Jesus’s brother James may even be preaching, where people know and can understand the connections between the Old Testament and the New.
Paul recognizes that spiritual blessings are not always connected to material blessings—and this is very true. We often forget this in the church. In the Presbytery of Detroit of which we are a part, we have a number of small, struggling congregations and ministries in the inner city, including the Second Mile Center. While it’s important that the Presbytery remain financially solvent, it’s also important that we support these ministries—not because they will bless us materially, but because we receive a spiritual blessing by partnering in their work, and even just by crossing the racial, ethnic, and economic divides that continue to wreak evil in our region.
It’s radically counter cultural to recognize that someone can bless us spiritually even when they cannot bless us materially. Yet it’s so very true. Each week when I come into the Bible study with the Welcome Inn, I receive more than I give. This past Thursday, we talked about the verse
Psalm 107:29 “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
One of the guests, Ramon, mentioned that it’s only when we allow Jesus to calm the storms of our lives that we can hear the whisper of God’s voice. This is so very true, and it’s powerful to hear this message from someone whose storms of life are so much greater than the things I’m dealing with.
While our culture gravitates toward the prosperity gospel, a close examination of Scripture reveals that God actually has what Roman Catholic authorities have described as “a preferential option for the poor.”
Proof texts for God’s preferential option for the poor are not hard to find:
Luke 6 20-26 NIV Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Matthew 25:41-46 NIV Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It’s often said that you can’t be a Christian on your own, and I think that’s very true. If you take the Bible seriously at all, you can see that being in communion with a local church is not optional—it’s central to our calling in Christ. And thanks be to God for the opportunities for worship, study, growth, accountability, and service that the church provides! But if we take seriously this message of Paul, and not only that, but Paul’s physical commitment to connecting the church across ethnic, geographic, and even theological lines, I believe we must take away the message that you can’t be a church on your own, that part of the ministry of the church is to live connectionally with other churches.
Several of our members are looking into affiliation with another church as a possible next step for Starr. In an affiliation model, churches make a covenant promise to do everything in their power to keep one another alive and providing local services to the community. Troy First and Kirk in the Hills have linked in this model, worshiping together and sharing pulpits. This may or may not be where God is calling Starr; but I can tell you one thing—this Monday, when we were stuffing bags with the folks from Mitcham Chapel, I did notice that we brought all white volunteers and they brought all black. And it occurred to me that they have been the ones to reach out to us over and over, which is really a truly awesome picture of reconciliation and peacemaking across racial divides. The culture of isolation which plagues metro Detroit and America itself so easily trickles down into our churches, as churches proudly claim their independence and their non-denominational status. Don’t we need one another now more than ever?
You can’t be a Christian on your own, and you can’t be a church on your own. I’ve worshiped with Christians in all parts of the world; I’ve broken bread with people of backgrounds very different from my own; and I’ve been blessed and enriched every time. God meant us to be connected to one another, and even to make sacrifices for one another—even to travel thousands of miles just to deliver a check.
When we reach out a helping hand, we may find a hand to hold—just when we needed it most.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.