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Sunday 4 December 2022 Advent 2

Looking back, facing forward

Romans 15:4-13

By Mary Cotes

Baptist minister based in Milton Keynes, who works for the French association Servir Ensemble; author of Women Without Walls (Graceworks)

Context: a communion service with an ecumenical, diverse, suburban congregation

Aim: to understand why Advent hope can be the Church’s most precious gift to a lonely, divided world

As the weeks of Advent go by, it’s hard to miss the Christmas hits which resound through every retail port and shopping centre. Yet many of us may look back on 2022 as a different set of hits that just kept coming. First, we were reeling under the Covid pandemic, then we were hit by a crisis in the cost of living, together with the outbreak of war in Europe for the first time in some eighty years. Not to mention the climate emergency.

We often hear it said that crises should bring us all together. Yet in reality, crises often end up fuelling them-and-us thinking and splintering community rather than creating it. The Covid pandemic may well have brought scientists together, yet it exposed gulfs between rich nations with the vaccine and poor nations without, between those who followed lockdown rules and those who didn’t. Meanwhile it increased existing issues of isolation and loneliness. A cost-of-living crisis has divided those who can manage the bills from those who can’t, while the climate emergency, which should unite us all, continues to draw a devastating line between those whose very existence is imminently threatened and other populations who as yet don’t feel its shadow urgently enough to make changes. Divisive thinking can easily seep into us and, without our noticing, pave the way for the scapegoating of those perceived to be outsiders, who get blamed for all our political or economic ills.

The letter to the Romans was written at what was also a time of splintered cultural and political relationships. Huge divides existed across the ancient world. Them-and-us mentalities were deeply rooted in the way Jews kept themselves separate from Gentiles, and – from the opposite side of the divide – Greeks thought of themselves as superior to Barbarians. Households were based on those with freedom owning others as slaves. Massive discrepancies in power existed between women and men. Everything was made vastly more complex by the military aggression of the Roman Empire which spread its tentacles near and far, subjugating nations and denuding them of their wealth.

In the midst of such a divided world, Paul has the audacity to talk about hope. Hope is not just an occasional theme in the scriptures, Paul declares everything that was written long ago in the scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope. Hope is in the DNA of the people of God, and it has been that way from the very beginning.

This Christian hope is not something esoteric, belonging to some intangible reality only in the realm of ideas. This hope is concrete, founded on Jesus Christ. It can’t be fully and truly experienced by groups who keep themselves to themselves; because the purpose of Christ was not just to fulfil God’s promises to the Jewish people, it was also to draw all nations towards God. So, hope is only made real when Christian believers from different communities – Jews and Gentiles alike – reach across the divides and break them down, learning to treat one another in the same way that Christ treats each one. In such a community, we enable one another to catch sight of the mercy of God whose purposes are not to judge and separate, but to unite.

When Paul addresses the church in Rome, he’s speaking to a diverse community; some citizens of Rome, politically aligned with the Empire, others from nations occupied by Rome. Yet they’re called to see one another as the friends of Christ. Just a chapter later, at the end of the letter, Paul sends greetings to a host of his fellow workers. Reaching across the divides of his day in nothing short of a revolutionary way, this Jewish man names Gentiles and women as his co-leaders in the church. The minister Phoebe, the hard workers Tryphaena and Tryphosa, the eminent apostles Junia and Andronicus: these are but five in Paul’s extraordinary list of diverse, extraordinary people engaged together in creating an extraordinary counter-cultural community. And the key to it all is their hope in Christ.

For Paul, it’s not crises that draw people together: it’s God and only God. Through Christ crucified and risen, God draws us together as children. Sometimes we can be so preoccupied seeking new ways to attract people to church, we fail to see that one of the greatest treasures we’ve been graced with is right under our noses: the gift of loving community – however small that community might be – to a lonely, splintered and mistrustful world. True Advent hope isn’t measured by the number of carols we sing, however lovely they are. Rather, it’s made known by every Christ-like friendship we build and every warm-hearted welcome we offer to others, whoever they may be and from wherever they may come.

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