Summary: In order to feel fully at home in the church, we begin with praying for one another, we learn both to receive and to give to one another, and we abandon top-down thinking.
Isn’t it astounding, the power of the group? Isn’t it amazing that an otherwise normal, there, healthy, together person can be in a group and feel so wrong? Have you ever been in a group that was sending out such negative vibes that you just wanted to get out of there? Somehow you even felt ashamed to be there?
In May I went to Detroit for a conference. The opening session was to be a banquet. When I arrived in the room, there were a number of other people standing around in small groups, and a few already seated at tables. Naturally, I looked around to find a familiar face, but saw no one that I knew. I waited; I looked for some cue as to what to do. But nothing. Everybody in the room seemed to have a friend or a place to be but me.
Now when you are essentially a very shy person, as I am, you use tricks to get you through. The printed program suddenly became very absorbing, a good place to bury my face. The view from one of the windows became most fascinating. A little later there was suddenly a need to go wash my hands again. I’m saying that when you feel very alone, you find ways to pretend to be busy.
But then I thought, "This is ridiculous. So what if I don’t know anybody. There’s nobody dangerous here. Well, on the other hand, everybody here is a Baptist! But they are to attend this conference. Bless Pete, I’m OK, and they have to take me in."
That’s when I spotted my opportunity. Across the room, there was a man sitting by himself at a table, diligently reading his program and sometimes looking up and staring out the window. Aha! Another one! Just like me, alone and pretending to be busy. So I hurried over before he needed to go wash his hands. I sat down and introduced myself. He was very cordial, and I felt good. I felt accepted, connected, and assured. Now I had someone to belong to and so did he.
Until five minutes later and his six friends filled up the rest of the table and the seven of them spent the rest of the evening talking insider talk and leaving me out! Ouch! I wanted to be out of there! I felt awkward, excluded, half ashamed to just be at their table. No, I hadn’t done anything wrong, but they communicated distance and difference and negativity.
Groups have such power over us! And we so much need to feel accepted. We need the assurance that we matter. If the group we’re in doesn’t assure us, we want out of it. We won’t stay. We’ll run. We feel ashamed.
The apostle Paul had wanted for a long time to go to Rome. He had visions not only of seeing the imperial city and of preaching there, but also of going beyond Rome. He hoped that he could go as far west as Spain and establish churches there. But in order to get to Spain he would need a base of support from the Christians in Rome; he would need acceptance.
Understand that, except for a few people, he didn’t know many of the Roman Christians. He had not started the church in Rome. As far as we know, he had never even been to the city.
That meant that when he would come to Rome, he would need to feel at home with them, and they with him. That’s really why he wrote this magnificent letter we call Romans – to introduce himself and his thinking to folks who did not know him and who knew nothing more than hearsay about him.
In the very beginning of his letter, Paul wisely adopted some strategies that helped prepare the way. Paul adopted some attitudes that I believe made sure that when he would find an atmosphere of assurance in Rome.
These strategies can help us live with assurance out in the world and in the church, especially in our kind of church. Here are some things which will help us create on this corner what I’m calling a mutual assurance company. Not a mutual insurance company, but a mutual assurance company.
First, a mutual assurance company, that is, a church where all persons feel accepted and assured, begins with something very simple and yet very profound: it begins with a prayerful approach. A prayerful approach. If we in this church are going to live with our differences, we must begin with a prayerful approach to one another.
Look with me at verses 9-10. "I remember you always in my prayers, asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you."
Seize on that phrase a little while. "In coming to you." Not only is Paul talking about the geography – having to cross the Mediterranean to get to Rome – but he is also talking about the psychology. Will I succeed in coming to you? Will you accept me? Roman Christians, do I threaten you? Is my reputation a problem for you? Is my image too severe, is my theology too strange? What can I do, Romans, to help you accept me?