Lord of All
(Romans 8:12-25)
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Rev. Hanna Zhu
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
July 20, 2014


It was a few weeks ago on a Wednesday evening in the church dining Hall. I was doing my routine rounds visiting with people who were eating there. When I came by Ethel Eure’s table, she picked up the First Family News, pointed to the list of the summer preachers who are filling in for our Pastor's Sabbatical, and asked me, point blank, "Are you going to let us down?"

I was taken back. Not by the way she asked, but by the weight of the question. I steadied myself, looked back into her eyes, said, “Ethel, I don't know. Please pray for me. And I will do my best."

So, I brought some cucumbers from my garden….Organic, fresh. After the service, if you come up to me and tell me you REALY LIKE my sermon, I’ll give you one for free.

But I am really excited to stand behind this pulpit. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of God for salvation to EVERYONE who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." Romans 1:16.

Remember your conversion experience? If you don't, or never had one, at the end of the service, you are invited to come up to the altar. Just to be sure, we will dunk you in the James River.

You know I was kidding, right?

But let me tell you my "conversion" story. I grew up in China in an atheist family. In 1999, I came to the U.S. and studied at Illinois State University. One night, an American girl who lived in my dorm invited me to attend an Intervarsity gathering. So I went and people were real friendly. I made some friends there and they invited me to go to church with them and I did. So this went on for several months and I became increasingly interested in Christianity. But I told myself, “I am not becoming a Christian until I have all my questions answered!” I was reading the Bible and had lots of questions. Then one evening, at a poetry contest on campus, I read a poem that I wrote. I talked about growing up, talked about my guilt and shame and unhappy events in my life. I was hoping to win the $200 prize money! Of course I didn't win.

But after I came back to my dorm room, I broke down. The heaviness of the journey weighed on me. I cried out to Jesus, because that's what my Christian friends told me: if I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, he will forgive my sins. After that I went to my friends and told them what happened. They circled themselves around me, and with tears in their eyes, prayed for me.

And that was April 4th, 2002, twelve years ago.

It may not be overstating to say that the reason you and I are here today, worshipping together as children of God, under one roof, no matter if we are Asian, Caucasian, African decent, rich, or poor, is because of one man, who was so completely, so stubbornly dedicated to bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, that he was considered the most influential missionary in Christian history.

It all started on the road to Damascus. Unusual things tend to happen when we travel, don’t they? The traveler was a young man named Saul. He was on a mission: going to synagogues in Damascus to arrest the followers of the Way, who were spreading this stirring theory that a Nazarene named Jesus was the Messiah, the one whom the Prophets had prophesied about. Well, just another con artist, trying to get attention for himself, and make trouble for all the Jews! The Romans were already suspicious of any commotion. But the strange thing was, since his crucifixion two years ago, his followers claimed that he had risen from the dead! And many naive Jews had believed them.

It was noon. The road was dusty, and quiet--you could hear your own footsteps and breathing. All of sudden, a light from heaven covered Saul, and a voice called out, "Saul Saul, Why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

For three days Saul was blind. When he regained his vision, he was a different person. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He began to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God.

This new man was Paul--Saul in Latin spelling. For from now on his purpose in life was to preach the Good News of salvation to the Gentiles.

We must imagine what a paradigm shift Paul went through in order to appreciate him properly. As a Pharisee, Paul was circumcised on the eighth day, and kept the Jewish law to the tee all his life. His most fundamental Jewish understanding, passed on from generation to generation, was the belief that God made a covenant with his ancestors. God set them apart. And God gave them the Law to live by.

We don’t know what went on in Paul’s mind in the darkest three days of his life. But we do know that Paul, even as a hardcore Pharisee, couldn’t resist the illumination of that divine Light. But who can?

Paul had longed to visit the Roman church but was never able to do so. He hoped he could stop by Rome on his mission trip to Spain. In his letter to the Romans, he offered theological and spiritual insights to strengthen the church there. An urgent task the infant Roman Church faced was how to get Jews and Gentiles worship Jesus together. Seriously, how could you make two groups of people who had despised each other for thousands of years to do church together? On top of that, they each brought with them drastically different cultures, religious practices, and world views. Circumcision was one of the hot buttons. Should we circumcise Gentile converts? People had different opinions. Should we allow Gentile converts to eat meat offered to pagan gods? Some Jews were okay with it but some were disgusted by it. And this was not a small issue. Some Gentiles wouldn’t get to eat any meat if they didn’t eat sacrificed meat.

In this kind of context, in verses 12-16, Paul urges the Roman church to live by the Spirit. Because as God’s children, we all receive His Spirit. And this should be the most fundamental trait that we share, not the law keeping. We may come from different backgrounds, we may have different views, but we all possess the same Spirit. So, don't stress out about circumcision. Don’t worry about what foods are clean and what aren’t. God created them all and they are all good! But don’t pass judgment if people think differently (chapter 14). Give people room. Be sensitive to people’s differences. And focus on what we share in common.

Being church has not gotten easier two thousand years later, has it? With the overloading of information, choices, and resources, people have become increasingly diverse. First Baptist Church is filled with people of different backgrounds, opinions, and tastes. But we seem to have managed to walk with one another, don’t we? In our 234 years’ history, we have not split once, and we have only had 16 senior pastors. That says a lot. Yes, we hit some rough spots. We have issues. But we have not thrown in the towel. I think that is because we have managed to focus on what we share in common.

How do we justify suffering if we are indeed children of God? We wonder how much the Roman Church struggled with this question. As a small, infant sect consisting of a group of minorities in a hostile society, the hardship the believers faced must be extraordinary. In year AD 49 Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because of the riot caused by the conflict between Jews and Jewish Christians. A few years later, the new Emperor Nero allowed Jews to return. Imagine all that uprooting, settling, and resettling.

How do we justify suffering if we are indeed heirs of God? In verse 17 Paul argues that, as children of God, our right to God’s blessings also obligates us to the responsibility of suffering with his Son Jesus Christ. Remember the "Abba! Father!" phrase in verse 15? It is Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. The fact that we can imitate Christ by calling God Abba in our deepest troubles indicates that we indeed share our children's status alongside Christ. But on the other side of the coin, we are also invited to imitate Christ in his suffering, his cross, his crucifixion, his ministry.

Suffering with Christ may have another layer of meaning. Two weeks ago I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship annual gathering in Atlanta. At the Virginia state meeting, I heard Jenny Jenkins, a missionary in Haiti—by the way, she was baptized here. Her parents were both ministers at our church: Bart and Lucy Dorr. Some of you may know them—Jenny shared how she heard God’s call.

When Jenny was a nurse in New York City, she felt the nudge to go on a mission trip for several years. Finally, she took a medical mission trip to Haiti. She had a wonderful experience. So she went again. And on her third trip, Jenny ministered with her group along small beachfront villages to care for people who had no access to healthcare. One man with an inflected leg weighed on Jenny's mind as her group prepared to leave. So Jenny found some drug and went back to check on him one last time.

Being a nurse, Jenny had learned to focus on the task at hand. As she kneeled in the dirt and wrapped this man's leg in fresh bandages, the man held Jenny's face in his hands and said, "Mesi," “thank you” in Creole, the Haitian language.

That night, Jenny sat alone on the beach and wept. She knew her life had been forever changed in that moment when she heard "Mesi" and looked up at the man's eyes. She had looked into the eyes of Christ.

On January 12, 2010, when the big earthquake shook Haiti, Jenny traveled to Haiti immediately to help. A few months later, she was commissioned as one of CBF's self-funded field personnel.

Do we hear the music in Paul’s message reaching a crescendo in versus 18-25? After discussing the necessity of suffering, Paul announces in a compelling voice that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory to come! For the whole creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into glorious freedom. What a grand, cosmic view of salvation! God's redemption is not just for human beings, but extends to the whole universe. Everything will be restored....The Earth, the sun, the stars, the plants, the animals! Your dogs and cats….In the very very end, everything will be brought under the perfect reign of God.

It is not easy to hope like Paul hoped. We don’t know how exactly this could happen. We don’t know how exactly God will work out the details. But perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about how God will do his job.

It was last spring. The church got a call from a memory care facility about a lady who was dying. This lady was old, single, and had no family. She was a First Baptist Church member. So her friend called the church to send a minister to visit her before her passing. I needed some pastoral care experience. So Steve Booth, my boss, took me with him to visit this lady. As we walked into the facility and found her room, I was anticipating a withering, sickly, pitiful old lady lying in her bed, hanging on with only a shred of breath.

But when we walked into her room, I found a lady soundly asleep. She looked perfectly fine. Didn’t seem to have any sign of illness. Her face was radiant with peace. I said to myself, surely she was not dying! “How about you pray for her?” Steve suggested as he was always an intentional teacher. So I prayed for her in her sleep. Steve gently put his hand over her body. Somehow I didn’t feel comfortable touching her. So I didn’t. The next morning, the news came: she passed, hours after I prayed for her. For several days, I felt her presence, her sweetness and peace. I didn’t touch her. But boy, she surely touched me in a powerful way! I felt I had acquainted death a bit. And I felt I was not as afraid of death as before because of my encounter with her spirit in her last hours.

Two days later, my husband, who is a newspaper nut and faithful obituary reader, cut out something from the newspaper. He handed me an obituary and said, “Look, this is the lady that you’ve been talking about." It was Vashti Hammett, a member of the former Gwynn Day Sunday Class. Some of you may remember her. Last week I dug out her obituary from my drawer. (show the obituary. Read from below):

HAMMETT, Vashti, 95, passed away on April 3, 2013. Vashti went to heaven prepared with her pockets full of dog biscuits and cat treats. There were also a few Peanut Butter Cups for herself. She is survived by her neighbors and dear friends, as well as her beloved cats, Ruffi, P.J, Oliver and Fitz. Vashti grew up on a farm in Falmouth, Va., and attended Falmouth High School (Class of 1935). She graduated from Mary Washington College and received her master's of education from The University of Virginia. It rained on her graduation day and she never got to take the official walk across the lawn. Perhaps she took that walk today! Vashti was a guidance counselor at Stafford High School for 20 years and then became a counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond. Vashti was a collector of many things and was known as the neighborhood SPCA. She brought together a group of neighbors and friends that will always share a special bond because of her. She has provided us with fabulous "Vashti" stories that we will share for years....In lieu of flowers, she would prefer that donations were made to The Southside SPCA, P.O. Box 66, Meherrin, Va. 23954.

To God be the Glory.

Hanna Zhu 2014
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