|Occasionally, when I am in a feisty and perverse mood, I tease some of my fundamentalist friends by telling them that Paul did not write a single book in our Bible. When they sputter and fume, I tell them that my source for this opinion is Paul himself. Yes, he authored several Biblical books – the lofty thoughts, the memorable words, the imitable style, the majestic diction and profound thought, these were his. But he didn’t write his letters; he couldn’t. Injuries sustained through persecution and deteriorating eyesight (which those of us of a certain age can appreciate), prevented him from fruitfully putting pen to paper. He needed an amanuensis, a recording secretary, to whom he could dictate his words. Paul refers to this fact in several of his letters, but only in one does his amanuensis step out from behind the curtain of anonymity to identify himself and send his own personal greeting: “I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.”
We know nothing about Tertius; church history is blank as to his further contributions. We assume he shared a name with his father and grandfather, because his name means “Third,” the equivalent of our word, “Trey.” He is one of the many people whose name surfaces in the sixteenth chapter of Romans about whom we know nothing. Indeed, of the host of people Paul mentions in the sixteenth chapter of Romans, the only people we encounter elsewhere in Scripture’s account of the church are Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla, and maybe Rufus. A healthy, indeed, thrilling theological truth is hidden within this fact. Let us remember that the family of the church is comprised of a vast, diverse, community of servants; a few are famous, most are not. Even with regard to those early Christians who believed and bled and died to establish Christianity amidst fierce persecution, few of their contributions have been preserved in Christian history. Most of their sacrifices went completely unrecorded, perhaps completely unnoticed and unsung. Yet Paul knew of their spiritual value. From Paul’s salutations and references to these believers, we know they must have been stalwarts for Christ at the very heart of the Roman Empire, and even though the exact nature of their witness has been lost to us, it is instructive to know that they were there. Their witness was so important to Paul that amidst his expression of lofty thoughts and sublime theology, he paused to say hello to friends whose faith had made his life a little easier, a little more cheerful, whose love had made his service a little less lonely, and without whom the work of Christ could not have been done. Paul drew strength from the fact that he had a host of believers helping him in his great cause. Paul’s greatness, but also his limitations, his dependence upon others, is captured in that one phrase, “I, Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.”
Paul would have been delighted to allow Tertius to step from behind the curtain and reveal his role, for Paul passionately believed in the indispensability and interdependence of every believer. Paul’s most profound and fundamental metaphor for the church was “the body of Christ.” He believed that we are all indispensable to God, that each of us has a role in fulfilling God’s work. It doesn’t matter whether we belong to the vocal cords of Christ, or the hands of Christ, or the feet of Christ – we are all crucial to the functioning of the body of Christ. It doesn’t matter whether our role is prominent or obscure, everyone’s contribution is crucial. Everyone is a constituent element in the body of Christ, regardless of how high or low is our profile, regardless of our position or our gifts. Everyone matters, everyone contributes. And if anyone does not fulfill their role to the utmost, then the universal body of Christ suffers. Tertius could not have written the book of Romans without Paul. But Paul couldn’t have written the book of Romans without Tertius, or someone like him. Paul recognized that the body of Christ depended upon the sacrificial investment of every believer and knew that a spirit of collegiality must characterize the earthly body of Christ.
I repeat, a spirit of collegiality must characterize a church membership, and I use “collegiality” advisedly to describe the fellowship of the church, for our word “college,” more resembles the character of the family of God than might first be supposed. In that chaotic time known as the Dark Ages, few formal places existed where higher education could take place. Scholars wandered from city to city, attracting what students their reputation and expertise might command. Since these scholars were often foreigners, outsiders without standing in the community, they were vulnerable to attack and manipulation. Thus, scholars felt compelled to band together for protection, living together in a fortified building that came to be known as a collegium. Over time, a houseful of scholars came to be known as a “college.” Within that college, scholars became family to each other. They lived together, worked together, taught together, if necessary, fought together, each contributing their part to the welfare of their adopted family. These scholars realized that they must band together and mutually support the health of the group. Each member was an integral element of a great whole. Everybody contributed, everybody collaborated, everybody counted. Everyone was necessary to the health and welfare of the community. What those scholars called a “college” should stand as an apt description for what we call the church of Christ. Everyone counts! Everyone contributes! Everyone collaborates for the greatness and goodness of the whole!
Baptists have emphasized this interdependence and indispensability of all members through our insistence on the priesthood of all believers. Embedded in our Baptist theology is an accent on the spiritual truth that all believers are equal in God’s eyes. Everyone is a priest! There is no caste system in the Christian faith. There is no spiritual distinction in God’s eyes made between clergy and laity, or between a committee chair or a committee member or a committee liaison, or a regular church member. Yet in a world where populations are measured in billions, where cities are peopled by millions, we sometimes find it hard to hold to the notion that the ministry of one individual, the contribution of one person, the sacrifice of one believer, can make a significant difference in the life of the whole. But the indispensability and value and interdependence of every human contributor is a bedrock theological truth that must be affirmed. One person’s actions can make an extraordinary difference in the health of a vast enterprise
History reminds us of this truth from time to time. Some years ago The History Channel chronicled the exploits of the Belfast, one of the last big British battleships, which distinguished herself by securing the last decisive naval victory in European waters in World War II. The ship was blessed with a commander who was a tactical genius. The ship orchestrated a delicate symphony of movement with her sister ships. The ship featured an amazing choreography of gun crews, teams of men who acted with uncanny speed and accuracy to load, aim and fire huge weapons of destruction. At long last The History Channel noted something else too: deep in the bowels of the great ship, oblivious to the efforts of admirals and ballistic crews and hundreds of scurrying sailors, invisible to the work of everyone on the ocean’s surface, worked one man, a lowly, solitary low-grade machinist, who recognized that the great battleship’s main engine was overheating and who hooked up a hose and began irrigating the entire system, keeping the engine temperature just low enough for the great battleship to function. One man, lacking status or distinction or recognition, invisible to all – yet exhibiting the creativity and initiative that proved indispensable to a victory hailed around the world! One lowly person with a hose made a difference to the success of the whole!
We are in the process of creating our church budget for 2021. I can tell you that creating a church budget amidst the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression is a sobering project. Frankly, it is only thanks to the money we received through the Payroll Protection Plan that we have been able not to dip into our church reserves amidst this financial crisis – that and the fact you have been faithful and conscientious in your support of our church finances, even when you have been unable to attend church in person. I salute everyone who has helped keep us financially afloat. No doubt we face another uncertain year. The question looms, will we remain faithful and steadfast in our commitment amidst these chaotic circumstances? None of us knew going into 2020 that we would face expenses like buying sophisticated new air filters, sanitizing the church facility, and going way over budget with regard to our livestreaming expenses. No doubt, we will face expenditures in 2021 that we presently cannot anticipate. But one question remains: are each of us willing to do our part to keep our ministry here alive and vibrant? I am keenly aware how precarious are the financial circumstances for many of you in this COVID era. But I recall the insight of a church business manager amidst the Great Recession several years ago. She noted that if each of us who was able could increase our giving by simply $5 a week, it would make a great difference in our budget. $5 a week! – about the cost of a McDonald’s Happy Meal – even that small increase by each of us would make an impact. Whether or not circumstances allow any of us to do that, one truth is unassailable: all of us are indispensable! Every gift counts. Every contribution matters. Every sacrifice is essential to the achievement of the entire community.
Each of us is invited each year to make a pledge to the church budget. What is a pledge? It is not a contract; it is just a promise of commitment to God and to one’s fellow believers, an expression of our willingness to invest in God’s fellowship. In truth, we find it easy to dismiss the importance of our small, single pledge. But I can tell you, the fate of an entire nation can hinge upon one person’s keeping their promise. I’ll bet the savviest political junkie in here does not know the name of Henry Shoemaker, an obscure Indiana farmhand. Yet the willingness of Henry Shoemaker to keep a promise has had a profound impact on your life and mine. In the summer of 1842, Henry Shoemaker was out in his field working when he suddenly remembered that the day was an election day. He had promised a friend that he would vote for him for state representative. Feeling keenly that a promise was a promise, Henry Shoemaker left his work, saddled his horse, rode to the polling booth and cast his vote. His friend, Madison Marsh, was elected as an Indiana state representative — by Shoemaker’s one vote. The custom of that time was for the state legislators to elect the U.S. Senators from that state, and a few months later Madison Marsh found himself in a deadlocked caucus meeting for this purpose. On the sixth ballot Madison Marsh changed his vote, and Edward Hannegan was thus elected to the U. S. Senate – by one vote. Three years later, the U. S. Senate was deadlocked in a debate about whether to declare war on Mexico until Senator Hannegan from Indiana broke the tie and launched the conflict that resulted in the area called California changing from Mexican to American hands. By one vote. Soon thereafter, when that region known as Texas applied for U.S. statehood, the Senate was again deadlocked, until Senator Edward Hannegan voted aye, and Texas was admitted as a state. By one vote. We take our country’s borders as inevitable, as something that has always been secured. History says otherwise: some credit for shaping the boundaries of our country must be given to an obscure farmhand named Henry Shoemaker, who answered the challenge of keeping faith with a friend. How much of all human history has hinged on the indispensability of one person keeping faith with a promise!
I’m rarely surprised by a church committee, but one year an inventive Stewardship Committee in one of my former churches did something unique: they passed out offering plates during worship and invited people not to put money in, but to take money out! The plates were filled with silver dollars, and the Stewardship Committee invited people to take a dollar out of the plate, put it in their pocket and carry it throughout the next week as a reminder that all of us carry a blessing away from church each Sunday. They invited people to carry that coin around to remind them that they were privileged and blessed to be a part of Christ’s fellowship and that they bore some responsibility for funding it. They invited everyone to take a coin to remind them that they were an indispensable part of this community. I was amazed to find that over the next couple of weeks, not only was every single silver dollar returned, but our church saw a significant increase in promises of church members to up their financial commitment to the church for the coming year.
When you go home today, take time to read the sixteenth chapter of Romans. You will encounter names that you have never seen before. Virtually none of them were famous. Yet all were essential to Christ’s community. Few of the names you will encounter garnered any kind of acclaim. Yet all did their part in God’s mighty work. Virtually none of them are known to us; but all of them are known to God. And their work, no less than that of the great apostle Paul, helped begin a movement and fostered an ongoing drama of faith in which you and I are privileged to play our part in the service of our Lord. May we grasp how privileged we are to be a constituent element in the ongoing drama of Christ. And may we fulfill our role with all the courage, passion and sacrificial commitment of which we are capable.