Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on October 18, 2009.
Romans 1: 7-8.
At many stops along his journeys, Paul heard about one church and its great faith: the church at Rome. In Asia, in Macedonia, in Achaia, in Illyricum, he meets strangers with spiritual news from the capital of the Empire. They tell over and over that God’s eternal power is proving itself effective in the mission of the Romans. It has been this way since the time of Paul: Christians take with them, wherever they go, stories about the faith of other Christians they know. They tell stories of simple faith, humble faith, resilient faith, serving faith. The Holy Spirit uses these stories to produce an inspiring faith in the hearts of those who will listen.
Throughout history, there have been names of cities which have been known throughout the earth. Their influence, culture, power, and empires make them known. In Egypt, there is Memphis, Alexandria, and Thebes. In Europe, there is Paris and London. There are a few whose names are synonymous with the empires which they represent. If you were to try to look back through history and see the number of cities whose names mean empire, there are not that many. There is Babylon. If you could get to Iraq, in between the Tigris and the EuphratesRivers who would see what is left of the City of Babylon today. There is not much there.
There is also Carthage in North Africa. There is not much there either. But one place where there is still a lot to see, and probably the name that is above all names when it comes to city and empire is Rome. Whenever we think of history and try to remember what we know, our knowledge of the empire and the city all run together. When we think about the Roman Legions out conquering, we think about them conquering in the name of the empire, but they are also conquering in the name of the city.
When we think about all the great caesars of Rome that we can name, we think about them ruling throughout the empire but they always started their rule in Rome. City and empire run together. The truth is, in the First Century after the birth of Christ, Rome was fairly much the center of the known universe for the world that influences us today. It was above all other places the place that you wanted to live. In Rome, there was the Circus Maximus, that place there they put on events. You realize that the Circus Maximus was probably the equivalent of most major league baseball parks and many pro-football stadiums. It seated enough people that in most of those events today, at least the crowd could be fitted in there. There was a time not long after the birth of Christ where there were 30 parks and 28 libraries within the city limits of Rome, and it was all rich. Not everybody who lived in Rome was rich but Rome had built this for itself. It was said that Augustus found it brick and left it marble. Rome was the center of the known universe in this period of history.
When people who were out in the empire—in Asia, Africa or different places—were ruled by Rome but not living in the city, they were always interested in news from Rome. “What’s going on in the capitol? What’s the news in politics? Who is in power? Who has influence? What’s going to happen? What policies are taking place? How is it going to affect my taxes? What’s Caesar got up his sleeve? What’s it going to cost me?”
People were interested in custom, fashion, and art. Just as people do today, people then wanted to emulate the people who lived in the places that were deemed to be the pinnacle of where you would want to go. They wanted to hear news about all of these things.
As ships and sailors moved about the goods of the empire, legions moved in and out. Some rotated home and others rotated in. Travelers moved about the great Roman highways due to Pox Romano (the peace of Rome) which was order in the world. You could travel because of Rome. As they went from seaport to crossroads to secondary town, they were always taking news of the empire. They would show up in places like Corinth, Philippi, and Ephesus and other names that are familiar to you if you have taken a cruise around Greece and Asia or if you have read the New Testament.
There were small groups in these places that were not interested in news about Caesar’s family, troop movements, new policies or new taxes. They were interested, not in the power of the empire, but in what they heard going on among a small group of people in Rome who were labeled a sect. That was not a compliment then and is not a compliment today. This small group of people believed not that Caesar was the ruler of the world but that a Galilean carpenter, crucified, and the story was that he was raised from the dead and was God’s son, was King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When people in these smaller cities listened for news from Rome, what they were listening for was the fact that the eternal and the spiritual were proving to have power in Rome and that there were people in Rome who had humble reliance on the Holy Spirit and loving allegiance to Jesus Christ. These people had never seen this Galilean carpenter, but yet they claimed to have met him. They had never seen him in the flesh but yet they had heard him speak. They had felt him lead, and they believed that he was leading them still.
In all the history in the Bible and out of the Bible that we have, there is no evident that there was ever any big revival in Rome, no Pentecost, no event where thousands of people were saved in one day. But what we apparently have is just a group of people who were constant in their faith, constant in living out a changed life, faithful in their service, and growing in their influence. I have to believe that it was somebody telling another person, somebody going to their work or place of responsibility and living differently because Christ had come into their lives, and slowly it was beginning to spread out. It was spreading out from the center, out to the edges, and the news was going everywhere. There was a small faithful group in Rome and they were changing the world.
Paul had been the world traveler. He had been just about everywhere. If you have read his Letter to the Romans, you know he has not been there yet but it seemed like everywhere he went, this was all he heard. Finally, he wrote them a letter and said, “I thank God through Jesus Christ for you all because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” Everybody was telling about it everywhere because they were faithful.
It is coincidence, irony, blessing, whatever your theology will allow, that we live in a town with the same name as the center of the empire. For 175 years, this congregation has invested itself in being faithful in the work of the kingdom.
In the earliest years, FirstBaptistChurch bought property in the area of Citizens First Bank and for almost 20 years did not have a building. This was a struggling period. It was just enough to try to live, work, and do all the things that you had to do and eventually build a building. Then eventually, the church was moved to the present site. In those early years, not much took place. Soon after that, the Civil War came along and it was hard enough just to keep a church alive, going, and worshipping during those years and during the poverty that came afterwards. But almost immediately after that, there began to be a period where people could begin to come and regularly worship and not just be concerned about whether or not they could get there because of the weather. People in this congregation began to look beyond the walls and the city to the entire world to see how they could influence people for Christ.
In the 1880’s, there was a group of people in FirstBaptistChurch who began to send money every month to a physician missionary in Mexico. There was a group of women in the church who began to support work in China. We talk about being church family and we think about brothers and sisters in Christ, our brothers and sisters in Christ who lived over a century ago, people who shared the same values and the same convictions, people we wish we could talk to so that we can talk about the things that we have done across time.
In 1901, a group from First Baptist sent nine shipments of disaster relief materials to Oklahoma and Texas. I calculate that those shipments were probably worth about $30,000 in today’s value. I wish we could take the people who drove the FirstBaptistChurch trucking system during the Katrina Relief and go back and see how the stories are the same, how the convictions are the same of what people in this church were doing in 1901 and what they were doing in this past decade.
Throughout the 20th Century, First Baptist was a leader among Baptists in Georgia in supporting missionaries and in sending people out, both to live their lives in certain places as witnesses for Christ and people who went for short periods as volunteers. Today, there are facilities in Jordan, Liberia, places in North Africa, a child development center built a year ago in Kenya, all of which have been built by the hands-on labor, support, and prayers of the people of this congregation. The prayers, offerings, friendship, and encouragement of this congregation today support work around the world.
We say this all the time, and I don’t know if everybody understands it or believes it, but there are missionaries throughout the world who think of this particular church as their home church, even though they have never lived a day of their lives in Rome, because of things that many people here have done in going out, supporting, and caring for their children and in giving to their work. I am humbled sometimes when I meet these people and they say, “Oh, we really thank you and that group of yours that came over here and what they did.” You just don’t know the connection that they feel.
I have lost the sequence of when we sent things to Kosovo and when we sent things to Bosnia, but I remember a few years ago one incident where we called a Baptist organization that we worked with and said, “We hear these refugees need clothes and we are gathering clothes.” The woman I talked to said, “Yes, just put them in a box and send them.” We had put the word out and we had a truck load. I told the woman, “You really don’t understand how many clothes we have here. This isn’t box it up and call UPS and tell them to come get it.”
The next time there was a need like this, I got a call from people in other churches and their question was, “I called to try to find out what might be needed and we were told, ‘Call Rome. We know they will be doing something.’”
I just want to God bless you all for a moment and just say to you, your faith is known throughout the world. Robert Shippey who has now gone to BlueFieldCollege said it and is true. The sun is shining right now someplace on the work of FirstBaptistChurch and there is never a moment of the day that the sun is not shining someplace in the world on work that has been supported and encouraged in the name of Christ by the members of this congregation. The influence goes around the world. Whether you know these people or not, they know the name of this church. They know and they bless God for the things that you have encouraged.
This church has supported so many projects: the water treatment systems that were given in the aftermath of the tsunami and many other things that have saved lives that have enabled people to go into a community and say, “This is because Jesus Christ loves you.” Your work and sacrifice has enabled all of these things. This is a part of 175 years, and until Christ comes again, it will be a part of who we are and what we do. If Christ has not returned, then I hope 100 years from now somebody will be saying, “I wish I could go back one hundred years and talk to those people who did Water for Life and practically ran a trucking system down to the GulfCoast. I wish I could go back to talk to those people who have been to Kenya and built that child development center and continued that ministry there.” This is a part of who we are forever.
As we move forward, I would simply ask us to commit to a couple of things. One, is going. A lot of people cannot physically go to Kenya or other places, but we can encourage the next generation of people within our church to believe that there is something significant in people believing in Christ. We can raise them up and we can send them. We can support the people who go. All of us can pray. This is a dangerous world. This is a resistant world. People who have benefited from the personal ministry of people in this church have been in jail in the countries they serve for their work. People find themselves where it is very difficult to talk about Christ. Could their work be easier if we were praying along with them? If we were praying that God’s spirit would go before them and undergird them? If we were in some way pouring out our love for the world, would that be a benefit to their work? I think it would.
I would encourage you to consider giving. We have a goal of $25,000 for CBF Global Missions. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is the primary partner that we have in fulfilling the Great Commission. Rob Nash is the head of Global Missions for that organization, a member of FirstBaptistChurch, and is in China now leading some of that work.
As I was growing up, I heard people talking about the fact that there were not enough people to go and that we needed to raise up more. Do you realize that has changed? In the world of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, there are more people who want to go than there is money to send them? Wouldn’t it be great in these economic times, if our faith were translated into part of an offering so that the contribution from this church, gathered with contributions from other like-minded Baptist churches all around the nation, would work together to send the people who want to go but do not have the funding to do it?
Let me just ask you this. When you watch the news, read the newspaper, or however you get your news today, are there ever incidents that, in some way, could be improved if Christ were preeminent there? If you read about genocide in the Congo, could it help if more people knew about Jesus Christ?
When you read about conflict in the Mid-East, if the Prince of Peace could somehow be present in the hearts of more people, could that be a positive thing? When these are places where people are starving and places where refugees are displaced, could any of these things be helped if there were more people in those places who knew about Christ? If the answer to that is no, then why do we even bother being here? If the answer is yes, then let us just continue with the faith that is recognized by others, the faith that is not done working yet.
“I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.” You may not know it, but your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. Let it always be so.
Copyright 2009. P. Joel Snider. All rights reserved.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.