The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at the link below!
St Paul begins chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans and a new section of the letter by appealing to his readers on the basis of the mercies of God. In the light of all that he has described about what God has done for us, St Paul now appeals to us on that basis. He tells us and tells his readers that we're not to be conformed to this world, but rather we are to be transformed. The way we are to be transformed is by the renewing of our minds. How we think matters. The first thing our renewed minds will think differently about, St Paul writes, is ourselves.
As we saw last week, St Paul tells us that we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3). St Paul will repeat this instruction in our reading this week. Well, if we are not to think of ourselves too highly, how are we to think of ourselves? St Paul writes that we are to think of ourselves according to the ‘measure of faith’ God has given us. We are each given gifts to enable us to play our part in the body of Christ. We are all different with different gifts, but we are all part of the same body, and we are to use our gifts to benefit that body.
Which brings us to this week's reading.
St Paul begins, ‘Let love be genuine’, that is, let love be real. Well, that's clear enough. Commentators, however, don't agree on the meaning of what follows. They are at something of a loss to explain the connection between the different parts of the passage that we have just read. Many see it as just a random collection of things that Paul wants us to do. They see what St Paul writes as loosely connected sayings about how we should live.
Closer examination, however, reveals that there's nothing random about what Paul writes. This is a carefully constructed passage. St Paul uses various rhetorical devices, which are clear if you hear the passage read out aloud in Greek, but which, sadly, are lost in translation. I've tried to give you a better idea of the passage or at least part of the passage on the order of service this morning.
As I have said, St Paul begins by stating his theme, let love be real, let love be genuine. And because the word love can mean different things to different people, St Paul tries to banish any sentimentality by explaining what it is that he means. We are to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Love involves hating what is bad and discovering, discerning, what is good and holding onto it. St Paul goes on to explain that love shows itself in how we relate to one another. We are to love one another, outdo one another in showing respect and be earnest, devoted, in our concern for each other. This will lead, amongst other things, to us contributing to the needs of the saints and to welcoming strangers, being hospitable to outsiders who come to us.
In other words, for Paul, if we are to love, there is a strong emphasis on how we relate to others, both in the church and outside it. He tells us we are to bless those who persecute us, to identify with others in their need, live harmoniously together, and not have a high opinion of ourselves, but instead mix with those from less privileged backgrounds. We are to live peaceably with everyone as much as we can and under no circumstances to seek revenge. We should think about others rather than ourselves and our concern for others should extend outside the community of faith. Should we worry about what other people think of us? As far as St Paul is concerned, the answer is, ‘Yes!’ because what other people think of us is a reflection of how we think about Christ.
Well, all this seems a very tall order, doesn't it? Think about what St. Paul is asking of us. He wants us to share our gifts with each other, love one another, and live peaceably with everyone as much as it is in our power to do so. How are we to do this? It seems an impossible task. If, however, we have been following what Paul has been writing in Romans so far, we will have some understanding of how we are to do it. But St. Paul encloses a little reminder in this passage about how we are to do it.
We are to be ‘passionate in the Spirit and serve the Lord’. Your translation may have ‘be fervent in spirit and serve the Lord’. I think a better translation is ‘be passionate in the Spirit and serve the Lord’. And this will see us rejoicing in hope, persevering in suffering, and persisting in prayer. If you want a simple way to remember it, there are three words beginning with the letter P: praise, perseverance, and prayer. There is so little hope in our world, but we can rejoice in hope because Christ gives us hope. We can persevere in suffering because of the hope that Christ gives us. And the suffering we experience, rather than leading to despair, leads us to pray. To pray for the strength to bear it, but also to pray for the day when Christ will return and all suffering will cease.
In chapter 13, St Paul will discuss our obligation to the governing authorities, and he will then sum up our response to the mercies of God by writing, 'Owe no one anything except to love one another.’ (Romans 13:8). He will then encourage us to see that love, to see our response to the mercies of God, in the light of the coming day of the Lord, and he will conclude by writing, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires’ (Romans 13:14).
St Paul locates our life here and now between two events: between the death of Christ and the return of Christ. These provide the basis and the impetus for how we are to live. We live in response to what God has done for us in Christ our Savior and in the light of Christ's return as our Judge.
What can we learn from all this? And what does it teach us about how we are to live? How are we to live in this ‘in-between time’ between these two pivotal events?
Well, firstly, St Paul makes clear that worship is about how we think and live. We understandably see worship as being about what we do on a Sunday: singing hymns, saying prayers, listening to the readings, and trying to listen to the sermon. But worship in the New Testament is so much bigger than this. It includes all this, of course. But worship in the New Testament is about the offering of ourselves to God. St Paul writes:
‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ (Romans 12:1)
Elsewhere St Paul writes:
‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31)
We are to present our bodies, who we are, as a living sacrifice to God. This is our spiritual worship. It calls for a new way of thinking and looking at our world. We are a living sacrifice, and we are to offer all we are, all our thoughts, and all we do to God as a continuous act of worship. You have all been given this morning an order of service, a liturgy, when you came into church this morning. St Paul is telling us that our diaries, our daily schedules, are to be our order of service, our liturgy, because we worship God in the smallest to the greatest act of our day.
But secondly, this offering of ourselves will requires not only a radical rethink of our attitude to God and worship, and but also to ourselves and to others. Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel reading that they must deny themselves (Matthew 16:24). This is completely alien to us today, isn't it? We are told constantly that we are to put ourselves first, and that we are to do this by believing in ourselves, by being kind to ourselves, and by making time for ourselves.
St Paul challenges this way of thinking. He tells his readers, and tells us, not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, not to be arrogant, not to claim to be wiser than we are. Our focus is not to be on ourselves and what we want but on God and what he wants.
And so finally, what God wants is for us to take seriously the needs of others. St Paul stresses the importance of our loving one another. As a vicar, I sometimes get asked, ‘Can I live the Christian life on my own?’ No, you can't. ‘Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?’ Yes, you do. ‘Isn’t it enough to read my Bible, say my prayers, and try to live a good life?’ No, it isn't. Because living the Christian life on our own is not how God has designed it.
St Paul tells us we are all given gifts, all are given gifts, but not the same gifts, and we all need all those gifts to live as God wants. To worship God as we should means we need each other, you need the gifts that I have, and I need the gifts that you have, we need to share our gifts in the body of Christ.
The problem is we don't think we need each other, and so going to church has become for many people something of an optional extra. The reason why it was so easy for us to give up going to church over Covid was because we didn't have a serious enough view of the Church before it. We are one body in Christ and individually members of one another, St Paul writes (Romans 12:5). We are a community of faith, and that community needs to come together bodily, physically, to function in the way God intended. I certainly appreciate all the resources that there are online, and I try to avail myself of them. But it's not enough. You need me and I need you.
Responding to the mercies of God, then, really does involve a complete rethink in how we see God and worship, ourselves, and each other. St Paul closes his explanation of love and our passage this morning on the same note with which he began it.
He began by telling his readers to hate what is evil and to cling to what is good. He closes by saying, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.
May we overcome evil with love, love that is real, as we seek to serve the Lord passionately in the Spirit.