a sermon on Romans 12:9-21
preached on August 31, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It could be my personality, or it could just be an occupational hazard, but I seem to like telling people what to do. Now before you start agreeing with me about how bossy your pastor is, let me clarify a bit—it’s not that I like telling people what to do in the sense of ordering them around but more that I tend to end every conversation with a bit of an instruction. “Take care.” “Travel safely.” “Have a good day.” “Call me and let me know how it went.” “Email me and let me know what works for your schedule.”
All these closing words are imperatives, sentences that leave someone with an instruction of some sort, usually and hopefully gentle. When I realized this recently, I started trying to come up with other ways to bid farewell to people, but I came up short. For whatever reason, it’s in my being to speak and act in this way. It might be that I am just a demanding person, someone who wants people to do things, or it might be that I am so deeply influenced by our tradition that I just can’t help but leave people with a parting word that gives some sort of instruction.
Imperative, instructional words are a foundational part of our Christian tradition. The apostle Paul offered some classic imperative instructions in our reading from Romans this morning, instructions that guide us in showing the signs of faithfulness every day. You’ve quite likely heard some version of these words before—they form the core of the traditional charge that I use many weeks at the end of worship—but they are also so rich that they can’t just stand alone there. They need some special attention from time to time.
If anyone thinks I offer a lot of commands sometimes, go count them up from Paul here—one estimate points to twenty-three separate imperatives in these thirteen verses! In this long list, Paul is telling the faithful Christians in Rome about the signs of faithfulness that come from a life of following Christ. Some of these are some very simple commands that almost seem obvious: “Let love be genuine.” “Hold fast to what is good.” “Serve the Lord.” “Rejoice in hope.” They’re so simple that sometimes I wonder why Paul even brings them up—they should just be a given in how we treat one another and others! But when you look more closely, these stand as the basis of more challenging themes of how we show genuine love for one another and how we relate in times of disagreement, and for Paul these things are critical signs of faithfulness for us every day.
The first several verses here all point us to how we can express genuine love as a sign of faithfulness. For Paul, all love needs to be genuine—not scattered about without regard for the evil in our world but love that enables and extends good, that gives space for it to be shared, that demonstrates respect and honor for all people. This genuine love rejoices in hope, shows patience amidst suffering, continues in prayer no matter what, steps up when others are in need, and offers welcome to everyone, especially those who might otherwise be excluded.
Genuine love, though, is not simply to be enjoyed but rather must be shared. This love is not limited by the standards of the world but is extended beyond all human boundaries. And this love is ultimately not a human feeling or emotion but rather an expression of God’s love and care in our actions toward others. Genuine love, then, stands at the center of the signs of faithfulness for Paul, for God’s faithfulness is shown most clearly in the love revealed in Jesus Christ, and so we who follow him are called and challenged to make this love real in our own lives.
Love is a pretty straightforward thing, when you get down to it, but Paul’s second set of commands here starts to get a little more difficult. After laying out genuine love as a sign of faithfulness, he turns more directly to issues of how to live with other people in the world, and I think these signs of faithfulness can be divided into things that are hard and things that are harder. In the hard category, we find things like, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” And “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Here Paul proposes a way of life that honors the fullness of the humanity of others, that seeks to go where others are rather than demanding that they come where we are, that walks the path with others before claiming that our journey is better than theirs.
These things are plenty hard. It is much easier to take pleasure in the pain of others, to let hurt and division fester, and to promote conflict as we work with others, but Paul insists that we need to look for a different and better way. Just when we’ve started to address these difficult challenges, Paul gives us more signs of faithfulness that are even harder to live out. Five times, in five different ways, Paul instructs us to show kindness to the very people who are dead-set against us. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.” “‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’” “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Just when we thought that living the signs of faithfulness was hard, Paul makes it harder, insisting that we seek not the destruction of those set against us but rather their transformation. You can’t say that living all this out is anything less than hard, and Paul knew it. He himself had to struggle with how to treat the Pharisees who had once been his friends and who were now dead-set against his work of sharing the gospel, and he himself surely wondered how to deal with other Christians who objected to his openness to Gentiles. Yet Paul knew that the way of life set forth in Jesus Christ demanded that he treat everyone with kindness and seek to embrace those who disagreed with him.
While he recognized and even rejoiced that these actions of kindness, generosity, and grace might set in motion the destruction of those set against him, he made it clear that transformation, not destruction, was the ultimate goal, leaving any necessary purge of past ways and challenges to God. Paul knew that the way forward is not through negativity and anger, not through answering wrong with more wrong, not even through hoping that God would turn our good acts toward our enemies into their destruction, but rather through a graceful and grace-filled approach to those who have set themselves against us in the hope that they would be transformed to new life.
Living out these signs of faithfulness is never easy, but we are called to walk in this path as we seek to show our faith in our lives and be a part of God’s transformation of the world. As difficult as it is to live out these things, as challenging as it can be to hear these sorts of imperative commands from others, showing this kind of genuine love and broad faithfulness in our lives can be transformative for ourselves and others. Living out this kind of love that shows no boundaries and embraces even the broadest differences can show our broken and fearful world a different way of approaching conflict in days where the emphasis seems to always be on supporting one side at the expense of the other. And seeking the transformation rather than the destruction those who are opposed to us can make our lives a better reflection of the kind of world that God intends for us all.
So while Paul might be a little overbearing in these twenty-three directions of what to do and how to live, may his words pointing to the signs of faithfulness guide us as God strengthens us to make our love genuine, to bless those who persecute us, to live in harmony with everyone we meet, to keep evil from taking over our lives, and most of all to overcome all the evil we encounter with the goodness of God until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.