9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[a] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[b] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[c] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
A Map of Discipleship
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
I get lost a lot. In fact, I got lost Friday night after the graduation at Cass High School. You should probably know that up until then, I had only been there once. I looked it up online, wrote down the directions, and arrived without any problem. But coming home, I missed a turn (don’t ask me where), and soon realized that I was not where I thought I should be. Now, at that point, you would think I might turn around and retrace my steps back to where I knew I had gotten off track. But it was a gorgeous night, I did not have anyplace particular to be, and so I decided to see where the road went. About 5 minutes later, I realized the road went through some beautiful country, but I was in the middle of nowhere, and it was getting dark. So, I pulled out my phone and put my address in the GPS, and followed the step by step directions back to my house. If we are honest about it, we all get lost sometimes, and need help finding our way back to the right place. The north star or a compass rose all help us steer in the right direction, and todays passage from Romans is also a guiding point for us, whether we are significantly lost, or just turned around a little bit.
Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is a map for us as disciples, a map for living in community with other Christians, and living in the world. Paul wrote his letter to the church at Rome in anticipation of his visit to them in the near future. Paul did not start this congregation, and he had not visited them on his travels. He was at the end of his third journey, and was anticipating visiting the church in Rome before he continued on to Spain. It is in this letter that we read of God’s grace, given undeservedly to each of us, and how we are called to live in light of that grace. Romans 12:1-9 is not a check-list of “you must do this to receive grace”, but rather can be seen as how we love others because of the love that God has given us.
You will find an insert in your bulletin today with the translation from the Eugene Peterson translation called The Message. I love both the NRSV translation, which is in your pew bibles, and also Peterson’s take. Using the words of Paul, translated by Peterson, I invite you today to examine the relationships we have in our own Christian community; the hospitality we are called to show those who are not part of our immediate community – the saints and strangers; the call to bless our enemies; and the call to live in peace with everyone. Those relationships all begin with love – love that is real and authentic. “Let love be genuine” is how the NRSV puts it. “Love from the center of who you are – don’t fake it” are Peterson’s words. If Christ is the center of who we are, and we love from that center, then our love and actions towards others will be authentic and show our true character. It is that authentic love of Christ, coming from the core of our being, that we draw on and share with others. As we look at how we are loving others, it is important to note that in the Greek, all of the commands are in the plural – put y’all in front of everything as you read it. “Y’all be good friends who love deeply. Y’all practice playing second fiddle, y’all live in harmony with one another….” You get the idea. It is as if Paul is saying to us “don’t try this alone – you need each other to make it happen.” Paul’s advice is addressed to a group, and it concerns their shared life, and ours.
What does genuine love look like in our community? To ask this question, I asked another question this week – what makes church different from any other community or organization we are part of? One of the Middle Schoolers told me this week while we were working at the Methodist Home for Children that church is different because we show God’s love and talk about it. “We take care of each other”. A colleague of mine from Florida, offered these words, “The Holy Spirit, alive, present, binding the community to Christ and each other, enabling Christ-like love and behavior.” Rebecca Blackwell, our mission coordinator offered these thoughts, “The church is one of only a few organizations that exists to serve someone OTHER than its members.” Our entire passage for today is about how we love one another, and how we love others. The church exists because we come together to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ. We exist to worship, we exist to minister to all in his name. While there are other organizations that offer service, provide opportunities to socialize, or places to be a community, the church is unique in our calling to be faithful disciples to our Lord Jesus Christ, and serving others. Looking at verses 9-10, I see an important phrase that helps us to do just that – practice playing second fiddle.
Playing second fiddle is about playing the harmony, not the melody. Playing second fiddle is about being part of a whole, and not needing to claim the spotlight. Playing second fiddle is about being a church member with a servant’s heart, not the love of the spotlight. We, as a church, do not exist to make ourselves look or feel better. The church is not about how we benefit directly, what we can be in charge of, or how we can be glorified in our contributions of time, talent, and money. We do not come to church to shine. We come to church to bask in the light of Christ, and share that light with others. Playing second fiddle means sometimes letting others be right, or make decisions. It means being part of the body, not the whole body by yourself. Playing second fiddle means knowing that the music will not be as full and rich without you, but that you do not always have to carry the melody.
One we pay attention to the reasons we are the church and not, say the Country Club, then it is easy for our love to extend out from our own community – we see that offering that love is part of what we exist to do. And so, the circle of love widens from 183 W. Main Street to those needing hospitality. We are told “help needy Christians, be inventive in hospitality.” Or, “Contribute to the need of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” When Paul writes about contributing to the care of the saints, he either is speaking about those in Jerusalem for whom he raises funds, or the church generally. What is important to note is that generosity extends beyond the familiar, immediate community to others – both saints and strangers beyond those with whom we normally interact. This is why the PW sends care packages to Debbie Blane, a missionary in the South Sudan. Serving saints and strangers is why we give to Presbytery – to serve Christ in our community, and outside the bounds. We give to Camp Cherokee to help our campers, but also children who could not afford to go. The offerings for Presbyterian Homes help care for people we may never meet. We go outside the community for mission trips to be inventive in how we show the hospitality of Christ to others.
So far, so good for many of us. But here is where this passage gets tough – after we recognize that we are to love one another authentically, be good friends who love deeply, and allow others to take the lead; after we look beyond ourselves to serve friends and strangers in the name of Christ, Paul starts talking about our enemies. This is the bulk of our passage for today, and these words are hard to hear, and hard to live by. Our enemies are the people who hurt us – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Our enemies are people we often do not like, and do not wish to be around. Our enemies can be personal, political, financial, or national. And we are told by Paul to bless them. We are told, “don’t hit back, discover beauty in everyone, If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even – that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging, says God, “I’ll take care of it.” Feed our enemies if they are hungry, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.” Or In modern terms, “Kill them with kindness.” In Matthew and Luke, we read where Jesus tells us to “bless those who curse you”, so these words from Paul are not new. To be children of God is to love both those who love us and mean us harm. This does not mean that if you are in a situation of abuse that you should smile sweetly and take it. There are other, better ways for you to get help and be safe. However, I wonder what it would look like if the members of congress took turns sharing cookies and milk with each other across the aisle instead of demonizing one another. Would the work of the government and our nation be better if rather than focusing on being enemies, our elected officials focused on being together as a community? What if nations did not return evil for evil, but instead showed hospitality to one another? There are those who will say it is naive thinking on my part to believe that if we just fed the countries that hated us, they wouldn’t hate us anymore. But, in a world where violence begets violence, which begets more violence, would showing kindness and love instead of evil break the cycle? What does that look like in your own life? How can you show kindness instead of evil? How can you let God be the judge of what happens, and not put yourself in charge of that? What would it look like to go to lunch with the individual that is giving you grief and causing you pain – would a conversation over neutral ground perhaps be a place for some understanding and compassion to occur?
I think “love your enemies” is where we can sometimes feel like we are lost and far away from home on our discipleship journey. We look at the map of ourselves after a bad argument, and wonder where we took the wrong turn. We see that we went off track when we refused to help or even listen to someone because we don’t like or understand their politics or religion. This map of discipleship can be a challenge to follow –so many ways to get off course, and so many ways to be a faithful follower. And just when we think we have almost reached the destination, Paul throws one more layer at us – not only must we love our enemies, but we must love everyone.
Everyone. Not those with class or privilege, not those who have the most frequent flier miles or are employee of the month. So often, when we begin to think about “us vs. them” we create divisions. In our first category for today it was easy to see that “us” and “them” are those who are in our immediate community, and those who are not. Then we think about those who are strangers, and those who are not. Then we think about those who are enemies, and those who are not. No matter how we define people, we put them in a category. When we put people into categories, we begin to define one group over another, and give unmerited preference. “Us vs. them” sets us the insiders to get benefits, and the outsiders to be left out. We see it all the time, in ways we probably don’t notice. This week at the Braves Game, there was a parking lot for those who were members of the Delta Sky Miles medallion programs – not only the frequent fliers, but the super frequent fliers. Everyone else had to walk farther. Employees of the month get better parking spots. I saw that Target now has a program that you can join to get special “insider” sales and discounts not available to those not in the club. What’s wrong with better parking and discounts? Well, nothing on the surface. But some of you in here can remember times when the category you were in determined where you were allowed to enter a restaurant or public building, and which drinking fountain and bathroom you had to use. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Take care not to fall into the trap of categorizing people based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, what kind of car they drive or what school they went to. We are called to love the broadest category of all – everyone.
And so, the map to discipleship, today leads to our table. We may have taken the scenic route, we may have had to revisit places more than once, we may have gotten lost. But by following love, by offering it and receiving it, we find ourselves here. At the place where everyone who follows Christ is welcome. We come to proclaim that the church exists for Christ, not us, and that in Christ, we love authentically, and strive to show that love to all. Let us pray…(communion)