I’ll begin with words of prayer adapted from Seasons of the Spirit. Let us open our hearts and minds as we pray:
Gracious God, you meet us where we are, and gently guide us to where we will be. When we miss one sign, you send us another until we are compelled to respond with wonder and awe. In our time together, we trust that you will continually guide and lead us in surprising and unexpected ways. We know that you are always with us as we strive to live our faith in the actions of our lives. Inspired by the life and ministry of Jesus we commit ourselves to follow his example of your love made known in the world. Amen
(Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 1, 2014, pg. 158, adapted, Wood Lake Publishing Inc.)
When I am planning worship services, I usually like to look ahead and get a sense of what the scripture passages and themes will be for a few weeks at a time. It has been an extraordinarily busy summer and it’s been enough for me to focus on the work at hand week by week. So, I was taken by surprise when I realized that Romans 12:9-21 was the epistle reading for today. When I read the words and sentiments included in this excerpt from Romans a flood of emotions swept over me which literally took my breath away for a moment. I had no idea, when I chose to read excerpts from this passage three weeks ago at Donna Hay’s Graveside service, that it would come up in the lectionary readings this summer. And so, this week, as I’ve reflected on these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans I’ve been thinking about our community of faith and I’ve taken these words to heart in a very personal way.
These are the highlights from Romans 12:9-21 that I read at Donna’s service:
“Let love be genuine…hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Rejoice in hope…persevere in prayer…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
The sentiments, expressed in this excerpt from Romans, is how Donna chose to live her life. In my experience, Donna was a person who cared deeply about living a life that made the world a better place. I think it was important to her to remember the preciousness of relationships and to insure that her actions fostered good relationships with other people and with all God’s Creation.
This is what I believe we are all called to exemplify in our lives as individuals and as Christian community. Paul’s letter to the early Christian church in Rome covers many themes but the essence of his message is encapsulated in today’s reading. Paul is consistent in his message that God’s love is known most fully to Christians in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and that through the power of the Holy Spirit Christians are to embody Christ’s ministry of love and service.
One commentary I read this week says that,
“Paul calls the Christian community to put its faith into action. The imperative verbs that mark this passage give a sense of urgency to the community’s calling. …Exercising love, rejoicing in hope, overcoming evil with good – all go to the heart of what it means to be led by the Spirit and to live by grace. The context of this passage in the surrounding verses of Romans stresses how these words intend to mark the whole of our lives.”
(Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 1, pg. 130, 2005)
If we had to sum up Paul’s message to Christian communities in one word, that word would be love. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, after extolling the virtues of love Paul simply states, “…faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Elsewhere in his letter to the Romans Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5b) “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. …Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. .” (Romans 13:8,10) …Let love be genuine…love one another with mutual affection… (Romans 12:9,10)
This is not a message that is new to us. Paul is simply affirming the teachings of Jesus. The reason that the Christian mandate to love has been talked about so often by so many people in the past two thousand years is that it is an easy principle to affirm and a difficult principle to put into action on a daily basis.
Often, when Christians gather for intensive workshops or retreats, they will begin by agreeing to acceptable behaviours for their time together in community. Listing important values and behaviours and agreeing to abide by them constitutes a communal covenant that acts as guidance for all the interactions of the group. Similarly Paul’s description of acceptable behaviour in Christian communities, as outlined in his letter to the Romans, contains the essence of the covenant that Christians throughout the ages have strived to live by.
These values, when put into action, not only benefit the Christian community but also the wider community and world. One person who exemplified Christian love in action was Mother Teresa who said,
“Jesus went about doing good and we are trying to imitate him now because I believe that God loves the world through us. Just as God sent Jesus to be God’s love, God’s presence in the world, so today God is sending us. …Love cannot remain by itself – it has no meaning. Love has to be put into action, and that action is service.”
In our Canadian context, a person who clearly exemplified love-in-action was Jean Vanier. Not only did Vanier treat others with love and respect but he also understood that, like a pebble dropped in the water, the ripple effects of loving action are far reaching. Vanier said,
“As we start to really get to know others, as we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgment to understanding. It is a movement of the heart.”
This “movement of the heart”, that Vanier talked about, is the same conversion of the heart that Paul describes when the Christian principles of love are put into action. The early Christian communities that Paul mentored lived in the context of Roman Imperial Rule. Their ways were counter-cultural and did not support the status quo that exemplified economic and cultural superiority, abuse of power, and the marginalization of the majority of the population. Simply put, Christians in Jesus and Paul’s day were non-conformists. In our time and place, where abuses of power are real but not always clearly evident, it is easy to forget the radical nature of Christ’s call to love.
Martin Luther King Jr. used forceful language to prompt Christians to remember their foundational mandate as people of faith. He said,
“In spite of this prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformist. There are some things in our world to which [people] of goodwill must be maladjusted. …Human solution lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be guide and critic of the state and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become a social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
A story that I read last month in a United Church of Christ online devotional gives a current example of this mandate for radical love in action.
Preacher Tom Long once observed that the gospel’s brand of kindness is different from just being nice to others. It’s an ‘act of civil disobedience’.
Like the time he was waiting to catch a flight, sitting at a gate across from a fast food joint. The place was empty except for a disheveled, muttering man slumped unsteadily over a table. Long saw the manager heading his way and assumed he was going to throw the guy out. But the manager was carrying a hot dog and set it down in front of the man. Then he went back for a coffee and set that down too.
It was as if the manager was saying, ‘In a few minutes I’m going to have to ask you to leave. But for a moment, for as long as we can, let’s be who we are becoming by grace, let’s be who we will be fully and finally in God’s future. Here. Welcome to the feast, brother. Welcome to the feast.’
Every kindness is a refusal to live by the status quo. Every kindness disobeys the orders of the world. Every kindness pulls back the curtain on God’s tomorrow.
(Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, July 15, 2014, Mary Luti)
I’ll close with words of encouragement and blessing by United Church member, Doris Kizinna:
The call of God in your life is expressed in how you choose to live. The love of God in your life is expressed in how you serve. The presence of God in your life is expressed in how you love. Life in God, always waiting for you.
(Go Deep by Doris Kizinna, pg. 253, CopperHouse, 2009)
May it be so, this day and always, Amen.