This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on September 3, 2017.
Paul dealt with Christians who lived in a complicated world and church. The church at Rome may well have been the most complex of them all. What might Paul, who had not yet visited Rome, say to such Christ followers via a long letter?
At first reading, we can be excused for thinking Paul overloads the letter, attempts to deal piecemeal with a wide range of concerns, and in the process loses our attention (and, perhaps, the attention of the Roman Christians!). Repeated readings, though, reveal Paul focuses on only a few matters, which he then illustrates profusely.
Romans 12:9-21 is a classic example. The first phrase sets the theme of the passage: Christians must choose to allow love (agape) to govern all their interactions with others.
Paul sets a high bar with regard to love. Christian love must be genuine, something which defines us and finds ongoing expression in the world as the world is. Keep in mind Roman life was often defined by a patronage system. Powerful individuals or families measured their status by how many people looked to them. In turn, one’s place in Roman society was often determined by the status of one’s patron. Romans, in essence, treated life as a competitive game.
Paul calls the Roman Christians (both those of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds) to abandon the game in favor of agape. He then provides a lengthy, though not exhaustive, list of examples to help his readers understand how the new game is played.
Agape, when lived out in the context of the church (Romans 12:9-12), will lead the Romans to turn from what is evil and embrace what is good. Rather than seeking honors, they now will compete to honor one another. They will turn intentionally from serving patrons and even their specific heritages to serving only the Lord. If they want to play the new game successfully, they must dare to hope patiently that the way of agape, regardless of setbacks, is the way of wisdom. Prayer, rather than social climbing, will become the primary tool they use to shape the course of their lives. Generosity and hospitality, versus acquisitiveness and self-protection, will become their normative mode of life.
Learning to live as if love is the primary way to serve and please God will not be easy for the Roman Christians. Disengaging from assumptions driven by their religious and cultural heritages, quelling the all too human impulses to compete with and judge one another, and finding energy enough to persevere in love despite the inevitable pain that comes with doing so will be daunting. No wonder Paul reminds them to choose to rejoice in hope.
Paul insists the church and Christians must practice love in their dealings with the world beyond the church (12:14-21). In the verses, we hear echoes of the teachings of Jesus, especially those found in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.
The way of love demands Christians bless those who persecute them and refuse to seek vengeance. Note how Paul insists such love be expressed in positive actions. In addition to blessing those who seek to harm them, Paul counsels the Roman Christians to extend hospitality to their enemies.
Why? I think at least three elements are in the back of Paul’s injunction. First, of course, is the example and command of Jesus. Second, the practice leaves the matter of vengeance to God. The Roman Christians may rest assured God will judge all rightly in God’s good time. Third, treating their enemies kindly may disconcert them enough to lead to soul-searching on their part. Paul dares to hope that evil can be overcome with good. At the very least, Christians who follow Paul’s guidance offer an alternative vision of how to interact with others in a world given to competition, revenge, and violence.
Note also Paul’s call for the Roman Christians to embrace and practice empathy: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). How are they to develop such empathy? Paul tells them to abandon haughtiness and pretense in favor of associating closely with the lowly. His injunction runs directly counter to the prevalent Roman practice of seeking to be associated primarily the powerful. Such an approach to life in the world (not to mention life in the church) may enable them to live at peace with others.
As for sermons, I think a sermon built around Paul’s life might help worshipers connect with the text. How did Paul come to be the kind of person who could give such counsel to the Romans? When we first meet Paul, he is a bit of social climber, zealous to judge and legally persecute those he regards as enemies (Christians), and quite willing to use force to advance his agenda. A sermon might be developed that traces Paul’s evolution in Christ from young firebrand to seasoned advocate for love.
A second possible sermon trajectory might be constructed on the basis of another set of questions. What would the kind of love Paul describes look like in action in our lives, both as individuals and as a congregation? How do we measure and achieve status? Whom do we regard as enemies, and how do we treat them (or encourage others to treat them)? Are we willing to run the risks involved in following Paul’s guidance? Can we find it within ourselves to leave judgment to God and instead build an alternative life centered in the practice of agape?
Michael A. Smith
Central Baptist Church of Fountain City, Knoxville, TN
Tags: love, community, non-violence, success