August 23, 2020
As we now get to chapter 12 in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, his tone changes from the longer arguments that he has been crafting to make his theological points to some very direct and clear conclusive statements about the life of a Christian. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Romans 12… starting with verse 1.
READ Romans 12:1-8
In our outdoor service today, Jesus is going to turn to his disciples and ask that crucial question… “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, of course, will give his answer… “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Or at least that’s the answer he gives in Matthew’s gospel. And in that gospel, Jesus then tells Peter that he is the rock upon which he will build his church. It’s a well-known scene… and if the story ended there everything would be just fine. But… and here’s where I’m going to need you to keep a secret… because in next week’s reading from Matthew in the outdoor service… well, Peter’s going to mess everything up real quick. Please try not to spoil it for them. In that reading next week, Jesus will start talking about how he has to go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed… and on the third day be raised. This is all too much for Peter to take in. This is not the way things are supposed to go… so he takes Jesus aside and he rebukes him… tries to be a corrective because that’s clearly the wrong story… that’s clearly what’s not supposed to happen to the Messiah, the son of the Living God. Jesus’ response is to call Peter Satan… and he tells Peter that Peter is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things. This week in Matthew, Peter gets it right. Then next week in Matthew, Peter gets it wrong.
Now isn’t that church? One minute we’re giving the right answer. We know who this Jesus is. The next moment we’re Satan because we’re setting our collective mind on human things… because we don’t really know who this Jesus is. One moment we’re using our resources and our collective good will to make sure hungry children have food to eat. The next moment we’re on the verge of ending decades long relationships because of something that offended our political sensibilities. One minute it’s Kum By Yah. The next it’s to hell with you. That’s the messiness of being the church… all the ebb and flow… and our ebbing and flowing is not synchronous nor is it over the same matters but varies per member or group of members in the church… even our ebb and flow is chaotic and unpredictable. I mean, whoever got it into their head that this thing called church was supposed to be done decently and in order… well, it might be something nice to aspire to… but that’s not what’s happening in real life.
That’s where Paul sits with his theology… in real life. By his experience of grace… he is aspirational. He sees glimpses of the divine. He has Spirit-filled visions of something greater… of a redeemed and resurrected humanity living in the kingdom of God. He is doing ministry with people who have come to believe and are able to declare that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And then these very same wonderfully faithful people get all tied up in knots from their old prejudices and sins that threaten to break apart this fellowship that has come together through the Spirit. The continued value of this letter to the church in Rome is that it shows to us not a completed and finished… perfectly polished and water-tight theology… but that it shows us the theology that comes out of this struggle between declaration of faith and the living out of that same faith. Paul’s theology in Romans is covered in sweat and tears. You will still find those dried, smudged bloody fingerprints of struggles of the mind, heart, and body all over these words and ideas.
What I mean is this… look at that first line from our reading today. Present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. How many of you… the first image that flashes in your mind… how many of you think of something that is clean… or pristine when you hear that sentence? Something untouched by the messiness of life? Just that phrase… holy and acceptable to God. Doesn’t that just make you think of something that’s just on another plane of existence… like glowing shining angels or something… something that is dazzling and awe filled? Perfection. Maybe that’s the word I’m struggling to find… perfection. Who do you say that I am? You are perfection. You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God. And then Jesus says… I am going to Jerusalem where I will be beaten and killed… and rise again on the third day. No no Lord… nothing must despoil your perfection.
In a strange way, our spiritual worship… our spiritual worship… as defined by the world… is supposed to be perfect… offset from the messiness. It’s not supposed to go to Jerusalem in the way Jesus describes to Peter. It’s supposed to go to Jerusalem with glory… otherworldly, shining, untouched, perfect glory… to be worshipped and adored from afar… from a distance where it cannot be touched by our nastiness. The glorious and perfect world vision of the Messiah goes to the cross and says, “I do this so you don’t have to… I do this to free you from the world’s nastiness. Worship me.” The son of the Living God tells us to take up our own cross and follow him.
Renew your mind. Isn’t that what Jesus is telling Peter… get behind me Satan… Peter, you’ve got to renew your mind… you’ve got to re-discern what is the will of God… what is good and acceptable and perfect… because it’s not what the world thinks it should be… it’s not power and glory… it’s not riches and blessings… it’s not carefree happiness and a guaranteed cloud and golden harp when you die… what is good and acceptable and perfect is taking up your own cross and letting the world crucify you so that you will be dead to all that the world values and alive to God’s will.
Paul understood that because he had lived it. He had fought the battles over circumcision. It is this religious practice that is a deal breaker with God… without circumcision you can have no part of God. Paul had fought the battles of disenfranchisement. There is no way God can love both Jew and Gentile. God must hate the one to love the other. God must abandon the one to claim the other. Neither of those arguments could hold when Paul started with grace given. He had told people from all points on the spectrum of belief you are not better… you are not more deserving… you are not somehow more so you can stand above your neighbor with a spirit of superiority and judgment. Grace means there is no room for such haughtiness. Grace wipes out such pride. By the grace given him, Paul taught that you are part of something greater. You are gifted by the Spirit. You have a purpose. In using your spiritual gift in the service of the larger body of Christ… through humble service… the body of Christ is built up as counter programming to the world’s messages.
So as to not spoil next week’s reading from Romans… let’s jump to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth… where he tells them how these spiritual gifts are meant for the common good. Haughtiness… pride… thinking better of yourself than you ought… doesn’t leave much room for the consideration of the common good. It leads to lots of time spent in defending your own sense of deservedness… your own sense of entitlement… of coming up with reasons why the gifts you were given were meant for your betterment alone. Paul isn’t interested in such individualistic nonsense. You are a part of the body of Christ and each of us has a part to play in the overall health of the body… in how the body serves the common good… in how the body gives witness to Christ crucified. “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Paul lives his theology and his theology develops counter to the world’s messages… but gets him closer to those divine things.
Who do you say that I am? We answer that by using the spiritual gift we’ve been given to take up our cross and bring the message of the crucified messiah into the world. That’s how we are the church in all times… no matter what is going on in the world. When your personal politics are in power… we have the one Christ to proclaim with our spiritual gifts given by grace being used for the common good. When your personal politics aren’t in power… we have the one Christ to proclaim with our spiritual gifts given by grace being used for the common good. Whether we are experiencing a pandemic… or climate change… or social change… or we find ourselves in a time of peace and prosperity… we have the one Christ to proclaim with our spiritual gifts given by grace being used for the common good. That’s the church Christ is continually building upon the rock. Thanks be to God that we get to be a part of that church. Amen.