How to understand this lesson from Romans? Some of you who pay attention this kind of stuff will note that I preach on stories more often than letters and wisdom texts in the Bible. I’m sometimes not sure what to do with these long lists that sound like a lot of instructions. So I’m a bit out of my comfort zone this morning. And that’s okay. Maybe today will be a relief for some of you who need a break from the stories.
And these letters are important to talk about too. Eugene Peterson is a writer a like a lot—he reminds us that Romans is a book for regular people. Endless volumes of scholarship have been written about Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but it was originally meant for regular people looking for spiritual help in their daily lives—people who had to go about “preparing meals, raising children, and going to work”—and wanted to follow Jesus as they did it. So here’s an opening thought to put this text in conversation with something pretty regular.
My children, like so many of yours, are involved in youth sports. As they get to be a little older, I’ve noticed that the game itself, as well as the coaching tactics are starting to change. Lots of haphazard running around a field is being replaced by hard work and building skills, and as for the coaching, the days of “that’s okay, try again” are giving way to a lot more “what do think you’re doing out there!?!?” This same dynamic shows up in a range of parenting activities; we all try to figure out how to balance positive reinforcement with the need for decisive corrective action, and while growing up sometimes means a little less encouragement and more correction, throughout life most of us continue to need some of both.
Religion is the same way. There’s a need for both the encouragement of unconditional love and also the corrective reminders that God has real expectations of us. Across the church landscape the emphasis differs. Here at Knox we talk a lot more about the unconditional love part; but a short drive up to Columbus on I-71 will remind you that “HELL IS REAL.” And although I wouldn’t ever make that slogan a sermon title of mine, I do believe that a mature faith requires both encouragement and correction. So I’ve given today’s sermon the title “Convicting or Aspirational?” and today I’m approaching this text as one that gives us some grace and encouragement as well as a kick in the pants—and both are important.
A major challenge of this text is that there is so much here. There are 29 injunctions in this passage telling Christians how to live. Harkening back to my opening example, it reminds me of my son’s baseball team, on which there are four coaches who spend most of the game hollering various instructions onto the field all at the same time. “Scoot back…scoot up; look ready…relax” good eye…but you can’t get any hits if you don’t swing…” You get the idea. Is this what it’s like to read Paul? Who could possibly be held responsible for all the things Paul is telling Christians to do, and this is just half a chapter of one in the seven New Testament letters attributed to Paul.
I read one interpreter this past week who advised the preacher to focus in on just one, or at most, two or three of Paul’s admonitions, and to go deeper, but I didn’t really agree. First of all, if I did that, I feel like most of you, having just heard the reading, might be wondering, “ok, Adam, but what about the rest of it?” And in addition, it seems pretty obvious that the selective is not what Paul had in mind. If only a few of these are important, why then write down all the rest. Obviously he thought we should hear them all.
Perhaps by now, we’re all feeling completely overwhelmed by the list; so here, I think, is the beauty of Paul’s impossible challenge to us. Even though nothing of what Paul says here should be ignored or left behind, I don’t think we have to think about them all at the same time. Every one of us is different, with different strengths and gifts and challenges, and we evolve through different seasons of life during which we’ll need to be challenged and encouraged in a variety of ways. So, I think it’s okay to read this passage asking, what speaks to me, right now, today, and ask what you hear God saying to you…
So, in a way that probably no preaching professor would recommend, I’m going to spend a few more minutes this morning just kind of briefly meandering through many of the ideas in this text, telling you a bit about what grabs me. Not all of those same things will grab you, but that maybe for many of you, one or two will resonate, and you’ll choose to think or pray or talk with someone else more about them.
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;” Let love be genuine. All 29 injunctions about to come will flow from that. We can find the list of 29 injunctions to be overwhelming, or we can allow ourselves to be washed over by love. I think about this Patrick O’Brien novel I’ve read about sailing in the 18th century; 80% of the nautical terms make little sense to me, but I don’t stop to look every one of them up; I let the prose flow over me like a symphony and I kind of think that’s the point. No one reads 1 Corinthians 13 overwhelmed by its 19 instructions about love; why do so here?
“[L]ove one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.” Mutual affection is hard, for even in really loving relationships, it is often the case that one party is feeling more love than the other…and then tomorrow the pendulum swings back the other way. How can we try to at least be gracious at times when we are not always the one feeling the love.
“Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Zeal, ardent…easier words perhaps for people who come to these character traits naturally; harder for some of us who are more emotionally conservative. Everyone is different. But “serve the Lord”—I suppose every one of us, each in our own way, needs to figure out how we will do this. That’s for me is the convicting part; you can serve the Lord in a lot of ways, but pick something.
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” The last ones are pretty straightforward, insofar as they are actions, but the first ones can be really hard. Rejoice in hope—even when everything in life tells you to be hopeless? Be patient in suffering? Almost never easy, and in some situations, not a very healthy thing to tell yourself or somebody else. Persevere in prayer? Well that’s easy—unless you’re currently feeling hopeless or enduring suffering. The challenges get worse:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Ugh. The person in the family, or at the office, or in the neighborhood, or on your child’s soccer team…who you wish would just stop being so hard to deal with—bless them? These instructions are a tall order in suburban American, to say nothing of in a warzone or a refugee camp. Some of the commands of Christianity are extremely hard to put into action.
On the other hand: “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. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” AND here the part I really like: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Now this I like: “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you…” Finally, after this long list of really difficult injunctions, Paul comes back down to earth and sums it up with a reminder that we are all human—none of us will get all of this right. Do the best you can each day. Maybe Paul’s version of Christianity is not so impossible as we thought.
And another one that may use harsh language but is actually really nice: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” I like this one even more, for how many of our lives have at times been overwhelmed by our desire for vengeance. If you can’t quite own the word vengeance, most of us can at least relate to resentment, and the desire for payback—the way it eats at you when a wrong has been done and you find it so hard to forgive… Let it go, says Paul; some things in the world are going to remain unfair and not quite what you want for them to be; let it go. Give it up to God.
“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.’” Getting toward the conclusion of the passage here, I’ll end on a lighter note: Most preachers are completely confused by this one. How will feeding my enemies heap burning coals on their heads? If anyone can explain this one, I’d welcome a message from you.
And the conclusion: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is in some ways, the sum of it all and the book-end to where we began. The intro was love…the conclusion is not to be overcome by evil…which can be so hard. Some days we wake up ready to overcome all the evil we meet…with good; other days we awaken already feeling overwhelmed by the evil we can see before our feet hit the floor. But if we become overwhelmed by evil, how can we live with genuine love? This is the challenge of following Christ.
Some of Paul’s message is really challenging—maybe impossible; some is inspiring—driving us toward a vision of what life might be. That’s why I chose that sermon title of “Convicting or Aspirational.” Sometimes on the playing field of life we need to aspire toward something great—even if fully achieving it in this human life may be beyond our reach. “Get back out there and try again, son. You can do it.” Other times we need to be convicted—we need a good old kick in the pants. “You call that defense? Get your head in the game!” Most of us need some of both. And I pray that, if not through my words, through the wisdom of the Apostle, you’ve been given some kind of a gift in this morning’s ramblings of faith, to encourage or challenge you as you have need. Amen.