St Michael’s, 28th April 2012
Last week, Tim introduced our new sermon series looking at the latter chapters of Romans, starting at chapter 12. At this point in the letter, Paul begins to outline the practical application of all that he has written in Chapters 1-11, and so he starts Chapter 12, ‘Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy’ … the previous 11 chapters have been Paul’s attempt to describe God’s mercy. So from Ch12, Paul goes on to describe the church as God sees it. Rev Tim’s aim last week was for us to ‘see St Michael’s from God’s point of view’ and he outlined three main points from Romans 12:1-8 …
… that as part of the local church,
we are the body of Christ
we belong to God
we belong to each other
Paul goes on in chapter 12 to give us some very simple, direct instructions as to how to live together as the body of Christ, and today we’re going to work through them together.
But before we move on into this week’s reading, I want you to notice how it follows on … in v 6-8, Paul wrote about every member of the body of Christ having gifts they are to use for the good of the whole body, different gifts, each gift individual to the believer, and each to be used in proportion to their faith and maturity.
Yet when he continues, Love must be sincere, Paul is no longer speaking of different gifts for different people. Love is the gift we all share. There’s nothing individual or proportionate about love. It’s not a gift some of us have and some of us don’t.
Actually, whenever we talk about love we have to be careful that we understand the word ‘love’ in the way the bible intends … this isn’t affection or attraction. This is the agape word … a love that doesn’t depend on the emotions, or on receiving a response, or on how you feel. This love is a decision … a commitment to do good to someone else, to make them a priority, the focus of our attention. This love is family love writ large, loyal at all times, often costly. It includes everyone, excludes no-one. It’s a love that reflects the love God has for us, and that he demonstrated as Jesus, in his death on the cross … a love that met our greatest need before we even knew what it was.
Love must be sincere. This isn’t something we can imitate, or that only happens on Sundays. It isn’t superficial or part time. This love is what holds the body of Christ together, this love is what builds the church, reaches out to others. This love changes things, it transforms people, challenges society, reshapes the world.
It’s not a love we can manufacture … it’s a love that grows out of our relationship with God. And it will only be as strong and as active as our relationship with God. It is the evidence that God is at work … Jesus said, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:35) …
I wonder, is this how you experience church? Is this what you offer to others here? Nobody is perfect, no church is perfect … but as we focus on our relationship with God and with each other, and as we commit ourselves to that relationship with God and to each other, this love will grow. I promise!
The next few verses are quite simply a description of that love in action.
They may seem to us to be a series of random instructions, a list of things Paul is trying to write down while he remembers them, a bit like my shopping list. But you know by now that nothing in the Bible is that that casual. These words are considered and deliberate … so we need to pay careful attention to them as we continue …
Some of these instructions focus on the spiritual, while others are more practical … but like two sides of the same coin, they are interdependent. You can’t have one without the other, the spiritual without the practical. And there is a sort of progression here …
Hate what is evil, cling to what is good. The biblical writers often use exaggeration to make a point. When Jesus said,If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26) he didn’t mean that we should despise or reject our family or wish them harm! He was illustrating the intensity of the relationship he wants with his disciples … that by comparison, their love for their family should be as nothing compared to their love for him. Paul often does something similar.
That is not the case here … Jesus’ death on the cross shows us just how seriously God views sin … evil … in our lives. Jesus’ death means that he doesn’t condemn us for it, if we choose to trust him, yet we are to shun and reject anything that contributed to the need for his death. However, our energies shouldn’t be focussed on recognising evil and sin in order to avoid it … instead, we are to ‘cling to what is good’. Elsewhere, Paul wrote,
… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)
We need to be aware of evil, and how serious it is before God, but it shouldn’t dominate our thinking.
It is only as we cling to what is good that we can be devoted to one another. People are hard work, aren’t they? As the saying goes, ‘You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family’ … that’s as true of the church as it is of our blood relatives. Here are a group of people you might not choose to mix with in any other context. We all have different interests (other than the Lord), we are all from different backgrounds (whereas family share the same history), and we are all of different ages. And love must be sincere. You can’t love your fellow Christians through gritted teeth … reluctantly, because you know you ought to.
There is good in everyone. Search it out, focus on it, cling to it … and loving your fellow believer becomes a lot easier. Don’t be distracted by their unpleasant habits, or their contrary opinions. How they look or dress isn’t important … but notice when they are compassionate, thoughtful or loving, funny or clever, faithful, prayerful … can you see the family likeness of Jesus in them? We all have it … if we belong to Jesus we all have his Holy Spirit in our lives, moulding us, shaping us, little by little changing our behaviour and attitudes. Be patient with me, I’m not finished yet – God is still at work in me and it would really bless me if you focussed your love on the good bits of me and my life.
And honour one another. If you can see the good in me … pass it on. Point it out. Help someone else see the good you can see. It’s not mentioned here but this is the antidote to one of the greatest sins of our lives … Paul includes it every time he writes a list of specific sins to avoid … that’s not what he’s focussed on here so he doesn’t mention it in this context … but it’s there by contrast … gossip. Gossip kills a church. Gossip is being negative about someone and passing it on. It’s the exact opposite of love being sincere and clinging to the good. When you talk about someone to a third party, always make sure it’s positive … even when it’s a matter for prayer. Gossip disguised as a prayer need is sin. Honour one another …
We must move on … Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. I sense that many of us are tired … life is hard work, there are a lot of demands on our time, it’s an effort to keep going and to keep things together, we are anxious about many things … can you trust me when I say the answer is to put God first? We spend a great deal of time and energy rushing around – both physically and mentally – trying to keep up … but the Bible tells us to ‘be still’ …
The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. (Exodus 14:14)
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him. (Psalm 37:7)
Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)
There are others. Isaiah explains … those who wait on the LORD will renew their strength. (40:31)
James wrote, ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you …’ (James 4:8) When that happens, zeal and fervour follow!
If you need the energy, the motivation, the strength to keep going as a Christian, go first to God … not when you have time to spare (because there isn’t any), or realise that you can’t do something (after wasting time trying), but first, before anything or anyone else. It doesn’t come easily … it takes discipline, focus, some of that precious time and energy you can’t afford to waste … and you may not get instant results. But as you commit yourself to God (remember we talked about that earlier), as you spend time with him, in prayer, reading the bible, with others in worship, with a willing heart, things will change. Again, I promise!
And it’s only as we wait on God that we can be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Remember that these aren’t instructions to individuals, but to the people of God, the church. Being joyful, patient and faithful on our own is unsustainable. Just as being zealous or fervent without purpose leads to frustration and failure. We need each other … we need to serve each other, support each other as we worship alongside each other. We are the body of Christ together.
Share with God’s people who are in need. I suppose our first though is that this refers to money? I’m not sure … I am sure need includes financial support. The story of the early church is full of examples of giving to those in need as an act of witness and fellowship. But our needs are far greater than money, food and clothes. We need encouragement to remain faithful, we need acceptance as we are, we need to be challenged about our commitment to God and our growth to spiritual maturity, we need company as we pray. Look around you … these are God’s people, how can you help meet their needs? Whatever their need?
But when it comes to money – let’s not avoid talking about it, don’t be embarrassed. If you have money you can give … give cheerfully. But give carefully.
There are so many charities out there desperate for our support. How do we decide where to give? I’m assuming that we have first given something to God through the church … at Holy Communion, we say this prayer as we bring our offerings of money,
Generous God, creator, redeemer, sustainer, at your table we present this money, symbol of the work you have given us to do; use it, use us, in the service of your world to the glory of your name.
Our giving starts at church. But it shouldn’t end there. Elsewhere Paul wrote, Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:10). So how do we choose where to give … well, notice that Paul says we must start with the God’s people, the family of believers … I don’t think he means that we should keep it to ourselves. But think about the charities you support – are their aims compatible with the gospel, the good news of Jesus? I could talk about this for a long time … since we started two and a half years ago, our charity coffee mornings at St Michael’s have raised £1500 for 25 different charities so far … and we have another 14 on a list of suggestions for future events. But how many of them are concerned with the eternal well being of those they help?
I’d best leave it there … we’ll move on!
Share with God’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality. The simplest form of giving is of your time … making time for people in order to love them. Hospitality is a social imperative in many societies around the world. It varies from culture to culture, even around the UK. What does hospitality look like here in Plymouth, in Stoke and Devonport? When did you last share your home and family with someone? Hospitality should be thoughtful and generous … I don’t want to try and describe it further because it will be different for each of us. I simply want to say that it is an act of sincere love that we can all practise … now that word ‘practise’ is interesting. Any parent who has encouraged a child to learn a musical instrument or a sport knows how much effort it takes to practise something over and over and again. And the practise never stops … once you have a skill, you need to use it or you’ll lose it. Practise hospitality.
I know that you know that so far I’ve only looked at the first four verses of our passage for today … so perhaps you’ll be relieved to hear that I only have one point left to make, covering the remainder of our reading!
So far this morning, we’ve been looking at Paul’s description of, and instructions to, the body of Christ, the church. His attention now turns to our relationship as the body of Christ with others … Bless those who persecute you … rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn … do not be proud … live at peace with everyone … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I wish we had time to go though these verses as carefully as we have so far today … but I think you’ll recognise some of these words and already understand the main principle of the passage … we heard Jesus’ words earlier, from Matthew’s gospel, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you …’ (5:44).
In essence Paul is saying that Love must be sincere … includes everyone, even those who are your enemies, or even more specifically, those who oppose the gospel. Earlier in Matthew 5:11, Jesus said, Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. And later, in Matthew 10:22 he says, All men will hate you because of me.
We must do everything we can to remove any reasonable cause why someone should hate us … If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. And then we should pray for them. Not only that, but also,
If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.
(Romans 12:20, Proverbs 25:21-22)
The image of burning coals is difficult to understand … it’s not a backhanded way of getting your revenge! It’s more that, by being kind you may either win them over, or increase their condemnation by giving them an opportunity to change. Fire is an image of God’s judgement, either way.
Ultimately, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This whole passage is a description of sincere love. It begins by being able to discern what is good, and by rejecting evil. It focusses on the family of God, and on our relationship with God. We demonstrate it to the world as we honour one another, share with each other and practise hospitality. We extend it to the world as we seek to live at peace with everyone, and as we pray for those who hate us because of Jesus. And in our generosity and kindness, we encourage others, believers and those outside the church, to consider their relationship with God and to draw near to him.
I don’t think we can move on from this passage without making some kind of response. If, this morning, God has spoken to you through anything I’ve said … will you do something about it? If one thing stood out to you that you should do or change, tell someone, ask them to pray with you, and make a conscious commitment to make it happen.
Or choose one of the instructions from v9-13 and commit yourself to putting it into action this coming week. It may not be obvious at first how to do that, but as you pray, God will show you how to be faithful in prayer, or how to honour someone, or what to share with someone. Find a way to offer to God your act of sincere love in response to his word today …
- Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
- Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
- Honour one another above yourselves.
- Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.
- Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
- Share with God’s people who are in need.
- Practice hospitality.