Note: I’m really glad to be back! I hope this guide helps your preparation for worship on Sundays and enables you to grow deep into the word and wisdom of God. Please don’t be afraid to ask questions or give feedback in the comments at the bottom!
Is love really all we need? We pick up the 2nd part of Romans 12 this Sunday. After encouraging the readers toward further transformation of the Christian community in body and mind, Paul now turns to what that looks like in real, practical detail. It’s actually a bit arbitrary to divide up the chapter between verses 8 and 9, for this Sunday’s reading proceeds directly from the first part of chapter 12, but the writing style changes a bit, coming in line with other examples of ethical instruction from that era (see for instance, the list in 1 Thessalonians 5:14-22). In fact, here’s a collection of about 30 imperatives which Paul feels are important reflections of the Christian ethos! That outwardly-directed pattern of behavior is grounded in the first part of the Letter to the Romans by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then it’s made real in the bodies & minds of the believers as they are transformed into Christ-likeness and as they work out their gifts (12:1-8).
What does that Christian ethic look like? Well, it looks like the virtue which is identified most closely with God’s own nature: love. And Paul doesn’t leave us to assume we know what kind of love or how to love…he makes it quite explicit as we make our way through the rest of chapter 12. Again, these are instructions not just to the individual but to the collective Christian community: deal with each other in this way, deal with those outside of your group in this way, and let these characteristics be what you are known for together. “If you live like this, have these attitudes, and behave in this manner,” Paul seems to be saying, “then you will not be practicing a false or counterfeit form of love, but the real deal.” And so the apostle quickly scribbles down all of the different ways in which the community of faith can build one another up.
There’s some obvious statements here, like “persevere in prayer,” and there’s things that are less obvious: “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” And then there are the challenging ones: “bless those who persecute you…and do not curse them.” These might be obviously needed and virtuous, but are downright difficult to put into practice. Finally, after an extensive exhortation to forgiveness, humility, and longsuffering patience, Paul ends on a similar note as our passage begins: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
1| We’re quite accustomed to how Christians are supposed to act; yet, hearing these encouragements and imperatives with fresh ears means we can imagine just how shockingly different the standards of behavior are for us. These go far beyond what is nice, polite, and acceptable to society: if we take them seriously, they mean giving up our own preferences and attitudes, to be replaced by the needs and cares of others. Do any of Paul’s instructions sound new to you? Which strike you as difficult or maybe even impossible?
2| Is it possible that what we are giving up — our power, our selfishness, our possessions, our sense of being wronged, etc. — is actually not that valuable to God? St John Chrysostom reminds us that by giving up all these things, we also gain:
If you have love, you will not notice the loss of your money, the labor of your body, the toil of your words, your trouble or your ministering, but you will bear everything courageously. (Homilies on Romans 21)
What might we gain by “holding fast to what is good,” and by loving just like God loves?
3| Whether dealing with our close relationships within the community of faith, those who are like us but from other places and backgrounds, complete strangers, enemies, or anyone at all, we find no distinctions or discriminations in the attitude and actions commended by Paul. Rather than play favorites or give special perks to insiders, Romans 12 invites us to have compassion and enact love towards anyone we might encounter. Who is it hard for you to love? How can you live out one of Paul’s encouragements towards that person or group of people this week?
O Holy Spirit, giver of light and life,
impart to us thoughts better than our own thoughts,
and prayers better than our own prayers,
and powers better than our own powers,
that we may spend and be spent
in the ways of love and goodness,
after the perfect image of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
In addition, all the lectionary texts for this Sunday’s worship can be found at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary site.
Resources used in compiling this week’s GPS: N Thomas Wright’s “Letter to the Romans” commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible; Paul and His Letters by Leander E Keck; and the WorkingPreacher.org commentary by Mary Hinkle Shore.
Image of Personification of Charity, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29226 [retrieved August 23, 2011]. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.
Prayer by Eric Milner-White & G W Briggs (1941).