A Note on Romans 12
Genesis 50:15-21 Romans 12 Matthew 5:43-48
I: --The risen Lord Jesus Christ apprehended Paul in the year 30, a short time after Jesus himself was raised from the dead. Thereafter Paul always insisted that this staggering apprehension on the road to Damascus both made him a Christian and commissioned him an apostle. Three years later he went to Jerusalem and conferred with Peter, no doubt recognizing Peter as the leader of the mother-church in that city. For the next fourteen years (33-47) Paul was in Arabia (present-day Syria). We don't know what he was doing there. No record of what he was about exists. At the end of these fourteen years, in the year 47, he returned to Jerusalem and laid "his gospel" before the apostolic leaders there; he wanted them to see that the fellow who had once persecuted Christians was now a bona fide Christian himself. In addition the apostolic leaders in Jerusalem knew that Paul was the chief gospel-witness among the gentiles, and they wanted to be sure that the gentile mission, now swelling rapidly, was informed by the gospel and not by a distortion of the gospel or a dilution of it. From 47-57 Paul evangelized relentlessly, planting numerous congregations in four different Roman provinces. Some of the congregations he planted are known to us; e.g., those in Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, Thessalonica.
Paul spent the winter of 56-57 at the home of his friend and convert, Gaius, in the city of Corinth. He planned to go to Jerusalem in the spring with money he had been collecting for starving Christians (Jewish Christians) there. In addition he felt that the money which gentile Christians had raised for this purpose would strengthen the bonds between the mother-church in Jerusalem and the largely gentile churches throughout Asia and Europe.
Paul regarded it his peculiar vocation to announce the gospel where the gospel had never been heard before. He didn't like to build on someone else's foundation, as he put it. He preferred announcing the good news where the name of Jesus Christ was unknown. Since the gospel had not yet been declared in Spain, Paul decided to go Spain. He was sure that the harvest there would be substantial.
What's more, on the way to Spain he could stop in Rome. He had always wanted to visit the capital city. After all, it was the most influential city of the most powerful empire in the world. Any fruit the gospel bore in Rome would spread throughout the empire. Moreover, Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, and naturally enough he wanted to visit the city which had accorded him this rare privilege.
Accordingly, he wrote a theological treatise to the Christian people of Rome (the letter we call "Romans"), acquainting them with his theological convictions and allaying any misgivings they might have had about him.
Then it happened. While he was in Jerusalem religious authorities ganged up on him and had him charged. His trial dragged on and on. Finally he had had enough and told the Roman officials in Jerusalem that he was a citizen of Rome and it was his right to have his trial heard in Rome. Three years after he had written his theological treatise he arrived in the city, in chains. He remained under house arrest for two years. We don't know for sure what happened to him next. Almost certainly, however, he perished in the terrible persecution of Emperor Nero, together with his friend Peter.
II: -- Romans 12 is crucial. It deals with the application of Paul's gospel to life. In the earlier chapters of the book Paul has expounded the riches of the gospel: how God makes sinful people right with himself, why all humankind needs to be made right with God, the manner in which the gospel quickens faith in people and binds them to Christ, and so on. Then beginning in chapter twelve he tells his readers how this gospel is to be lived in their day-to-day affairs. It is never enough that the gospel be understood and believed; it must always be lived. In fact, we understand and believe the gospel in order that we might live it. Truth has to be done.
III (i): -- The first thing Paul puts forward in his section on what the Christian is to do is the ground of our doing anything at all. What moves the Christian to live like a Christian, to want to live like a Christian? The ground of all that we do is simply God's mercy. Our motivation is gratitude for this mercy. J.B. Phillips, the best paraphraser of the NT, writes, "With your eyes wide open to the mercies of God." Christians are those who have intimate acquaintance with the mercy of God. We know ourselves freed, renewed and invigorated at God's own hand. I know that I am the beneficiary of God's mercy. I have known since I was nine years old that as sinner I merited only condemnation; that the amnesty which God fashioned and pressed upon me I didn't deserve at all. Therefore it had to be rooted in his mercy alone. Mercy is love poured out on those who merit no love at all and never will. That I live at all is a manifestation of God's mercy. That I have been rendered a new creature in Christ Jesus, am sustained in this newness every day by God's Spirit, and am destined for eternal glory; this is an even greater manifestation of mercy. It is this greater mercy which will always be the rock-bottom truth and reality of my life. And ceaseless gratitude will ever be the only worthy motivation of my Christian conduct.
Our awareness of God's astounding mercy certainly sobers us and frequently silences us; but it never immobilizes us. On the contrary, says the apostle, our awareness of God's mercy moves us to offer our bodies to God as a living sacrifice.
Our bodies? How do I offer my body to God? Paul means my self: to offer my body is to offer myself. I don't offer not this or that about myself, as though I were trying to get off cheap with God; I offer my self, all of my self. Then why does the apostle say "body"? Because he is a Jew, and the Hebrew mind knows that there is no human self apart from a body. I have no self apart from my body. If my friend phones me up and asks, "Would you like to play baseball this afternoon?", I don't reply, "Sure, I'd love to play baseball; I'll bring along my ball and glove; I'll bring along my body too." It would be nonsensical inasmuch as "I" can't play baseball apart from my body; there isn't even an "I" apart from my body. Neither can I honour God without my body; neither can I obey God without my body. My personhood, my identity, my innermost "I", while not reducible to my body, is nonetheless inseparable from my body.
The last fifteen years have acquainted us with notorious scandal among television preachers who thought that they could honour God and serve God apart from their bodies. The last year has acquainted us with notorious scandal among Roman Catholic priests who thought as much too. "They" themselves could serve God while their bodies were off doing something else. Those men disgraced themselves. Our gratitude to God for our salvation must ever move us to offer God our body, our "self", all of "us" without qualification or reservation.
My offering all of "me" to God is "spiritual worship", says Paul. Some translations of the NT say "reasonable service", others, "spiritual worship". The Greek expression means both, and I am sure that Paul had both meanings in mind. It's reasonable in that my obedient service to God is the only reasonable response to that mercy of his which has saved me. At the same time, my obedient service to God, my aspiration to live the gospel, is the only sign that my worship of God is born of his Spirit. "Reasonable service" and "spiritual worship" mean the same thing.
What it all adds up to, says the apostle, is that we are not to be conformed to the world. We are not to let the world squeeze us into its mould.
In the latter part of the twelfth chapter Paul tells us that our Christian existence unfolds in the world. Christians are committed to the world. We are not to try to live in a little religious ghetto which shuts out the big, bad world. At the same time, the very world which we are to live in and struggle for is a world to which we are not to conform.
(ii): -- Now between the latter part of chapter twelve and the earlier part comes the middle part. In the middle part Paul speaks of our Christian service to the church. You see, before you and I are qualified to serve the world we must serve the church. Of course! Surely our fellow-Christians have first claim upon us. After all, it is our fellow-Christians who nurture us and encourage us and sustain us. They have to have first claim upon us, since we don't hesitate to look to them for whatever we need whenever we need it. Furthermore, if we are unable to serve our fellow-Christians in the church (where we share a common Lord, common faith, common hope) how shall we fare in the wider world (which is meaner, tougher, more resistant, and utterly unforgiving)? The first sphere of our service is always the church.
In our service to the church Paul insists first and foremost that we not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. ("Don't cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance...", he says.) Paul makes this point first because he knows the church gives people the chance to be a big toad in a small pond; and not merely a big toad, a totalitarian toad. There are two reasons for this. One, compared to where our lives unfold during the week the local congregation is small. The person who has no clout at all in his place of employment (how much clout can any employee have at General Motors or CNR?) finds that he has immense clout in a congregation. Two, congregations tend to be docile in the face of someone who speaks loudly or shrilly. Most church people have grown up with the idea that they should be nice inasmuch as Jesus was nice. Now Jesus was many things, but "nice" wasn't one of them. (C.S. Lewis maintains that according to the New Testament Jesus is tender and terrifying in equal parts, but never "nice".) Still, he is thought to have been nice. When a powerplay unfolds in congregational life or someone browbeats another member or brings forward a not-so-hidden agenda, others decide quickly they should acquiesce in order to keep things nice. (Surely this is what has happened over and over in meetings of presbytery and conference and general council in The United Church of Canada since 1988 -- never mind before.) The noisy browbeater or the powerplay specialist wins the day. The big toad in the small pond is now even bigger.
The apostle is aware of this. For this reason the first thing he says to us who are who we are only by God's mercy is this: "Don't think more highly of yourself than you ought to think." We are not to cherish exaggerated ideas of ourselves or our importance. This is foundational. Without it church life either fragments or becomes the fiefdom of the local tyrant.
Having made his point here Paul next tells us that each of us is to exercise, for the good of the congregation, whatever ministry we have been given to exercise. Our ministry here, our service, is simply the exercising of the gifts which we have.
Paul is careful to note three things here. One, every Christian has a service to render the believing community, just because every Christian has a gif, a talent. Two, we should exercise only those gifts which we have; we should not attempt to exercise gifts which we don't have. This is why he says, "If your gift is teaching, then teach (don't attempt carpentry or accounting); if your gift is exhortation or encouragement, then exhort or encourage." Very often in church life we expect people to exercise gifts which they manifestly don't have. Then we are surprised when an important task in church life goes undone, or is done poorly; surprised again when the person who attempted to do it feels guilty at having done it so poorly. We are to do only what has been given us to do. We should never feel guilty for not doing what we have no gift for doing. In the third place Paul says something about the service which mercy-made Christians are to render that we must take to heart: whatever our service is, we are to render it wholeheartedly, generously, zealously, cheerfully. We are not to render it stingily, resentfully, grudgingly, miserably. "Whoever contributes, liberally; whoever gives assistance, enthusiastically; whoever does acts of mercy, cheerfully" -- is how he speaks of it. There is nothing as destructive as "doing good", so-called, which is done reluctantly, resentfully, grudgingly. Congregational life thrives when everyone's service is recognized and encouraged; when whatever service is rendered the congregation is rendered as people have gifts with which to render it; when all of this is done with magnanimity of spirit. Not only is congregational life made to thrive, says the apostle, Christians are at this point qualified for their service to the world.
(iii): -- Our service to the world Paul discusses beginning with verse 14 of chapter 12. Right off the bat he says, "Bless those who persecute you; bless them, don't curse them." Doesn't that wake you up? His first point is that the service which the Christian renders the world for the sake of the world, the world throws back in the Christian's face! But this is because of something I mentioned ten minutes ago: the world which the Christian must serve is precisely that world to which the Christian must not conform. Right off the bat, then, there is going to be a collision between the Christian and the world.
At this point the Christian is always tempted to protect himself by turning his back on the world and huddling in a corner with a blanket pulled over his head. The apostle forbids this. He forbids it because he knows his Lord forbids it. (After all, says St.John, it is the world which God so loved that he bled to death for it.) We are not to stand aloof. In fact, says Paul, we are to stand so close to the world, in such solidarity with other people, that we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. We weep with those who weep inasmuch as we are sensitive to their hurt and we care for them in the midst of their pain; we rejoice with those who rejoice inasmuch as we don't envy whatever it is which has made them rejoice, and therefore we don't dash cold water on their elation jealously.
The apostle insists as well that we are not to be haughty, but rather we are to associate with the lowly. J.B Phillips again: "Don't become snobbish, but take a real interest in ordinary people." Nothing has the capacity to foster pride, secret arrogance, like belonging to an elite. It can be an academic elite, a professional elite, an athletic elite, a religious elite. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with belonging to such elites. Why shouldn't the academically gifted person enjoy the company of other academics, the athlete the company of fellow-athletes, and so on? At the end of the day, however, everyone who belongs to the most elevated elite is in exactly the same condition as those who belong to no elite at all: everyone is a suffering human being, fragile, lonely, sinful, facing bodily and mental dissolution -- and aware of all of this together as well as aware of spiritual impoverishment. Everyone, whether elitist or not, is subject to the same heartaches, guilt and apprehension. The Christian is to "take a real interest in ordinary people" inasmuch as everyone is ultimately ordinary. At bottom our need is the same and the gospel is the same. We are alike sinners and sufferers who stand empty-handed before God and need what he alone can give us.
The last thing Paul tells us in Romans 12 about our participation the world's life is this: we are never, but never, to seek revenge. Once we have recognized our enemy as our enemy, we don't launch a vendetta against him which will only ruin us before it ever ruins him. Vengeance is never our responsibility simply because as soon as we are "stabbed" we lose perspective. Judgement must be left in the hands of him who is always the just judge. Our responsibility is to mirror that truth and mercy which have made us who we are. To do anything else is to be overcome by evil when, says Paul in the very last sentence of Romans 12, our task is always, and only, to overcome evil with good.
Victor Shepherd June 2002