The Gloria Within
Text: Romans 12:9-18
For the list lovers among us, we’ve got a friend in the Apostle Paul. For eleven dense, complex chapters, Paul weaves together a theological tapestry about the grace of God. This tapestry of God’s grace, says Paul, is for us and for them, for Jew and for Gentile. The tapestry is not a tribute to our goodness; it is a stunning testimony to the goodness of our God. The tapestry woven for us in Romans is best entitled: “be who God created you to be.”
It is only after Paul weaves and then hangs the tapestry of God’s grace that he ventures into the land of lists. His list in Chapter Twelve is not a how-to manual on how to achieve God’s grace; it is a guide on what it means to live into the transforming grace-filled love of God in Christ. It is a list of what happens whenever you and I manage to “be who God created us to be.” The list goes this way:
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
O my God, how I love a good list! After slogging through eleven chapters that occasionally soar with poetic eloquence, but most often trudge along on perplexing paths of what it means to be a child of God, finally, Paul gives us a “to do” list. Well, not exactly. Even though it is a detailed list oozing with the imperative, it is actually a list that flows directly from the motto on the tapestry: “Be who God created you to be.”
Said far more practically, Paul urges Christians and the church in Rome to live into the love of God that surrounds them. Just as God’s love for us perseveres, so our love for each other is to persevere, not giving up on people who disappoint us or people who would not be our first, second, or third choice to join us on a desert island, much less at the dinner table.
God’s love for us is the truth embodied in Jesus and so those of us who follow Jesus are to be truth-tellers. I find that part of Paul’s tapestry of God’s grace runs against all I have learned and observed in my life. I have been raised in a Southern culture that more often than not assiduously avoids truth-telling. “Oh my, don’t you look lovely today” says a Southerner. Translation: “Who bought your clothes, much less told you to wear them?!”
So, to better understand Paul’s admonition for those in Christ to be truth-tellers, I turned to one of my favorite non-Southern writers. In her book, Help, Thanks, Wow, Anne Lamott’s offers this take on truth-telling: “My belief is that when you're telling the truth, you're close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don't like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You’, that might be the most honest thing you've ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don't have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand’, it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real-really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.”
Behind both of Paul’s imperatives to love and to tell the truth is the founding imperative, “be who God created you to be.” A few weeks ago, I received an email from Jean, a Cove friend in Wisconsin. Jean worships with us on-line regularly and in response to a recent Sunday sermon, she shared with me these words from the conservative activist, Christopher Rufo. He argues, “We’ve ceded the intellectual and moral territory to misguided principles of tolerance, diversity, and compassion.” I read those words and I wept, but I suspect the Apostle Paul read those words and did summersaults in his grave and Jesus read those words and lowered his head into his hands in utter dismay.
Read Paul’s list again in Chapter Twelve. When you do, you will see that “be who God created you to be” means, at the very least, to be tolerant of those you find hard to tolerate, to celebrate diversity even when you would rather nestle down in the comfortable bed of sameness, and to exercise compassion especially when you are weary to the bone of helping others who are always in need of more help and who never seem to stop being needy. In other words, when Rufo preaches that “tolerance, diversity, and compassion” are un-Christian, he not only ignores the entirety of Chapter Twelve of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he forgets the call of Paul for us to “be who God created us to be.”
While Rufo gets it wrong, dead wrong, I believe the novelist Abraham Verghese gets it right in this marvelous scene between Matron and Marion from his book, Cutting for Stone.
“I chose the specialty of surgery because of Matron, that steady presence during my boyhood and adolescence. 'What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?' she said when I went to her for advice on the darkest day of the first half of my life. I squirmed. How easily Matron probed the gap between ambition and expediency. 'Why must I do what is hardest?' 'Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don't leave the instrument sitting in its case my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for 'Three Blind Mice' when you can play the 'Gloria'? 'But, Matron, I can't dream of playing Bach...I couldn't read music. 'No, Marion,' she said her gaze soft...'No, not Bach's 'Gloria'. Yours! Your 'Gloria' lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”
Your greatest sin. My greatest sin. The greatest sin of the church is not exercising tolerance, celebrating diversity, or practicing compassion. No, it is ignoring what God’s grace makes possible in us. It is failing to sing the “Gloria” that God has written on our hearts.
And, the “Gloria” about which Paul writes is not a solo, it is a piece of choral work, sung by every last one of us. Again, I turn to Paul, this time writing to a church in Corinth that I suspect was even more divided than the church is in the 21st century. Paul writes:
“15 If the foot were to say, 'I am not a hand and so I do not belong to the body,' it does not belong to the body any the less for that. 16 Or if the ear were to say, 'I am not an eye, and so I do not belong to the body,' that would not stop its belonging to the body. 17 If the whole body were just an eye, how would there be any hearing? If the whole body were hearing, how would there be any smelling? 18 As it is, God has put all the separate parts into the body as God chose. 19 If they were all the same part, how could it be a body? 20 As it is, the parts are many but the body is one. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' and nor can the head say to the feet, 'I have no need of you’.”
Those who agree fervently AND those who disagree passionately on matters of faith are bound together by God in Christ and are called to sing God’s “Gloria” together. We are woven inextricably together by the love of God, stitched together to live into God’s gracious “Gloria.”
God’s “Gloria” lives within you. It lives within me. It lives even in those I cannot understand how God loves and forgives and uses, but God does. God’s “Gloria” is what makes Paul’s list in Chapter Twelve the signpost for how to live the rest of today and the rest of our lives.
If you and I are to “be who we are created to be,” we will never grow weary in singing God’s “Gloria.” And if you are having a hard time remembering the words to that “Gloria,” Paul is here to help us out. He writes:
May our love be genuine.
May we hate what is evil around us and within us.
May we hold fast to what is good and never lose our grip.
May we love each other and outdo each other in affection and honor.
May we excel in zeal, be strong in spirit, be faithful to Jesus.
May we rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.
May we give extravagantly to care for the needs of others.
May no one be a stranger to our love and everyone welcome at our table.
May we bless, not curse, those who persecute us.
May we rejoice with those who rejoice, and shed tears with those who are weeping.
May we live in harmony with others, associate with the lowly and not claim to be wiser than we
May we not repay evil when evil is done to us.
May we live peaceably with all.
It seems as though I have not just read the lyrics to the “Gloria” within us, but I have pronounced the benediction, the “good word” from God, a little early today. Or, maybe, it is never too early to live into God’s benediction and to celebrate God’s “Gloria” within.