Text: Romans 12:1-13
I love to teach. Early on in the pandemic, at my daughter’s urging, I started teaching a midweek online class. In the last course, we explored one of the letters of Paul. On our last evening together, we listened to the last and longest, and arguably, the most important of all Paul’s letters, his letter to the church in Rome. Unlike churches he started in Galatia, Corinth, and Philippi, Paul did not start the church in Rome. He had not visited there, though, that was his greatest wish.
Paul’s letter to Rome is a letter of introduction, an extended preview of what he believes to be true about the Christian faith. For eleven brilliant chapters, Paul delivers the sermon of his life. He wrestles with great questions of the faith: Where is God in our suffering? How can we who are so mired in sin ever sprint to freedom? What possible difference does baptism make? Is there anything that can separate us from the love of God? What is the relationship between Jew and Christian?
For eleven brilliant chapters, Paul recites the “Apostles’ Creed,” with extended footnotes. Then, he writes these words:
12 Therefore, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the encourager, in encouragement; the giver, in sincerity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 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 affliction; persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.
Chapter Twelve opens with three simple Greek letters – omega, upsilon, nu – letters that translate into English as “therefore.” For eleven chapters, Paul has spoken about what he believes to be true about the Christian faith and now he gets to the great “so what.”
As much as Paul wants Christians to be clear about their beliefs; he just as passionately wants people to put feet to their faith. It is one thing to believe what is true and right about God and to be ready to speak that truth; it is quite another thing to live into those beliefs with body, soul, heart, and mind. Since God’s grace overwhelms even our sin and God’s abundant mercy frees us to live in the more excellent way of love; therefore, says Paul.
What follows after “therefore” is not at all what I expect. After eleven chapters of Paul speaking in the indicative, telling us what is true about God and about us, after “therefore” I am ready for Paul to give us marching instructions. I am ready for a barrage of imperatives: do this! Don’t do that! Just last week, we heard Paul hurl a long list of imperatives at the Colossians. Come on, Paul, tell me, tell us, what to do!
Instead, after “therefore,” Paul does not initially implore us to do, he invites us to breathe, to look inside, to pay attention to what God is making possible within us and what God is making possible within the church. Paul slows the train of his forceful rhetoric and asks us to stop long enough to recognize the grace of God moving within us, to pause long enough to give thanks to God for all that we are and all that God is creating within us.
I appreciate Paul’s gracious invitation, but I am ready for his “to-do” list, his list of imperatives to guide my steps. Paul, tell me what cause to support, where to march, what letters to write, to whom to write the check, what elected leaders to confront and off I will go.
Paul, thanks for the invitation to stop, look, and listen, but I have far too much to do to gaze inside, awaiting a warm feeling from God. And the church has far too much to do to sit around singing repetitive Taize chants when children in our own land go to bed hungry and fellow citizens cannot afford decent shelter and innocent souls try to dodge bombs and bullets in Ukraine and those who struggle with mental illness are denied health care. Paul, there is so much to do. We have so much to do and you would have us pause, pray, look inside, and delay?
Thank you, Paul, but I do not have the time to light a candle, to keep a journal, or to take a prayer journey to the center of me. I am too busy for such idle pursuits; I’ve got work to do. Work that God has given me to do! The church has work to do. Work that God has given us to do!
And yet that is precisely what follows Paul’s haunting “therefore.” Just when I am ready to be on the go, he says to stop. That is probably the reason I often speed read past the first few verses of Chapter Twelve, anxious to move on to the imperatives that soon follow. I want to move on to what Ican do, to how I can serve God, to what a difference I can make.
What was the Apostle Paul thinking when he hit the brakes right after that hearty “therefore”? Paul was many things, but subtle was never one of them. Paul knew that he could offer no grand imperatives sending us out in mission until you and I fully grasped the grand indicatives of what God is making possible inside each of us whether we are ninety or nine.
Just when I am ready to tell Paul to let go of the pause button and for him to tell me, to tell us, what to do, where to go, what to say, who to confront, he holds up a mirror before me, before us, and declares: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”
In a stroke of pastoral genius, Paul says that God has given us all a full and indispensable measure of faith. Never doubt that to be true. And Paul has great respect for all the gifts that you and I have been given and have been given to the church, but he never suffers from the delusion that in any of us or collectively, in all of us, rests the future of the church. The future of God’s reign on earth is held safely within the providence of God. Thank God.
Only after a long, meandering reminder to stop, to look, and to listen for God’s grace at work in our lives does Paul finally get to his string of grand imperatives: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
By the time Paul strings together these emphatic imperatives, the list does not seem so strident or difficult. It is a list of what comes naturally when the grace of God has taught us to pause long enough to travel deep within ourselves and to discover God’s profound love for us. It is an invitation to remember that God has given us all the resources we need to travel deep within God’s beloved world marching to the imperative beat of God’s love.
The imperatives will come. For God has called us to do many things. But first, pause for a moment. Pray and join me in the quiet room of invitation.
“Therefore, I appeal to you brothers and sisters.”
The invitation awaits.
I plan to take it. I hope you will too.