Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost - September 3, 2017

LIFE IN COMMUNITY
September 3, 2017
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

We have this wonderful reading from Romans for today that describes how we, as members of a community of faith, can relate with one another as well as relate with others in our society and throughout the world.  Having listened to this reading only once this morning, you may not have noticed that this entire passage describes for us how we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are to behave with one another.  In this regard, some people would say that this entire lesson is all law and that it offers nothing to us in terms of God’s grace because this passage is all about what we are supposed to do, and says nothing about what God has done for us.  I actually would agree with this simplistic assessment, but we have to remember that this lesson is situated in the middle of an entire letter—a letter that does remind us about all that God has done for us.  I will share with you a few excerpts from earlier in this Book of Romans to give you a sense of how much God has done for us in order to create for us the space and give us the motivation to do all that the Apostle Paul is suggesting to us today.

Paul writes earlier in this letter to the Romans, “Since we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the only way that we can be justified and saved is by the gift of God’s grace and the redemption that is ours through Jesus Christ.  As a result of being justified or made right by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that God has given to us. Jesus also came to make peace between us and God by offering to us the complete forgiveness of all of our sins and reconciling us with God forevermore.  Through our baptism, not only have we been buried with Christ Jesus, we also have been raised from the dead figuratively so that we might walk in the newness of life today and every day.

“Once baptized, we no longer are slaves to sin, but we are free—free to live by the grace of God and by the power of God’s Spirit without being dominated by our desire to sin.  Even though we still can be tempted to sin every single day of our lives, the Spirit that we have been given will always be present with us to intercede for us in our weakness and to remind us that nothing in this life, including our death, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God—a love that does not condemn us, but always will find a way to save all of us for all eternity.”

It is at this point in Paul’s letter to the Romans that our lesson for today begins—a lesson that describes how we are to respond to this amazing grace, love, and mercy of God.  What I would like to do for the remainder of this sermon is to read through this lesson from Romans once again, line-by-line, and comment on each suggestion that Paul makes as we go through this very important text about how we can build community as followers of Jesus Christ.

Paul begins this passage by stating that our love for one another and for all people is meant to be genuine.  This suggestion raises the logical question, “How do you know when love is genuine—either your love or the love of another person?”  I can assure you that there is a lot of fake love out there in this world—love that solely is intended to get what I want out of a relationship, love that is meant to dominate and control another person, or love that is used to cover up a multitude of sins.  Genuine love knows how to give without expecting something in return.  Genuine love knows how to forgive without conditions.  Genuine love knows how to see even the most unlovable person as a beloved child of God because that is who we all are in the sight of God.

Hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.  Notice that Paul does not say, “Hate who is evil.”  We can hate the evil that a person does all that we want, but we are not to extend this hate to the person.  This may be a very challenging distinction to put into practice at times, but the distinction helps us to continue loving the person, just as God loves us, in spite of the evil that any of us does.  I also love this imagery about holding fast to what is good because doing so helps us to avoid getting mired down in all that is evil in this world. 

Then Paul says, “Love one another with mutual affection and outdo one another in showing honor.”  When we are in a community, it is so easy for us to get caught up in putting each other down, talking behind someone’s back, or finding fault when no fault is to be had.  Honor and respect for the other person is where any relationship is to begin, grounded in our mutual love for one another.  If we would practice this kind of love and honor for one another within our community of faith, then hopefully it would be easier for us to do the same with other people in our society—people who are homeless, people who are in positions of authority and power, or people who may disagree with us ideologically.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  These are the tools that we have been given to endure whatever trials and tribulations may come our way as a result of being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  Putting aside our pride and truly following in the way of Jesus by being willing to lay down our lives non-violently for the sake of the common good is never going to be easy.  Therefore, we persevere in prayer because we all need every ounce of courage that we can muster to give witness to the love of God as revealed in Jesus, our Christ.

Contribute to the needs of the saints and extend hospitality to strangers.  A couple of weeks ago, I did a Biblical survey for an AMMPARO presentation regarding God’s call to welcome the stranger and the resident alien in our land.  It is amazing how this Biblical mandate is so relevant today in terms of our treatment of immigrants in this country.  Also, given my history and ministry with homeless people, this directive about extending hospitality to strangers speaks volumes to me about how homeless people are to be welcomed into our community of faith and treated as if they are one of us and one with us.

Given all that has transpired in our country in the past several weeks in regards to all of the hate that has been demonstrated against people of color and people of various faith traditions, this next directive is quite challenging for us.  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Oh, but I do want to curse those white supremists, those Klan members, and those Nazi sympathizers, especially when they use religion to justify their hatred and violence.  “Not so with you,” Paul says.  As a disciple of Jesus Christ, we are to bless these folks with the love that comes from God, and let this love be at the heart of our response.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Most often we think of this directive as a description about how we are to rejoice with those who give birth to a new child or weep with someone who has lost a loved one.  However, what if we heard this directive in light of rejoicing with a homeless person who was just given the keys to a new home or weeping with a person who lost their home because they lost their job and have huge medical bills?  How would the world be changed if our empathy went beyond our immediate circle of family and friends and was extended even to those who hate us?

Paul goes on to say, “Live in harmony with one another.  If it is possible, live peaceably with all.”  I don’t know about you, but I take this word “all” seriously, and include in this “all” the people with whom I disagree, whom I don’t like, or whom I would consider to be my adversary.  I might try to deceive myself by thinking that I can live in harmony and peace with these people by avoiding them or ignoring them.  However, true harmony and peace will only come about when I am willing to be reconciled with others as Jesus has made peace between us and God.

If this peace of God is going to be our way of life, then we are to repay no one evil for evil, or try to avenge ourselves.  Within the realm of God that Jesus came to reveal, there is no room for an eye for eye or the use of violence to overpower someone else’s use of violence against us.  The peace that may result from this kind of revenge and retaliation really is no peace at all until two opposing parties sit down without the use of force or violence and come to some resolve and eventual reconciliation.  No, Paul says, if your enemies are hungry, feed them, and if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  In so doing, you will show them a different way of relating with one another that hopefully would lead to some kind of mutual honor and respect and eventual peace.

Finally, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  This statement brings us full circle to the beginning of this passage when Paul said, “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”  Given that what is good for one person may not be good for another person, we may have to discern how best to respond to anyone who plots evil against us.  However, one thing is for certain, our genuine love for those who hate us or wish to do us harm is a constant and universal response that might open the door to the way of peace between us—the way of love and peace that Jesus revealed to us in the non-violent way that he responded to those who chose to nail him to the cross by asking God to forgive them.

Too often, we are called to follow Jesus without being given any description about how we are to do so.  Well, Paul provides us with more than enough suggestions today about what it means for us to put aside our self-serving ways and take up our cross in this life to follow in the way of Jesus.  We may not always hear these suggestions as good news, but trust me, if we would be willing to live as Paul suggests today, the whole world would benefit and be transformed, and that is the good that only will come about by the grace of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As we renew our commitment today to follow in this way of Jesus, may this love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, the One who continually calls us to follow him.  Amen.