Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon: Living In the World

August 31, 2014, Ordinary 22A
Meherrin Presbyterian Church
Romans 12:9-21

Living in the World

So, have you heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge?
You know, that thing where you film yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over your head, then post the video to Facebook or some other social media with a challenge to three or four other people to do the same thing, along with making a donation to the ALS Association?
What has become one of the most phenomenally successful online fundraising efforts ever apparently started with one young man, a former college baseball player, who was stricken with the disease.  As his own body deteriorated,  he came up with the idea to challenge some of his old teammates to contribute themselves and also to challenge others to do so; it’s not exactly clear why he chose dumping a bucket of ice water on a person as the means of challenge, but it does seem true that athletes – the original target of the challenge, and a bunch typically keen to show off their toughness – seemed to find it irresistible.  Over time the challenge spread beyond athletes to other celebrities, and then to the public at large. 
The challenge has literally raised so much money that the ALS Association is having to think about a strategy to spend that money most effectively.  As of August 19, more than $15.5 million dollars had been raised in the last month, compared to $1.6 million in the same period one year ago.
One might think that this would be regarded as simply a success story, if a rather unusual one.  One might think that for however brief a period of time, people across many walks of life had been motivated to pull together and take action, if a rather silly action, against one of the crueler and more devastating diseases to ravage the human body.  On the other hand, if one really pays much attention to how human beings really behave, one probably figured the backlash was coming.
Why is this disease any more important than any other disease?
How can you waste time with something so frivolous when people are dying in Ferguson?  (Or Gaza, or Ukraine, or any number of other places?)
How can you waste good clean water like that when so many people in so many places don’t have nearly enough water to live? 
Never mind the non sequitir that each of these represents.  (The latter reminds me of how when I was a child I was upbraided for not cleaning my plate when there were children in Africa – it was always Africa, for some reason – who didn’t have enough to eat, and how it never seemed to help when I volunteered to send my meal to them.)
What is most striking and dismaying about each of these is how, even when there are so many bad things out there in the world – abusive police, bombing innocent civilians instead of going after actual terrorists, one country invading another and lying about it, hideous diseases wreaking destruction on countless people, a deteriorating planet – people somehow decide that it is more important to attack other people who are trying to do good things rather than keep attention focused on the evils that need to be opposed.  Another example can be found in the story of a handful of graduate students at North Carolina State University, who are working on a nail polish that, when dipped in liquid, can alert its wearer if a well-known type of “date rape” drug has been slipped into the drink.  Rather than any kind of positive acknowledgement, the project has been roundly denounced – not by men, but by women who somehow see it as an insult, or irreparably flawed, or somehow insincere in the intentions of its developers. 
The Apostle Paul would be thoroughly baffled by the whole ice-bucket phenomenon, to be sure, but he’d recognize the backlash, and be grieved about it.  It’s exactly the kind of thing he warns about here in one of the maxims that make up this second part of the twelfth chapter of Romans.  After the previous instructions – which still apply here; we are still under the mandate to present our bodies as living sacrifices, and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds – Paul now begins to lay out, in a series of maxims, what it looks like to live in that condition, to be a full-fledged part of the body of Christ.  They almost look like the kinds of do’s and dont’s more characteristic of the un-regenerated mind, as we also discussed last week; here, though, Paul is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Beginning with the simple maxim “Let love be genuine,” what follows is a series of the characteristics of genuine love, having to do with first how we, the body of Christ, live with one another, and then moving to how we live as the body of Christ before the larger world. 
Genuine love (Paul uses the Greek phrase αγαπη ανυποκριτος, which might be more literally translated “love without hypocrisy.”  It’s a phrase that crops up several times in the New Testament, and not just in Paul’s letters.  To describe this un-hypocritical love, Paul describes the way a community that lives in such love acts towards one another; hating what is evil and clinging to the good, instead of the other way around, loving one another and vying to outdo each other in showing honor to each other rather than tearing each other down, being ardent and zealous in doing these things and in serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, living patiently, being persistent in prayer, contributing to the needs of the community, and welcoming strangers to the community with hospitality and grace.
This makes up the “internal” part of this list of maxims, but Paul is also aware that even these internal behaviors, or the lack thereof, are also visible to those outside the community.  Others see how we treat each other, and are going to be quick to judge if we are tearing one another down, or pursuing the things that are not good, or letting our own live in poverty and neglect.  Paul knew that the Roman congregation hearing this letter lived in a city with its own idols, so to speak, and it was the example closest to the seat of the Empire of what was then known, if at all, as an obscure and curious sect of Judaism.  Paul is concerned about how the Roman congregation acts within its larger context of the seat of empire, and will address them about how this love works in that context.  But Paul is also concerned with the witness they give by how they treat one another, and wants to be sure that they know what it means to live in un-hypocritical, non-destructive love towards one another.
Before we move on to those external characteristics, though, be sure to notice something about these internal effects of un-hypocritical love; they are active.  It isn’t enough to avoid tearing one another down; it’s the work of un-hypocritical love to build one another up, to show honor to the other, praying persistently and frequently, overtly caring for the needs of those within the community, reaching out actively to the stranger in the community; even the image of clinging to what is good suggests an almost physical quality of activity.  Un-hypocritical love isn’t a quiet thing; it stirs us up to doing good towards one another in observable, potent ways.
As we move ahead you’ll notice that the same is true for those behaviors of un-hypocritical love towards those outside of the congregation.  In a couple of cases Paul goes to the trouble of pointing out the passive or non-acting possibility of behavior, only to go beyond it and mandate a more active response that un-hypocritical love requires. 
Verse fourteen: to those who persecute you, do not curse (passive response), but bless them (active response).
Verse sixteen: do not be haughty (passive response) and do not be wise in your own estimation (another passive response), but associate with the lowly (active response). 
Verse seventeen: do not repay evil for evil (passive), but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (active, more or less). 
Verses nineteen and twenty, in a rather more complex way, display the same dynamic.  Beginning with the passive, refraining position – never avenge yourselves – Paul cannot resist slipping a bit of theological and scriptural instruction – for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” – before coming to the active response that un-hypocritical love requires:
No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. (12:20)

And finally, verse 21, restating the previous verses: do not be overcome by evil (passive), but overcome evil with the good (active).
For Paul it is important for the Romans to understand what this un-hypocritical love, this living in the body of Christ, this renewed mind means.  It is not an excuse to pull back from the world and go into isolation.  It does not allow for the ordinary strivings and battles in which the un-renewed mind indulges.  They don’t get to outdo one another in seeking honor for the self.  They don’t get to tear one another down or puff themselves up.  And they don’t even get merely to refrain from doing ill to one another or to the world.
No: the un-hypocritical heart goes out of its way to do good, and to do so not in a hidden or invisible way.  It builds one another up.  It blesses those who assault you, persecute you, trouble you.  It demands that you live at peace with all, as far as you have any control of the situation.  It actively rejoices with the rejoicing, and weeps unashamedly with those who weep. 
And remember, all of this instruction is still all about living in the body, about being transformed by the renewing of your mind, about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.  And all that we are seeing today will carry over into Paul’s next points, found for us in the thirteenth chapter of Romans. 
You see, it all goes together.  It is no accident that Paul uses such as strong word as “transformed” back in verse two.  The Greek word there is the same from which we get the world “metamorphosis.”  The change is that significant. 
And that change matters, because that’s how we live together as the body of Christ.  And it also matters because the world is watching. 
As noted before, at the time Paul is writing to the Romans, the empire doesn’t really have a grasp on what these “Christians” actually are.  They still look like a sect of Judaism to the empire.  But over time Christians did start to take on a particular identity, not because of any particular edict on the part of an emperor or because of any great speech or sermon given by anybody in the church at Rome.  Rather, these Christians began to stand out in Rome and in the Empire because of what they did. 
People began to notice the way they gathered together, singing songs to this Jesus they worshiped and also sharing food.  People began to notice that, unlike most Romans who would half-heartedly acknowledge whatever idol or Caesar was put before them by the Empire, no matter what their beliefs were personally, the Christians wouldn’t do that, instead reserving their homage for this Jesus alone.  And they noticed that when Roman families, as was the custom, would leave an unwanted infant in a remote place out of doors, to die of exposure, those Christians would pick up the infant and take it into their homes, to be raised as one of their own. 
You see, when we get it right, the world notices.  And they also notice when we get it wrong, and have a great time letting us know about it.  When our life in the world fails to show transformation, the world will let us know about it, and then they will ignore us.  But when our lives show that transformation, that renewed mind, that un-hypocritical love, the world cannot help but notice, and wonder. 
For love without hypocrisy, within and without, Thanks be to God.

What a Friend We Have in Jesus (PH 403)
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart (PH 326)
Jesus Calls Us; O’er the Tumult (Hymns for the Family of God 399)

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