As I sat down to write this blog post, news started coming in of an active shooter at Mansfield Timberview High School. The Conference staff is joining with people of goodwill to pray for all those involved and that a peace-filled resolution to what appears to be a more complex situation than initially assumed. The psalmist’s cry of “How long O Lord” (Psalm 13:2) spontaneously erupts in my heart and floods my mind. However deep our differences, violence is never the answer.
About two months ago in my own devotional life, the Holy Spirit directed my attention to Romans 12:18 “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” I have placed this passage as a banner headline on my Outlook Calendar for each day. When I open my calendar program, I am immediately greeted by this verse.
Do you remember the old question posed to Christians, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In this time of inchoate anger, moral chaos and deep, society-wide division swirling all around us – even in our own souls – we are pressed to behave as Christ-followers.
In a recent article found in Time Magazine entitled “Public Rage Won’t Solve Any of Our Problems,” the writer comments, “Rage seems like a perfectly natural and justified response to our broader political dysfunction.” I must confess that there are nights when Jolynn and I sit and watch the news together that my face will screw up in a blood-boiling anger and I will visibly grit my teeth. My wife, who is the much more “Christian” of the two of us, will occasionally comment, “if you can’t calm down, we are going to turn off the TV.”
Here is How We are to Live!
All of us, regardless of our political leaning, personal preferences and predilections are challenged in this age and time. The Christian pollster George Barna has repeatedly published survey results that demonstrate there is little difference in public behavior between those who claim to be Christians and those who do not. Friends, this should not be so.
As we pray for a peaceful resolution to this latest school shooting, I invite us once again to place the Word of the Lord over our lives. I find myself turning again to Romans, more specifically chapter 12, verses 9-21. In the preceding chapters, the Apostle Paul lays out the theological foundation of the Christian faith. Piece by piece and block by block, he constructs the framework for what Christians believe and cling to – both intellectually in our heads and critically in our hearts. I can recall one of my seminary professors saying, “…think of this as the first great systematic Christian theology ever written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
However, in Chapter 12, there is a shift, a decisive change. It begins, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, …” The simple word “therefore” is freighted with meaning. It means “based on everything that has gone before.” Paul gives a meticulous, 11-chapter, Holy Spirit-inspired foundational and theological teaching, and then says, “therefore” all that is based on this and here is how you are to act. In most biblical translations the section starting with chapter 12 is entitled “The New Life in Christ.” From a deep theological and philosophical foundation based on Jesus Christ as Lord, Paul gets intensely practical in verses 9-21. Here is how we are to live! The passage begins…
“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.” (Romans 12:9-10 NRSV)
The great, British New Testament scholar and retired Anglican Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright dissects the phrase “let love be genuine.” In a commentary he writes, “The word for ‘genuine’ in verse 9 means, literally, ‘unhypocritical.’” (N. T. Wright, Paul: Romans, Part 2, p. 76) A decisively Christian difference clicks into place when we realize what Paul means by love. For Paul, love is not a feeling or emotion. It is an action. Bishop Wright continues…
“for Paul, ‘love’ is more about what people do than about how they feel. In fact, in the early church love was often connected quite directly to helping other people out in their various needs, not least financial, rather than necessarily to having warm feelings toward them. As a Christian, it is possible,” continues this great biblical scholar not least through prayer, to decide firmly that one is going to help someone in need, not whether or not your particularly like them.” (N. T. Wright, Paul: Romans, Part 2, p. 76)
The commands in verses 9 through 13 are for all Christians. They are basic. At their essence, they provide a mark for how Christians are to behave towards others. Bishop Wright says, “They offer a no-nonsense vision of Christian living.” (Wright, p. 77) In this time of seemingly random violence and rabid anger, let them soak into who you are at your very core.
“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.” (Romans 12:9-13 NRSV)
I must confess again that as I read these words, I want to gulp. I keep thinking that this is easier said than done. And still, the Apostle Paul isn’t finished, not by long shot. He spends the next paragraph, verses 14-21, laying out the marks of a true Christian in concrete detail.
To Live FOR Christ is to Live Differently FROM the World
Recently, while preaching at Kopperl United Methodist Church, I shared the following story related to living as a Christian: The Sunday after 9/11, we gathered behind the pulpit for prayer at University United Methodist Church where I was pastor. Every Sunday, a small group of men would gather and pray for the person preaching that morning. They would lay hands on whomever was to preach and one of the guys would lead in prayer. The fellow praying the Sunday after 9/11 called upon the Lord and asked God for revenge on those who had flown into the twin towers. We all shared his feelings, but one of the guys in the group, an eye doctor, quietly reminded us “vengeance is mine, sayth the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Carefully note with me that this is not an invitation to treat evil with benign neglect. Remember the Apostle Paul’s teaching one paragraph earlier. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9b)
For the next seven verses, Paul turns to the outer world, the world beyond the Christian faith, and life in the church. It is an amazing piece of biblical insight about human relationships. A major part of how the early church grew so exponentially was that Christians actually behaved differently that other people. Quite literally, they followed a different Lord. They followed the way of Christ. This is how we are to live, even with those who might be persecuting us! I invite the reader to take in, to really emotionally and intellectually digest the implications of what is being taught in Holy Scripture.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” (Romans 12:14-16)
Did you notice in verse 14 that you are to bless the very people the world says you have a right to curse? Did you catch in verse 16 that humility is a mark of a Christian? Allow me again to note that with greater explicitness. This biblical teaching is a massive step beyond the conventional ethics and expectations of our society today.
Verses 20 and 21 close the paragraph on the marks of a true Christian. “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. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:20-21) In any age (allow me to emphasize in any age), this is as counter cultural as it gets.
This is not a plea to just grit your teeth and try harder to be better. Not at all. Remember the biblical order. The marks of a true Christian are built on the solid foundation of 11 earlier chapters in Romans on salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Our foundations are not anchored in the sinking sand of emotions, feels or even just trying harder (though trying harder is not a bad thing). Instead, they are built on the sold rock of passage like...
- “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20)
- “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6)
They are built on the foundation of Christ, on a relationship with him as Lord and Savior. Dallas Willard recalled, “The influential Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill, for example, says simply, ‘To be a Christian means to be like Jesus Christ.’ And, ‘Being a Christian depends on a certain inner relatedness to the living Christ. Through this relatedness all other relationships of a man [or woman] – to God, to himself, to other people – are transformed.’” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pg. 42)
When I first become a bishop, my spiritual director was Father Joe Tetlow, a Jesuit priest and a truly marvelous man of God. He used to remind me, “The great truth about praying to Jesus of Nazareth is that knowledge is assimilative. The more we pray to know him, the more we become like him.” Richard of Chichester in 1253 A.D,. prayed “to know Him more clearly, to love Him more dearly; to follow Him more nearly.” It was a line that the writer of Godspell picked up and used over 700 years later. It is a prayer worth praying today.
We live in a day when trash talking is considered a mark of wit. We live in a time when belligerently asserting your opinion is considered a mark of being a person. The text found in Romans is asserting that the mark of a real Christian is being like Christ. Scholars note that this was a massive step beyond the conventional ethic and expectations of its day. It still is today.
I invite you to join with me in praying verse 18 every day, at the start of your day. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on [me], live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)