Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:9-12)
Anybody tired yet? That is one long to-do list! And Paul is just getting started. The list continues in next week’s passage. I’d read it to you, but it’d just depress you. And truth be told, there’s plenty to depress us—or at least exhaust us—in today’s passage.
For those keeping score at home, in today’s 4 short verses, Paul lists 11 things that followers of Jesus should do. Eleven! Next week’s passage adds 12 more. What is Paul getting at here? Why such a long list? Are we supposed to do all these things? Like, simultaneously? Will we be graded? Will there be a test?
I was drawn to this Romans 12 passage for the last part of our summer theme—“Growing Deeper into Community”—because it’s one of the quintessential New Testament passages on living in community. It begins with one of Paul’s riffs on the body of Christ—we all have different gifts and our calling as followers of Jesus is to use those gifts to build up the body of Christ. Then, like a similar passage in I Corinthians, he starts talking about love.
Sounds good, right? Every part of the body working together with every other part of the body; all of it grounded in love. A great way to end our exploration of community! Then I actually read Romans 12. (That always messes me up!) Such a long list! What’s a preacher to do? To adequately address each item on the list would require a sermon on each one. Anybody up for 11 sermons between now and lunch? Not if we’re going to “hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good!”
But if we don’t consider each item on Paul’s list individually, the other option is to lump them all together. But if we do that, then each item loses its impact. Paul must have had some reason for listing the items he listed, right? Lumping them all together feels reductionistic.
So as I mulled over what to do with these verses—wishing to goodness I’d chosen some different ones—an idea came to me. I wonder if Paul’s list really has just one item and the rest is commentary. I wonder if, as he begins his reflections on what it takes to strengthen the body of Christ, Paul comes back to the same thing he came back to in I Corinthians. What does it take to strengthen the body of Christ? Love. And if your love is genuine, then all the other actions Paul lists in today’s verses fall into place.
If your love is genuine, you’ll hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good. If your love is genuine, you’ll love one another with mutual affection. If your love is genuine, you’ll outdo one another in showing honor. If your love is genuine, you won’t lag in zeal, you’ll be ardent in spirit, and you’ll serve God. If your love is genuine, rejoicing in hope will come naturally to you, as will being patient in suffering and persevering in prayer.
I don’t know if that’s what Paul intended, but doing one thing sounds a whole lot easier than trying to do 11 things. So, let’s focus on the one thing—love—and see where that gets us.
You’ve probably heard lots of definitions of love. The one we gravitate to here at Pilgrimage comes from Christian ethicist Beverly Harrison who described love as “the power to act each other into well-being.” It’s a good description, one that reminds us that love isn’t just something we say or feel. Love is something we do.
As we’ve explored this theme of growing deeper into community this summer, though, I’ve been wondering if our definition of love might also need to deepen. Yes, love is the power to act each other into well-being, but how does that work? How, precisely, do we act each other into well-being?
Maybe it’s like taking soup to a neighbor when they’re sick. You might remember the piece Rochelle shared with us in a sermon back in June. It comes from a book called Deepening Community, by Paul Born. The piece is so good, I’m going to read it again. J
“Many times over the past 30 years,” Born writes, “I’ve been asked, ‘What is the most important thing people can do to make a difference in the world?’ ‘That’s simple,’ I say. ‘Bring chicken soup to your neighbor.’ ‘Really?’ is the typical response.
“I say yes, and then add, ‘But remember, I said the answer is simple. But the act of bringing soup….well, that takes work.’
Think about it. Taking chicken soup to your neighbor “requires that you know your neighbor. It requires that you know they are not vegetarian and like soup. It requires that you know them well enough and communicate regularly enough to know they are sick.
“Once you know they are sick, you must feel compelled to want to help and to make this a priority among the many calls on your time and energy. Your neighbor must know you well enough to feel comfortable in receiving your help. And you must have enough of a relationship to know what they prefer when they are sick, whether it is chicken soup, pho, chana masala, or even ice cream. So, you see, the work takes place long before you perform the act of bringing soup.” (Kindle, 180-185)
Acting each other into well-being—loving each other—takes a lot of work. It begins by getting to know each other. How can we act someone into well-being if we don’t know what will make their being well? How can we nurture each others’ gifts if we don’t know what those gifts are? How can we strengthen the body of Christ, if we don’t know the strengths and needs and limits of each part?
At first glance, Paul’s list in Romans 12 feels daunting: hate evil, cling to good; love each other with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor; Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. But if instead of focusing on 11 tasks, we focus on the one task of loving—of getting to know each other well enough that we know what action will contribute to our neighbor’s well-being—then maybe the other stuff will take care of itself.
So, we didn’t have a picnic yesterday. At the beginning of the summer, we got the idea for a church-wide picnic at Lake Allatoona. It would be a great way, we thought, of helping us grow deeper into community. But by Tuesday, there weren’t enough people signed up to make it happen, so we cancelled.
I’m guessing there are many reasons why interest in the event wasn’t higher—school started, Lake Allatoona felt far away, lack of time. Another reason, perhaps, is that we simply bit off more than we could chew. In our eagerness to grow deeper into community this summer, we loaded up the calendar…as if all it takes to grow deeper into community is doing more things together.
But sometimes, acting each other into well-being means recognizing when we’ve bitten off more than we can chew and acknowledging that sometimes we simply need to stop. And breathe. And be. Love is the power to act each other into well-being…and sometimes the most loving action we can take is simply to be in each other’s presence. And rest.
One of my favorite parts of the renovation we did several years ago was turning the sanctuary 90 degrees…because now during 8:30 worship, I can look out and see who’s coming for 10:00 worship. (…or who’s coming late for 8:30. J)
Last week toward the end of 8:30 worship, I saw a beautiful thing. Someone arrived early for 9:30 choir rehearsal. She sat down at one of the picnic tables and began to read. After a few minutes, another choir member arrived and sat down across from the first person. The two struck up what seemed to be a relaxing conversation. It was so beautiful!
And it embodied everything we’ve been about this summer. Think about what it took for that 5 minute conversation to happen. Two people who’ve committed themselves to choir and who, through their involvement in choir have gotten to know each other well enough that they want to spent time chatting; one teenager who dreamed up this idea of building picnic tables so that we can do exactly what those women did last week—visit with each other in the outdoors; several church members who gave up several hours on a Saturday to make said teenager’s dream a reality.
What I saw out those windows last week wasn’t just a 5 minute conversation, it was the fruit of many weeks, months, and years of work, the work of getting to know each other so that, acting each other into well-being has become second nature. We do it without even thinking.
So, I could have preached 10 more sermons this morning, but I think just one sermon will be sufficient: “Let your love be genuine.” If we do that, everything else will fall into place.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2015