Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, September 22, 2018
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Living the Non-Conformist Life

Romans 12:9-21

 This is one of those collections of “quick hits” in Paul’s letters.  There is this rapid-fire succession of short pieces of moral instruction, and some of them are not strongly connected to the others.  It can be hard to summarize them because of that.  But they are all outgrowths of what headlines the whole chapter, which is verse 2:  “Do not be conformed to the ways of the world but be transformed by God.”  

 All of them also come out of the situation in Rome.  The first Christians in Rome were all Jewish Christians.  Those who were in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost took the message home.  In time, Gentiles also converted.  But sometime in the mid to late 40s AD, Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome, including the Jewish Christians.  For several years, it was only a Gentile Church, and it began to take on a distinct character.  When Claudius was murdered in 54 AD, many of the Jewish Christians returned to a church that had changed dramatically.  And these two groups of Christians did not always get along with each other.  There was a lot of division in the Roman Church.  Paul addressed it in his letter, which was written around 57 AD.  He encourages them to be reconciled to each other and united in Christ and to a way of living that was different than the world.

 I think there are three main emphases in this passage.  The first is the emphasis on love for each other, AGAPE love; the love that denies self to serve each other.  

 “Don’t just pretend to love others.”  Don’t put on the show of love for the sake of ulterior motives.  That’s the way of the world.  Love becomes a way to gain something from others.  The way of the world is to love self and use others, but the way of Christ is to love others, and to use one’s life to serve them.  

 In verse 10, Paul tells them to have “brotherly love” for each other.  This Greek word normally described the love of family, which was mostly the sense of loyalty.  We may not always agree or get along, but at the end of the day, we will be loyal to each other.  We will help each other in times of need.  In Greco-Roman culture, that kind of loving loyalty was only expected within the immediate family.  But in Christ, we are all brothers and sisters, and so it is appropriate for the Church.  It’s the kind of love that calls us to drop our own interests when someone else is in need.  “When God’s people are in need, be ready to help.”  

 We should show empathy.  “Be happy with those who are happy and weep with those who weep.”  That’s empathy.  We are so invested in the lives of others that their joy becomes our joy and their heartache becomes our heartache.  Empathy is more than sympathy.  Sympathy is “I feel bad for you.”  Empathy is “I feel what you feel, because we are connected in the love of God.”  

 And we should show hospitality.  Hospitality was highly valued in 1st century Jewish and Christian culture.  Hospitality is not entertaining.  In entertaining, the focus is on the host.  The status and honor of the host is enhanced by putting on a good show.  Hospitality focuses on the needs of the guest.  Hospitality is a bed for the traveler, food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, clothing for those who are cold.  

 To relate this to the Church today, we should never think of “outsiders” who come to our church as “visitors,” but rather as “guests.”  What’s the difference?  A visitor is unexpected.  Often times, a visitor is unwelcome, like the person who knocks on the door while you’re busy working or eating lunch.  But a guest is expected and prepared for.  We go out of our way to make guests feel at home.  We want to meet their needs.

 What do people need today?  Most people don’t need food or clothes or a bed.  Most people need relationship.  We live in a disconnected society.  People need relationship with God, and normally the way people connect with God is through relationships with God’s people.  So when a guest comes to this church, offer them relationship.  Talk with them, sit with them, invite them out for lunch at the end of the service.  Make them feel like an honored guest in God’s house.  That’s hospitality.  

 The second major emphasis in here is humility and honoring others.  These are really two sides of the same coin.  To honor others is to treat them as more important than self, and that’s impossible without humility, which is defined as thinking less about self than others.   

 “Take delight in honoring others and don’t think you know it all…  Seek out the company of ordinary people.”  The way of the world is use relationships for personal gain.  And if that’s your motive, then you are going to seek relationships with the wealthy, the powerful, the influential.  Relationships should be the end in themselves.  The relationship is the goal, not what we can gain from the relationship.

 The early Church was unique in that it was the only place in the first century world where class distinctions were meaningless.  There were stories in the early Church of slave owners who attended worship under the teaching of one of their slaves.  That was radical.  Unfortunately, the Church today is often a place that is divided according to race and class and opinions. 

 The third major emphasis in this text is “Do not seek revenge.”  Instead, we are to “pray for those who persecute us” and even “feed them when they are hungry and give them something to drink when they are thirsty.”  

 We are to leave vengeance in the hands of God.  Only God is qualified to be in the business of final justice.  Only God knows the motives of our hearts.  Only God knows a person’s background and experiences.  Only God knows the whole story.  So we should not seek revenge. 

 It is better to suffer evil than to perpetrate evil.  And that’s what revenge is, paying back evil with evil.  If we suffer without seeking revenge, then we win the real battle, which is the battle with evil.  If we take vengeance, at best we’ve won a victory over another person, not over the true enemy.  

 When we forgive, we break the cycle of retaliation.  We set ourselves free from the burden of anger.  And sometimes, not always, but sometimes our forgiveness and our kindness can even lead to repentance and reconciliation.  

 Paul says, “So far as it depends on you, live at peace with all.”  Sometimes it isn’t possible.  Some people don’t want peace.  But as much as it depends on you, live at peace.  You are the only person you have control over, so start there.

 These three emphases are all bound together by one thing:  They are not the way of the world.  The way of the world is love self, to elevate self above others, and to get back at those who offend us.  But these things are the way of Christ.  If we’re going to be “not conformed to the world” but transformed into the image of Christ, this is how we live.  

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