Romans 12: 1-3 and 9-18
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
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. 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. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
What is “church”? What is its purpose? How is it meant to be or act in the world?
Recently, with a small church, we had to wrestle with the intended nature of the church – what the church should be, and how it should conduct itself – both inside and outside its own structure. For churches, these questions are no less monumental than, “What is the meaning of life?” In many ways members of the congregation objected, some vehemently. There is no doubt that these are important questions for ministers. But they were equally important for the people of the church.
Of those that responded, some answered that the purpose of the church is to “go into the world and make disciples” as directed by the Great Commission. The others answered that the church is all about loving your neighbor as indicated in the Greatest Commandment of “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and … love your neighbor as yourself”. Beyond that, no-one would venture an opinion.
Based upon these and other scripture references, Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Romans, said – “This is a life of cure from sin; it is not a life of sinlessness, as if the cure were finished and health had been recovered. The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents. Heaven… is the palace where the whole and righteous live.” The church is more than a battalion of prepared believers dispatched to convert the world; it is also a healing chapel for the ailing who care for each other while the Great Physician is healing them. From the perspective of ministry or mission, the church’s own health can be of immense importance. If the church’s own life is in turmoil and shows no evidence of the Reign of God who will tolerate the church’s preaching of the same subject?
Years earlier, in discussions with other ministry students on this subject, which were many times very heated, a common element became clear and that was transformation – the change from something as it is to something that it could be. A major purpose of the church is to facilitate transformation of ourselves individually, our church as a whole, our community, and the world around us.
Following the lead of both Luther and Calvin we chose Romans, chapters 12-15, as our guide to exploring church. This portion of Romans represent the most complete of Paul’s ethical instructions to the church – the manner in which it should behave. Specifically, chapter 12 discusses how the people of God’s church should conduct themselves with each other – individually and collectively.
2. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.
While elsewhere in scripture we are called to be in the world, this passage reminds us to be apart from, perhaps even critical of, its practices and values. Concentrate, it says, on what is good, acceptable and perfect – not to the world, but to God.
Renewal has been a frequent issue in the history of the church, even before the Protestant Reformation. There has been one over-riding pattern that prompted renewal through the ages – the adoption of secular models of behavior and ethics by the church. In each of these periods of renewal there was a call to return to a more spiritual path, to imitate Christ, to set aside self-interest (especially that of the church itself).
Secular practices and attitudes, especially those modeled by business, have become dominant in churches in recent decades. One of the cyclical patterns the church has experienced has been the tendency to bestow church officer positions as privileged stations to the better contributors or those gifted in secular pursuits. These various positions in most churches, just as our elders and deacons, are actually meant to be ministerial or pastoral in nature, not indicators of worldly respect or secular acumen. Where the practice of installing officers based on spiritual gifts has been reintroduced, pain and turmoil have usually accompanied the process. Change is not easy. Reforming, or healing, can be painful.
Verse 9 tells us the church is a body of people who come together with a common desire to develop and explore faith. Faith is sincere – incompatible with pretense and deception – and clings to what is good. Who is the one that defines ‘good’ – the world in which we live, or the living, dynamic God through whom we can find hope in a world that is more and more appearing to be without hope?
Within the church – the church as the whole body of believers – we should be devoted to each other in love, it continues. Be honorable above all other things, we are told elsewhere, but in verse 10 we are told to confer honor on others.
“How different this is from the spirit of the world; the [world’s] spirit which seeks not to confer honor, but to obtain it; which aims not to diffuse respect, but to attract all others to give honor to us. If this single directive [of conferring honor on others] were followed in society, it would put an end to the majority of the envy, ambition, and dissatisfaction of the world around us.” This is a quote from Barnes NT Notes, which were published over 100 years ago.
While that outlook may be somewhat optimistic, would it not be God-pleasing to follow this directive in the church at the very least, where it would give order and beauty to the institution. It would humble those who love to have the power, and encourage every person to be willing to take the place God has ordained for her or him.
The Greek actually said verse 11 a little differently. More literally translated it says, “In diligence be not slothful; in spirit fervent; in serving the LORD.” Fervent usually applied to things that are heated to boiling as in water or even molten metals, so it really means being intensely vigorous. We are not being directed to passive pursuits – we are meant to be very active.
The remaining verses point out characteristics of dealing with each other, friend or stranger, that are just not normal in the world we live. But they do demonstrate a basic belief that results from faith – namely hope. Unless we have hope, we cannot act like we have been instructed. But what is this hope? It is the hope that there is more to life than what we see and experience here and now. It is the hope of a better future in this world, and a better eternity in the next. The hope is found in the belief of salvation – being saved from the conditions under which humanity finds itself.
In acting according to Romans 12, we are living that hope for salvation as a beacon to others in the world around us. We are saying, “We believe so much in the tenets of our faith that we are willing to be visibly different than the world itself. We are willing to look foolish when compared to earthly standards. We are willing to be “not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect [to God].”
Without the religious language the characteristics outlines in Romans 12 make up what psychology has determined are essential behaviors for forgiveness. Forgiveness is, as we all are probably aware, the underlying message of Christ to the world. It is the “Good News” – the Gospel.
Shortly before my 40th birthday, after returning from a trip home, I faced a crossroads of life-changing proportions. I knew I could not face it alone. Following two and a half decades of self-medicating and pain-numbing behavior, I had returned to Australia for the first time in twenty-five years. A key objective of the trip was to demonstrate to my father that, after years of therapy, I had forgiven him. I had forgiven his alcohol induced violence; his cruel acts of domination; his insufferable treatment of the major women in my life – my mother and sister.
I had learned that he was the product of an extremely violent home, was taken out of school as an 8 year old in rural England to work the farm, and that he, unlike some of his brothers and sisters, had not killed someone else or committed suicide. I learned he was a man that was raised without a clue about living in the real world. He had been a victim and he was drinking himself to death. I came to the conclusion that he did the best that he could, and I forgave him. At least, that’s what I thought.
Upon coming to the door I saw a wizen little man who didn’t even recognize his own son and couldn’t carry on a conversation. Gone was the massive brute who terrorized his family – replaced by an empty little shell with expressionless eyes. I visited for a short while and left incredibly angry with God.
After returning to the States, I progressively became angrier and more depressed. My life nose-dived into excessive and self-defeating behavior. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore – I knew if I continued like this my soul would die. In a defining moment, as I was alone and hopeless, I became somehow conscious of my own sins, and my sinful reaction to the sins of others. At the same time, however, I was aware of an incredible sense of forgiveness.
With the help of a tremendously faithful local church Music Director, I explored the ramifications of what I knew was an offering from God. I came face to face with the fact that, while I professed to forgive my father, my continued anger was because the man I hated was, for all intents and purposes, dead. I wanted to hurt my father like he had hurt me as well as those I loved – and I couldn’t. I wanted to punish him. I wanted justice – and on my terms. But all that was left was a shell.
I had confused forgiveness with making excuses. I had excused my father – decided he had done the best he could – but he didn’t. Just as I had done with my life so far, he had not moved past his own anger. Just like he, in making excuses for the people who had hurt me, I had imprisoned myself in the hell of my own unforgiveness.
Forgiveness, I learned, is not passive. It doesn’t come without honest self-examination. What lies at the heart of our anger? Is it righteous and Godly? Or is exaggerated by our own experiences of betrayal or abandonment, our own desires for power or recognition, our own need for judgment and revenge.
Forgiveness doesn’t come without truthfully naming the internal disfigurement that results from someone else’s behavior or actions. It doesn’t come with making excuses for someone else’s actions – in that process we accept responsibility for others actions. We take from them the attribute of being fully functional humans, capable of finding transformation from their own behavior.
Nor does forgiveness come from extracting justice by the world’s standards.
Forgiveness is an effort, as proven by Jesus’ plea to God from the cross of his crucifixion. It is intensely active. It takes love, sincerity, humility, hope, patience and perseverance. It takes believing in, and acting out, the message of the Gospel. It takes courage and conviction to address the ills, to confront them lovingly, and to draw on God’s love and Christ’s example to find the sacred place within ourselves that allows us to reflect a vital, healthy life.
That is why forgiveness is a hallmark of the ethical behavior of churches. Forgiveness stands as a beacon to the world – a mirror reflecting Christ’s love for God’s children as opposed to reflecting the condition of the world back to itself. It is one of the primary tools of transformation. Without forgiveness we stand unable to perform the church’s intended purpose.
Forgiveness does not incorporate deceit, excuses or revenge, no matter how much they may be justifiable by the world’s standards. We, as the Body of Christ, are called to be different in the way we act and relate to all. If we become trapped in the prison of unforgiveness, we show the world an institution that has no discernable differences from any other earthly enterprise. The church, however, is meant to portray God’s enterprise unto the world.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect – to God.