Sermon on Romans 12:9-21
Einstein had to figure out the tip for dinner (which they say he was bad at). Shakespeare had to make a list of things he needed to buy in the market. My point is that we’re not always at our most eloquent or profound. Just read through your old emails- sometimes my staff read them, ask what I mean, and I can’t figure it out, except the thumbs up emoji.
In the letter to the Romans, a few chapters earlier St. Paul soared- neither height nor depth nor powers nor principalities nor life nor death could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Now in chapter 12 he says- do good, not evil, love one another, serve the Lord, keep praying, bless don’t curse. All true, important to the utmost, profound actually, but as writing goes, not rocket science….or are we missing something? Because it may be that there are ideas that are shy, like people, that keep to the corners of the room, but as with people, they turn out to be the ones who move mountains…
I have in mind a book that came out a decade ago, by a Mennonite named Alan Kreider, that made an impression on me. He was answering a famous question- in the ancient world, why did Christianity win? How did this obscure and sometimes persecuted sect of Jews end up overcoming a vast and pagan Roman Empire? There are obvious answers. They were sometimes willing to be martyrs. They hung together across a network. They had a message that attracted the poor, and members of Caesar’s household too! They got some intellectuals on their side. They were good a disaster relief. But Kreider offered one more reason. In fact he thought this reason was also a key to understanding the New Testament. He called his book ‘Patient Ferment,’ for that is what won the day. Patience was the key, and he shows how many times the word is used. It is not a flashy virtue, but it was strong as steel. And ferment? Virtues like patience created a kind of energy, the fizz in the chemistry experiment, which powered the communities across time and space.
We can look back at our reading, Romans 12, with this lens to our eye. ‘rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.’ Hope is in things not yet seen and it requires waiting and a confidence that God is true to His Word, even if in ways and means we cannot imagine. Patience comes from a word in Greek which includes suffering. That is why we speak of the ‘passion’ of Christ on the cross. Patience is the strength to undergo suffering because in it we are in the sidecar of Jesus himself. And straightway Paul says that the activity of patience across time is prayer- telling Him our complaint, fear, desire in a spirit of surrender which is also relief. Like the word ‘patience’ itself, there is a lot more packed into that verse than at first meets the eye.
Before I go on, let me state the obvious, what we are reading here in chapter 12 assumes all that has preceded in chapters 1 through 11. It doesn’t depend on us. In fact we are, as Paul says, all closed in by sin. The great democracy of doom. But by the sheer grace of God, while we were yet powerless, Christ God’s own son, gave himself to the death of shame and counted it to our restoration. So when we read about virtues in chapter 12, we have already understood well on whose ledger the credit goes.
Rejoice in hope, be patience in suffering, persevere in prayer: that verse is training camp, because the tougher game time is coming up in what follows in Romans 12. For the next verse tells us to who we are to show these virtues. Paul applies the summons to patience to a variety of aspects of our lives, indeed some of the most challenging. First of all, welcome the stronger and the outsider in. This is not just because we are nice people- in the Bible this is because we ourselves were the enslaved in Egypt, we the far off, as Paul says in Ephesians, who have been brought close. This hospitality is connected to our faith, and is inseparable from the mandate to share the good news. This also includes what Paul calls ‘the needs of the saints’: think of fellow Christians far away, in this case Jerusalem, as if they were of our own flock. Second, and I reckon yet harder, bless those who persecute you. This too has deep roots, in the word of forgiveness of the soon to be crucified Jesus for his tormentors. Next, we are to identify with the broken hearted. We cannot turn away from the hardest tragedies around us, for the body rejoices and weeps together, he says. Finally be a friend to the least and the lost- it is for this reason that we have deacons, like Katie- to remind us that such ministry is foundational to the Church, since Jesus came not to be served but to serve.
These are all true everywhere and at all times. But the final summons of this passage has, I believe, the greatest bite for us where we all live. For ours is an angry time. I have no social media, but I am told that it runs through them like a current. Anger- who doesn’t have a reason? Until we realize that we have given reason…Where does anger come from, ultimately? Back to the beginning, back to that field, where Cain did his brother Abel in. On the subject of wrath all the virtues chime in. On the subject of wrath Paul gives no quarter. You and I are to put it away. Or rather, we are to recognize it has God’s preserve. There is wrath, but it is not ours to execute. And how does God deal with His righteous anger toward sin? By paying the debt and taking on the consequence himself, in the atoning death of Jesus. Of whatever persuasion we are, then, we have to let go of anger, full stop. Is there such a thing as a reckoning for wrongs- there is, says Paul, one day, but not by us, and not on our terms, thank heaven. This saying about anger is hard, but good news nonetheless, and nothing short of the Gospel of grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus can enable us to do it.
So on this Labor Day weekend, may God bless all our labors, present and past, but most of all the quiet ones to which we are called, the patience that makes for ferment, because of the work already done to the lasting benefit, not just for the Einsteins and Shakespeares of this world, but for you and me. Amen.