Through the letter to the Romans – Part 18. Therefore, let’s do the job we’ve been called to do in this world.

It has taken Paul eleven chapters to lay a foundation on which both Jewish and Gentile Christians can stand as equal children of God. Along the way, he has reminded us that this Salvation is accessible to everyone else in the human race because it is a plan God established before the foundation of the world. This speaks of purpose.

And purpose is the point. As Jesus said in John 15:16, we didn’t choose Him, He chose us. In other words, we didn’t elect him as the best option among many or as our favorite way to live. He elected us to live the life for which He fashioned us. He is the boss. He said that He chose us to bear fruit onto eternal life. Now Paul is finally ready to remind the Romans that that is what their lives are about; not about petty squabbles.

Romans 12:1-2 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the compassions of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, [which is] your intelligent service. And be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [your] mind, that ye may prove what [is] the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

As opposed to the sacrifices of the Law, where an animal died for us, where we could perform an “external work” and then go our merry way feeling justified, Paul is telling us that we should think of ourselves as being sacrificed on the altar. This is only reasonable (intelligent). Since he already told us how we need to reckon ourselves dead to sin, we can do this and still be alive, in Christ. There is a feeling of “continually” in these words.

And the same with the admonition not to be conformed to this world but be transformed. Again, this goes back to that argument about us being able now to walk in the Spirit and therefore able to say no to sin. But it is notable how Paul emphasizes transformed in our minds. This is reminiscent of Jesus in Chapter 6 of John, when He is talking about the bread of life and trying to force His audience to understand the kind of sacrifice God had decreed for Salvation, He says: John 6:63 It is the Spirit which quickens, the flesh profits nothing: the words which I have spoken unto you are spirit and are life.

The supernatural reality that brings life, takes place in our spirit. It is not of the flesh, or of actions of the flesh, because it is with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength that we are called to love God. The transformation has to take place inside us, in our heart (Deut 30:6), in our will; and therefore, it is that will that has to be continually striving to become closer and closer to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29.) All the things we do come out of our heart, Jesus said.

And since we have been saved for a purpose (John 15:16), we need to know what that purpose is. Well, as Paul explained in Chapter 8, we now have the Spirit inside us; and that Spirit will guide us to know God’s purpose for our lives. So, Paul says, be renewed in your mind so you can discern God’s will and do it. And though he could tell us this as a command, with apostolic authority, he appeals to us, reminding us that the only reason we are here is because God has had mercy on us.

So, we are called to be vessels of mercy to the world

Romans 12:3-8 For I say, through the grace which has been given to me, to every one that is among you, not to have high thoughts above what he should think; but to think so as to be wise, as God has dealt to each a measure of faith.

different bottles

     For, as in one body we have many members, but all the members have not the same office; thus we, [being] many, are one body in Christ, and each one members one of the other. But having different gifts, according to the grace which has been given to us, whether [it be] prophecy, [let us prophesy] according to the proportion of faith; or service, [let us occupy ourselves] in service; or he that teaches, in teaching; or he that exhorts, in exhortation; he that gives, in simplicity; he that leads, with diligence; he that shews mercy, with cheerfulness.

The first thing that can get in the way of us doing our job is our pride.

(Remember all those references to boasting in this letter?) Paul is not calling us to a false humility. He is treating us as grownups here. He is saying, ‘You know what your gifts are. And you know God gave you those gifts to use for His purpose.’ So, he uses here the analogy of the Body of Christ, with all its members working together.

And here is the second thing that can get in our way: Comparing ourselves to others.

Thus, here, as every time Paul uses the analogy of the body, he is quick to point out that we are not all the same. This is a fact of life. Not all of us are born in the same country or in the same socio-economic level. Not all of us are born with the same skills or even the same intellectual powers. But we are all the children of God. Jesus Himself acknowledged this in the parable of the minas. Where the slave that earned ten with his ten was praised and the one that earned five with five was equally praised. As Paul says here, we are called to work according to the proportion of faith given to us. Equality of outcome in this fallen world has never been God’s goal.

In our modern society where we seem obsessed with demanding equality, we seem to forget that equality does not save us. And we would think that Nature teaches us otherwise. It is a fact that there are human beings in this planet that can store a lot more oxygen in their blood than the rest of us. If one of them takes up Marathon running, are we going to hold it against them that no matter how much the rest of us trained we could never beat them? Should we change the rules of the competition to handicap them?

Yes, this could quickly devolve into a political discussion; but it is a fact that we as Christians can fall into the trap of focusing on the dissimilarities among us. Søren Kierkegaard, in his Works of Love, discusses at length how the commandment, Thou shall love thy neighbor, enables us to escape this trap of focusing on the dissimilarities:

portrait of soren kierkegaard

“No, to love the neighbor is equality. In your relation to the person of distinction, it is encouraging that in him you shall love your neighbor. In relation to the more lowly person, it is humbling that in him you are not to love the more lowly person but shall love the neighbor. It is redeeming if you do this, because you shall do it. The neighbor is every person, since on the basis of dissimilarity he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of similarity to you in your dissimilarity from other people. He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God, but unconditionally every person has this equality and has it unconditionally.”

Now Paul lays out before us the ways in which these gifts we have can and should be used.

First, he describes the attitude with which we should be living inside this Body…

Romans 12:9-13 Let love be unfeigned; abhorring evil; cleaving to good: as to brotherly love, kindly affectioned towards one another: as to honour, each taking the lead in paying it to the other: as to diligent zealousness, not slothful; in spirit fervent; serving the Lord. As regards hope, rejoicing: as regards tribulation, enduring: as regards prayer, persevering: distributing to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality.

… And then, just as Jesus taught us, Paul reminds us how to behave in the world we live in.

Romans 12:14-21 Bless them that persecute you; bless, and curse not. Rejoice with those that rejoice, weep with those that weep. Have the same respect one for another, not minding high things, but going along with the lowly: be not wise in your own eyes: recompensing to no one evil for evil: providing things honest before all men: if possible, as far as depends on you, living in peace with all men; not avenging yourselves, beloved, but give place to wrath; for it is written, Vengeance [belongs] to me, *I* will recompense, saith the Lord. If therefore thine enemy should hunger, feed him; if he should thirst, give him drink; for, so doing, thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Everything here makes sense, except perhaps that last phrase about heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head; a direct quote from the Proverbs 25:21-22.  The best way I have found to understand this idiom (for that is what it is, seeing as it comes from a Proverb of Solomon, in ancient Israel) we need to go back and understand that culture. Ferrar Fenton in his translation of 1903 renders Proverbs 25:21-22 this way:

If your enemy hungers, feed him;

If he thirsts, give water to drink,

And a fire besides for his needs;

And then the Lord will repay you.

This is spot on. In the cold of winter, when the fire in the hearth could be the difference between life or death, if your enemy comes to you with his empty brazier asking for some of your coals, Solomon tells us ‘pour of your burning coals into his brazier (which he will carry off on his head)’. We are called to share with him, even to risk our own welfare, because it is God who takes care of us.

But the fact that we live in this world extends beyond our person to person relationship with our neighbors.

We live in a society.

A society is not a person, it is rather the result of a social contract. The people living together in this community, Christians and non-Christians, are meant to depend on each other. And they can only do that if they have laws in common that sustain them. But because this society exists in a fallen world, there is no guarantee that its laws will all agree with God’s laws. That was true in the time of Jesus, that is true today.

photo of sign pointing the way to a courthouse

What are we to do? Are we to demand that the society live by our standards? That might be nice, but Jesus never told us that was our calling. Instead, after telling us that He chose us, He said:

John 15:17-21 These things I command you, that ye love one another. If the world hate you, know that it has hated me before you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on account of this the world hates you.

     Remember the word which I said unto you, The bondman is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep also yours. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they have not known him that sent me…

In spite of this enmity from the world, Jesus ends that part of his teaching with this commandment:

John 15:26-27 But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes forth from with the Father, *he* shall bear witness concerning me; and ye too bear witness, because ye are with me from [the] beginning.

Just as Jesus did: Paul has just told us to love one another. And then, in the context of the world, of our society, to live as witnesses.

Romans 13:1-5 Let every soul be subject to the authorities that are above [him]. For there is no authority except from God; and those that exist are set up by God. So that he that sets himself in opposition to the authority resists the ordinance of God; and they who [thus] resist shall bring sentence of guilt on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to a good work, but to an evil [one]. Dost thou desire then not to be afraid of the authority? practise [what is] good, and thou shalt have praise from it; for it is God’s minister to thee for good. But if thou practisest evil, fear; for it bears not the sword in vain; for it is God’s minister, an avenger for wrath to him that does evil. Wherefore it is necessary to be subject, not only on account of wrath, but also on account of conscience.

We could launch from here on sermons about civic duty or about resisting evil authority when it raises itself against God. But that is not where Paul is going. His point, a point that he made at the Areopagus, is that God has given each nation of people their chance and place to “run the show”.

painting  y Raphael of Saint Paul preaching in Athens
Saint Paul preaching in Athens – Raphael

Acts 17:26-27 and {God} has made of one blood every nation of men to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, having determined ordained times and the boundaries of their dwelling, that they may seek God; if indeed they might feel after him and find him, although he is not far from each one of us:

This is God’s prerogative. He is Sovereign. As we said in the case of Pharaoh, whether those people use that chance for honor or dishonor that is their choice. But as far as we are concerned, good or bad, it is still the world. And this world is not our home. And we can only do our job of witnessing if we exist within it, as much as possible, in peace. That is, respecting the laws of the society, trusting that our Father in Heaven will take care of us.

Romans 13:6-7 For on this account ye pay tribute also; for they are God’s officers, attending continually on this very thing. Render to all their dues: to whom tribute [is due], tribute; to whom custom, custom; to whom fear, fear; to whom honour, honour.

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