Exodus 3:1-15 & Romans 12:9-21 ’Looking at what it means to be together’
Reflection by Anne Stewart (with some help from Eugene Peterson’s foreword to Romans in The Spiritual Formation Bible)
Paul’s letter to the Romans has always been a bit of a favourite for me. Apart from being fascinated by it and how easily accessible it is for us I haven’t really given too much more thought as to why it appeals so much. I knew that it was written while Paul was in prison and was his last letter – his magnum opus, if you like. So when the text we heard today popped up I found I wanted to know a bit more about why Paul wrote this letter and who it was for. Eugene Peterson (the translator of The Message and a theologian I have great respect for) says this: “Paul’s letter to the Romans was written to encourage and guide Christians in living their lives Christianly, that is living lives formed by the Spirit in Jesus Christ…It is a text directed toward daily, ordinary living.” No wonder this letter has always resonated – it is primarily written for people like you and me – people going about their daily lives of preparing meals, raising children, and going to work. Unlike many of Paul’s other letters this one is not written explicitly for a particular context. You could say that it is written to support the spiritual formation in any community of souls.
Peterson goes on to say, “Integrated into the text are four aspects of spiritual formation that were formative in Paul’s life and are intended for the formation of our lives: his submission to Scripture, his embrace of mystery, his particular use of language, and his insistence on community.” Peterson thinks that despite Paul having one of the most competent minds in history he has no time for any hierarchical ranking of people. Paul doesn’t care if you run a large corporation or you if clean the windows. He is submissive only to what is revealed in Scripture. That’s the measure by which we live, not the ordering of society that we might have dreamt up and now consider to be the right way of things. Personally I love this. My heart sinks sometimes when I hear praise heaped on someone because of the role they have. Much as I admire any hard work or achievement reached, what people do for a job alone, is not our measure. Who we are in that role is what matters. I guess that’s why we feel let down when someone in a prominent position does something we don’t like. I also think that is why we love it when someone shines in a particular way in a prominent role. Perhaps this will explain what I mean: There are a number of people who, with the help of a pole, can jump to incredible heights. But what makes Eliza McCartney stand out is who she is as she leaps – she is full of the joy and wonder of what she does – she seems to love what she does, which appears to be what drives her rather than winning at all costs. And, of course, she feels a little bit ours because we know her grandparents! Similarly with Paul, as much as Scripture ruled his living, it matters how he used Scripture. As you may remember he spent the first part of his life as a Pharisee and the second part as a Christian. Peterson says that, ‘The difference was this: as an activist Pharisee he used the Scriptures to support an angry crusade; as a believing Christian he let the Spirit use the Scriptures to form Christ in him. The Scriptures furnish his vocabulary, shape his imagination, and form his life.”
Paul embraced mystery. How do fare with that? Undoubtedly this is harder for some than others. Those with a pragmatic approach to life can struggle to embrace that which cannot be so easily explained. Peterson adds this “As the Spirit forms the life of Christ in us we necessarily encounter in God more than we can grasp, more than we are capable of explaining or understanding. Mystery is an open invitation for us to live in a world larger than one focused on ourselves… It takes considerable humility to embrace this mystery, for in the presence of mystery we are not in a position to control anything, predict outcomes, manage people, or pose as authorities.” Mystery demands a letting go, a dying to self, and openness to not being able to know or explain everything. Mystery relieves us of the burden of having to know everything, opening us to a world of possibility, hope and aspiration. Paul’s language is interesting here too. He uses metaphorical language in order to open the gospel message rather than to define or explain it. He uses words that evoke rather than define. His language is alive and free, using common things and actions that echo the ambiguity of life – some of us live freely with this ambiguity, others resist, preferring a more pragmatic approach.
In the church community Paul understood his role, as a leader and encourager, to be about the task of spiritual and theological formation. I understand that too to be the primary task in ministry with you. I say primary because it undergirds everything that happens in a church community. What buildings we have and how we use them should reflect our journey of formation, how we handle our finances should also reflect this, how we offer hospitality reflects this, actually how we are in our everyday lives reflects this. Spiritual formation is always about more than us and God. People in relationship are always necessarily involved – hence Paul’s insistence on community. When I was younger I had some strong tendencies toward hermit living, people confused me, and animals were so much more straightforward! I think that might be a starting point for many introverts. At the point where I had almost managed a hermit-like life (despite it maybe not looking like that to others) God started knocking me around a bit. That was perhaps the period in my life where I was the most aware of God insisting on a few ‘listen-up’ moments. To my surprise I found myself desperately not wanting the isolation I had yearned for – maybe I just didn’t have enough animals nearby! Somewhere in all of that I stopped searching for what I thought I wanted and began to follow where I felt God was leading me. Crazy times ensued but it led me to the life I have now and I am so grateful. Now, despite still occasionally needing my own space, and some animals in it, I know that community is vital to my wellbeing. Being involved in an active community of faith is necessary to me. This faith life is not a passive Sunday morning thing – it is a whole of life, boots and all, skin in the game, way to live. This might be a good point to bring Paul back in, because in today’s text we see how we are to be formed to live lives that are submissive to Scripture, embracing of mystery, speaking in ways that open rather than explain and in community.
Paul’s strategy for Christian living starts with love – where else could he start? Doesn’t everything of God start with love? Eugene Peterson describes what follows as an ‘arpeggio of twenty nine imperatives that run up and down the scale of love’. He adds that we will never run out of ways to love; we will never lack for occasions to love; we will never come up short of people to love. Paul assumes that his readers know they are to love so he now pleads with them to make their love for each other genuine. Let love be genuine – sincere. Not some empty word but actions that express the love. Don’t pretend to be something that you are not. With agape, a God-like, Christ-like love at the private centre of our existence we can then show this love in public, it will be a natural extension of what is lovely inside us and not a hypocritical cover for something unlovely inside us. In fact, love needs to be in control even when we are confronted with people who are genuinely nasty. That’s why verses 17-21 are also key. Because in the course of life, we will sooner or later encounter truly difficult people–individuals who wind us up, wrong us, betray us, and so make us want to strike back. Justice, we think, demands that they both know what they’ve done to us and get punished for it in some way, as well. We think we have the right to strike back. We think we have the right to take some satisfaction in seeing the guilty get their just desserts. But Paul, taking a cue from the revolutionary ethics of Jesus, says no to all that. Paul says that a sincere love has to set the tone even when our hankering for a greater justice makes us want to respond in kind to those who hurt us. And if you’re tempted to think, “Easy for him to say!” remember that Paul was in prison as he wrote these words. For him and those he was writing to, talk of persecutors, evil people, and nasty neighbours was not an abstract subject!
It can be contentious getting to what love is, of course. I was reminded recently of that famous but rather ghastly clip of Prince Charles and Princess Diana when they announced their engagement. The interviewer asks if they are in love, Diana replies ‘of course’ and Charles adds, ‘whatever that means’. It was a crushing moment for Diana and perhaps a sign of what was to come, but being in love or even the idea of love can mean so many different things to each of us. I think we can agree that a good starting place is the self-sacrificial notion of ‘wanting the best for the other, or putting others first? If God is love then being formed in Christ as Christ is formed in us will lead us to be more loving. I am not going to go any further with what love is here because it seems to come into nearly every sermon in some form or other!
The other piece I want to pull out of this passage is the appeal to live in harmony with one another. We all know what that means, yet it can be challenging at times. I talked with Dan about this because harmony, according to the strength-finder tool, is his number one strength. I have watched him at work when the temperature is rising among a group of people. He’s great! I wish I had his skill, instead of freezing in fear! To try and understand how he works I asked him what harmony does when it meets conflict. He said that conflict means something is stuck. I recognised that instantly – it’s usually what I feel! So his instinct is to find common ground, something that everyone agrees with, and that becomes the place from which a movement forward can begin. Harmony is, for him, being on the same page. Because he understands music, he went on to say that when there is harmony in music then the same key is being used – different notes will be played but in the same key. The harmony then adds to the whole. Musically speaking, the opposite to harmony is discord. You will know the discomfort that comes when something is out of sync in a relationship. If, like me, empathy is one of your strengths then you will know the discomfort of feeling that someone near to you is not in tune in some way. There are people who appear to thrive on discord, although I wonder whether somewhere they too will find themselves drained or lessened by that experience. I wonder what it does to someone, to bring discord on others. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t disagree – we can play different notes but we need to be in the same key. You see why it can be challenging!
So how do we do community together? We have to ask this because we are one. I think Paul is onto it with his four guidelines. Submissive to Scripture, embracing mystery, open rather than explained, and recognising that no one is an island. We are interwoven together, we know that because when one of us is missing, or unwell, or out of sync with the rest, the whole is changed. We know too that when someone new comes among us, or a baby is born or a new relationship begins, the whole is changed. Living into the ebbs and flows of our life together is an exciting challenge – it is life-giving and ultimately necessary to our very being. I have noticed that for every occasional low I experience in our life together there are many, many more highs – I hope that’s how it is for you too!