First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 11

William Loader

Pentecost 11: 24 August  Romans 12:1-8

Paul is now shifting from his concern with complaints about his treatment of Israel. Though he struggled to get there, he ended up hailing God's goodness and saw no need to have explanations. He would leave the future to God. It is "mystery". His certainty is God's love. That is enough. Now he turns to the Roman congregations, probably house churches. They have to live together. What might that mean? There are problems which he will address. They include diversity of approaches to matters like food in the Gentile world.

But first he gives a general exhortation (12:1). He acts as a priest, at least in the sense of calling people to sacrifice. They are to offer themselves. It was not uncommon to use cultic imagery, to speak of the community or, among Christians, the church as a temple. The exhortation applies to all. It is a common starting point. Offering one's "body" fits the image of sacrifice, but Paul means the whole person, not body as opposed to soul. Notice his call is in response to what he sees as the heart of God: God's compassion or mercy.

Paul is doing more than focusing on a common goal or asserting a common value. He goes on to speak about how we shape our lives (12:2). Paul never saw being a Christian as a life membership on a roll somewhere. It was always entry into a relationship and growth in that relationship. Paul is always thinking about what shapes people's lives. It is another way of speaking of one's god. In his day - and certainly in ours - there are many people who count themselves as Christian, but are shaped by the prevailing values of those around them in a way that undoes anything that Christ might have wanted in their lives. They reflect particular national, political or social values, sometimes not even knowing they stand under such influence. They can even call some of these values "Christian". But there is no engagement with what is at the heart of Christ's message.

Paul knows about shaping. He urges the Romans to engage in a process whereby they are shaped not by the prevailing fashions of the age but by Christ. It is in that sense a counter cultural renewal to which he calls the Romans. The renewing of one's mind - stance, attitudes, orientation - is the basis not only for individual wholeness but also for a healthy community or congregation. Sets of rules imported from business schools about how congregations should run have their worth, but no sets of rules will work without a holistic approach which involves transformation. This is the same insight which grounds Paul's assertions that the Law (the commandments) is not very effective in changing people and tends to produce the opposite. His gospel instead speaks about a process of renewal which changes people's attitudes and from that process of transformation changed behaviour flows. It is relationship based, not rule based. Notice that Paul sees this as the basis for developing discernment about God's will. The focus is on goodness, on pleasing God (the God of grace) and on maturity. Translating teleios here as 'mature' (one of its common meanings)  rather than 'perfect' makes much better sense in the context. Paul will appeal to such maturity in what follows.

Paul goes on to confront the malaise of communities and relationships: people who lack awareness of themselves, especially people who feel they must play power games and show themselves superior to others. This is one of the values of "this age" (12:1) - his and ours - against whose influence he warns. It teaches that my value must be measured over against others. To be a person of value I must be better than others. Others who are better than me are therefore potentially a threat. This is destructive of community and makes people obsessed with themselves. So Paul's words in 12:3 follow on well from his exhortation. Paul aims at maturity, based on believing the gospel of love and grace which sets people free from needing to achieve their self worth at the cost of others.

When we are free from the obsession with establishing our own importance we can then see ourselves for who we are. That includes identifying our gifts and abilities and understanding where they and we fit in. So Paul returns to the image of the congregation as a body in which all members belong together like different body parts (12:4-5). He had expounded it in detail in 1 Corinthians 12. Here he uses it again, citing a different range of gifts and abilities. I am sure Paul would be highly amused to see how some people have tried to make his illustrations in 12:6-8 into a rigid set of categories designed to label "spiritual gifts"! Paul is asking for a maturity that goes beyond such counting and classification and includes all that we bring and offer to God and to each other (to use the sacrifice image again).

Saved from ourselves, we can get on with the job, both as individuals and as a church. We do not have to be super people. Maturity is about knowing who we are, what our abilities are, and how to use them for the good. It is not about making a name for ourselves. Nor is it somehow about needing to make ourselves more than what we are or doing more than we are able to do, as though we refuse to accept our limitations (in ability, time and space). Believing in love is the key to all of this. Letting it sink in is at the core of the spiritual journey.

Gospel  Pentecost 11: 24 August Matthew 16:13-20

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