PAUL’S PURPOSE DRIVEN PASSAGES
Romans 12: 9-21
Newsman Clarence W. Hall followed American troops through Okinawa in 1945. One day as they traveled by jeep, he and his driver came to a small village that looked different from the other villages. He pulled out his pad and wrote: “We have seen other Okinawan villages down at the heels and despairing; by contrast, this one shone like a diamond in a dung heap. Everywhere we were greeted by smiles and dignified bows. Proudly the old men showed their spotless homes, their terraced fields.” He went on to write that there were no jails and no drunkenness and that divorce was unknown. He was told an American missionary 30 years earlier had come and helped two elderly men in town to know Jesus Christ and they chose to follow him. He had left them a Bible translated into Japanese. Hall finished his quote in his notebook by writing, “So this is what comes out of only a Bible and a couple of old guys who wanted to live like Jesus.”
Is there anyone’s home that does not have a Bible? Is there a hotel room without one? In America, for those who claim to be Christians, there is a Bible in the home. But with such huge sums of money put into advertising, and many people learning and being entertained by television and video games, and some lining up to read the latest Harry Potter fantasy or the recently finished work of J.R.R. Tolkien, THE CHILDREN OF HURIN, or adults having on their summer reading list works by Janet Evanovich, Robert Ludlum, or you fill in the blank, reading is a wonderful way to learn, to escape, and to connect with others. But for those who sit in a prison cell, with the choice of reading materials being a pile of old novels, some magazines, or a Bible, some decide to live differently, choosing life and asking for forgiveness for their crimes. So they choose a prison ministry Bible and often grow to cherish its words, its guidance, and God’s promises. Some inmates, I am sure, know the Bible better than regular church goers.
A missionary and a Bible made the difference in that original true story in Okinawa; our denomination has gone from 1000 world missionaries 30 years ago to just 247 now, mainly because people in churches read slanted articles about Presbyterians in newspapers and say, “Let’s not give to the General Assembly! We’ll show them!” And so collectively they show villages, tragically, and their choice dries up funding for a missionary to come to their remote village with sermons, classes, and a Bible; lowered support means mission cannot happen with the fervor and numbers once there. And that is tragic; Marj Carpenter, the magnetic, mission minded, former Moderator of our General Assembly who preached from this pulpit, weeps over that news. Because of our mission work in Korea and Africa years ago, each country now has more Presbyterians than we have in America. An independent group, the Gideons, are proud of the knowledge that a Bible in a Hotel room has saved many a troubled soul. And many of our troops are pouring over their copy of a Bible with new eyes, finding what a nugget of gold it is to have a belief in God when bullets whiz by their heads and their next step might be on an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Devices). We, by contrast, who have Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, and other booksellers, go right past the Bible rack so often. “Already have one, or several of those,” some think. And so they go to the self-help section, or the psychology section, or the Eastern religion section, all in search of peace and purpose when the answers were first, and still are in, the Bible that sits on their nightstand, coffee table, or bookshelf at home. Few passages in this bestseller condense more vital advice than the 12th chapter of Romans. Today we will look at the heart of New Testament purpose-driven teaching: ways to change the world.
First, “Let love be genuine.” The Apostle Paul, and even Jesus himself, grew up in the shadow of the Greek Theatre, with its comedies and tragedies. On stage the people playing a role would don a mask, either a smiling one or a frowning one, and become that character. Those people were called actors, except the Greek word for actor is hypocrite. A hypocrite was one who personally may not feel a certain way, but one who, to paraphrase the commercial, “plays the role on stage.” Jesus knows that there are plenty of people who can fake love; in our day they do it for cameras all the time. And these hypocrites are sometimes the role models for many dewy eyed girls and star-struck boys who use their example of relationship love! Yikes! Paul says, “Let love be genuine.” Our kids, our neighbors, or family members sorely need some good examples. Find them in your life and learn from them. Be a good example yourself! Read about unselfish love in the book of Ruth. Look at it on the cross of Calvary. But remember what genuine love, Christian love, and friendship love, not just romantic love, is all about. That’s Paul’s first point.
Next, “Hate what is evil.” Dr. Scott Peck once wrote a book not because it was easy, but because it was needed. In PEOPLE OF THE LIE, he addressed human evil, not random weather patterns that seemed evil, not evil like Hindus and Buddhists and more recently Christian Scientists believed which is that evil is not the force that goes against God, evil is just the necessary flip side of goodness; nor did he write about evil as Martin Buber put it his book GOOD AND EVIL, calling it “‘the yeast in the dough,’ the ferment placed in the soul by God.” No, Peck described the traditional Christian model of evil that he called “Diabolical Dualism” where God was the strong one, the Creator, with the Evil One also at work in the world as the Destroyer. Peck, who became a Christian by Baptism at the age of forty-three on March 9th, 1980, produced a whole book describing the evil in human nature that we are encouraged to hate, cautioning us, as St. Augustine did in his famous book CITY OF GOD, to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Hating evil empowers us to combat it, to transform it, stay away from it, or rescue others from it. You can think of destructive behavior I am sure, that has torn apart a family, or a worker, or a friend. God is in the connecting business; through chaplains, pastors, and missionaries, we try to introduce others to Jesus who are stumbling in the dark. Henri Nouwen calls our role, “Wounded Healers.” John Claypool calls it being a “Fellow Struggler.” Paul knew what it was like to fight against evil, persecution, and misunderstanding. If you too know what that is like, then read the Bible!! Read Romans! Read Acts! Read John!
Then Paul implores readers to “Hold fast to what is good” after telling them what to avoid. He adds: “Love one another in mutual affection.” At a wedding 30 years ago, I was asked to sing a solo with these words: “Love one another, love one another, as I have loved you. And care for each other, care for each other, as I have cared for you. And bear one another’s burdens; and share each other’s joys. Love one another, love one another; and bring each other home.” Taken from 1 John and John’s gospel, the words summarize the commandment Jesus gave us: it’s not like Bill Cosby in his comical skit about Noah when, after arguing with the Lord every step of the way and having the heavens start to pour rain, he looked up into the clouds and said sheepishly, “Me and you Lord, Right? Just me and you!” No! The love Jesus offers is not just for your personal salvation; it is so “that the world might be saved through him.” Paul then moves quickly forward, believing that his listeners have gotten his drift: “outdo one another in showing honor.” In a culture of disrespect, what a world changing idea that is! Paul was saying, of course, that in his world that demanded honor be shown only to Caesar, people of every walk and class deserved honor as Jesus himself did. One summer I was in the housekeeping department of a fine department store three days a week, and sold fine women’s shoes three different days of the week in the same store. When I was picking up trash behind registers, the clerks would not look at or speak to me. When I was selling shoes, the same clerks would stop over and ask me to go to dinner with them. What a lesson in judging people by the kind of work they do instead of by the content of their character! Showing honor to all is Christ-like work.
“Do not lag in zeal.” How many times has the gospel been put into the hands of a milk toast or spineless preacher? What a disservice to the urgency of the gospel! We have only so many chances to try to help others come to Jesus and open their hearts to him. And to just own a Bible and even belong to a church, but not walk the walk is the greatest disservice a person can do to him.. People run from Christianity when they witness hypocrisy: that is, when, people where the mask (read here, clothes, crosses, or car fish) of being Christian but don’t live like one. Either follow the book and walk the walk, or renounce claims to Christ and the eternal benefits and responsibilities. You cannot have it both ways. Instead, as Paul says, “Be ardent in spirit and serve the Lord.” Churches whose leaders are spirit filled and serve the Lord in mission are, in the opinion of Paul, the final frontier to be claimed, the last hill to climb, the finest witness of the faith. And letting that spirit infuse your life at home and at work and in public is vital Jesus lives in you. As he once preached and Matthew recorded: “Whenever you did it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.” So Paul puts a bow on this gift of a passage by saying “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Paul has a longer message on hope and suffering in the 5th chapter of his letter. And to contribute to the needs of the saints was a reminder not only to tithe back to God what was already God’s (1 Corinthians 4), but also to give to Christian mission and the poor (2 Corinthians 8). If Christians forget that action part of their discipleship—being a good example, being a good giver, being one who cares for others—it is like having Christ under the hood of your car but never putting the car in gear. No Christian decals on the side of the car will prove the power of what’s under the hood when there are no gears to transmit the power to the wheels. So without the actions, the Christ that is supposed to live in our hearts has only the decals of the faith, but not the dealings of the faith. And when people see your Christian life as “all show and no go,” then onlookers will begin to snicker one word under their breath: “hypocrite.”
I’ll use Paul’s concluding thoughts for today’s closing charge and benediction. No matter what else you read this summer, turn also to the book, the Good Book, for direction in the Purpose Driven Life.
Jeffrey A. Sumner July 15, 2007