Christian Discipleship–It Also Starts at Our Church Home

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. 9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

–Romans 12 (NIV)

Yesterday we looked at a practical application of Christian discipleship in the context of family life. In today’s lesson, Paul gives us another practical application of Christian discipleship, this time in the context of our church home. Like yesterday’s lesson, we need to read today’s passage within its broader context. The church at Rome apparently consisted of both Gentiles and Jews, and previously in this letter Paul has walked them through God’s plan of salvation for and the unification of all humanity in Jesus Christ. Hence, if we are to see today’s lesson as more than just a bunch of rules to follow, we need to look at chapters 1-11 of Romans so that we can appreciate the context in which Paul gives us another practical application of Christian discipleship in action (being agents of New Creation). And as we saw yesterday, being an agent of New Creation starts in the home, in this case, our church home.

It is impossible for me to comment on all that is contained in this passage. I will therefore offer a few broad observations. First, it is quite evident that Paul envisions the Christian life to be lived together. Just as he was concerned about family members living their lives together and adhering to their God-given roles so that God’s peace and order would reign, so too is Paul concerned about the same things regarding the church. This is obvious by the amount of time he spends on how Christians should interact with each other in the context of church and in the broader world. Paul is telling us quite clearly here (and elsewhere in his epistles) that if we are going to be a member of Christ’s body, we cannot be an armchair quarterback who is detached from the rest of the members of the body. It won’t do to have an “all about me” mentality when we are members of Christ’s body. Rather, the proper mindset to have is one that is “all about the welfare of others within the body in addition to my own welfare.”

Of course, for Paul, this all starts with the transforming of our mind by the Holy Spirit. The verb Paul uses here, metamorphoo, is the same verb used to describe the transfiguration of Jesus. It means to be changed at a fundamental level so that we become something completely new. This doesn’t happen overnight nor is it an event. Rather, it’s a process that usually takes a lifetime to achieve. Regardless of how the dynamics of this transformation work, Paul’s point is that we cannot be Christians or God’s Kingdom workers without the help of the Spirit because what follows in this passage is impossible for fallen humans to achieve on their own. Why? Because we tend to make it all about us and our selfish desires. That is the way of the world. It’s business as usual and that will not turn heads.

But when we have a saving faith in Jesus, everything changes. We open ourselves up to his Spirit so that he can live in us and change us into the beings he created us to be. We have a new orientation about life, an outward focus, and caring for the needs of others is as important to us as caring for our own needs. Thus we see Paul’s emphasis on the active participation of all members of Christ’s body. We each have different gifts but no one is devoid  of them. Consequently, we are to use what we have to help build each other up so that we can be agents of God’s healing and transformative love.

Paul has in mind here a group of people who show their faith in Jesus by imitating him in their love for and service to each other using the gifts they have. This, in turn, allows the Spirit to work powerfully in and through them to build up the church and equip the saints to be Jesus’ salt and light to the world. There is no room for bloated egos in this configuration because nobody is indispensable and no one is superior to others. Jesus is the head, not us, and when our minds are transformed by the Spirit, we instinctively understand that. You cannot serve others, nor will you have the slightest interest in even doing so, if you think you are somehow superior to them. At best we might find some patronizing behavior but that is not love in action.

This then is how we worship God. We become living sacrifices for the sake of others, just as Jesus presented himself as a living sacrifice on the cross to end our exile from God forever. At its most fundamental level, Christian discipleship has always been about imitating Jesus and here Paul gives us several broad and practical applications for doing that.

Paul then talks about the difficult work of loving and forgiving others, and making peace with them. Conflicts will arise in the life of the church and outside of it. It is unavoidable. Conflict is not necessarily a sin unless we refuse to work at resolving our conflict with others for hateful, selfish, or self-righteous reasons. When we see ourselves as superior to others we are much less likely to want to forgive them when they wrong us or disagree with us. After all, why should we? If we are convinced that we are right all the time, we will not be interested in hearing others’ perspectives and needs. This is what happens when we shut ourselves off from the Spirit’s Presence, either consciously or unconsciously.

But when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s transformative Presence, things change. We realize we are in the same boat as everyone else. We understand that others have needs just like we have. We therefore work to resolve our conflicts with others, always remembering that it takes two to reconcile. We cannot control how the other acts and if he or she is not willing to forgive so that reconciliation can take place, we are not responsible for that. Paul tells us to take care of the things that we can control and we are always to be about the business of peacemaking and offering mercy and forgiveness because we have been the grateful recipients of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and peace offered to us in the cross of Jesus.

The Spirit also makes us aware of Whose we are. We are Jesus’ disciples and are called to bring his healing love to a world and people who are  often hostile to him. And they are just waiting for us to slip up and bring dishonor to the Name. How many times have you seen Christians slip up badly and cause people to disparage both Jesus and the faith?

Let’s be clear. We are not called to defend Jesus. He can do that quite nicely for himself, thank you. Instead, we are called to bring honor and glory to his Name and we do that by showing the world there is a better way of doing business. It’s called Gospel living in which we behave toward others in the manner Paul talks about in today’s passage. We love each other, serve each other, care for each other, forgive each other, and are always willing bearers of God’s peace, which means that we are ready to forgive and be forgiven. We offer ourselves in joyous service to God and our fellow humans because we know our eternal destiny is secure and we eagerly look forward to the New Creation of which Jesus’ Resurrection is the first-fruits.

But we don’t sit around trying to predict when that will happen. We get busy at bringing God’s love for folks in Jesus to bear and we don’t mind getting abused for doing so along the way because we remember that life is more than just biological existence. Real life is all about having a restored relationship with God made possible only by the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross. As the Spirit transforms us and helps us deepen our understanding of this wondrous grace, so our joy in living and our willingness to embody Jesus increases exponentially. It’s that old fruit of the Spirit thingy and it is our best indication that we have his gentle and ineffable Presence working in and through us.

Following Jesus is hard to do because that means we cannot make life all about us. But we don’t mind because we know our present and future are secure. In following Jesus we find meaning and purpose in living because we understand that we are allowing God to use us to continue his work of bringing healing and redemption to his hurting and broken world.

And we remember always that we do this work together.

We don’t do any of this because we are swell people. We do this only if we have the Spirit living in us and changing us into the very likeness of Jesus. If you are looking for abundant life, for another place beside your home to start following Jesus, start with his body, the Church. You will find abundant life when you decide to follow Jesus and live life in the fellowship of other believers whom Jesus will use to help you grow, and to comfort and support you when things go bad in life, as they inevitably do. You will also find that he uses you to do likewise for your fellow believers.

Again, the proof is in the pudding. You cannot theorize about this. You have to jump in the water and start swimming. If you have not already done so, take the plunge and become an expert swimmer. You’ve got the best person in the entire universe to teach you and you will have the very support of the rest of his body to help you when you get tired.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!