Text: Romans 12:9-18
A sermon by Gary W. Charles, Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta August 28, 2011
I like lists. I especially like simple lists. Pick up milk on the way home. Check. Mail the gas bill. Check. Schedule the doctor visit. Check.
The Apostle Paul really, really likes lists. One such list appears toward the end of his letter to Christians in Rome. It sounds simple enough. Hate what is evil. Got it. Practice hospitality. Will do. Serve the Lord. Yes sir; done so all my life. Come on Paul; give us a tough list to check off.
And, that’s where the problem begins. Most of my lists consist of things to do, items to check off and once they are checked off, I move on to the next item to do. This list from Paul, though, is less about what we are to do as the body of Christ than what we are to be as the body of Christ.
Now, you might say: “Wait a minute, Gary, what about when Paul’s list says don’t repay evil for evil? Isn’t that something we are not supposed to do?” Sure, but why would we not repay evil for evil in a world that teaches us that only the tough survive and forgiveness is for suckers? Why? Because these baptismal waters remind us that in Christ we are becoming God’s beloved community, enough so sometimes even to resist the first instinct to hate when hated and to act in hateful ways toward others when others act in hateful ways toward us.
Or you might say, “Gary, the list tells us to practice generosity whether our pockets are bulging or nearly empty. Isn’t that something quite specific for us to do?” Yes, it is. But why would you and I practice generosity when the prevailing economic message out there is that we don’t have enough and we are entitled to more? Why practice generosity? Because every time we come to this table we taste generosity; every time we feast at the table of abundance, we are, in Christ, becoming the grateful and generous people of God.
For the first eleven chapters of his letter to Rome, Paul makes the case that God’s justifying grace is for us and for them, for Jew and for Gentile. This is no “Santa Claus” list – “gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Paul needs no such list. He has that information firsthand. He knows the good news that God justifies and extends grace even to sinners like you and me. Why? Because God is not doing grace; God is grace.
It should come as no surprise, then, that after eleven chapters describing the grace of God, embodied in the love of Christ, Paul begins his list with: “love is not hypocritical” or “love is genuine” or some assume a missing imperative and translate, “Let love be genuine.” Now, Paul is no romantic. He is not telling the Christians in Rome to hold hands and sing, “We are family” and to pretend to agree when they don’t agree. He is not suggesting that if Christians just try hard enough they can all get along. He is not talking about doing; he is talking about being.
Christian love is genuine; it is truth-telling, says Paul. It lives in our bones and deals with all the hard edges in people and churches; it binds us to people who would not be our first choice to have join us on a desert island much less around a dinner table. In his correspondence to the church in Corinth, Paul tells Christians there who cannot agree on the time of day that they are united by the love of God manifest in Christ and their job is to live into that love with one another. That theme is written all over the Romans list as well.
This weekend, Presbyterian sisters and brothers have met in Minneapolis to consider leaving the Presbyterian Church or finding ways to purify it or to live alongside it, separate but equal. Our own Presbytery has established a task force on “Gracious Separation” to work with congregations that are considering leaving our denomination. Speaking about this potential schism before our church, Tom Currie writes:
“That is the great Protestant if not Presbyterian heresy, i.e., to think that we could, by separating ourselves from each other, create a more faithful church.” Then Tom, being the erudite dean of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, uses the very technical theological term: “Baloney.” “Our baptism has stuck us with each other,” writes Tom, “even with people who are ‘wrong.’ It is hard work being the church. We will do almost anything to keep from having to be the church.”
Now some people might think it surprising that I would quote Tom Currie, because Tom reads the Bible often in very different ways than I do and his theology is much more conservative than my own. And yet, it has never crossed my mind, not even for a second, that the church would be purer or better served if Tom and I went our separate ways, with Tom serving in one church and Gary serving in another.
But why? Why would I want to be church with someone with whom I disagree so often and so fiercely? Because I know that Tom loves God as I love God, that Tom loves Scripture as I love Scripture, that Tom loves the church as I love the church, and to think that the church of Jesus Christ in its Presbyterian expression would benefit from a “gracious separation” of the two of us is just so much “baloney.” Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said far more eloquently, “Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother or sister still a brother or sister, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ?” (Life Together)
So many of the arguments consuming the church today claim greater wisdom than any of us can rightly claim. Some say the church is losing members because it has moved off center and cares more about au courant issues than it does serving Christ. Some say the church is losing members because it talks hospitality while telling certain categories of people that their sexual orientation disqualifies them from church leadership. Into these tumultuous debates, I am reminded by Paul, as perhaps he was reminding himself when he wrote this list to the Romans: “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Those who live in genuine love, in the love of Christ, find ways to live together despite their differences and in the midst of considerable theological confusion. When I hear conservative church leaders in Minneapolis, or friends who are ready to let them go, use the language of “gracious separation,” I think to myself “baloney.” (Yes, I realize that I’ve been preaching for over 30 years and have never used that word once but have already used it three times in this sermon and maybe more to come!). I don’t want to live in a church where love means that we all think alike and where disdain for those who differ with us is acceptable and even nurtured, where we weep only with those who are “like us” and we rejoice only with those we consider worthy.
I love the scene in Abraham Verghese’s marvelous book, “Cutting for Stone,” where these words are spoken: “Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.” That is Paul’s word to the church in Rome. I believe that is Christ’s word to the PC(USA) today. “Your ‘Gloria’ lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you.”
No “Gloria” will ever be sung by creating a parallel church to avoid the tough issues in the name of Christian purity or Reformed essentials. No “Gloria” will ever be sung by saying, “Just let the malcontents go!” Again, I turn to Paul, writing to a church in Corinth that I suspect was even more divided than our own:
“15 If the foot were to say, ‘I am not a hand and so I do not belong to the body,’ it does not belong to the body any the less for that. 16 Or if the ear were to say, ‘I am not an eye, and so I do not belong to the body,’ that would not stop its belonging to the body. 17 If the whole body were just an eye, how would there be any hearing? If the whole body were hearing, how would there be any smelling? 18 As it is, God has put all the separate parts into the body as he chose. 19 If they were all the same part, how could it be a body? 20 As it is, the parts are many but the body is one. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ and nor can the head say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’.”
“Gracious separation” – give me a break! Those who agree fervently on matters of faith and those who disagree passionately on matter of faith are bound together by God in Christ. We are woven inextricably together by the love of God, stitched together to live into God’s gracious “Gloria.” And so, by the grace of God, a grace that never ceases to amaze and astound me, may you and I and every sister and brother in the PC(USA) and in the entire body of Christ inhale that inscrutable love and live boldly together into Paul’s holy benediction.