"Holy Competition"       Romans 12:9-21           August 31, 2008

Next time you're feeling pleased with yourself for having finally organized your spice rack or caught up on filing your bills; consider that the 18th century Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus undertook the task of organizing all of God's creation. He devised the taxonomic classification system that botanists and biologists still use today.

Linnaeus' system breaks living things into smaller and smaller groups based on smaller and smaller sets of common characteristics. Each division whittles away at the identity of a creature until finally you are left with only one possible answer.
For example a creature belonging to the kingdom "Animalia," the phylum "Chordata," the sub-phylum "Vertebrata," the class "Mammalia," the order "Carnivora," the family "Canidae," the genus "Canis," and the species "Familiarus," is none other than the family dog.
It seems Paul intends to provide the same kind of precise series of specific characteristics to define a Christian. Paul's discussion of spiritual gifts in verses 3-8 (last week) is immediately followed by his litany of true Christian characteristics. For Paul, Christ is fullness (pleroma). Agape love is the necessary component if the fullness of spiritual gifts is to be exercised within the Christian community.

Today’s text (Romans 12:9-21) makes up a unit of Christian "sententiae," similar to ones found in Hebrew wisdom literature. These are judicial utterances. Some scholars have suggested that Paul even had at his disposal a kind of Semitic source book on the topic of agape. The grammatical style Paul invokes here - used in the context of rules or codes - reflects this typical Hebrew form.
Paul begins with a strong, succinct definition of an authentic Christian attitude. Literally verse 9 translates as "the love, unhypocritic" - Paul's injunction that we love genuinely with all sincerity. Such a simple command. Yet it is a demand that challenges every member of every Christian community every moment of every day.
Just as Jesus summarized his teachings into the dual commandment to "Love the Lord your God," and to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39), Paul's litany of Christian characteristics is perhaps fully contained in verses 9-10.
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Verse 9 outlines the attitude - displaying genuine love, hating evil and loving good - while verse 10 demands the action - to "outdo one another in showing honor." In all of his writings Paul is practical, as well as theological. Just as his epistles follow doctrine with Christine practice, the rest of these verses describe what this might look like for the Romans believers, and believers throughout the ages. 
Where genuine love thrives, Paul suggests, these other attitudes will spring up and prosper - a hatred of all evil, a commitment to the good (that is, God's will) and the kind of caring concern usually reserved for one's own family, directed towards the welfare and well-being of the entire koinonia community. With individuals so tuned to God's will and ways, so attuned to the lives of others, Paul naturally expects Christians to "outdo one another in showing honor" (v.10).

In a community joined in love, Paul's demand actually asks Christians to "give thought to others" (proegeisthai) before ourselves. The New English Bible gives a somewhat different emphasis to the verse, calling on Christians to "give pride of place to another in esteem." This is a sacrificial, humble attitude - where self-importance fades before regard and respect borne out of love for others.
This honoring or esteeming goes beyond the command to "love one's neighbor as oneself" established in Leviticus 19:18. While it demands an equal amount of love for self and the other, it always places the needs and concerns of the other first. This type of life-style is completely counter cultural; both then and now.

Last week finished one of history's most memorable Olympics in Bejing, China. The 2008 Games consisted of top athletes from around the world, each one honed to perfection; each one at his or her best; at the top of their game. Competition can be good, when it embraces healthy sportsmanship and honors country and kin.
Americans are taught from childhood that competition is good - it builds character, strengthens drive, fuels ambition, and pushes us to do our best. But the competitive spirit has been bred so successfully that it now extends far beyond our playing fields or boardrooms. Competition has crept into marriages causing strain on relationships. Competition, especially in school-age children, has broken up many friendships.
Competition between Christians also exists - and it is a competition that creates only losers. Individual churches and whole denominations have eagerly bought into the "numbers game" - convinced that more is better, that biggest is best. The church with more members, a bigger choir, a dizzying array of special classes and groups - we deem these churches as "winners."
The "fullness" of which Paul speaks is not the fullness of size but the fullness of Spirit, the fullness of Christ. In fact, numbers can be a thoroughly false indication of a church's health. In sports competitions and secular face-offs, size and wealth may be the winning marks of success. But Christian competition is determined by the godly characteristics  Paul spells out for his readers.

Historically, more often than not, divisions were between denominations, yet, in recent decades, divisions are within denominations. Robert Wuthnow, in The Restructuring of American Religion (1989), states that "schisms and competitions within denominations have become more important than schisms and competitions between denominations. We are witnesses to that more and more."

What does that say about the church of Jesus Christ? Too often we are not on the same page, and all of this flies in the face of what Paul is instructing.
The Apostle Paul does call Christians to enter into competition, but with a considerable difference. The biblical challenge calls Christians to "outdo each other in honor" - not in sanctuary size, annual budgets or media coverage.
Instead of pitting Christians against Christians, (in competition for church members, supremacy of theological viewpoint or worldly influence,) Paul's list suggests other ways of outdoing each other. Our real reason for being Christians in the world is to embody the mission of Christ on earth in our age.

We have both the assignment and the means by which to carry the assignment forward.

Problem 1: Some of us do nothing because we think God expects us to serve beyond our ability. “Oh, I could never do that …” Well, God isn’t asking us to do what we can’t do.

 
Problem 2: Some think that they are not needed because the load is being carried by a community of very capable people. Someone else is doing this, and doing it quite well, and therefore I am not needed
 
We all have gifts “according to the grace given to us” (12:6). We have the faith that has been assigned to us; and the grace that has been given to us. We have gifts, Paul says, we have “jobs.”
 
 
 
Scripture mentions Matthias, the apostle who took Judas Iscariot’s place, only once. Christians today remember him because five short verses in Acts describe the apostles casting lots to discover whom God would select to complete their number. Unlike the towering figures of Peter and Paul, we know nothing about Matthias or his accomplishments after becoming an apostle. Some might question whether he did anything significant, since he is not mentioned again.

We all have moments when we question the value of our work for Christ. We praise God for missionaries and for Christians who care for the sick, but we may wonder how our contributions can ever compare to their achievements. When I have these thoughts, the example of Matthias comforts me. God knew Matthias’ heart and made him an apostle. Though Matthias did not win acclaim, he was chosen by God to fill a particular role.

As Christians, we can be sure God also has work for each of us. Whether we win wide acclaim or are known only by a few, our work’s true value is found in our faithfulness. (Matthew Ross, “The value of work.” The Upper Room, September-October 2007, 37.)
Paul gives us a list of some of the things we can do.

We can’t do them all. We’re not expected to do them all.

But we can do some of these things.     
• bless those who persecute you
• do not curse those who persecute you
• rejoice with those who rejoice
• weep with those who weep
• live in harmony
• don’t be stuck-up
• mingle with the less fortunate
• don’t think you’re so smart
• don’t repay evil with evil
• live peaceably with all
• don’t take revenge
• feed your hungry enemies
• give drink to the thirsty enemies
• don’t be overcome with evil
• overcome evil with good
 
Paul is also realistic. While instructing Christians to love and honor one another and live in harmony with one another, there are bound to be disagreements at some point.
 
William Loader, of Murdoch University in Australia wrote, "Without reconciliation or acknowledged difference there can be no balance. Paul is also realistic. Peace is not always possible (12:18). We need to bear that in mind when Paul urges submission to the structures of authority in society in the next chapter. Sometimes it is not possible."[1]
And yet, Paul reminds us that "The uniqueness of Christianity stands out boldly in the way we treat our enemies."[2]
So what does this sort of Christianity look like? Perhaps it looks like this:

Betty Meadows, general presbyter of Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, describes a summer sabbatical that transformed her life. She left her church world behind and went “under cover” for three months, working as a Waffle House hostess. To her surprise, as she put it, “the risen Christ showed up every day.”

A van broke down in the parking lot, on the Fourth of July, carrying a family from Alabama. No garage or mechanic could be found. A waitress heard of their plight and called her boyfriend. He arrived 15 minutes later and fixed their van, for the price of a cup of coffee.
This is only one example. Often, the little things we do matter more than monumental feats of bravery or eloquence. I see it here in our congregation, so keep up the good work.
Whatever fills the heart fuels the life.  Let us love one another as Christ loved us. Go in peace, and serve the Lord.
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
 


[1] "First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages in the Lectionary," Pentecost 16, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.
 
[2] Loving Your Enemies: Overcoming Evil With Good (Romans 12:14-21)," by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.
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