I Appeal To You Therefore
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A few weeks ago we talked about our need to hear the Gospel on repeat. To hear the good news of Christ, often and meaningfully. To hear about our need for grace and how grace has been extended in the person of Christ, repeatedly – to the point where it seeps into us and becomes a part of us in the same way a song might. In the first 11 chapters of his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul writes of the good news of Christ. The good news of Christ is always where we must start and it’s always the place to which we must constantly return. “But God demonstrates his love for us in this way, while we were sinners Christ died for us.” (5:8) To follow Christ is to be adopted into God’s family. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery in which you might fall back into fear, but a spirit of adoption by which we cry out Abba Father.” (8:15) As followers of Christ let us rest in these truths and let us come back to them time and time again. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (8:38-39).
We have known mercy and we have been shown mercy. After spending so much time (11 chapters) with this good news, it is almost like Paul can’t help himself – he has to stop and praise. “Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright. Praise the Lord with the lyre, make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.” (Ps 33:1-2) This is how the Psalmist sang it and there’s a reason that we sing together (and how much are we looking forward to singing together again?!). Hearing the gospel on repeat should result in hearts that want to praise the One who has shown us mercy.
So Paul takes a praise break. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable are his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? (What have I ever done, whatever could I do, to receive even one of the mercies I have known?) For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.” (11:33-36)
How then should we live? This question needs to be ever before us. What then should we do? What then should we say? This is the point at which Paul’s letter changes and he starts to talk about what the Christ-following life should look like – “paraenesis” is the technical term. In light of the tender mercy that God has shown and is showing and will show, how then should we live? It’s important I think, particularly in these days of uncertainty in which we’re living. What are the things of which we are certain? What are the foundational things that shape our lives no matter what is going on around us – as individuals and as members of the body of Christ (more on that in a bit though)?
I’m not talking about a new commandment because it’s one we’ve had from the beginning. I’m talking about a new commandment because it is based in the One who makes all things new. The One who makes us new. I find this particularly… there’s a word for what I find this truth that I can’t come up with. Exciting. Comforting. When I look inside myself I know that I need to be made new. When I look inside myself I find that I am incapable of coming up with newness on my own. When we spend any significant amount of time in introspection or examination of the world around us, we cannot help but come to the inescapable conclusion that something has gone wrong. I read an article recently which quoted some lines from Barack Obama’s memoir which came out last year – A Promised Land. As much as he spoke about and sought to embody hope, they sound a note of skepticism or doubt about the future:
'Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain,' he wrote.
'For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people's fears and resentments.'
In the midst of this situation, words of good news keep on ringing out and we do well to come back to them. We usually only hear these words from Zechariah at Christmas time, but listen to them now - “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)
Lord guide our feet into the way of peace. No matter the darkness, no matter the unknowns, no matter the adversity. Teach us how you would have us live.
This is Paul’s concern from here to the end of Romans. This week we’ll look at what walking in the way of peace looks like for the church. You’ve heard me say no doubt that if we’re not getting it right in here, then how could we be getting it right out there? Next week we’ll look at what Paul says about getting it right out there and with those by whom we are governed (which has been a hot topic of late).
“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters...” I beseech you is the old-timey way of putting it, by the mercies of God… Note that Paul doesn’t appeal to our better natures or anything else for that matter. By the mercies of God. In light of the mercy that has been shown to us by our gracious and merciful God. “… to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
To follow Christ is to become a sharer in divine mercy. To follow Christ is to know divine mercy and we know divine mercy through the sacrifice of Christ. What else should we do but present ourselves as living sacrifices? “Living” meaning not simply being alive but really living – knowing life. Having found life in the One who is Life. Holy – made so by God – and acceptable – made so by God. Which is your spiritual act of worship.
There are two really wild ideas expressed by Paul in the first two verses of this part of his letter to the Romans. We’re talking now about what it means to live in the house of God which is the house of grace. What it means to live in the house of mercy. The first is this. To live in the mercy of Christ and to present ourselves in the Spirit of God as living sacrifices means that every moment, every word, every act can become an act of serving and celebrating God. Sometimes we think of worship only in terms of our gathering together – our worship services - or maybe even only the portion of our gathering together when we are singing. We are worshipping together when we’re singing and when we’re praying and when we’re greeting one another and when we’re hearing God’s word and all the things we do in our worship together. These things are all vital to us. They act as a kind of a springboard to daily worship – to lives in which we are serving and celebrating God every moment of every day. From the time we wake up and say “Thank you Lord for the gift of another day” to when we fall asleep and say “Guard and keep me through the night.” Every moment becomes an act of serving and celebrating God as we live in the house of grace – as we live in the light of the tender mercy of God.
The other wild thing here is that to live in the mercy of Christ changes us. To live in the house of grace changes us. It is all too easy to be conformed to the pattern of the world, isn’t it? To be shaped by the mold of the world. You know when I say world I mean to be shaped by the pattern dictated by the Liar, the Accuser. The pattern of greed, of power, of self-absorption, of anger, of personal popularity, of excess, of getting and holding onto as much as you can. I find it all too easy to fall into the trap of being shaped by these patterns. I find myself daily in need of being transformed into the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. I’ve talked before about an old gospel song that goes “Thanks to Calvary I’m not the man I used to be.” Thank God if you can say this for yourself. Thanks to Calvary I’m not the woman I used to be, not the boy I used to be, not the girl I used to be, not the man I used to be. “Things that I used to do, Lord I won’t do no more” as another non-gospel song puts it – and there are powerful truths contained in non-gospel songs too after all.
“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Let our minds be renewed. Let our thinking be renewed. Think of these things. Dwell on these things. Sit with these things. Take time with these things. Stop the frantic activity. Put away the distractions. Put them down and turn them off (or at least mute notifications). Let our thinking be renewed. Stop thinking that I know best so that I might find out that what God wills is good and acceptable and perfect. Or good, pleasing, and perfect. The way of wisdom is a good way, we find. It’s pleasing to us. It’s pleasing to God. It matures us. If you’re on another way, try it.
Try it with us or with or another faith family. There are a lot of us around. We don’t live in the place of grace alone. It is in families of faith that these truths of which Paul is writing, and which I’ve spent a not inconsiderable length of time dwelling on, are shaped in us. This whole thing is being addressed in 2nd person plural note – brothers and sisters, present your bodies, the renewing of your minds. We’re not called to live the life of faith on our own and from verse 3 to verse 13, Paul writes about what presenting ourselves as living sacrifices and ongoing worship of God looks like in the family of faith. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but with sober judgement…” That grace given to Paul is the same grace given freely to each one of us, and we all know you don’t boast about gifts. Paul brings in another one of his famous images for the family of faith as a body. We’re not simply members of the same church. We’re not simply people who attend the same church. We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We belong to one another just as the branches belong to the vine. We don’t all have the same function. We’re not called to uniformity but we are called to unity in the body of Christ. One bread. One life. One love. This doesn’t mean that some are up here and some are down here. It means we are all called to use the gifts that have been given to us. The list Paul gives is not exhaustive and none of the gifts he lists are negligible – they are all important. Let the prophets prophesy. Let the servers serve (and that’s all of us surely and you can see how some of these gifts are given to all of us) because this is what minister means – servant. Teachers – teach. Exhorters – exhort! Givers – show generosity. Leaders – be diligent. Compassionate ones – remain cheerful.
This call is on all our lives. We all have a part to play. We all have a way to serve, just as in any family. Even the youngest children have things to do, whether it’s looking after sheep or putting away toys and none of them or their duties are seen as negligible. God grant that this may be true for our family of faith as we live in the place of grace together. What might this mean for me? What might it mean for you? Let us think and pray on these things and be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Paul ends with a series of appeals to the churches of Rome. Time won’t permit a great deal of discussion about them on my part right now, but I encourage you to sit with these verses over the coming week and weeks. What does being at home with God, living in the house of faith, the place of mercy looks like as go through our days? Let love be genuine. Without pretense. Let not there be a difference between the love we speak and the love that we do. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Choose blessing rather than cursing. Love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honour. Take the lead in loving and honouring one another – don’t feel you have to wait for someone else to make the first move/send the first email/make the first call or first visit even as we’re able to do that. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints. Make sure no one is lacking anything. Extend hospitality to strangers. Open up our homes to one another (or our backyards as appropriate). How against the pattern of the world would that be? We wondered what being at home with God might look like in our daily lives. Paul laid it out for the churches of Rome and he’s laid it out for us. As we prepare to start a new season in many of our lives and in the life of our church, may the Spirit of God grant that our lives continue to be shaped in the light of God’s mercy in our life together. May this be true for all of us.