Welcome Home: A Place Where Serving Transforms Communities
Mike Fitzpatrick | Romans 12
Early in his life, Paul was one of the foremost opponents of Jesus and his followers. However, God did a massive work in his life to the extent that many of his subsequent writings became foundational to our beliefs as Christians. These writings take the form of letters.
Most of the letters Paul wrote have to do with correcting some sort of false teaching that had crept into the church, or to reprimand some group of believers who were misbehaving in some way, shape, or form.
Romans is different.
The main focus appears to be Paul’s desire to simply get everyone on the same page regarding the Gospel.
You see, there were two main groups of believers: the Jewish Christians and the Gentile – or non-Jewish – Christians. They had some differing viewpoints about certain elements of what it means to follow Jesus, so Paul lays out this letter – what the New Testament scholar NT Wright calls “his masterpiece” – as a means of clarifying the Gospel…a weaving together of some of the main emphases of the basics of the early Christian Church, and subsequently, core to who we say we are as Christians.
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:9-13 CEB)
Paul dives right in with the core defining characteristic of Jesus-followers: Love. Jesus laid it out as the main building block of our character when he told his disciples, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35 CEB) But it’s interesting how Paul talks about it. He says that love should be shown without pretending.
Love should be shown without pretending.
Note that he doesn’t tell them to love one another. He doesn’t say, “Be loving.” He tells them what love should look like. There is an assumption there: that we are already attempting love – are already loving.
It’s not an ‘if’ proposition, in Paul’s mind. It’s a how.
I lived in Memphis, TN for six years and there was a phrase that they would say that I found very interesting. I was first exposed to this phrase when I was in seminary, and first made friends from the South. That phrase?
“Well, bless his heart.”
It’s so nice, isn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want their heart blessed?
It wasn’t until I had heard it several times that a friend translated it for me. You see, there’s a second, unspoken line. The first line is, “Well, bless his heart.” The second, unspoken line is, “He’s a moron.”
You see, super easy to pretend you love someone.
This is simply not an option for Paul. Paul says we love without pretending because there really is no room for putting on false pretenses when it comes to love.
Love is the base-level action, and the exhortation is that it must be genuine.
And not only genuine. Paul gives another qualifier in verse 10: “…Be the best at showing honor to each other.” (Rom. 12:10 CEB)
Wouldn’t it be cool to be better at something than everyone else? Maybe cooking, or auto mechanics, or playing the guitar, or teaching kids, or balancing a spreadsheet, or counseling. You would love it if you could excel at that one thing, to be the best.
Paul urges the readers that there’s one thing that they should be better at than anyone else: showing honor. Jesus-followers should “Be the best at showing honor to each other.” (Rom 12:10 CEB)
Showing honor means we place someone else’s needs and desires ahead of our own, we lift others up.
“Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” (Phil 2:3-4 CEB)
Jesus set the example for us, when he lived his entire earthly life and died, placing our needs far ahead of his own. And since we say we follow Jesus, this is who we are. We live life in a way that puts others’ needs ahead of our own, so much so that, by comparison, no one does it better.
The African theologian Tertullian wrote in the 2nd century, imagining, what those who didn’t follow Jesus might say about Christians: “Look…how they love one another…and how they are ready to die for each other.” (Tertullian, Apologeticus)
Sure, there are plenty of people in the world who do good things for others, who put other’s needs ahead of their own. Heck, even students in school often have service hours that they need to complete. But when we follow Jesus, be so intentional in how you serve that people can’t help but sit up and take notice.
Paul wants his readers to realize that there must be an outward expression of the genuine love and honor we claim to have for others. In fact, he urges them – he urges US – to be ‘enthusiastic.’
The noun enthusiasm comes from the Greek word enthousiasmos, from enthous, meaning “possessed by a god, inspired.”
When we think about being possessed, it’s generally a bad thing.
I mean, I’ve seen enough horror movies to be concerned about this.
When someone is possessed, they simply can’t control themselves. They can’t control what they say or what they do.
When you say yes to Jesus, we are promised the Holy Spirit who indwells us, who gives us the ability to love, who implants in us the desire to make the world a better place, a place where justice is achieved, where the lost are found, where the hungry are fed, where the broken are healed.
God is inside every one of you, and that God loves this world and every person in it. That God is enthusiastically working to come out of us to love and honor people in such a way that causes the world to sit up and take notice. To say, as Tertullian did, “Look at how they love one another.”
Enthusiastic love must have a tangible expression.
“…love is more about what people do than about how they feel. In fact, in the early church love was often connected quite directly to helping other people out in their various needs, not least financially, rather than necessarily to have a warm feeling towards them.” – NT Wright
There was a direct line in the early church between love and meeting the needs of someone else, serving someone else. It wasn’t AN option or just one way to love someone. It was THE way that love played itself out. And it’s no different in the Church today.
It’s not about if you like or feel an affinity toward someone else. It’s about honoring the others in our lives and helping to meet their needs, to serve them.
“Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home.” (Romans 12:13 CEB)
The tangible expression of love is your hands and feet.
It looks like a woman who gets up early on a Sunday morning to serve free breakfast. It looks like a man who, every week, puts on his family ministry t-shirt, so he is ready to provide care and point little kids to Jesus. It looks like folks who exude the brightest smiles every Sunday morning to make sure that everyone who walks through the Church’s doors gets at least one welcoming hello. It looks like a teenager who sings and dances her heart out so our youngest will know what worship looks like. It looks like that person who spends time collecting and sorting food, or clothing, or tutoring children, or mowing a neighbor lady’s yard, or serving in local government, or teaching with unending patience, or creating spaces for folks to gather.
Simply seeing any sort of need and intentionally doing something about it.
And in each one of those cases, lives are changed in big ways and small, and when lives are changed, communities are transformed.