Bible Study for Wednesday 15th July
Practical Paul Study 2: Community building 101
Romans 12:1-2; 9-21
Verse 1-2 is not only the introduction to verses 3 to 8, but to the whole of what follows. Everything Paul encourages us to do is thereby depicted as practical responses to the mercies of God and not as attempts to be good enough to earn the mercies of God.
Verse 9 is the statement from which all that follows flows. Practical love is unpacked in a practical way in the verses that follow and is put forward as the antidote to evil.
Verse 10-12 emphasize the kinds of persons Christians are to be; none of them specifies what we are to do. Of course, this assumes that we are doing a lot of things in the community.
Verse 13-21 tells us what to do and what not to do. Our deeds should pass God’s love for us on to others within and outside the faith community in a variety of practical ways.
Verse 14 Note that Paul echoes Jesus’ in Matthew 5:44-45 by going beyond both nonresistance and nonretaliation to persecutors. Jesus’s maxim asks us to love our enemies and pray for them. Paul ask us to bless them and not to curse them. Verse 19-21 elaborates further on this theme.
There are so many different admonitions in the brief space of 13 verses that it is hard to keep up with Paul’s train of thought. It seems like Paul is presenting us with a random selection of disparate thoughts here. This impression changes once we realise that all of it flows from the first, very simple injunction: “Let your love be genuine…” What follows might sound haphazard, but there is actually only one theme. “Let your love be genuine…” Paul gives us a lengthy list of concrete ways in which to respond to God’s love for us by loving others. Responding to God’s love is all about relationships, about love. Paul’s injunctions that follow his initial call to let your love be genuine tells us how to love different groups of people: the poor, outsiders, fellow believers, enemies, the suffering. These are no more than examples, since opportunities to extend God’s love to others crop up all the time in all kinds of different ways. When Christians do this, a new kind of community starts to emerge around them – first the church and then even wider in the places where God has planted them.
What Paul does in this passage is to save us from the damaging notion that love is merely some warm fuzzy feeling towards others. Love is meaningless if it is not expressed in practical ways. The shape love takes is determined by the person in need and the situation in which it is to be expressed. In the church this is done in a context of mutual affection, where we honour one another without reserve (verse 10). The previous verses described the humble service we provide for one another by putting our gifts to use. Here Paul urges us to make the church a haven of acceptance and encouragement in a world where a competitive spirit reigns and where we feel the constant need to be on our guard to avoid slights and put-downs. After verse 12 the scope broadens. The physical needs of both fellow believers and strangers should be tended to (verse 13). Our love should even extend to our enemies where we respond to persecution and animosity by blessing and forgiving our enemies (verses 14, 17 and 19) and even by caring for them when they are in need (verse 20).
Some of these commands will be easy for you to keep, while some will be difficult. It will not be the same for everyone. Paul is concerned that our response to the mercies of God should be as wholehearted as God’s love for us was revealed to be at the cross. Jesus gave his all for us. Our self-giving to others can be no less.
I find verse 21 very encouraging. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is precisely what God is already doing. Practicing this kind of genuine practical love is to join God in overcoming evil in the world. Paul points out the only way for the world to become a better place. God grants us the honour of participating in his wonderful healing work in a world in such dire need for it. When we do this, we receive the full extent of God’s healing work ourselves.
The kingdom of God does not come by grand gestures – though they have their place. It comes by thousands and thousands of small daily acts of love. This is how evil is overcome by the children of God.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- Which of the injunctions in this passage would be most difficult for you?
- Why is this so?
- Think of a concrete act of obedience to one of these injunctions that you could do this coming week. How would this make the world a better place – even in a small way?
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:33-40 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Practical Paul Study 1: Church 101
Verse 1-2 is a verse that connects the unusually long and detailed doctrinal part of the letter to the encouragement towards practical Christian living that starts at Romans 12:3. (Note the word “therefore” in verse 1, that refers back to the first eleven chapters.) From here on Paul launches into explicit advice on practical living. He depicts this as a response to “the mercies” of God – as described in detail in the preceding chapters. In short, this refers to the fact that God loved and saved us while we were still undeserving sinners (Romans 5:8). We respond to this by presenting our whole physical existence (“your bodies”) to God as a sacrifice. Three words describe how this is done: Our lives are “living” sacrifices – an ongoing steady commitment. Our lives are “holy” sacrifices – not in the sense of being morally perfect, but in the sense of being dedicated to God, belonging to God in the fullest sense. Our lives are “acceptable” sacrifices – not in the sense of meeting the minimum requirements, but in the sense of pleasing God.
Note the start of this passage: “I appeal to you…” This is a very strong word and demonstrates the importance practical Christian living has for Paul. Christian practice is not an afterthought. Paul pleads with them to put the gospel into practice in the strongest language he has to his disposal.
It is striking that this responsive living is called “worship”. Worship is not only what we do on Sunday mornings in church. It is what we do with our lives seven days a week! It is also our “reasonable” worship (as the Greek word logikos is mostly translated instead of “spiritual”). What Paul is saying here is that, in the light of God’s amazing mercy and goodness towards us, the only thing that makes sense (that is logikos/logical) is dedicating your whole life to God. Anything else would not make sense.
Of course, this is only done imperfectly when we strike out on our journey with God. In verse 2 this is depicted as a process of transformation in which the way we grow in the responsiveness of our lives to the mercies of God. We become less and less influenced by the sinful ways of the world and become more and more focused on doing the will of God.
Verse 3-5 The section from verse 3 to 8 is concerned with our response to God as part of the church. We do not live our Christian lives in isolation, but as part of a community of faith. Our impact on the world is measured first of all by the way we can demonstrate community life. The section starts with Paul’s exhortation to humility. Without humility no community life is possible.
The reason for this is simple: God allots gifts, roles, and functions in the church. The “measure of faith” that God assigns is not meant to convey that God gives some of us more faith than others. The idea here is to present faith as trust in God and specifically to trust God for inserting you in your proper place in the church. The church is a mutually beneficial community where we serve one another with our gifts. For this to occur, we need to appropriate the gifts God grants us with humility, as service to others and not for applause. We are like a human body, where each of us has a unique and essential role to play. There is no rank of gifts, since they are all necessary for the well-being of the body of Christ.
Verse 6-8 Paul describes how we are to respond to God’s grace by providing seven examples of gifts in the church. He is urging that each gift is used in keeping with its nature. The list of gifts is not exhaustive. Many other gifts are named in other letters to other congregations. Christians serving according to their gifts shape and empower the church, but they also shape the world we live in.
Verse 6 When Paul speaks of “prophecy” he is not referring to an ability to foresee the future, but to the gift of explicating the faith in preaching and teaching.
Verse 7 “Ministry” (Greek: diakonia) could be translated as “service” and should not be seen as the work of a minister of religion, but as service in the broadest sense: anything from washing dishes to leadership, if it is done as a response to the mercies of God.
I once heard someone described as “a good person in the worst possible sense of the word.” Ouch! Christian service if done from my own need to be needed or my desire for acclaim is not what Paul is propagating. This can take quite unattractive forms. This is true not only in the letter to the Romans, but in all his letters. He takes care to always start by giving us a glimpse of the glorious love and grace of God before going on to practical advice for Christian living. But (and this is important!) he never stops there. Paul’s understanding of faith is that it does not only discern God, but that it jumps to its feet whenever it encounters God and responds in words and in deeds. Paul is practical, but his practicality is more than mere legalism (of which he was stripped on the road to Damascus) or duty. Mere assent to the gospel is incomplete if it does not flower into Christian living.
We have developed a language for this in the Christian tradition. We have come to the insight that every Christian is called to a vocation. This calling is a wonderful thing. We are called to do what we most desire to do and are best at doing. Frederick Buechner says it beautifully: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This place might be inside or outside the church, as part of the church’s commitment to God’s world.
The trick seems to be to match my gifts with the needs of the church and the world. It is important to know here that the list of gifts Paul provides us with does not cover all the gifts that God bestows. There are a number of lists in the letters of Paul and they all differ in the kinds of gifts put forward. The reason for this is simple: God provides what is necessary in each congregation and in each setting in the world. Since the needs in congregations differ and since locations differ, the gifts that emerge would also be different from each other. A gift for computer technology would be out of place in ancient Rome, but extremely helpful in modern Edinburgh. The point Paul makes here is that every Christian is gifted in some way or another. All of us are equipped with the abilities and energy for certain tasks that is vitally important somewhere. Discovering this match and serving according to your gifts is a wonderful and rewarding way of responding to God’s grace. It not only benefits the people you are serving but fills your own existence with meaning and joy. Only then can you truly say that you are living in touch with the fullness of God and of your humanity.
Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder
- What help does Paul provide for Christians who find it hard to persevere with a committed Christian life when he depicts our lives as a response to God’s mercies (verse 1)?
- What would your response be to a person who finds it unnecessary to make any life-changes, but views worship on Sundays as sufficient? (See verse 1.)
- What practical advice would you give to someone who struggles to motivate herself/himself to make the hard choices necessary for Christian practice? (See verse 2.)
- Paul starts his discussion of the way a church fits together with a call to humility (verse 3). Why is this an important point of departure?
- Which of the gifts that Paul lists in verses 6 to 8 are present in our congregation? (Think of persons who practice these gifts.) Can you name a few gifts that are important for our congregation, but not mentioned in Paul’s list?
Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:1-8 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.
Practical Paul – An introduction
St Paul was a very practical man. He was steeped in the Jewish tradition the study and application of the law. In fact, he had been trained by Gamliel the elder, one of the most famous teachers of Jewish law in his time and son of the famous rabbi Hillel. You do not get more practical than that!
The problem with such an exclusive focus on the law is that it could make you lose the essence of the Jewish/Christian religion – the fact that it was to its core relational. In the first instance, a relation with God, initiated by God and mirrored by his people. The law describes a way of life in accordance with the way God acts. To be law-abiding is not driven by the desire for a good reputation or by fear of punishment. It is a loving response to God. It is a very practical way of telling God, “Lord, I love you too!”
In the second instance the law is utterly relational by opening us up to one another. Jesus sums up the intention at the heard of the law by adding the injunction of loving our neighbour to loving the Lord our God.
Both these perspectives have massive implications for the way we interpret the specifics of the law. Paul’s earlier interpretation of the law was rigid and literal, to such an extent that the God-centred and neighbour-centred intent of the law got lost. After his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus this changed dramatically. From then on, he was no less serious about the law, but made it a habit, before getting into practical specifics, to first focus on who Jesus Christ was and what God’s plan of salvation for us is. This is what we are to respond to in practical Christian living. If you get this wrong, you will certainly get Christian living wrong. If you get this right, your response will reflect the glory of God and be appropriate to the challenges of our particular context. A rigid and angry God would saddle us with a rigid one-size-fits-all system of laws. A sentimental and permissive God would allow us to live as we see fit. The crucified Lord gifts us with the clue to respond to God and also to the needs of our world in ways that emanate from the grace-filled heart of God.
This explains why all of Paul’s letters display a distinct structure: The first part of each letter focused on what God had done for us and who our Saviour is. The second part of each letter gets down to practical Christian living as a response to what God has done for us. By starting with God’s love and grace-filled intervention in our lives, Paul gets Christian living right. He is prevented from making the same mistakes he made as a Pharisee and becomes the pre-eminent guide to practical Christianity.
In this series of Bible studies, we will focus on six passages that speak about Christian practice, but we will start each study by first focusing on what Paul had said about God’s initiative for our salvation. This should help us to get things straight when we head out to live the Christian life.
Romans 12:1-8 Church 101
Romans 12:1-2; 9-21 Community building 101
1 Cor 1:22-23; 8:1-13 Scruples 101
Ephesians 4:1; 4:17-5:1 Christian ethics 101
Ephesians 5:21-6:9 Christian relationships 101
Galatians 2:16-20; 5:16-25 Christian maturity 101