It is rare that I don’t focus this blog and my sermons on the Gospel text appointed for a Sunday, but for some reason, this week, I’m feeling a strong connection to the Romans 12 lesson. Perhaps it is because, as I said yesterday, it contains one of the few verses of scripture that I actually memorized, chapter and verse, back in my youth. More likely, however, is that I’m drawn to Romans 12 because it is a deep well from which to draw. The language is rich and evocative. The imagery is profound and the basis of much ecclesiology. And to top it off, in very un-Pauline fashion, the message is clear.
After 11 chapters of dense theology and Mobius strip like prose, Paul begins chapter 12 with clear thesis statement, “Therefore, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to take on the only reasonable response to what I’ve laid before you: present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable; do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing your minds in order to discern God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
The traditional reading of this passage is to see it as a call to sanctification or purity of life. It is the Siren Call of modern evangelicalism, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world. Don’t do all the stuff that heathens do. Don’t drink, smoke, dance, have sex outside of marriage, be gay, or vote Democrat.” Given Paul’s context, this isn’t actually a bad reading, though maybe the list of don’ts assumes some things about both heathens and Christians. Writing to cosmopolitan Christians, both Gentile and Jew, Paul had his hands full on what it looked like to follow Jesus in first century Rome. Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes, maybe don’t eat meat sacrificed to Roman gods and goddesses, and don’t feel the need to get circumcised if you aren’t already are all on his mind, but so are a lot of “do’s”.
Do believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Do follow in his footsteps. Do take care of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and the oppressed. Do seek justice for those who are outcast. Do share the Good News with those who haven’t heard. Do, he’ll go on to say, utilize the gifts that God has given you to build up the Kingdom.
Sure, when faith is young, a list of things we once did without thinking that we should now maybe think about not doing, is probably helpful. But as faith grows, as we mature, as our focus turns away from ourselves and toward God and his Kingdom, the tenor of the conversation should change, maybe even be transformed, from a list of don’ts to a vision for how to do this thing called discipleship.