Romans 12:9-21

Living in Love

Proper 17A

August 31, 2014

Listening to the list in our Epistle reading today leaves one practically exhausted. Paul writes to encourage God’s people but his words are often overwhelming to us. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another . . . be fervent in spirit . . . rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” and that’s only a small portion of the first three verses. His list goes on and on.

Listening to his words it’s easy to feel unworthy. To wonder if the Holy Spirit could ever form within us all of these desires of God. Paul’s list is overwhelming and leaves us wondering, “Where do we start? What should we pay attention to? What is a Christian to do with all of these words?”

Let’s say you were to take one exhortation a day and really work on that one. So, for Monday, you take “Let love be genuine” and all day, you try to demonstrate genuine love. Passing by someone in the hall at work, you say, “how are you doing?” only this time you actually stop to listen and then you respond to what’s going on in her life. Tuesday you move to the next exhortation and work on “Abhor what is evil.” And so on and so forth. If you were to do this for every one of these exhortations, it would take you almost a month to get through the list. And that would be spending only one day on each one and assuming that you could actually do these things. Paul’s list of exhortations is overwhelming to the Christian.

Yet maybe St. Paul was trying to overwhelm God’s people – not with commands about what they had to be doing, but with a glimpse, just a glimpse of the kingdom of God, coming alive in their midst.

In our text this morning, Paul is not setting out a twelve-step program to “build the better spiritual you” but rather revealing the varied ways in which God is at work in the world. Remember last week we heard about how God gives His gifts through Word and Sacrament, gifts to be used in service of others for the glory of God, as we have been made into the body of Christ?  Now this week, we hear of a series of exhortations that come over us all at once, words can be confusing and challenging. We don’t know where to start. And that’s because we try to start with ourselves, rather than with God.  We try to start with what we should do rather than what God does for us, and through us.

These are the works that a Christian does because of Jesus. God in Christ has first loved us in this way and by His mercy, your salvation is secure and not dependent upon how well you love.  Our hope does not rest in our work, our ability to do such things well or completely, but in Jesus. The One who overcame evil with good.  The One who overcame death with life. He is the one who has done the will of the Father perfectly and completely, so that now, you are freed to do these things, imperfectly as they may be, but freed to do the God’s will without the burden of having to be good enough. In Jesus, these words become comforting and encouraging. They open our eyes to see the ways in which God is near us, very near us in daily life.

This is what Paul gives us a glimpse of in his letter today. Notice the type of things that Paul celebrates in his listing. They aren’t the big, grand gestures of worldly conquest. It’s not pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps.  Instead, it’s the small, seemingly inconsequential ways of God. Acts of brotherly affection. Caring for the needs of the saints. Taking notice of the lowly. And even loving one’s enemies. Offering a cup of water or a gift of food to an enemy who is thirsty and hungering. These are the ways of the kingdom of God. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 25 in His End Times discourse about the judgment of the sheep and the goats.

And this is what Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  It looks like a life of cross bearing. It looks like a denial of sinful desires, of repentance over our sins, of following Jesus. Where does Jesus go? He goes to His death in service of the world.

God is in control and at work for the world in the self-sacrifice of Jesus. While the world tries to flex its muscles, some try to implement their deceptive strategies on being a better you, even through it all God is in control, at work for His world. And it all centers on the cross of Christ.  It is here that we see God’s work for us, and it is from here that God forgives your sins, your lack of work, your lack of motivation, your lack of love. This is the peace of God that passes all understanding, which is yours today through faith in Jesus.

For in Jesus, God has called you to be His people. He has forgiven you and made you His own through the waters of Baptism, and keeps you as His own through His Word and His body and blood. Because of His work on the cross and the resurrection, He continues to work in you and through you by the power of his Holy Spirit to forgive your sins, to grant and sustain eternal life and salvation, and to share this Good News with the world.  Amen.