Romans 12: 9-21
My husband and I love to cook. We love to create recipes and we love to experiment with ingredients, spices and flavors. The results can be – let us say – interesting at times.
When our children were small, we welcomed them in the kitchen, and we would invite them to do what they were developmentally able to do. Early on, that meant they got to squish the cookie dough between their little fingers to get the ingredients mixed in really well, or stirred whatever was in the mixing bowl. Later, they were able to pour in the spices and flour we had pre-measured for them. Later still, they were assigned the task of measuring ingredients themselves before they were added. Ultimately, they learned how to read – and follow, recipes.
In those early days, we taught them how to measure out ingredients, about the difference between a tablespoon and a teaspoon, about how the clear glass measuring cups, the kind with spouts, work best with liquids, and leveling cups work best with dry ingredients. We taught them that when you are baking bread, you had best stick precisely to the recipe. They learned that before “improvising” they really should learn how a perfectly followed recipe should go. They needed to understand certain principals of cooking, baking, roasting or food preparation before they could go do their own thing in the kitchen.
As they grew older, they each developed their own style and preferences when it comes to the art of cooking. And, they too, like to improvise and create. This leads to some pretty comical confrontations in the kitchen when we are all together and each of us is trying to make our contributions to a meal, each, of course, with our own ideas of how things should go.
I’ve learned to steer clear of our youngest son, Patrick, for instance, if I don’t want a dash of the hottest hot sauce available included in my dish. The eldest, Bill, knows that I will add onions and garlic to almost anything, so he, not a fan of onions, keeps certain dishes as far as possible away from me. Our world-traveler Victoria has perhaps the broadest palate of the three due to the various cuisines she has encountered, so she is likely to bring what the rest of us consider strange and exotic ingredients into the mix. Jim likes to surreptitiously add various contributions of spices to any dish; gotta watch out for him!
As I read the text from Paul’s epistle to the Romans this week, I found that this text reads like a recipe. It is a recipe written for a church that was most likely comprised of some primarily Jewish and other primarily Gentile congregations, with some mixed congregations as well; with people who are bringing their own ideas and traditions to the table, in other words; ideas of what this Christian church should look like, how it should function, what it should teach. This church in Rome was one of the earliest Christian churches that formed, and one it seems, Paul has never visited.
From what we are able to glean from Paul’s writing, there were the kinds of tensions, debates, and disagreements about the church’s theology and its mission in Rome you might expect of such a mixed community. And while Paul may have been hoping to visit this church on his journey to spread the gospel message to the west, there is growing, dangerous opposition to the Christian message in the east – in Corinth and Judea. So, he’s not sure he’ll ever make it there. Therefore, he wants to record a thorough exposition of the gospel message as possible for this church, that it might become united as one body, the Body of Christ in Rome.
As we have seen in our brief sojourn through Romans the past couple of months, Paul writes passionately of the grand story of salvation and redemption, and the new life that comes from God through Jesus Christ. He confesses throughout these pages, who Christ is, how through Christ the grace of God is revealed, and that through the cross of Christ new life transforms all believers, no matter who they are or where they are from. The foundation of this new life is love. Love is at the core of all that God has done for humankind. Earlier, in Romans 5:8, Paul notes that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Later, in Romans 8:35-39, Paul reassures readers that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (39)
Life in Christ is marked by love, and Christ-like love points us to specific behaviors, understandings and way of being that set Christians apart from “the world” – “the world” being Paul’s way of naming the forces of sin and evil. In fact, in the verses just before those we read today, Paul speaks of this reality. He writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” In those verses, Paul then invites the community to see and treat one another as equals – each with specific gifts – that together make up the Body of Christ – one body with many members, though individually members of “one another.”
And so, in our text today, Paul offers up a recipe for living in loving community and in this new life, begun in Jesus Christ.
First, in equal measure combine these things without substitution; heartfelt love; hatred of evil; love of good; mutual affection; eagerness to show one another honor; passionate Spiritedness; service to the Lord.
Add to these, rejoicing in hope; patience in suffering; devotion in prayer; participation in the needs of the saints; hospitality to strangers.
Finally comes the instruction for how to use and combine these ingredients: Bless those who persecute you, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.
Sift in ample wisdom in how you present yourselves. Stir in relationships that are marked by peace; promote peace by your actions. Give of your own resources for the material needs of the poor, like food, clothing, and shelter, and finally, feed, give drink and care for your enemies. Avoid being overcome by evil, but instead overcome evil with good.
In Paul’s letter, as he lists these things, he employs the imperative voice some 30 times. Good gravy, he’s bossy! The imperative voice is the voice of command. In other words, he is saying, “in order to live this new life in Christ, Christians must do these things.”
Yet these aren’t quite the top-down orders that they might seem to be. Because the truth is, as John writes in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” The truth is that, transformed by the love of God we are compelled by new life in Christ to do these things. This new life frees us to love as Christ loved. Being loved by God compels us to seek the good of our brother and sister, compels us to seek peaceful resolution to conflict in all our relationships, compels us to live life in community that is patterned after the life of the crucified and risen Christ.
We can see these words of Paul’s to the Romans as a window into what life in Christ looks like in community, in real time. It is recipe that can guide us in the principles and foundation of behavior for community that lives out its mission in Christian witness. As God shapes the shared life of the saints, that life is characterized by genuine, heartfelt love.
Yet, we know that following this recipe is not always easy. We are broken in ways that influence our choices and interactions. We have our own ideas of how to be in relationship, ideas of how to react when we are hurt, we have developed our own patterns of behavior that guide interactions with strangers, with those we see as being against us, with those whose ideas don’t gel with ours.
What happens in community when relationships break down? When my way of doing things conflicts with yours? When feelings get hurt, when disagreements threaten the common good? And what do we do when evil wends its way into community and destroys peace, as evil will do?
Paul tells us, go back to the basics found in this recipe. Love what is good. Overcome evil with good. Never avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God. The honest struggle we have with parts of this text is, frankly, part of the journey of discipleship, requiring sometimes that we die to ourselves and our own understanding of what is “good” and let God be God. Freed from the need to seek retribution or give payback for slights or prove that our way of cooking is the right way of cooking, we can get back to the business of showing one another honor, promoting peace, and living in harmony with one another.
Through baptism, the Spirit invites us into community that is both life giving and life affirming, whose generosity extends beyond the immediate community to others, both saints and strangers. Finding a way of peace means bearing the cross of Christ, and giving up our need for control. It doesn’t endorse playing along with abuses that arise in dysfunctional relationships or playing nicely with those who do evil. What is does call us to do is to pattern our lives after Christ.
Like the creativity and improvisation that meets each engagement in the kitchen of my family, we each have things to share to spice up this recipe called church. We may not always agree with the other cooks in this kitchen, but in love and care for the community, we create space for other people. We follow the principles laid out for us by Jesus. The foundational ingredients still stand. Love, patience, generosity, humility, forgiveness, hope, prayer, and hospitality.
That’s what God, in Christ, calls and empowers us to do.