What comes to your mind when you think of the word church? What are the postures and attitudes that characterize this group of people in your mind? Well, I have my words, and you have yours. Whether positive or negative, we all have them for various (and possibly) good reasons. The apostle Paul, the writer of the letter to the churches in Rome, longed to see a new word and reality characterize the people of this church community.
Paul hoped for and thought possible that a group of very diverse people, who had given their allegiance to Jesus, could be characterized and known for their unity and genuine self-giving love. If this claim doesn’t shock you or seem at least incredulous, I would ask you to check your pulse. Unity is not the norm for any portion of human history and has not sustainably characterized any group of people. Again and again, it is replayed in the communities we form that my needs and desires come at the expense of yours. Humanity does well at competition and dissent but poorly knows the path of unity and genuine love. In the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Romans, Paul unpacks a vision of what will mark the new community of Jesus followers. Unity and self-giving love sounds like something we all want in a community, but Paul is under no impression that this is a simple matter of mind manipulation or intellectual exercise. The vision he unfolds is practical, earthy and all-encompassing, requiring one’s whole being to emerge into a lifestyle and outlook that centers on the reality of genuine love displayed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the opening verses, Paul levels the playing field with a mighty swing of the reality of mercy and grace. We all—each and every one—have no reason for boasting in light of the love shown to us by Jesus. There is no room to elevate my value and worth over against another. We are all needy recipients and benefactors of God’s benevolence and good news in Jesus. None of us need him more or less; we all enter this new community with no credentials but by the sheer overflow of mercy and grace. This word is meant to build up the brokenhearted and humble the proud as on level ground, we all stand in awe of the love of God we have been shown.
As we come to know this grace, we are called to know our place. Paul envisions this diverse group of people in Rome not as an organization with power structures akin to Babylon, but as an organism—one interdependent body. Every person has a place, and every person has a purpose and a gift to share. Just as Jesus served and gave Himself for many, so we as followers are to participate in his life by seeing our talents and gifts as existing to serve others. Just as it would be silly for a finger to commit mutiny against the body and try to help just the hand, the members of the body of Jesus seek the wellbeing of all. Not only does the language of the body suggest an attitude of serving, but it also connotes an attitude of complimentary receiving. Severed limbs die, a finger isn’t a foot, and a life of following Jesus can’t be lived in isolation. So, if you’re the mouth, let the hand feed you with thankfulness and acceptance, and so fulfill both your purposes.
Following his exploration of the way the new community is to see themselves, Paul calls attention to a root foundation that must underlay all endeavours. Love. Real, gritty, longsuffering, affectionate, genuine love. Romans 12:9 sets the highest bar for a community ever to have. “Let love be genuine.” In other words, don’t try and fake it. Paul outlines that the battleground for love is the relationships that will test the place and purpose of the community. Nothing will expose your level of love like the ongoing presence of another person beside you. The proof is in the pudding as they say. A real and measurable commitment to the wellbeing of the community is the power that will bring unity to a group of diverse people. Just as Jesus not only proclaimed the message of the good news but was good news in the flesh, to real people in real relationships and circumstances, so we as His followers are to live love out. The ten verses following Paul’s call to genuine love are full of calls to action for very particular circumstances. Paul assumes that love is tirelessly in action and doesn’t remain dormant in the heart of a person. It’s no surprise that to what we see Paul call the community, we also see in Jesus. His trifold question to Peter of “do you love me?” was not followed up with Jesus saying, “Nice, that’s cool Peter, I’m so glad you do.” The other side of the coin of Peter’s affirmation of his love for Jesus was obeying Jesus’ call to take care of His followers. The power of love that unifies the followers of Jesus must always have a physical expression. Jesus said, “This is how they will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”
I heard it said once by a prominent American Baptist that there will be no Baptists in Heaven. Grabbing his audience’s attention, he went on further to claim that there would neither be any Catholics or Lutherans. He didn’t mention Mennonites, so I think I’m safe, but I take his point. The good news of the kingdom that Jesus is bringing is not about being in a certain group but rather is concerned with where people find their being and what animates their choices. For Paul, the only power that can carry the weight of unity in comm(unity) is Jesus’ style of love. By receiving His love, we are given the privilege of sharing it, and the honour of joining King Jesus as he works in us the power not to be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. In doing so, we are united as we journey toward the day when evil suffers its final blow, and when the freedom of King Jesus is known in fullness. Until then, these three remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.