This is now the eleventh consecutive pericope from Romans, as Saint Paul unfolds the great significance of the Gospel. This Sunday we come to chapter 12, and it is different. Here, in the last quarter of the letter, the Apostle leaves his deep theological reflections and starts to describe our new life in Christ. Preachers would do well not to shy away from the ethical worldview and behavioral implications of the Gospel upon regenerate lives. Follow Paul’s lead as he gives, under the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit, a series of poignant, pithy instructions.
Our pericope is peppered with no fewer than fourteen imperatives: “Rejoice… weep… live in harmony… do not be haughty… associate with the lowly… never be conceited… repay no one evil… give thought to do what is honorable… live peaceably… never avenge yourselves… leave it to the wrath of God… feed your enemy… give him something to drink… do not be overcome by evil… overcome evil with good.” It is a bit of an onslaught of “do’s and do not's” and a lot to remember, let alone obey and accomplish. Yet, upon reflection, it proves to be not so complicated. We will discover there are not 14 different instructions – just one way of being what we are in Christ.
We will discover there are not 14 different instructions – just one way of being what we are in Christ.
The fourteen can be reduced to this one: “Live in harmony with one another” (12:16). Literally, Paul says think the same to one another, but the image of harmony captures his meaning as a musical allusion. Any note on its own can be perfectly fine. But bring it together with others and they will strike a chord or a discord – harmony or disharmony. It is the same with us. Left on our own, we can each sound our own note, our own mood, our own ways, and our own interests. But together we need to synch for the good of our souls, the success of the Gospel, and the peace of the Kingdom of God.
“Rejoice,” he says, “with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:15). Rejoicing and weeping are both natural human responses, and each can have its place and its own beauty. But they do not harmonize together. There is something callous and unfeeling about one rejoicing while another weeps, sometimes as if the one is at the expense of the other. There is no sympathy in the joy that celebrates while another grieves. At the same time, there is nothing more dampening of another’s rejoicing than to smother it with weeping. As a matter of fact, the word sympathy is a biblical word, lifted out of the apostles’ language into our own, and it means to feel with someone.
Considering Romans 12, the person baptized into Christ does not deny his or her neighbor’s state of being but respects it. Christians do not want to quench joy with misery. They do not try to overpower sorrow with merriment. The Christian may be compared to a realist — sharing in the life of others as it comes — with pain, sorrow, suffering, and difficulty, just as Christ shared in our life and took it upon Himself. In other words, there is no Buddhist denial of pain and suffering nor Stoic resolve to mentally overcome it through perseverance and imperturbability. Like Christ, the most authentic man to have ever lived with a full embrace of the full range of human emotions, the Christian faces the trials of this terrestrial life through the cross and resurrection and, so, empathize and sympathize with their neighbors, whether they are Christians or not. The love of Christ compels the Christian because the Spirit of Christ indwells the Christian. Life in the Kingdom of God is meant to reflect this reality. There is the burden of Paul.
The Christian may be compared to a realist — sharing in the life of others as it comes — with pain, sorrow, suffering, and difficulty, just as Christ shared in our life and took it upon Himself.
Here we see the supreme example. It was in another of his letters that Paul drew the link between how Jesus was, what he did, and what the baptized can be. “So if there is any encouragement in Christ,” he writes to the Philippians in chapter 2, “any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:1-4). Why should this be? How can it be? He goes on, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
God acted exactly as we would not expect. Confronted by our sin and rebellion, we would expect Him to respond in anger and retribution. He did not. Seeing us turn from Him, we would expect Him to turn from us, but no. Rather than setting His back to His sheep who wander, He pursues the wayward soul and goes after the one who is lost, until He finds it. And when He has found it, He lays it on His shoulders, rejoicing. He did this by becoming what we are. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, “…made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).
When the preacher placards this model and example—Jesus Christ crucified—before his auditors, all these fourteen admonishments will make sense. Conversely, it makes no sense to a world that does not know Jesus Christ. As Friedrich Nietzsche observes, it will contradict every instinct. But in Christ, it will make sense when the baptized are called and equipped by the Holy Spirit through the Word and the Sacraments to be as He was and to live as He did: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:16-19), and “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (12:21).
This is exactly what Jesus did, and those who are in Him can do the same, for they have been given His Spirit and are fortified and transformed by His Word and Sacraments.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Romans 12:9-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 12:9-21.
God’s Greater Story-Check out this wonderful sermon series on Romans 6-14 by our own David Schmitt.