14th Sunday after Pentecost “Living in Love”
September 3, 2023 Romans 12:9-21
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
Our text from Romans this morning is challenging. Paul writes to encourage God’s people with all these directives, but very quickly they become overwhelming. “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 just from the first few verses! His list goes on & on; I count about 24 separate things. When measured by these holy expectations, do you feel exhausted? Unworthy?
Let’s say you were to take one exhortation per day & really work on it. So, for Monday, you take ‘Let love be genuine’ and all day you try to show genuine love. When you see someone that’s upset or hurting, you don’t avoid them, but you stop & listen to their concern & offer help. Genuine love takes time & effort. On Tuesday you move to the next exhortation and focus on ‘Abhor what is evil.’ If you were to take one per day like this, it would take nearly a month to get thru the list; & that’s beside the fact that we need to be ready to do several of these in any one day. I don’t know about you, but my ‘old Adam’ gets overwhelmed just reading this list!
I wonder if that was Paul’s goal: to overwhelm. Not to beat the believer down with their failures, but to glimpse how full of opportunity the kingdom of God is among us. This is not Paul’s 12-step program of ‘how to be a better Christian’ = just do all these things. No. But this shows us how God’s holy ways cover all areas of this life, and to be encouraged by those who do strive to be holy people. The kingdom of God includes all these things; and when we see living examples of one of these, we are encouraged. When we see a believer-in-Christ stand firm against evil, it helps us to stand firm. When we see the lowly cared for, our faith wants to care for others, too. Paul is telling us what holiness looks like, & about all the different ways we are participating in the kingdom of God.
I hope we notice how these kingdom things are all ‘gentle’ & not forceful. In Paul’s day, the city of Rome was a monument to might & force; it was the powerful leader of the civilized world.
Its public spaces were filled with monuments & arches, statues & regular ceremonies honoring military victories and the imperial family. There were temples for gods & goddesses, and even shrines for other deities like the emperors, past & present.
The picture chosen for us this morning is one of those; it’s called the ‘Altar of Peace.’
It was a monument built on the Field of Mars, a large area where there were many buildings to honor the greatness of Rome. This monument to peace was built & dedicated just a few years before Jesus was born; later Emperor Nero had an image of it stamped on a coin to signify the glory of Rome. It inspired citizens & visitors to connect with the large story of the powerful Empire, which boasted of being the greatest source of peace for the world.
Surrounding this altar were walls of marble, carved & decorated; it was about 30 ft square & over 10 ft. tall. At the top of these walls were life-sized human figures carved into the marble, towering over you, as you looked up from the ground. Those figures were of the living leaders of the time. On one side was a panel of Roman senators & priests. On another side was Caesar Augustus, shown leading his servants & family in procession up to the altar.
It was thru his military victories, & often brutal authoritarianism, Augustus had established Roman peace. And now all people were invited to enjoy the glory of Rome, …
…as long as you bowed under the power of Rome. The Altar of Peace invited all to trust in Rome’s military might, and serve the gods of Rome to keep that peace. On one of the walls is carved small children from different nations, suggesting that all nations should come to worship at this altar, and live within the power & the peace of Rome.
Now imagine being a Christian, living in this culture where ‘might makes right’ & ‘power makes peace.’ It might call into question the power of God for His people. These believers were looked at with suspicion, even as traitors; so they gathered quietly in small house churches. Their views & morals were not represented in the politics or laws of the day. They didn’t have colleges or seminaries for training pastors & teachers. They didn’t have a long history of theological books defining the Christian faith; they had the OT Scriptures, the Gospels, and a few letters from the apostles, including this one from Paul. They were a small, meek church surrounded by this worship of man’s strength; in a culture based on the immorality of false Greek gods. I’m sure they wondered about the strength & reality of God’s kingdom.
Was God’s kingdom even present among them? How could it be – in such a pagan place like Rome? Maybe that’s why the apostle Paul paints an overwhelming picture. He shows them how God’s kingdom is different & far better. The enemies of peace for God’s people are not like those enemies of Rome that can be fought with a tyrant-emperor & a military. God’s people battle with sin’s tribulation, persecution, vengeance & evil. Swords & spears can’t deal with those spiritual things. In God’s kingdom, he says, ‘do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’
The hope of the Christian is not in the mighty Caesar Augustus with his senators & legions of soldiers & swords, chariots & horses, but in the humble Servant of the Almighty. Jesus Christ is the One who truly overcame evil with good, to establish a better peace. The Roman Emperor hadn’t noticed that the very Son of God had come to earth with a better kingdom & peace.
Jesus was genuine in love, fervent in Spirit, & serving the one true God of heaven & earth. He patiently endured tribulation all the way to the Roman cross, where God poured out His vengeance upon all sin & evil.
And then, just as promised, on the third day, the world’s Savior was raised to life = never to die again. Right under the nose of the mighty Caesar Augustus, the kingdom of God had marched into the hearts & lives of the citizens of Rome by the gospel of Christ being proclaimed, giving to them eternal peace. Rome’s power didn’t last. Thru the years, that great monument to Caesar’s power became buried under 13 ft of silt from the Tiber River. In 1938 it was dug up & put in a museum. Not only did Rome’s monuments to itself not last, but it’s peace didn’t last; in fact, the whole Roman Empire is dead & gone. But God’s kingdom has endured, & it cannot die, because God’s King is risen & lives. Which begs the Q: which kingdom is mightier?
I know it’s been nearly 20 yrs, but you may remember Mel Gibson’s movie ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ We could debate how well it told the Biblical account, but it did seem to show what we know about the power & violence of the Roman Empire. There was Roman peace, largely, because of the brutal way Rome dealt with lawbreakers = even throwing innocent Christians to the lions. So behind those lovely marble monuments to peace was a vicious & cruel system of punishment that excelled in pain & stripped all enemies of human dignity = such as with crucifixion. But hidden within that brutality was the self-sacrificial work of God.
While Rome was glorifying a vicious emperor, Jerusalem was crucifying the real source of mankind’s peace & hope. While Ceasar Augustus danced on the graves of his earthly, human enemies, Jesus was taking the sin of the whole world into His own tomb. And after the final Ceasar was dead & gone, Jesus is still risen & alive to reign over His kingdom, which has no end. So, which kingdom is greater?
In the movie, there’s one scene that answers that question pretty well. It’s when Jesus is stumbling, carrying His cross thru the crowded streets of Jerusalem. When He falls down, mother Mary is there. She comes close to Him, knowing she can do nothing; her Son is going to die. Jesus looks at her, His face bruised & bloody, and He says, “Behold I make all things new.” (Is. 43:19, Rev. 21:5). Man’s kingdom is only for the present, it can’t guarantee the future.
Strong leaders & nations come & then go, never to return. A stronger enemy is always right around the corner. But that’s not how it is with God’s kingdom. Even tho at the cross it seemed that Jesus is at the very lowest point of His destruction, in just a few days Mary would see our living hope in our Easter Christ. And the kingdom of God belongs to those who trust in Him.
This is the peace that Paul knows and proclaims to the Roman Christians and to you & me. God’s kingdom has truly come among us in the most powerful way: in the humble, faithful, obedient lives of all of the believers in Christ Jesus. There is no military threat or weapon that can take away the living hope of people in God’s kingdom.
And what does that life-in-Christ look like? In our gospel reading, Jesus turns to His disciples & says, “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.” Paul knew those words; we also know them. And those are the things Paul is writing about. Being in God’s kingdom was like the opposite of being in Rome’s kingdom; it’s a life, not by anger & force, but in strong & gentle holy ways.
Those ways of God’s kingdom were seen in our king, Jesus = the One we follow.
Our new lives are defined with ‘acts of brotherly affection’, caring for the needs of the saints; rejoicing with them & weeping with them. Our eyes of faith now take notice of the lowly. We are not to repay evil for evil, but the opposite. We do what is honorable to the one who acts like an enemy; we treat them like a fellow human being, …
& give them something to eat or drink.
This is the kind of new living that was given to you when the Spirit of Jesus washed away your old life in Holy Baptism. And yes, this kind of living will look odd & out-of-place in the Empires of man, but of such is the kingdom of God; it establishes in us a better kind of peace in a clear conscience, in turning from evil, holding on to good, caring for others, & having a future with our King.
We will have a hard time remembering all these things on Paul’s list, and even a harder time being able to do them all. But here they are in Romans 12 for us to learn & to practice in our daily lives. And these things testify to which kingdom we belong and are committed to.
You can go & see that Altar of Peace if you want. You’ll need to catch a flight to Rome and pay admission into that museum. You can stand in the stone & glass room and marvel at that ancient monument; quite beautiful in its artistry. With it, Ceasar Augustus intended that you be drawn into and marvel at the power & glory of his Roman Empire.
But remember that his empire is long gone, and this so-called glorious monument had to be dug out from under 13 feet of backwater silt. Whatever grand victories it celebrated are nearly forgotten history.
Not so with the Spirit-filled words of the apostle Paul. Jesus fulfilled the promises, and has delivered to us the Kingdom of God. He is the Prince of peace; He gives the peace that the world cannot give. He has brought you into His kingdom to participate in these ways, along with your brothers & sisters in Christ as well.
We are all working with the same list of exhortations. When put all together they seem quite overwhelming. But each one of them makes sense as we hear again about our Savior Jesus, and hear about His love for us & for all sinners as He overcame evil for us with God’s good. At His direction, His disciples take up their crosses to follow after Him, and their lives show that His kingdom has come among us, and we are living in His eternal peace.