Romans 12.1-8              Rev Peter Horder               27th January 2013

‘The rubber hits the road’ – what a strange title and introduction as we embark on our study of Romans 12-16 through our sermons, and continuing in our House Groups for the next seven weeks. We hope these times of worship, exploration and enlightenment – all under the umbrella of shared fellowship – will help us all to have a better understanding of Paul’s teaching, showing us how to live our lives for God and for one another. My title suggests movement and progress, I vividly recall the day around 1960 when I finally passed my driving test, after more lessons than I dare to admit, along the busy streets of Mutley Plain, Plymouth, and out to Roborough. I remember being thrilled to collect my ticket to automobile freedom. Over the next few weeks, as I stalled repeatedly, bungled my way through basic manoeuvres, and facing a dual carriageway for the first time, I realised the truth, one only learns to drive after you have passed your test. You work out what it really means to drive, not in a classroom, but while driving. Similarly, these last five chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome prepare them for when the rubber hits the road ! Paul had presented persuasively what the gospel was, and what it meant for the world. Now he prepares to spell out in more practical terms, how he expects the weight of truth to impact on their lives together as God’s people. Some interpreters of the letter have tended to put a line under chapter eleven – Paul the preacher had left the building – now it is time for Paul the pastor to handle the day to day concerns – the family business. Let us make no mistake, this is the same Paul, and rather than drawing a line under his work so far, I see him as drawing two lines, that is an equals sign, as he reminds his listeners in Rome and ourselves today, that all his teaching and theology must have an outcome, an output; it has to produce something new in us. That is HIS expectation, and it should be ours too.

So how do we begin to put Paul’s teaching into practice ? Firstly to realise that everybody and everything in the world is changing continuously, so we have to adapt to new ways of thinking, which in turn helps us to decide what God’s plan is for each one of us. Overnight our planet travelled tens of thousands of miles through space around the sun. So although everything looks familiar, yesterday’s ‘here’ is now not here at all. Our bodies too are in a permanent state of change; every single cell is replaced over a period of seven years. The essence of life is constant change, and we are changing, whether we are choosing the direction of that change, or not. We will be, as Paul reminds us, either in the pattern of the world, or in the likeness of Christ. Paul uses the word ‘mercy’ several times in the preceding three chapters, and now having experienced God’s mercy, we have a special life to live. Mercy is a free gift from God, showing how precious we are in his eyes. Genuine mercy is given freely and softly, as portrayed in one of Shakespeare’s famous speeches by Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath’. Our response, like the gift, has to be made freely. Paul urges us – ‘Since God has shown us great mercy’, we are to offer our whole selves as a living sacrifice to God, not half-heartedly, as and when it suits us ! We can define this response as our spiritual worship. Unlike the animals which were sacrificed against their will in the Temple, we freely and willingly come to the altar, in humility and with open hands to receive his grace. AAs we do so, our minds are reshaped; we start to think like our merciful Lord, who freely gave himself for us. We begin to understand how he works and what he expects of us, his desire for us to offer ‘what is good and pleasing to him – what is perfect, in fact the very best we can give of ourselves in his service. That is the consistent call of God throughout his Word, and echoed in 1 Peter 1.14,15 and 1 Thess. 4.1-6, showing its relevance for today’s society; to be obedient, not living in ignorance, be holy in all you do – be sanctified and self-controlled, as is God’s will for you. To be holy means to be separated, separated from evil and separated to God.

How will this affect our attitudes and actions this week ? at work, at home, in our meeting with others, and how we spend our leisure time ?  Paul points us in the right direction; the secret lies in how we use our minds – in what ways can they be disciplined and transformed ? We know that will not be easy but the result is well worth any radical steps we may need to take. God’s mercy reminds us of the need to have a realistic assessment of ourselves, with no room in our hearts for conceit or pride, None of us can survive without other people, but so often we behave as though we could. We strive to make ourselves ‘great’, and others ‘small’, with potential to measure ourselves by our possessions, our achievements and popularity. But this is NOT the Christian way; we are no longer to be self-asserting, but self-giving. God has made us for ‘belonging’, wherever we look, we see God yearning for his children to live and grow together in faith and love. So this must be, in the life of our churches and communities. We just could not exist as a living body of Christ’s Church without the corporate worship, prayer and support we share, showing love and compassion to those known and unknown to us. We have all been saved by God’s mercy, so it is utterly foolish to think that we are superior to any other Christian or non-Christian. If we have faith, it is God-given. Any gifts we have, including those of which we are unaware, are gifts of God’s grace, and are to be used not for our own ego, but to help us grow in unity with others. In fact, each member of our churches, with those around us who are searching for faith to fill a void in their lives, belongs to one another.

Appropriately Paul concludes his list with the gift of mercy being cheerfully offered, which should prompt us to ask ourselves and be thankful for everything we have received from God, and consider how best we can use them for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ, a very significant theme of this past week’s ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’, to embrace all God’s people, whoever and wherever they are ! We should bear in mind that not all forms of community are the same. Thomas Merton, A Cistercian monk and spiritual writer, tells us that the community of the family is not the same as the community of friendship. There are similarities in this web of relationships, primarily being present to others, in a spirit of openness and shared communication. Merton insists that just being with others is never enough, rather to offer ourselves in love and practical service. The deeper we love the more we engage, listen, empathise and share, not only with those who are happy, but be willing to enter people’s pain and suffering, within and beyond our shores.

This is exactly what Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry, dying and rising again to save all of mankind. Luke tells us that after Jesus had read from Isaiah, he preached to an attentive audience, who expected him to show evidence of supernatural powers, and a desire to call the Jews into battle as their longed-for leader. We know that Jesus was filled with God’s Spirit to proclaim the good news of his Kingdom, and to give believers true freedom.

As we journey together with Paul, let us pledge to do the same as we celebrate our uniqueness as individuals, to respect our differences, to remember that we are one in Christ with all God’s people, to use our God-given gifts wholeheartedly and cheerfully, knowing how indebted we are to receive his abundant mercy and grace, set free to live and work to his glory, today and always. Amen.