“Live at Peace” Colchester Federated Church, August 30, 2020, (Romans 12:9-21) Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Over the next few Sundays we’re focusing on Lectionary passages from Paul’s letters to various Christian communities.  Paul wrote his longest (and probably most significant) letter to the community of believers in Rome.  It was likely the last of his undisputed letters to be written and it’s also one of the most influential letters in human history.  Because Romans represents Paul’s most complex and sustained theological arguments.  The impact of the book of Romans on Christian belief, behavior, spirituality, and worship has been significant.  Some New Testament scholars see Romans as Paul’s theological last will and testament—written to a community that he had not founded, and Paul had never even met this community in person before![1] 

We can keep in mind that when the early Church was beginning, persecutions happened sporadically throughout the Roman Empire.  Christians had to stick together in order to practice the faith, let alone survive.  There was diversity of belief and multicultural congregations.  Sometimes Paul called out people that he disagreed with and had to help congregations deal with conflict.  Though somebody couldn’t get mad and necessarily go to the house church across the street enraged at people who didn’t believe and practice the same way as you and your family.  In the early Church, people sometimes had to actually sit down and work it out.

Now perhaps it’s inevitable, but it seems that when people gather together in communities, conflict arises.  Peter Steinke (the noted congregational consultant), explored many instances of people grumbling and speaking against others in scripture.  He notes, “The Israelites, the Hellenists, the Pharisees, the disciples . . . prefigure the murmurers in the contemporary church.  Grumbling is apparently endemic to human beings and, among some, epidemic.  Put people together and inevitably someone will express contrariness.”[2]

This is what Paul faced time and again when he immersed himself in early Christian communities.  This is exactly what happens in contemporary churches sometimes too—grumbling.  So part of what’s interesting about today’s scripture from Romans Chapter 12 is that Paul didn’t found the church in Rome and hadn’t even visited when he wrote this letter.  Which means that this passage is Paul laying out his beliefs about community in a general way, taken from his experiences in other Christian communities.  Why can he do this?  Because patterns play out when folks gather together, yes especially in the Church.

Paul reminded those believers in Rome (and all of us), “Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home.  Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them.  Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying.  Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart.  Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.  If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”[3]

Piece of cake, right?  Of course not.  Though what a good passage to read in these highly divisive times as a Presidential election looms on the horizon and we are hopefully having more honest conversations about the sin of racism.  Let’s hear Paul’s words and take them to heart: “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.”[4] 

The challenge that Paul issues to the Christian community in Rome is timeless in a way.  Take the verse to be happy when people are happy and cry with those who are crying.  Or as the line from the hymn “Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant” goes, “I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.  I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.”  The empathy that we feel for one another can be one of the most powerful gifts we have in Christian communities.  Because hopefully we have the ability to truly see one another and understand what each other is going through on a deeper level because our Christian faith unites us in a significant way and provides opportunities for us to have transformed relationships.  

There’s a wonderful story that was shared in a book about Christian spiritual practices about a student who was living alone in Italy for a year.  She went to mass every evening in the small Italian town where she was living and studying because she wanted to worship God and desperately wanted to interact with other people.  Disciples of Christ minister Stephanie Paulsell (who wrote about this student) related, “Living alone, she often went all day without feeling a human touch.  The ritual moment of passing the peace was the high point of the service for her, because it provided a safe space for her to touch and be touched by other people—even people she did not know.”[5] 

This most basic human interaction of acknowledging one another’s humanity—showing hospitality by shaking someone’s hand or giving a hug—is what churches can do so well.  Paul implored the Christian community in Rome to “love each other like the members of your family.”[6]  This love shown forth can be where the inevitable contrariness of communities is transformed, at least for a time.  The passing of the peace of Christ to one another is an outward sign of that inward movement to live at peace with all people. 

And it’s partly why what we’re going through in this pandemic is especially painful.  Because we can’t have those ritual moments and safe spaces of touching and being touched by other people with handshakes and hugs right now.  Those moments are how we may outwardly and physically show one another that we are happy when they are happy and want to cry with those who are crying in the words of Paul.  Though it’s becoming a deeply held belief of mine in these pandemic days that so much of what we do in the Church is being seen in a new light and appreciated in a way that we perhaps didn’t before.  We may be understanding the power of Christian community all the more, and not take what we have for granted.

Because in what other context in our lives do we walk through the doors and hear instructions like we heard today from Paul?  “Love each other like the members of your family.”  “Be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord.”  “Contribute to the needs of God’s people.”  “Bless people who harass you.”  “Consider everyone as equal.”  “Live at peace with all people.”  These are some radical and difficult and transformative instructions to have transformed relationships with one another.  May it be so with us.  And thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] “Romans Introduction” in The CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha, 275-276 NT.
[2] Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, 59.
[3] Romans 12:13-18, Common English Bible.
[4] Romans 12:18.
[5] Stephanie Paulsell, “Honoring the Body” in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, Ed. Dorothy C. Bass, 22-23.
[6] Romans 12:10.

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.