Theory into practice

Our journey through Romans thus far has included an understanding of the condition of the human race in general and our individual condition in particular and we have seen that it is through faith in Christ that we are rescued from our condition and have the possibility to live new lives. We’ve also studied the big-picture situation with respect to the church and Israel: all remarkable and immensely helpful information. If this is as far as we get and go no further then we have utterly failed! Theory needs to turn into practice and information needs to be acted upon. In this last section of Romans, Paul gets practical!

1. Living sacrifices

There’s an expression that has crept into our British English relatively recently (I suspect from across the Atlantic), it goes something like this; ‘don’t talk the talk, walk the walk.’ This is the instruction in chapter 12, but it’s not an optional extra, Paul says ‘I urge you brothers and sisters.’ Some translations have ‘I beg you,’ – this is of high importance and of urgent need. Paul’s urging comes in view of God’s mercy and it’s an urging to make an offering. We noted in our discussion at the end of chapter 11 that it is important to fix in our minds the character of God. A false understanding of Romans chapter 9 results in some people saying that God is a God of hate and even that he is the author of sin! Perish the thought, here Paul says that we respond to God because of his character of mercy. So what are we to do? ‘Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.’ The picture is in some ways an old testament one, a picture of sacrifice, the word Paul uses for ‘offer’ is the same word as would be used for offering an animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifices involved death, but this sacrifice is to be a living one; our own bodies! We could think of the word offer as ‘to put at one’s disposal.’ And that’s the idea, we are asked to put our bodies at God’s disposal. How? It seems that Paul is saying, put your eyes, your ears, your tongues, your hands at God’s disposal. I think each of us need to work out what that might mean for us, but Paul gives us enough information for us to do just that. The offering simply needs to be holy (or set apart) and pleasing to God. Are you using your physical capabilities to get God a good name? Are you offering them to him or to yourself or someone or something else? I wonder what Paul would make of the Christian church today? I fear he may see a group of people who have great potential capability but who invest time, resources and skills in somewhat pointless activities. To offer our bodies in the way Paul suggests is ‘true and proper worship’. We almost need to rescue the meaning of that word, worship – it has come to mean something akin to singing Christians songs in an emotional or exuberant manner! True worship is offering our bodies and capabilities to God in a way that pleases him. They tell me that the word in our English translations ’proper’ is ‘logikos’ in Greek – this sort of self sacrifice is a logical worship resulting in a full understanding of who God is and what he has done.

There’s a programme on BBC4 this week about trainspotting! Last night they were enthusing about the class 43 or the 125: a train built more than 40 years ago, which still holds the world record for the fastest diesel train and it’s still in use. The designer of the look of the train explained that with the availability of plastics technology he was able to design an aerodynamic front end which not only made the train fast and fuel efficient, it made it look good too. The plastic technology was all about forming the plastic into a pre-determined shape. There is a pre-determined shape that the world system has and it’s attempting to force us into it – it’s the world’s pattern, a pattern determined by atheism and false religion, a pattern that leads us away from truth and right living. Paul says don’t be conformed to this pattern. It’s almost certainly true that if you rarely read the bible, rarely meet with fellow believers but rather spend all your time watching TV or on the internet you will quite quickly conform to the thinking and pattern of this world. Paul says however, ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ The transformation comes from feeding on God’s word and his thinking – and this internalisation of truth will be expressed in external transformation. Having internalised God’s truth we will be in a position to align ourselves with God’s will. Paul says that we will be able to ‘test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.’  The industry in which I work spends much of its resources in testing new medicines, will they be safe? will they be effective? are the questions we ask. In spite of huge amounts of work to design molecules that will interact with biological receptors and that will not have unsafe features there’s only one way to know for sure if a good medicine has been designed and that’s to put it to the test in real human patients. The success rate from the first dose to humans to a successful medicine is considerably less than 10%. Contrast this with our testing of God’s will – Paul effectively says put it to the test so that you can by experience demonstrate that it works! You will find that his will is good and perfect and it brings pleasure and satisfaction. The Psalmist says ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’

2. Working together

When my family lived in America we really did discover that we in the UK are culturally divided from our American cousins by a common language! I remember our children coming home from school and saying that in the classroom they had to say out loud ‘I am the best kid.’ It seems that the culture being propagated was one of self importance, self reliance bordering on self centredness (and British culture seems all too ready to adopt the same thinking). In a similar spirit psychologists tell us that if only we could increase people’s self worth all would be well. Contrast this thinking with Paul’s: ‘do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.’ This honest self assessment is necessary if we are to function effectively together. This self appraisal will help us discover that we are not the best at everything and we still retain within us the sin nature.

Paul draws a comparison of the functioning of the human body with the way things ought to work in the community of believers, he says, ‘4Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.’ Just as any individual is comprised of many separate parts with different functions but with each part working in collaboration with the others, so it is with the community of believers in the church. Paul’s first point about this is that we are one: ‘we who are many form one body’. But he goes on to say that we do not operate separately because ‘each member belongs to all the others.’ This has far reaching consequences: if we belong to the other members of the body we have responsibilities to the body and vice versa – there is no room for individualism and ‘going it alone.’

So one body, many parts, but now Paul informs us that not only are the parts different but they perform different functions because they have been given different gifts. Paul lists seven gifts: prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading and showing mercy. Could you do one or more of these? If yes then Paul says get on with it! …and do it generously, diligently and cheerfully. I have to confess that there have been times when I have done my bit for the church through gritted teeth and rather ungenerously, but Paul indicates the need to do our bit with the right attitude.

3. More advice

I recall that the England cricket team once revealed one of the reasons for their success against their old enemy Australia – they had developed a bowling machine! This machine could send down a volley of cricket balls for their batsmen to practise on. It seems that Paul sends us a volley of advice that comes at us just like the England cricket team’s bowling machine! The advice is how we relate to one another in the body. Here’s the first volley in verse 9: ‘9Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.’ If we are to effectively work together and be light to this world we need to love, but it must be a sincere love – not a hypocritical love. Love is measured by our willingness to put ourselves out for the good of the person we love, being nice isn’t being loving. A parent who really loves their child will not always allow them to do what they want! If one member of the body isn’t working properly the other members have a duty in love to support that non-functioning member for the good of the body: this might mean helping the person or perhaps pointing out their failing, love isn’t just a soppy thing! Paul next tells us to develop a Teflon approach to evil: hate it and don’t let it stick, but in contrast we are to stick fast to what is good! We live in the world and for sure have to encounter evil in what we do, but we ought to see it for what it is and hate it! On the contrary we need to glue ourselves to what is good. What have you done this week to demonstrate your hate of evil and your adherence to good?

Another volley from Paul comes in verse 10: ‘10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves.’ If we are to function effectively as a body of believers, Paul tells us to devote ourselves to one another in love – I frequently see examples of this at West Street and it is a very special feature of our church. This needs to be accompanied by an honouring of one another in a spirit of humility. Once again, this cuts across the spirit of the age in which we live – self promotion and self honouring are the order of the day: Jesus was the great leader of the disciples and will be the king on David’s throne, and yet he was happy to wash the feet of the disciples!

At work we often talk about ‘engaged employees’ in contrast to those who are merely ‘going through the motions.’ I think it’s a good thing to get into the habit of going to church even if it’s just going through the motions: better to come to church under those circumstances than not at all. But what a difference it makes when we serve the Lord with spiritual fervour and zeal. How can we do this? I think Paul gives us a clue in verse 12: ‘12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer’ We have a hope! I spoke to one of my work colleagues recently and we were discussing the brevity of life and how things move on so quickly, and she said you can see how people find comfort in religion. Well if we have a true hope that is founded in truth we not only find comfort but we have genuine hope and it’s a joyful hope – and this helps us to get through difficult times.

But there are so many difficult people in this world and just why should we have to put up with them! Surely it’s OK to reward them for the way they treat us! I have a situation at work in which to say the least my colleagues from across the Atlantic are using their position to look after themselves whilst walking all over their colleagues in the UK. It’s ugly and frankly wrong. I had to meet one of the senior members of our US office this week and I have to confess that I was not feeling in a very Christian frame of mind, he is the one who is responsible for putting me and my team in a very difficult situation. What do I read on the train in the morning? These words: ‘14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. And then: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’ Now Paul had much worse ‘enemies’ than I will ever have but look at his advice! As things turned out my American senior colleague had made no provision for lunch the day we met and I ended up in a position quite literally to ‘feed him and give him something to drink’. Afterwards one of my UK colleagues said I should have put laxative in his drink! But isn’t the bible good for us, it makes us see the world through different eyes and helps us to change the way we live.

Paul leaves us with one final and excellent piece of advice: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ How will you put this into practice this week?