“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12: 18.
If you have ever seen kindergarten or 1st grade children play the game of soccer you won’t soon forget it. I almost don’t think I have seen anything that entertained me quite as much. Too young to really grasp the rules and technique of the game the young players clump together running to and fro on the field as the rest of the players stare off into space or wave wildly at their parents on the side lines.
It is not unusual to hear someone compare the living of our lives to an athletic competition. Anglican pastor Nicky Gumble compares life in a world without rules to playing a game of soccer without any rules, regulations or field markings. It is not hard to imagine that it would look something like a group of kindergartners playing the game. It would be a melee up and down the field with players risking their own safety and the safety of the other players as they desperately tried to get the ball, score and win. In order to play the game, have fun and be safe you have to have some rules to guide everyone’s behavior. So it is in life in general.
Though we hate to admit it, especially during the terrible two’s or during our teenage years, we need rules to survive. So as we grow up we learn how to conform to the rules of our family and the society in which we live. What were the shoulds and shouldn’ts, in your house? What are the limits you’ve established in your present home and what do people in your family have permission to do? I’m sure you have family rules like don’t talk with your mouth ful, be respectful of older people, clean your room before you go out with your friends.
In Romans 12, Paul is telling us that it is the same exact way in God’s family. Back in Romans 8 Paul wrote, “…all who are led by the spirit of God are children of God, for you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” As God’s children, loved by God, we have obligations to our family to act in certain ways. We must conform ourselves to our new family and live by Jesus’ family rules
Now, the rules or structure of a family and the way in which they are enforced can come from a variety of motivations. Sometimes people like to create and enforce rules to control others and to exert power and fear over them. That’s abuse, plain and simple. But in a healthy family rules or behaviors and actions are established out of a sense of love and protection.
Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”. Paul has spent the first 11 chapters of Romans describing the mercies of God, telling the Jews in Rome just how much they were loved by God. They knew well the system of sacrificing an animal and presenting it to God in order to receive God’s mercy. But Paul is appealing to them to comprehend, as he wrote to the Ephesians, “what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that they might be filled with all the fullness of God.” It is this love that is the basis of our willingness to give ourselves, body, mind and soul to God and follow the rules.
Do you remember that story that has been floating around forever about the woman who was married to a stern and cruel man who made a list for her of all the things he expected her to do for him? As she lived with that list and worked to fulfill his demands she was resentful and angry. The man died and she put the list away. Eventually she married again – this time to a loving and kind man who loved to serve her. One day she ran across the list her first husband had given her, and much to her surprise she found that she was doing everything on the list for her second husband without having to be asked. She realized that what had been a chore she hated was now a natural response to this second husband who loved her.
Knowing and experiencing the love of God can result in a trust that allows us to worship God, not just on Sunday morning, but with our very lives that we openly give to God. And when we become a member of God’s family we need to learn what the expectations are for our behavior, what theologian Paul Achtemeier calls the structuring power of grace. It is the grace of God that gives form and shape to the way we think and live as God’s family member. Romans 12 gives us that structure.
First of all we are no longer to be conformed to the way the world thinks, to the thinking of this age. No, our minds are to be transformed. They are to be given a radical new way of seeing life from God’s perspective – to understand just how it is that God’s wants the world to be. God gives us a renewed way of seeing reality.
I can’t use the word reality these days without thinking of reality TV. You have all probably come across one while flipping through the channels or maybe you have a favorite one you watch. In reality TV we watch other people decorating their homes, having an extreme makeover, learning how to be a desirable date, competing for the affections of a fake millionaire or eating slugs and jumping from an airplane to win money. Though I have to admit I find it fascinating; at times I find these shows have little to do with most people’s everyday reality and little to do with the reality that God dreams for us. God’s reality turns the world’s reality on its head.
God wants us to be transformed – to have our understanding of what is good and true and real turned upside down. As members of God’s family we aren’t to think of ourselves as better than others. We’re not to be like the Pharisee who prayed openly – “Thank you God that you have not made me like other Men.” We are to have humility about ourselves in everything we do. We are to let love be genuine – we aren’t supposed to fake love for our own gain but to care for others without pretense. We’re to hate evil – which means we’re to have NOTHING to do with it. We’re to show each other affection and honor each other, which is the way deep intimacy remains holy. God’s family shares in genuine expressions of affection because we want to, not because we have to. We are supposed to make the choice to show respect and reverence for one another. In God’s family it is our goal to serve God that enables us to keep going when the going gets tough, to remain committed to one another because we are aware of God’s mercy to us.
Secondly, because we have been given the gift of the Spirit, family members are to handle the serious with joy and the hopeless with patience. We don’t necessarily overcome the situation but we overcome our natural tendency to hopelessness because God is our hope in times of trouble. We’re to help each other out – contributing our gifts to the whole family as we practice hospitality to one another and to those outside the family as well.
Third, but you could almost argue that it should be rule #1, to pray constantly. If we are part of the family, then we just have to take the time to pray always with the understanding that what we really want is that God’s will – which we trust more than we trust ourselves – will be done.
Fourth, we’re expected to live in harmony with each other. Unfortunately this is NOT one of the rules the members of the family follow very well. We’re like the older sister and brother who were playing a board game as their youngest brother played on the floor beside him. They decided to amuse themselves by pretending he wasn’t there. So they said to each other, “Isn’t it too bad that Jimmy isn’t here to play with us.” Whereupon Jimmy jumped up and said, “I’m here, I’m here.” But they continued to pretend he wasn’t there until they had him in tears running from the room. As members of God’s family we have to learn to live with our diversity, to include and honor each other and love each other genuinely, in spite of it.
Now here’s the tricky part. As members of God’s family we aren’t supposed to wait for God to wave a magic wand over our heads to transform us into behaving according to the family rules. It’s in living by the family rules that we are transformed and display to the world what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. God renews our mind as we live life according to God’s house rules.
We live in a world where people are always trying to manipulate the rules for their own profit. When these stories make it into the headlines, as it did with Enron, people become discouraged and cynical about living by the rules. Why should some people try to live responsibly for the benefit of everyone if others get away with making their own rules and profiting by doing so?
The Bible tells us that as Christians our rules are different. We are not to break the rules for our own profit. We are supposed to overcome evil with good – to live by God’s rules that make us responsible – not just for our own happiness – but also for the joy of the whole community. I think it’s possible that if all the people watching on the sidelines saw Christians playing life together by God’s family rules, they might really learn to love the game and want to join in. Let’s live and play by God’s rules and see what happens.