Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 27, 2017
Romans 12:1-8 Commentary
Sober judgment. That lies pretty near the core of these quite well-known verses in Romans 12. We need to be transformed, Paul writes. Our minds need a refresh. If we get this renewal by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit, then we won’t act as the world acts. In this particular context Paul seems to have in mind not “worldly” things like immoral sexual practices or riotous living and drunkenness or any number of other tawdry behaviors. No, here the turn from worldliness involves principally a new way to regard our very selves, our talents, what we’re good at, and then how we regard those around us, too.
Paul basically says, “Look, everybody is good at something. We’re not all good cooks but some of us really are great in the kitchen. We’re not all preachers of the Gospel but some are gifted communicators. We’re not all good at music but there are many talented musicians around. Be grateful for what you have and use your gift to the utmost but keep it all in perspective. Don’t strut around in pride on the assumption that preaching a good sermon is somehow more important than cooking a perfect lamb chop and serving it up in gracious hospitality. Don’t think that singing well in the choir is better than those who serve hot meals at the local homeless shelter. Look at everyone around you at eye level. Be humble. Play your part in the Body of Christ but recognize that if it were not for everyone else also playing their parts, nothing would ever get done. The Body could not walk, talk, serve, function at all.”
Curiously, though, Paul does not say we may not regard ourselves highly, just not MORE highly than we ought. If God has made you good at something, wonderful! Celebrate it! Be grateful! Admit that what you do is important and good. But . . . leave it at that. Don’t ratchet up your ego to the point that you are forever looking down on other people who do what you may be tempted to deem as lesser things.
It’s pretty simple advice but I am guessing most of us who preach and most of the people to whom we preach know full well that living this way is far from simple. Pride remains a stubbornly basic (and deadly) sin. But this is why, as writers like Robert C. Roberts have long noted, humility is perhaps THEE core Christian virtue. Maybe it is love that is the absolute core of all but humility nestles in right next to it. But as Roberts also notes, as with most virtues, including gratitude, being humble is all about construing situations the correct way. How do we look at situations in life? How do we construe ourselves?
Think of it this way, Neal Plantinga has suggested: you are in line at the supermarket. The person in front of you checking out has a fair amount of groceries, which is fine. But then she pays for these groceries in bits and pieces, hauling out of her purse not one, not two, but eventually five different checkbooks, writing out checks in varying amounts. This goes on and on, it seems. It’s taking forever. And your first instinct is to construe this situation as another example of someone’s being rude and inconsiderate to the people behind her in the checkout aisle—people who obviously have better things to do.
But then suppose that after you finally check out yourself, you go out to the parking lot and notice this woman taking her grocery-laden cart to a van full of senior citizens. She hands each person in the van a checkbook and then a bag of groceries. And then you realize she was serving these good folks, shopping for them when they were a bit too frail to do it themselves.
Now retrospectively you construe that situation in the checkout aisle differently. Your impatience had not been warranted. And then suppose you learn something from this experience such that the next time you are in a line that takes a long while for whatever the reason, you choose to construe the possible reasons more charitably. Yes, she is paying in three different ways but maybe that is because food stamps only cover certain items whereas WIC support covers others and some just have to be paid for with cash. She’s doing the best she can on a limited income to bring home food for her kids. In this charitable construal, then, you will be far less likely to grow impatient.
How we size up life has a great deal to do with how we react and act. This, in turn, becomes the avenue by which we try to let virtues like humility, patience, gratitude, and all the rest shine through. The renewal of our minds to which Paul refers is about many things but SEEING things aright is near the top of the list. Let the Spirit open your eyes to other possibilities, other ways of sizing a situation up and witness if this better way of seeing helps you be more Christ-like.
For the context of Romans 12, this is how we see other people, their talents, their contributions to society or to the life of the church. We construe each person and his or her talent as utterly necessary, as wonderful, as a partner with whatever you are good at that advances God’s kingdom bit by bit. We don’t downgrade someone else or her ability. Nor need we envy someone else’s ability over against whatever we contribute to life. Instead and in humility we are grateful—grateful for what God has given to us, grateful for what God has given to others. And in aggregate we construe that this is how God wants it to be, this is how the Holy Spirit gets things done and if we are one of the people—but not the only person and not the most important person—through whom that Spirit works, wonderful!
Ours is a competitive, cynical age, though. When Paul says we will not be conformed to the patterns of this world, in this current cultural moment that means resisting a sense of competition, of one-upmanship, of designer envy foisted on us by advertisers. It means we stop looking at other people’s Facebook posts and wondering why their life seems so much more wonderful than ours, why so many other people are on vacation in exotic places and I am stuck at home, why so many other people seem more successful than I am, etc. etc. Don’t conform to those competitive patterns, Paul urges. Be changed. Be renewed. Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought.
We sometimes worry that humility = humiliation. To be humble means to beat yourself down, deny that you are good at ANYthing, to be self-effacing to the point of obsequiousness. But that need not be. Humility is just about seeing life as a level playing field. You need not pretend you are the worst of all people to be humble. As Robert C. Roberts once put it, “’Humility’ comes from humus, Latin for ‘earth.’ This origin of the word suggests that being humble is being ‘down to earth,’ not ‘up in the clouds’ where one doesn’t belong. It need not mean groveling in the dirt while others stand erect and dignified; it might mean being solidly a member of the human family by not trying to opt out of it upwardly” (Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, p. 62).
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