Speaking of Life 2039 | Sing the Story Again
Speaking of Life 2039 | Sing the Story Again Greg Williams For a decade of my life, I worked with Youth for Christ, a worldwide youth movement engaging young people around the world with God’s story. In fact, their model for describing evangelism was called “Three Story Evangelism.” Three Story is a relational style of sharing the gospel showing how my story, my friend’s story and God’s story all overlap, and especially so in how the Lord of the universe is pursuing humanity. The Old Testament writers were well aware of how God’s presence intersected in their collective stories. Notice these words from the prophet Isaiah: Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. Isaiah 51:1-2 (NRSV) Isaiah’s words ring with a common biblical practice: memory. Remember who you are. Remember the quarry you were cut from, the story of Abraham and Sarah, the promise that they would outnumber the stars. Throughout the Psalms, the poets retell the stories of the patriarchs and heroes to encourage the community. Or they sing through the truths of the faith to bring them back to mind. In many places, the psalmists sing praises for things God has brought them through. In other places, the psalmists encourage the community to hang on through hard times, knowing that God will show his faithfulness again. When the early church met in homes, they told and re-told the stories of Jesus and read the letters of Paul and the other apostles. In a society in which only part of the people were literate, the stories would be memorized and recited to keep their new identity and new story in front of them. And so, we meet today. We connect ourselves with the epic of gospel history as we meet to tell ourselves the great story. Then we encourage each other by sharing how God has entered our story in everything from mundane blessings to amazing red sea experiences in our lives. Telling and re-telling the story helps us to keep faith in focus. How can we tell the story again today? How do we keep these truths in front of our mind’s eye? How can we, like the psalmist, look back to God’s goodness and look forward in trust? Let’s sing the story of God’s goodness, again and again, until it becomes the theme and music of our entire lives. I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.
Psalm 124:1-8 • Exodus 1:8-2:10 • Romans 12:1-8 • Matthew 16:13-20
This week’s theme is God working out his miracle in us. Exodus 1 tells the story of Moses’ mother putting him in a basket and God miraculously intervening. Psalm 124 tells the story of God saving Israel again from ruin and defeat. Matthew 16 is the pivotal moment where Peter—an unlikely voice—starts to miraculously understand who Jesus is. Our sermon, “God’s Revolutionary People,” discusses Romans 12. The people of Jesus are defined by a miraculous unity in diversity and purity. This revolutionary community crossed ethnic, political, and socio-economic barriers with a supernatural love.
God’s Revolutionary People
Romans 12:1-8 ESV
Begin the sermon by reading Romans 12:1-8 ESV
Paul presents some revolutionary ideas here and elsewhere in Rome, and we are going to talk about them, but first, we need to talk about parachute pants. Big hair. Bell bottoms. Pedal pushers. Stonewashed jeans. We can all think of styles that seemed like the thing to be wearing at the time, but in retrospect look than a little silly.
Ask for examples of other fads that faded. (Examples: headbands, fingerless gloves, beehive hairdos.) This could be a fun discussion.
Maybe this is a silly example, but it demonstrates an impulse we find all over in human society: conformity. Even, sometimes especially, in cultures that claim to be open-minded and diverse, fashions, many celebrities, and much of the “modern” art looks and sounds the same. If you look back on what “everybody was doing” twenty years after the fact, it can be a little embarrassing.
This conformity appears in places as innocuous as fashion trends, but it can go into darker places. Think of the Chinese young people almost a century ago all dressed as Mao Zedong. Think of the fierce and immediately recognizable aesthetic of the Nazi party. The ideology came with a uniform, the perspective came with a look, and the number one enemy in these situations is diversity.
Keep your scrunchie in place and your Bugle Boys pegged for a moment, and we’ll come back to it.
In the densely packed hallways of the book of Romans, a few themes ring out over and over. One of the main themes was unity—not surprising, considering the historical circumstances of the letter.
The Roman church was founded a few decades before this letter and believers had been living and working as a Christian community. But a few years before this letter was written, the Emperor Claudius had kicked all the Jews out of Rome. Consequently, the church there became exclusively Greek and Roman believers. Five years later, the Jews were allowed to return.
The Roman church developed divisions quickly between Jewish and Gentile believers. They had extremely different backgrounds, faith played a different role in their cultures, and these were communities that had defined themselves against each other for centuries. It’s no surprise, then, that unity is a major theme for Paul throughout his letter—as one family in Christ, we gather around one set of beliefs and behavior, and these cultural divisions of the past are no longer relevant. That was ideal, but it’s an ideal the church has been trying to live up to for two millennia with only partial success.
Paul describes his vision of the body of Christ:
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them. (Romans 12:4-5 ESV)
What Paul describes here cuts against the tensions that were going on the church. Conformity had become the theme—conformity to circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, dietary laws and other cultural practices that had nothing to do with being in Christ.
Especially in a relatively small, persecuted community like the church in Rome, conformity was one of the ways to keep together, one of glues that held them as a unit. Paul says that the gospel is stronger and more durable than conformity, and calls us to appreciate a diversity of callings and expressions within the Body of Christ.
Appreciating that diversity, even depending on the diversity of gifts, is the way the body of believers stays healthy. We’re not to compete with each other and try to find the in-crowd, but to accept ourselves and others and appreciate the differing voices that harmonize into one song.
So this stands against our natural default tendency to conform—to slip into cults of personality as silly as hairstyles or as dangerous as dictatorships. Paul calls us to step out in faith and embrace the unique ways that God has made people, even to the point of working together as one body. That’s not easy, but it’s the best life.
This revolution is like nothing the world had seen before. Biblical scholar Tim Mackie imagines one of Paul’s communities gathering (paraphrased):
Say you’re a Cyprian day laborer who drifted to Galatia (modern day Turkey) to find work. You hear in the town square there’s this leather worker named Paul who is constantly talking about a new King …. You get curious and go to see what his community is about … these people gather in a house community and you show up. You find three Jewish families, one who is very wealthy and brings his Egyptian slave. There’s a Roman metalworker. Three other people from Cypress where you’re from. There’s several homeless people, one is Asian, one is Macedonian – and you all sit there together. Then Paul talks about how Jesus died for all of us as one unit. Then you share a meal together. There’s nowhere else where anything like this is happening!
This kind of inclusion was mind-blowingly revolutionary at the time. Think of the master and slave mentioned there. Slavemasters generally saw their slave essentially as an appliance, not a person. In their home environment, they would never have sat at the same table and eaten together. Even if circumstances shoved you all into the same room together somehow, you certainly wouldn’t share beliefs. The Macedonian would have their own gods and the Romans would have theirs. There might be a single cult that worshipped Caeser, but that was pretty nominal, and not what you probably considered your people’s faith.
Paul asks them to give up all that division and to meet in these small diverse communities as an outpost of the new humanity in Christ—the new humanity that didn’t fall into conformity or old cultural divisions, but was part of a family that transcended these individual categories. To paint that, he calls us the “one body” of Christ.
And at the same time, he values diversity:
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:5 ESV)
Paul develops this in several places in his writing—the metaphor of a body in which all the parts not only appreciate each other, but depend on each other. There’s a celebration of diversity and difference rather than an attack on it, and this is the kind of complex relationship that can only be called love. Human beings, as displayed in the brutal uniformity of atheist empires, aren’t capable of allowing diversity in a relationship without some supernatural help!
C.S. Lewis drew the analogy between Christ and salt in our food. If someone had salt for the first time, and we told them we use it in most of our cooking, they might assume that everything tastes the same. But salt only brings out the flavor of the steak, potatoes, cabbage or whatever we put it into, that the diversity of it is magnified and celebrated by the salt. The uniqueness of each dish is brought out by the salt, just as the unique makeup of each person is accentuated and brought to life by Christ.
This is one of the revolutionary ideas that Paul puts forward here. The world hadn’t seen communities like this before, at least none that were near as coherent or lasted as long.
How do we take this revolution to our lives as a church? We live in a very different world, especially in the West, in which dividing along cultural and socio-economic lines is considered backward and barbarian. In Paul’s world, it was the order of the day and part of keeping society running smoothly. And yet despite all our modern lip service, these divisions still exist.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8 ESV)
We might look up to pastors because of their gifting when Paul lists that here with all the other gifts, actually after the gift of being a waiter/host/food-prepper. We divide ourselves along lines of education. If Jesus had what would have been thought of as a bumpkin or hick accent, would we have judged him? Categorized him?
We have our own divisions along the more traditional or contemporary worship expressions. Hymnal-thumpers look down their noses at PowerPoint-praisers as non-serious and self-focused. PowerPointers look at traditionalists with contempt as stodgy and obsolete. Yet Paul says that they both have something to offer the church, and we hold space for each other in love, life will be richer and better if we honor diversity.
These divisions may be small, even silly, but even these small fissures can become fault lines in the Christian community. We gather around the Trinity, which is a community in itself, and that love in diversity should be reflected in our lives.
The second revolutionary idea discussed here and elsewhere in Romans is even more uncomfortable than embarrassing 1980s styles. Sex. One of the most talked-about topics in human history—everybody has an opinion on it, maybe two. Wars have been fought over sex, and every other generation is convinced they invented it.
We may wonder why Paul talked about it so much. Sexual relationships and issues come up dozens of times in his letters, and it’s interesting how the church is uncomfortable talking about the topic! But it was a revolutionary marker of what it meant to be God’s people at the time, especially in Rome.
Roman wives were expected to keep to what might be familiar to us: absolute monogamy to one husband throughout their whole lives. Roman men were completely the opposite. Recreational sex was the cultural norm. Regular, upstanding Roman citizens went to prostitutes (often at their religious temples) and routinely used their slaves (men and women) for what one ancient writer called “everyday urges.” Sex with their wives was important because it was connected to childbirth, but most of the time erotic encounters for men were just an appetite like eating and drinking.
For Paul to call the Roman men in the believing community to sexual purity was absolutely revolutionary. That injunction as part of their new moral code in Christ would have been completely disorienting. It was progressive, disruptive, and most surprisingly to our modern ears, deeply feminist! But it makes sense. If we live in a society where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, then the same sanctified ethic applies to all.
Instead of the pervading understanding of your body as your own property which you could use as you wanted, Paul asks them “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world.” (Romans 12:1-2 ESV). You are not your own anymore, nor are you the slave of your insatiable, maddening desires. Your body is no longer just an afterthought that’s disconnected with your spirit and can be used how you see fit. Your soul, mind, and body belong to the Lord.
So, what about Monday? What do these two revolutionary ideas—unity in diversity and sexual purity—have to do with us two thousand years later?
There are several applications, but let’s briefly look at two.
Revolutionary Unity in Diversity
This is one of the great miracles of being God’s people—young and old, male and female, all levels of education and physical ability have importance and a voice. Look at the rich imagery the prophet Joel talks about in the kingdom age:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (Joel 2:28 ESV)
Revolutionary Sexual Ethics
If nearly complete sexual license doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you haven’t read the news in quite a while! Promiscuity on the level of Roman society and our present society causes innumerable problems with exploitation, corrosive relationships, and addiction, just to name a few. In this society, the Christian commitment to sex within marriage isn’t just unique, it’s revolutionary. A revolution of healed relationships, women not living in fear of exploitation, and celebration of God’s great gift of physical love rightly enjoyed should be the order of the day among the people of God.
Relationships, love, diversity and celebration—these are the rich and dangerous ideas of what it means to be God’s people.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Speaking of Life: “Sing the Story Again”
- Isaiah 51 and many other places in Scripture call us to bring to memory our identity as God’s people. Are there stories of God’s undeniable goodness in your life that help you to remember who he is and who you are? Do these glimpses of grace in your life keep you going? Give examples.
- How can your church community or small group keep up this practice of memory? How can you sing the story as a group?
Questions for sermon: “God’s Revolutionary People.”
- Paul talks about some revolutionary markers of God’s people. The first he lays out is unity in diversity—the interdependent, spacious relationship of the Jesus family. Have you ever seen the beauty of this diversity in action? A connection in a group of people that can only be called miraculous?
- Why do our human communities, especially those that aren’t imbued with God’s Spirit, tend toward uniformity and conformity?
- The other revolutionary marker that Paul talks about is a holy, sanctified understanding of sexual purity. Why is this so important? Are biblical standards as important (and revolutionary) in our society as they were in the early church?
Quote to ponder: “Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” ~~William Sloane Coffin, pastor and theologian