Romans 12           The Twelfth Sunday After Trinity                 30 August 2020

Bill commented last week that there had been some discussion on the length of sermons. Ten minutes said someone. Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones was a Welsh Evangelical Minister who ministered at the Westminster Chapel in London from 1939-1968. He was one of the great preachers of yesteryear, and very occasionally I would go with a friend to hear him. He was brilliant and however long his sermons he held your attention. He once famously preached for 45 minutes on a semi-colon. I think 45 minutes was about the average length of his sermons.  He preached a series of 366 sermons on the Epistle to the Romans, which have been published and runs to 14 volumes. Interestingly as I heard about this discussion on the length of sermons, there was a little bit in the Times Newspaper about the Duke of Edinburgh’s religion. I quote “While he and the Queen are devoted Sunday morning churchgoers, they dislike long-winded sermons. Prince Philip explains why concisely: ‘The soul cannot absorb what the posterior cannot tolerate’.”

Of course there is more to a sermon than its length, eg its content, does it teach the truths of the Christian Gospel, and can it be heard, for a start. A couple at my last parish were in charge of the bookstall at the Keswick Convention. One Christmas they gave me as a present, a book called ‘Fresh Air in the Pulpit’. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Perhaps the author took the title from an old minister he had heard saying ‘the offertory will now be taken. This week it will devoted entirely to the extermination of dry rot in the pulpit.’  But I was amused to read the author quote the occasion when he had preached his heart out, only to be told by a member of the congregation at the end of the Service ‘I thought I understood that passage – until you clarified it.’

I was pondering this while I was thinking about Romans Chapter 12, on which Martyn Lloyd Jones must have preached about 25 of his 45 minute sermons, getting on for 20 hours. I just want to give an overview of the whole chapter. As they say, ‘I hope you are sitting comfortably’.

The first verse of Chapter 12 begins with Paul saying ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters by the mercies of God…’. “Therefore” is a very important word in this passage of Romans.  For this is the point where Paul moves from the theological arguments which have occupied the first 11 chapters of Romans to the practical outworking of that theology which occupies the rest of his letter, but emphasising that the two are connected.  The word ‘therefore’ emphasises the unity of doctrine and life. ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters by the mercies of God…’.  Paul has spent 11 chapters in this letter explaining and unfolding the mercies of God.  After all that is what the gospel is.  The gospel is God’s mercy to us, undeserving sinners that we are, in sending Jesus to die for us, in sending his life giving Spirit to indwell us, in making us his children.  We don’t deserve any of that, it is solely through the mercy of God.  Our salvation depends not on what we want or what we do, but on God’s mercy and our faith in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

So Paul appeals to the Romans, and to you and me today, not to conform ourselves to the world’s standards, but let God transform us to follow his standards. (12:2) ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is acceptable, good and perfect.’

I’m sure I have told you before of the problem set in a training exam for police recruits which read as follows “You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting.  The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocers shop.  A pedestrian is seriously injured, but during the confusion a woman’s handbag is snatched. A crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.  State in order of priority, your course of action.”  One recruit replied: “Take off uniform and mingle with crowd”.   But Paul is saying don’t take off your Christian uniform and mingle with the crowd; don’t neglect your Christian mind, don’t conform to the standards of the world, but be transformed  by the renewal of your mind. Or as JB Phillips puts it “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within.

In this Chapter 12 Paul considers some of the issues arising from our consecration to God. In v 3-8 he refers to us, you and me, to our Humility.  He says in v3 ‘Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think’, and he goes on to illustrate this in relation to the gifts which God gives us, and the analogy of different parts of the body having different functions, but each part of the body belonging to the whole. I am not going to comment on this section now, other than to note that some of these gifts are quite ordinary, but so important – gifts of serving, encouraging, sharing or helping others, etc.  But the body analogy, of how the different members of the body are all important and are all related to the whole body, and the body only works properly when each part is working properly; and this analogy with the Christian church, emphasises to my mind three words, three thoughts, Unity, Diversity and Harmony.

As I was preparing this (short) sermon, I was thinking of our future as a church as Lucy prepares to come to us. We don’t know what the future holds, but it seems to me that these three themes of unity, diversity and harmony are good themes to hold on to at this time.  And it leads to the second section in this chapter, v 9-16 which concerns our relationship to one another. Paul says in v9‘Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good’. From the thought of humility, the thought of love naturally follows because humility will express itself in love for those around us.

In the first part of his letter, Paul’s references have been to the love of God poured into our hearts 5:5 “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us”; and the love of God as seen in the cross (5:8) “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”; and the love of God shown by him not allowing anything to separate us from him 8:35-39 “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble, or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword……there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

But now Paul turns to our love for others, as being what our Christian discipleship is all about.  First in v 9-16, love in the Christian community, and second, v17-21 love for our enemies.  But let us concentrate on love in the Christian community, the church of God – the Christian idea of love for our brothers and sisters in Christ – philia.  This is of course carrying out our Lord’s New Commandment “love one another as I have loved you” John 13:34-35

And Paul gives some of the features of love.

V9 Let love be genuine – no hypocrisy, no playacting,

V10 Love one another with mutual affection.  In the Christian family we are to love one another

V10 Outdo one another in showing honour.  This surely is the humility of love.

V11 Do not lack in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Serve with a heart full of love and devotion.   

V12  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. The buoyancy in our love for the Lord is because of our Christian hope that Jesus is coming again in glory.

V13 Contribute to the needs of the Saints, extend hospitality to strangers. Our love will be generous to those who are in need.  We live in a different age to when this letter was written, but food banks are becoming increasingly necessary.

V14.  Bless those who persecute you.  That is the challenge of Christian love.

V15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Love identifies with the joys and pains of other people.

V16 Live in harmony with one another. Our love for one another will show itself in our unity

V16 Do not be haughty (proud), accept humble duties.  Think of the love of Jesus washing the disciples feet.

In conclusion, a few thoughts:

First, when you get home today, re-read this chapter.  It is breath taking.  Use it as a spiritual check up.  Measure yourself against these attributes of love.  You will probably realise that they are not possible to keep in your own strength, but only by God’s grace working within us as individuals and as a fellowship.  As we measure ourselves against them and realise our failings, let us thank God for his continuing mercy towards us.

Second, as we ponder our Christian love for other, let me suggest to you to that as Christians the more deeply we commit ourselves to each other, the greater the risk of us being hurt. There will be times when we will disappoint each other, we will fail each other, we will irritate each other.  But if in love and understanding we can accept the failings of others, forgive the wrong they do to us, so we shall be fulfilling the law of Christ, the law of love.  And it is if we can love within our fellowship in this way, then we will have more confidence in not being afraid of our vulnerability, of allowing others to know who we really are, because they will still love me.  As someone said “I am afraid to tell you who I am, because if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all I have.”  It is interesting how the masks we have to wear now make it much more difficult to recognise one another. But people have often worn imaginary masks which we put on to hide our real selves from each other.  We cannot be a community of love if we all put on these imaginary masks.

Third, Love means that we all from time to time have to sacrifice something of what we want in order to maintain the unity of the body. Paul said “Live in harmony with one another”.  This is what love is about.  This can be hard and painful, but as Christians we are committed to God, and also to each other.  Believing is important, but so is belonging.  One of the tasks of leadership within the church, especially youth leaders, is to help people, to help young people cope with what will always be an imperfect church.  Sometimes the vision is held before people of the glorious, perfect church.  True of the church in heaven but not of the church on earth.  The reality is that it is imperfect because it is made up of imperfect people.  But we must be committed to the church and to each other. Commitment begins at the point of disagreement, commitment to things I don’t like, to brothers and sisters I would not choose.  But this is what love is all about.  Disunity usually comes about because of a failure to love.

Fourth, think of the betrayal of Judas, think of how the disciples argued amongst themselves, of how they were ambitious and critical of each other.  Think of all the problems of the early church.  Midst all of this, never once did Jesus withdraw his love from either his disciples or those early Christians.  And neither does he withdraw his love from us.  He binds himself to us in his love and calls us to do the same for one another.

Jesus gave us an example to follow.  We need continually to thank God for his love and mercy towards us, and seek his grace so that we will indeed be a church, a fellowship of love.

Colin Wood