Living in Community
Living in community is hard. Challenges come to every kind of community - families, congregations, denominations, corporations, colleges, and universities. People have different roles, formally, in each of them - you’re the sister and you’re the brother, you’re the vice president and you’re the computer support; you’re the congregant and you’re the choir director; you’re a cook in the dining hall and you’re a professor. These are informal roles we play as well - you’re the complainer and you’re the jester; you’re the peacemaker and you’re the ideas person; you’re the doer and you’re the “glue” person in the group. In communities of every kind, questions continually arise about what is fair, who decides, and which member or constituent group’s satisfaction should take precedence. At a university, for instance, there are staff, students, faculty, parents, alumni, and area residents. Whose interests ought to trump the others? Who is most important , when all is said and done?
The first generation of Christians in the city of Rome were living with just these questions, these challenges. The Apostle Paul sends them a letter with his advice. He tells them not to think in terms of hierarchy but of unity . He tells them that every one of them has been endowed by God with wonderful gifts to give to the community, and that every gift is of absolutely equal value. They must live in a whole new way, and they can do it because the resurrection of Christ from the dead made them new people. They are not the same people they were before they accepted Christ as their Lord. Then they were slaves to sin, they were the chattel property of sin; possessed by sin, they were under the total command of sin, with no real autonomy of their own. The resurrection of Christ did not eliminate the fact that we continue to commit sins, but it eliminated the consequences of those sins - something Bill Coffin loved to point out - which was death - death in the spirit while we live, death in the body when we die - for the promise of ultimate resurrection is ours as well. We used to belong to sin. Now we belong to the body of Christ. Paul tells the believers in Rome and Princeton not to conform to the world - the world is still enslaved to sin, as we used to be. Rather we must be the new people we are ; we must be transformed and renewed in mind - in the way we think. One biblical scholar interprets the second verse of our passage as, “Do not let yourselves be shaped by what everyone else does, but rather let yourselves be transformed by a whole new way of thinking, so you can discern what conforms to God’s will, namely what is good and pleasing and perfect.” [Achtemeier, p. 195]. Paul knows it can be hard to live by grace and not by sin - he was working on it every day himself. We all are. I wake up every morning the same old Alison as I was before I grew into a mature faith, a self-owned faith in Christ. And yet, I’m not the same person at all. I yearn with all my being to live as a member of the body of Christ, but sometimes I catch myself thinking with a mind more enslaved to sin than freed by grace. I catch myself thinking in hierarchies of people, rather than in the radical equality of human value. I’ve said that living in community is hard. So is living a transformed life, one not conformed to the very demanding world around us.
And so we are to think of our communities, Paul says, not in terms of hierarchy but of unity. Unity does not mean uniformity. The diversity of the gifts we’ve been given by God is necessary - we need people with the whole range of talents and skills if we’re going to function together at all. Yet the umbrella over all our diversities is unity and equality. When Paul teaches on the unity and interdependence of the body of Christ, he loves to use the analogy of the human body. It, too, is a unified whole, and each of its parts is absolutely equal to the others, relying on each part for basic functioning. He presents as ludicrous the idea that any part of a single organism could be any better than any other because they really are the same living thing. My brain isn’t more important than my hand - they may have different functions but they have the same DNA. It would be like me saying “I’m better than me! I mean – you! I mean – us!! … Forget it.” Paul tells the Romans, “Individually, we are members of one another.” We have, as a community, the same molecular structure. How can we start talking about who’s better than another?
I’m really taken by the brief list of gifts that Paul gives us. There are several that can be understood professionally, like teaching and ministry. Others are character attributes, the kind that truly keep communities going. Some of us are givers, and we are responsible for the generosity in our common life. Paul might mean financial donations but I bet he has much more in mind. The “generosity” that he lists as the fruit - the result - of this talent can take so many forms. We can be generous with our time, generous with our possessions, generous with our knowledge, generous with our affection. Paul also names compassion as a gift that God gives to some in our communities, the fruit of which is cheerfulness. We need the cheerful people among us! We need those people for whom glasses are half full, not half empty, who notice the silver linings in every cloud, whose observations during times of trouble keep our eyes on the prize, on the goodness that is our inheritance at the end of our trials. We need the people whose good attitude can turn our day around or make a contentious community discussion a lot friendlier. Paul encourages me to consider other gifts that communities really need - the sense of humor, the eye for detail, the can-do spirit, the readiness to perform unglamorous labor, the clear writer, the problem-solver, the good-with-kids, the devotee of fairness, the head-for-numbers: all gifts of God, all necessary, all of equal value, all blessings in our midst.
Paul has yet more wonderful advice for those of us who are trying to live faithfully in community as well as in the moment-to-moment questions of an individual life of faith. He tells us to use our bodies well, making our every physical action a reflection of our devotion to God. We may read this and think—“Well, I don’t abuse my body with harmful actions or chemicals, I am not physically violent and I would never sell my body to anyone.” Thank God no! But Paul wants us to think about how even our smallest movements and choices and thoughts might become a love-offering to God - a sacrifice. We are people not accustomed to physical sacrifice as in earlier times - we don’t slit the throats of birds and barnyard animals on stone slabs as signs of our devotion to the Almighty. But this is the idea behind Paul’s teaching - how do we make our every physical action a love-offering, a sacrifice, a sacrament , to God? How does our walking down Nassau Street become a love-offering, a testament to our faith in God? Perhaps it is the kindness in our eyes as we meet the eyes of passersby - a kindness borne of our belief that each human being on planet earth is an equally cherished Child of God? Embodying God’s grace to the best of our abilities in the grocery check-out line, the eating club party, the workplace on a dull Tuesday - these are what become the infinite, tiny sacrifices of the moments of our days to the God who is Love, the Messiah who loved us unto death. One of my favorite hymns we will sing at the conclusion of this sermon, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Father. Its final verse proclaims, “All our meals and all our living make as sacraments of you, that by caring, helping, giving, we may be disciples true.” Yes - it is in our most mundane moments every day that we make of our lives a sacrifice to God. It’s the small gestures of caring and helping and giving and not the great moments of exhortation or self-denial or heroism that we truly and continually make of our humble lives total sacraments in the love of God. As Christians, we must stand up bravely to tyrants, etc., but in the 99.999% of our time that does not require bravery, we inhabit God’s love on the grocery or cafeteria line, with the person at the next desk, with the cousin with whom we feel we have nothing in common, and with the friend who’s driving us nuts. In this way, every little action in our lives becomes truly an act of worship - the whole of our lives becomes a loving response to the God who is love. Wow!
I want to live this way, but I’ll definitely need help. I’m going to need to pray. And I’m going to need to lean on those around me. That’s where each other really does come in - we need to stop looking around at each other with an eye to creating a hierarchy of who is most important. We’re all important, and we’re all critically necessary to one another if we each are to make the whole of our lives into a response of adoration and gratitude to God. What a boring distraction are our issues of self-importance! Paul provides his fine advice on how to deal with this, but his underlying message is, in his characteristically mildly testy way: how irrelevant is your self-preoccupation; why don’t you get over it right now, and pay respectful attention to those around you.
Let me close with some brief thoughts about what Paul’s advice means in the context of those communities that we each are part of that are not trying to be the Body of Christ. For me, that means, first and foremost, this university, appropriately today a secular institution. For those of us who study, work, and teach here is a message not to feel pressure to do and think as others do. For the students among us, especially the new freshmen, you do not need to conform to what those around you call fun or interesting or popular. You can decide for yourself how to live in embodied response to God’s love for you, and many here will gladly journey with you in that. There’s a message here, too, for all of us in various workplaces and extended families. We must conform only so much to the world, then we must temper it with the values of our faith, testifying by inhabited grace to the grace that we know does suffuse the universe. In this way we permit Christ to transform our minds and our very lives, to liberate them from sin, and to lead us into graceful freedom. If it feels like tight-rope walking without a net, remember that you are actually walking the ropes of the web of God’s all-encompassing love.
Romans, Paul Achtemeier, Interpretation Series, WJKP.
“Romans 12:1-8,” August 21, 2011, workingpreacher.org, Mary Hinkle Shore