“How to Understand–and Do–Christian Exhortations” (Romans 12:9-21)
Take a look again at the Epistle reading for today, as printed on your Scripture insert. It’s Romans 12:9-21, and it starts out as follows: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” What do you notice about all these verses? You’re right, it’s a series of commands, if you will, telling us what to do.
And the passage goes on from there with a whole bunch more of these instructions about how we are to live: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
And there’s even few more verses along those lines after that. So what do you make of this text? How do you understand it? What’s more, how do you do it–that is, how do you live out all these instructions for Christian living? Do we even try, or do we just throw up our hands and give up and hope that God will forgive us? Those are the questions we’re going to consider now, under the theme: “How to Understand–and Do–Christian Exhortations.”
“Exhortations”: That’s a term that is often used for verses like we find in our text today. “Exhortations,” or “admonitions,” or, as I put it, “instructions for Christian living.” The Bible is full of such passages. Jesus talks like this to his disciples. Paul addresses these kinds of exhortations to the congregations he writes to.
But someone will say: “Exhortations and admonitions and instructions, oh my! You know, a passage like this really makes me a little uncomfortable as a Lutheran. I mean, isn’t this–shudder!–Law? I mean, look, here is a passage telling me what to do–what I ought to do, what I should do. And I know enough to know that that is not Gospel. Those verses are not telling me what God has done for me to forgive me of my sins. So, since it’s not Gospel, therefore I really don’t have to take it that seriously. Look, I know I’m a sinner. I know I don’t do all these things as I should, and so the Law condemns me. But Jesus is my Savior, and God forgives me, so I can forget all this exhortation stuff and just get my forgiveness and go home. Right?”
Wrong! That would be a gross oversimplification of this text. It would get it wrong and miss the point. But there are some–even some Lutherans–who kind of think that way. They hear a passage like this, and they regard it almost as some sort of trap or some kind of trick. “Well, yeah, I know it says that, but I know we’re all just poor miserable sinners, and this is a Law text, so we can’t do it, and Paul here just wants us to realize that, so we’ll fall back on the Gospel. So kindly disregard the specifics of these exhortations, since we can’t really do them.”
But that is not the way this passage and others like it are to be taken. No, Paul really means what he says here. He really expects Christians to be able to live this way–loving one another with brotherly affection, living in harmony with one another, and so on. This is not some trick or trap.
So how is it that we can understand this text in this way? Well, this is why, in reading the Epistle lesson for today, I started out by reading last week’s Epistle. That was Romans 12:1-8, the verses right before and leading into our text for today. The beginning of Romans 12 puts the rest of Romans 12 in context. It provides the basis for how St. Paul can address us Christians with a series of exhortations.
Notice how St. Paul starts the chapter: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, 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, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God.” And Paul has been laying out those mercies of God throughout the letter to the Romans. The instructions that follow do not come in a vacuum. No, they come after, and flow out of, all the magnificent mercies of God given to us in Christ. For God put forward his Son Jesus Christ as the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice, for our sins. By his blood, shed for us on the cross, we are justified, pronounced righteous before God, and this through faith, apart from works of the law. God has joined us to Jesus in our baptism, in which we were buried and raised with Christ, raised to newness of life. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, by whom we know who God is and we know who we are as his own dear children. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Yes, these are the mercies of God, the manifold mercies of God, which are the basis for the instructions that follow and the very wellspring by which we can do them.
You see, you are not just a poor miserable sinner. You are not just the old Adam, the natural-born sinner. Yes, you do have that old sinful nature, and it will always be a struggle for you to fight against it, but that is not all of who you are. No, in Christ, as a baptized Christian, you have a new nature also, the new man, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. You are able to love, because you know and have received love, God’s love. You have the Holy Spirit, who will lead you and guide you in the Christian life and who will produce in you the fruits of faith.
And this is how St. Paul can get away with giving us this long set of instructions, these exhortations. He knows that this stuff will resonate with us according to our new nature. The new man delights to do God’s will, delights to walk within the good path God has laid out for us in his law. And Paul knows we need to hear this stuff as we struggle against our old sinful, selfish nature. We will need to rely on God’s mercy and grace and help to be able to live this way. And when we mess up and fall short, as we surely will, yes, then we can run and take refuge in the forgiveness Christ has won for us. But let us not ignore or dismiss away these exhortations for how we are to live together as Christians.
That’s what this passage in Romans 12 is about: how we are to live together as Christians, as church. The church is God’s family, God’s household, the body of Christ, and we are all members of it. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian. No, God has formed us as his family, to live together and to love one another and to serve one another in love.
We have been committed to one another. God has brought us together as his people, for a purpose. Do you know your brothers and sisters here in Christ? Do you know their names? Do you know their joys? Do you know their needs? We don’t come here to sit in little isolation booths for an hour and eight minutes a week and then go home. We are family seven days a week, 365 days a year.
And, oh, how I have seen you folks being and doing just that! There are many expressions of love and support going on among us Monday through Saturday. It’s beautiful to see! The mercies of God have moved you into action. You’re praying for one another. You’re showing love to one another in practical ways. Looking in on ones who are sick. Calling on those who have been missing. Caring for those who are hurting. You’re helping out with the many needs of this congregation. The financial needs, with your offerings. Jobs around church that need to be done. Acts of service. Volunteering, and asking how you can help. The list goes on and on. May this God-given spirit of care continue and increase among us!
So this week, take these verses to heart and put them into action. Love one another with a genuine, brotherly affection. Are there brothers and sisters in our congregation whose needs you can serve? What will being patient in tribulation mean for you this week? Can you rejoice in the hope you have in Christ, even in the midst of tribulation? How to be constant in prayer this week? Start by praying that God will help you to pray more regularly. Who among us is rejoicing? Rejoice with them. Who among us is weeping? Weep with them. Live in harmony with one another. This is how we live as church, as family. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Love as you have been loved. By God. In Christ. In the power of the Spirit.
So coming back to our original question: How are we to understand–and how are we to do–these Christian exhortations? Answer: By the mercies of God. The mercies of God will move you into action.