READINGS/ Proverbs 4:1-27; Romans 12:1-21
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
As I was thinking about the reading from Proverbs this week, particularly its emphasis on following the way of wisdom, and then, Paul’s letter to the Romans, urging the believers in Rome to follow wise ways of living out their faith, some wise words of Albert Einstein came to mind.
‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’
And the second:
‘Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not so sure about the universe.’
Stupidity, or wisdom: which path should we take - how should we live?
It’s a good question.
Several weeks ago, we remembered the day of Pentecost:
the coming of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus to his friends, the disciples.
From hiding away through fear in a locked room,
suddenly, through the coming of the Spirit,
they are transformed –
set free in both their way of thinking and their way of being.
The Spirit unlocks the door of their minds
and, released, they then unlock the door of that upper room in Jerusalem
and move out into the city,
out into the world around them.
They are excited.
And, the crowd that gathers are wondering what’s going on –
so much so, that Peter has to reassure them that that the disciples are perfectly sane:
that they’re in full possession of their wits –
‘they’re not drunk’, says Peter, ‘it’s only 9 ‘o clock in the morning.’
Clearly he's not spent much time around some of the harbour areas I grew up in.
And then he explains what’s happening:
he tells them of Jesus, who he is;
his life, his death, his resurrection…
his promise that, in the sending of the Spirit, God would dwell in the hearts of all who believed.
It’s a story of doing things differently, seeing things differently,
of not conforming to the same old patterns,
but of being open to transformation.
On that day of Pentecost,
Peter, along with the other disciples, are living examples of this transformation:
Fear is gone.
Joy bubbles up.
There is hope.
There is new life,
and they just can’t help but tell this good news to anyone who happens to be nearby.
The Spirit transforms their understanding:
of the time they’ve spent with Jesus;
of the relationship between God and the people of God;
of God’s love and of who God loves;
of their love for God and love for their fellow human beings.
As the days, weeks, months, and years roll on, new communities of faith spring up:
The church – the community of faith –
the community of believers
who have sensed something of God’s transformation in action,
has been growing rapidly.
And, inevitably, there are teething problems, and questions –
questions in general, but also, questions related to more localized, specific contexts.
Is this simply a Jewish sect,
or, is this a faith movement that has its roots within Judaism, but which is open to non-Jews?
Do the Gentile converts need to be circumcised?
What about the old purity laws - should they just be dumped?
What about food: are prawns still off the menu, or does anything now go?
And, for that matter:
should you eat food that’s been offered to idols?
Who should share in the Lord’s Supper – and how should it be conducted?
Then there’s the thorny matter of varieties of gifts, and a diversity of people…
are some believers better than others?
Are some believers more like 2nd class citizens in the heavenly kingdom?
Or, are all equal under God and, equally beloved?
The early church is growing and spreading and trying to work out
the wisest course of action when it comes to loving God,
loving one another,
and, just following Jesus’ teachings.
And here we have this text from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Demonstrating the spread of the faith, Paul is probably writing this letter
during his time in Corinth with the believers there.
The letter will, in time, be sent on to those believers living in Rome:
the heart, the capital of the Empire.
Paul is hoping, at some point, to visit there.
And, just to give a sense of timing,
the letter is probably written somewhere between the years 51 to possibly 58 –
roughly 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Christian faith is beginning to bed in at Rome,
as it seems that from fairly early on, after that day of Pentecost,
followers of Jesus are reported to be in Rome.
And, who are they, these followers?
Well, a mix of Jewish and Gentile converts, and it’s not been all plain sailing:
there are some issues.
The Gentile converts are claiming equal privileges with the Jewish converts,
while the Jewish converts are outright refusing
to make any allowances unless the Gentile believers are circumcised.
Each group comes with a sense of entitlement, a sense of privilege:
for the Jews – we were here first, so get in line you lot;
for the Gentiles – you lot are yesterday’s news, you’re not the chosen ones any more, we are.
With that cheerful wee mix of attitudes,
you’re looking at some seriously divisive and unhealthy behavior that has the potential
to cause the community of faith to shrivel up and die…
It’s why Paul steps in, and feels the need to say:
‘do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…’
‘live in harmony…’
‘live at peace…’
basically, echoing the way of wisdom described by the writer in Proverbs.
He reminds them of their diversity:
sure, they’re Jews and Gentiles –
sure, they come from diverse backgrounds and traditions,
but, he also reminds them that they are now all God’s people,
called to present themselves as living sacrifices;
called to worship together as a community.
And there’s more:
thinking again of the diversity by reflecting on the variety of gifts within that community
he points out that it’s not a competition about who has what gift;
each gift forms a part of the whole –
should be used as part of offering up themselves as living sacrifices as it’s for the whole community:
each one is a part of, not apart from, the rest…
Or, to borrow a line from the theme tune of the Lego Movie:
‘Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team,’
And Paul is saying to these Christians in Rome, that they are indeed a team:
they are part of the body of Christ –
those who no longer need to conform to the old ways of living,
but who are, rather, transformed –
with their minds renewed, able to test God’s will –
to find God’s way for living wisely and well.
Paul goes on to provide examples of what the transformed life looks like –
of what the community of faith that chooses to walk in God’s way,
the way of wisdom, would be like.
And, this holds just as much for the community of faith now, as it did for the Roman Christians.
Individually and corporately,
it’s a community of people that take a real look at self –
and, who, in good, honest reflection,
decide that wisdom’s way is not the way of conceit, but humility.
It's about being authentic.
It’s one that recognizes the unique gift or gifts we have,
and doesn’t get caught up wishing they could be just like someone else:
each person, each gift, is needed.
It’s one that not only recognizes the gift or gifts we have,
but also dares to use what’s been given in service to God and the community.
'Don’t hide your gifts away, use them,' says Paul.
It’s about sincerity, love, not doing what is harmful – but doing good;
it’s about honouring – respecting – one another;
being joyful, patient, faithful, prayerful, generous, and hospitable.
But, what of those people you don’t like,
those who you think of as enemies,
those who think of you as an enemy – what to do?
Well, says Paul, it’s not about spending your life bent on seeking revenge –
leave God to be judge, and get on with living.
Following the path of vengeance leads to the drying up of the soul and death:
it’s all-consuming, and everything good in life becomes as dust.
What’s the different way of dealing with this?
The transformational way?
The way of actually breaking the cycle of needless tit for tat act?
Pray a blessing on your enemy,
feed them if they’re hungry,
provide drink if they’re thirsty –
basically, show kindness –
and, perhaps, by doing so,
by working as someone transformed,
it may move that person into a different way of seeing and doing –
it just may transform them.
Paul says ‘don’t be overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good.’
Another take on that is from Martin Luther King:
‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’
Stupidity, or wisdom: which path should we take?
How should we live?
The writer of Proverbs urges the reader to mediate on wisdom’s ways –
not to make foolish choices, but to seek out that which is good,
which is life-giving and life-affirming,
which blesses both individual and community.
Paul, follows this theme:
through the Spirit be transformed –
and, let that transformation be a blessing,
flowing out to your brothers and sisters in the body of Christ…
flowing even to those who wear the label
‘enemy’ or, who label you as an enemy.
Do this, in view of God’s mercy.
Like those disciples in the upper room…
let go of fear;
let joy bubble up;
be filled with hope;
embrace new life in the Spirit…
and share God’s good news of transformation
to anyone and everyone who happens to be nearby,
for in so doing,
we transform ourselves,
and bring in the kingdom of heaven. .
And let’s ask for God’s help to do this…
We thank you, God, for the call of Christ to follow him.
We thank you for those moments of profound joy and faith
when we have experienced the certainty of your presence and we have grown in belief.
We ask for your help when faith does not come so easily:
when the clamour of life drowns out any chance of hearing your still small voice;
when we are overwhelmed by our own or other people's problems and cannot feel your touch;
when the ways of the world and the stories of inhumanity and injustice
told by the media mean it is easier to see darkness than light.
O God, you do not call perfect people to follow you.
You have called us,
and on our journey of discipleship we sometimes stumble
and sometimes leap forward in faith.
In the difficult times, sustain us with the knowledge of your love,
and when we feel close to you, help us to strive for a depth and breadth of faith
that will withstand the challenges of life.
We have heard Christ's call to follow.
Bless us in our journeying, now and always. Amen.