I am not sure how many of you know this, but our church has a stated motto, a theme. That motto is actually featured at the bottom of all of our stationary. This stated theme of our church is: “A Hunger for a Deeper Faith.”
I am going to take this stated theme at face value and believe that this statement really is our church’s galvanizing concern, our collective ambition, our uniting principle. We hunger for a deeper faith. And if it true that this is the common goal to which we aspire, we must ask, ‘How do we achieve this ambition? How do we attain our galvanizing principle?’ I want to suggest to you this morning that Romans 12, the entire chapter, serves as a blueprint for how individuals and a congregation satisfy their hunger for a deeper faith.
Paul begins with an opening salvo: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you 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 you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The key concept and theme in these opening words of advice from Paul is change. If we hunger for a deeper faith, if we hunger for spiritual growth, then we acknowledge that our current practice of faith is insufficient. We hunger to know and do more. Great, says Paul, if that is your ambition, then be willing to open yourself up to change. You need to experience metamorphosis. Yes, that scientific term you learned in middle school biology is precisely the word Paul uses. If you hunger for a deeper faith, then be willing to experience spiritual metamorphosis by the renewal of your mind. The truth is, change happens whether we want it to or not. Change is inevitable. If you paint a fence white, then never repaint it, it will not stay white, but will become dirty and dingy through the grit of the world . So, too, notes Paul, life changes us, whether we are active or passive. We are either going to be transformed by external pressures, or we are going to exert ourselves by opening ourselves up to the energy of God’s Spirit who can bring about metamorphosis within us. That is the only way we can satisfy our hunger for a deeper faith. The world can fashion us according to its inexorable pressure, or we can take the initiative to grow in faith by means of actively responding to God’s initiative toward us.
I think of Franz Kafka’s famous short story “Metamorphosis,” where the main character Gregor awakens from a night’s sleep to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. The truth is, Gregor has spent his whole life thinking narrow dreams, harboring narrow ambitions, really thinking from a bug’s perspective. Kafka’s point is, you become what you think. Throughout his life, Gregor has surrendered his human potential to instead embrace the limited potential of a bug. So, a bug he became. You are what you think! Paul agrees. So he says to the church at Rome, if you hunger for a deeper faith, let me give you an image around which you can orient your entire life: “I appeal to you to present your bodies to God as a living sacrifice.” We are what we think! If we aspire to be a living sacrifice, if we aspire to think like Christ, such an orienting thought will eventuate in the actions of Christ. Christianity is a faith of holy mimicry. Christianity is not at base a system of beliefs or the affirmation of a matrix of doctrines, but a consistent ambition of imitating the life and values of our Lord, to reflect upon the mind of Christ and put into practice the ethics of Christ. If we aspire to present our lives as a living sacrifice unto God, then our every action, our acts of stewardship, our every investment of talent, our every priority, will be centered around this profound orienting image. If we truly hunger for a deeper faith, then we should orient our being around the image of presenting ourselves as a living sacrifice unto God.
So, hungering for a deeper faith means being willing to open our soul to experience spiritual metamorphosis and orient our being about the idea of presenting ourselves to God as a living sacrifice. But this can only be accomplished, asserts Paul, by expanding our sense of self and expanding our sense of purpose. So Paul admonishes the Romans: “I bid everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought.” What seems initially to be a negative jab at our ego is actually a positive invitation to conceive of ourselves in relation to the larger body of Christ. Paul bids us to ponder a wondrous truth: “Individually we are members one of another.” Together we comprise the sundry elements of the body of Christ. We are not to think of ourselves solely in terms of our individual perspective, our ambition, our experience, but rather we are to think of ourselves as being interconnected with the lives, perspectives, and experiences of others. That is what it means to be truly human, truly a member of the body of Christ. A zoologist once noted that “One chimpanzee is not a chimpanzee.” Community is so vital to a chimp’s development that a solitary chimp can only become a chimpanzee in relation to other chimpanzees. A single chimpanzee only becomes a chimpanzee through fellowship with the collective community. Likewise, says Paul, we fully become a Christian only through engagement with one another. A Lone Ranger Christian cannot truly be a full Christian! You only become fully Christian when you live with an appreciation of your indebtedness to other believers, when you have expanded your mind to realize that your very personhood is defined in relationship to the personhood of other believers. Our talents, our understanding, our perspective is immeasurably enriched by realizing that we are a part of others, and others are a part of us. Collectively, we form the body of Christ. That is how we satisfy the hunger for a deeper faith.
Yet all of these aspirations to satisfy our hunger for a deeper faith are only effective when fueled by one form of energy – love. Agape love! So Paul challenges us: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” This agape love is measured not by what we can receive but by what we can give. Agape love is not the eros love of romance, or the philos love of friendship, but the self-giving love of the cross, the foundational energy of the Christian life. Genuine love never flags in zeal, is aglow with the Spirit. Genuine love rejoices in hope, is patient in tribulation and constant in prayer. Genuine agape love fuels everything we are and everything we aspire to be. It is the source of our joy, the strength of our hope, the sustenance of our constancy, and the energy of our prayer. For agape love is not one spoke among many Christian virtues, but the hub out of which all other virtues radiate. Agape love is the power that fuels our hunger for a deeper faith.
And this agape love, says Paul, must be genuine. This love cannot be superficial or shallow. Let love be genuine! Some might say that here Paul ceases preaching and goes to “meddling,” because he starts talking about how we should relate to those with whom we disagree. He starts talking about how we should relate to people whose perspective we do not understand, people we may even regard as our enemy, people we may even regard as outside of God’s grace. So Paul commands us, “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 conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
In essence, says Paul, the community of believers, the very family of Christ, does not exist to promote any individual’s particular perspective or sponsor any individual’s particular agenda. Rather, we are to take into account the perspectives, the hopes, the aspirations, the experiences of the entire family of faith. That is hard to do, Paul admits, but such is the role of genuine agape love. For when we are truly fueled by agape love, then we can wrap our mind around the perspectives even of those whom we don’t understand or appreciate. Only when this happens can truly their laughter become our laughter, and their tears become our tears, even when we cannot exactly understand the nature of another’s heartache. Let love be genuine, so that we can make every effort to understand and embrace even those we regard as our enemies! And this is hard to do!
One of the greatest tragedies in history likely occurred because enemies didn’t make the effort to understand each other. In 1945, as World War II was winding down, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman declared that Japan must surrender unconditionally. Ironically, the Japanese cabinet favored surrender, but felt it needed time to win over a few more key leaders in order to garner popular support. So the Japanese cabinet issued a statement saying that they were giving the offer “mokasatsu.” “Mokasatsu” can mean either to consider something or it can mean to ignore it. The Japanese cabinet was trying to say, “We are considering your proposal, but it was translated as “we are ignoring your proposal.” That misunderstanding prompted Truman to unleash nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, because enemies didn’t make the effort to understand each other.
Paul recognizes that any community of faith will struggle with disagreements and conflicts. But he is sure that such crises can be resolved if we follow this formula: “Repay no one evil for evil; but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. . . . Never avenge yourselves . . . if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”
At first glance Paul’s advice seems more spiteful than spiritual. He seems to say that we should do good to our enemies so that God will punish them more. But that is not what he is saying. Paul recognizes that when we find ourselves opposed, our defensive instincts are engaged. We want to reciprocate in like manner. But he counsels us not to act on our defensive instincts. Rather, when someone does evil toward us, repay that evil with good. Extend grace to such people. Why? Because, says Paul, when you don’t respond to rejection and repulsion with commensurate rejection and repulsion, but instead author a gesture of goodness and affirmation, then you create the possibility of remorse and reconciliation. That’s what Paul means by ”heaping coals upon their heads.” He refers to a unique Middle Eastern custom where someone who felt truly ashamed for an action would approach the person whom they had wronged by carrying a pan of hot coals on their head. The hot coals were an admission of repentance, a statement of contrition, a plea for peace. In other words, when you return good for evil, you create the possibility of understanding and rapprochement.
Finally, says Paul, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. If you are truly open to spiritual metamorphosis, if you can truly orient your being around the central image of being a living sacrifice, if you can expand your self-image in terms of interconnectedness to others, if you can be fueled by the energy provided by agape love, if you can extend grace and mercy even toward those whose perspective you do not share, then you can truly satisfy your hunger for a deeper faith. Because for Christians, evil has no true ontology. Evil’s reality is derivative of good, the perversion of good, the distortion of good, the absence of good. We can live assured that ultimately God will overcome all evil. Whereas the world sees power as the ability to coerce, manipulate, control, dominate, and oppress, Christians see their power, fueled by agape love, as the ability to transform the world. Yet, sometimes we despair over whether we can truly transform our world. But I want to leave you with an image. Years ago, I read an article about Ricky Jay, the greatest card trick artist in history, who was entertaining a private party when a jaded partygoer said, “Why don’t you do something really extraordinary?” Giving the guy a drop-dead look, Ricky Jay said, ”Think of a card, any card.” The man replied, “The three of hearts.” Picking up a full deck of cards, Ricky Jay suddenly threw the entire deck across the room (and he could throw a card at 70 mph). “Go get your card,” said Ricky Jay. “Where?” “Check the empty wine bottle.” Sure enough, curled up inside the neck of an empty wine bottle was the three of hearts. How did he do it? I have no idea! But as the greatest card trick artist in the world, Ricky Jay could conceive of this trick and thus he accomplished it. If we can conceive transforming the world, then we can achieve it – we are what we think! – and in so doing we can satisfy our hunger for a deeper faith.