Ever have that conversation with yourself—that conversation where you say: “My life is out of control. I had such big dreams when I was younger. And what have I really done? I’ve got to do something with myself. I’ve got to get it together. I’m going to take up the guitar again, start reading actual books, eating healthy meals, going to the gym, putting the seat down. And I’m going to be more attentive to the people in my life, start staying in better contact with my friends, standing up for myself, acting more compassionately, steering clear of Janice in H.R. I’m going to do it this time, too. Hundred percent.”
Self-improvement is a multi-billion dollar industry. Basically, its message is: You’re a pretty good sort of person, all you need is to get a few things under control. If you could just be a bit better than than you are, then you’d have the life you deserve.
Popular Christianity has often bought into this line of thinking, selling Jesus as the answer to every question: weight loss, credit card debt, gossipy neighbors, poor self-image, arthritis, or finding a parking space at the mall on Black Friday. Jesus-as-the-ancient-near-Eastern-Oprah. Jesus gives me the strength and the strategy to improve myself, make me a better person.
If it’s true, then people often come to church with the expectation that what they’ll hear will be readily applicable to their personal situations. Some people search for a word from the Lord that will help them to be just a bit better than they are, and if they don’t hear some sort of scheme for addressing their personal predicaments, they wonder why the preacher isn’t more relevant.
So self-helpers are initially enthused when they start reading today’s passage from the book of Romans. Paul’s version self-help medicine. Technically, our passage is paraenetic literature, which is a fancy name for scripture that deals with ethics, how we behave and interact with one another.
Upon reading this passage, many people start mentally ticking off a list. They read that we’re supposed to “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” All right, I can do that.
“Love one another with mutual affection.” Piece of cake. Keep going.
“Outdo one another in showing honor.” That may take some work, but if that’s what I’ve got to do.
“Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” Ok, but let’s not go overboard on the zeal. I prefer a more subdued zeal.
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” That may be a stretch, but I’m up to it.
Preach Paul; tell me what I’ve got to do to be a better person. I’m with you. I’m committed.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Wait, what?
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” How am I supposed to do that?
“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” What is that supposed to mean? In a world like this? That’s just gonna make me a doormat, not a better person.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” Oh, well that’s easy for Paul to say, he’s not even alive anymore.
“If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty give them something to drink.” Yeah, well, that’s just nonsense. I hate to be the one to break it to you, you being an apostle and all, but what you just said is impossible. As the chorus says after the murder of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’s Oresteian Trilogy, “‘Word for word, curse for curse be born now,’ Justice thunders, hungry for retribution, ‘stroke for bloody stroke be paid.’”
Now that we understand. Word for word, curse for curse, stroke for bloody stroke. A little eye for an eye. But this “Beloved, never avenge yourselves. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty give them something to drink.” What is that?
And there’s the rub, isn’t it? Paul starts out all right, but then he launches into stuff that is, essentially, humanly impossible. You won’t find Paul’s advice in any self-respecting self-help book, any seminar on self-actualization.
Why is that?
Because Paul’s not interested in making people into better individuals. Paul’s not seeking to bolster anyone’s self-image.
No, what Paul is about, what worship is about every Sunday morning is about making us into a community of people committed to living like Jesus. And living like Jesus isn’t me, just as I am, with a little bit more niceness. Living like Jesus isn’t a matter of fine-tuning my otherwise pleasant demeanor. Living like Jesus isn’t a strategy; it’s a complete reorientation to reality in the world God desires to create—a world where dreamers don’t have to fear that they’ll wake up to find that the people in the only home they’ve ever known don’t want them anymore, a world where trans people aren’t singled out for ridicule and persecution by their own government, a world where women are masters of their own bodies—not subject to the capricious edicts of males.
Paul isn’t asking us in Romans to be better than we are, but to be completely different than we are.
What popular Christianity wants to say is that Paul is providing us with a list of behaviors that if we work at hard enough, we can master. Anyone can do this if she tries hard enough. And what a better world it would be, too.
But when you think about it, this isn’t a list of responses for the general population to improve their interpersonal skills. Actually, this list of behaviors is quite unnatural, so unnatural, in fact, that it takes someone larger than us to pull it off. When Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Rome it wasn’t a virtue to be lowly. Pagans didn’t think it a moral asset to feed your hungry enemies or give drink to those who persecute you. Being lowly, blessing those who persecute you, and living peaceably are only understood in light of a Messiah who was all these things and more.
What Paul is asking of us is so unnatural it takes the way Jesus lived and died to even make it make sense.
So, do you see what happens? Suddenly it’s not me who is the focus of this passage, me trying to become a better person so I can check off various items on an “Extra Good People List”—“Yes, I’m feeding my enemies. Yep, I’m associating with the lowly . . .” But now that we realize that it takes Jesus standing up to a world turned in on itself to demonstrate the possibility of returning good for evil, the focus of the passage becomes God—the one who is able to transform our lives from a harried quest for self-improvement into a living sacrifice.
It’s so easy to think that Paul provides an opportunity for juicing up our character a little. But this passage makes no sense as a self-improvement strategy. It goes against everything our culture teaches about looking out for ourselves.
We can’t understand this text apart from the first two verses of the chapter—remember, from last week? “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, 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 renewing of your minds, so that you may demonstrate what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It seems so obvious to want to transform ourselves into representatives of God’s new world; we can’t. But, by the mercies of God, God can transform us, God can change the world through us. If we are, in fact, living sacrifices, we may demonstrate what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect
People Magazine recounts a story about a night in 1979, when 16 year-old Brooks Douglass breathed in a welcome aroma from the kitchen of his family’s modest home in rural Okarche, Oklahoma. His mother, Marilyn, was cooking his favorite meal. His sister, Leslie—who, though only 12, was the reigning Miss Teen Oklahoma—was setting the dining room table, while in a bedroom their father, Richard, pastor of the 3,000-member Putnam Baptist Church, studied his scriptures.
They heard dogs barking. Outside, Leslie found an unkempt stranger who claimed to be looking for a neighbor the family had never heard of. When the man asked to use the phone, Brooks invited him in. With that simple act of hospitality, Brooks Douglass unwittingly set in motion a series of events that would shape the course of his whole life.
You see, moments after the stranger, Glen Ake, entered the Douglass home, a second man, Steven Hatch, burst through the door wielding a double-barreled shotgun. The horrors that followed are too hoorible to recount. The two intruders departed with 43 dollars and the thought that they had left all four family members dead. But, in fact, Brooks and his sister lived to tell their story.
Five weeks later, Ake and Hatch were captured at a ranch in Colorado, and, in separate trials, they were sentenced to death. But, in fact, their business with the shattered family had only begun. For the next sixteen years, their lives and the lives of the two Douglass children would be inextricably tangled, not only by the memory of the carnage of that October evening, but by a torturous odyssey of trials and hearings that finally reached a conclusion of sorts a some years back at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
You see, over the years and through the struggles to deal with the memory of what had happened, Brooks Douglass, becoming completely frustrated with the judicial system, enrolled in law school at Oklahoma City University. Two years later he won a four year term in the state Senate. Shortly thereafter, on a tour of the state penitentiary, Douglass came face to face with one of the men who had changed the course of his life. Though Hatch was secluded on death row, Ake was in the general population. “I became fearful that I might walk around the corner and bump into him,” Douglass recalled. Finally, he spied his parents’ killer in a prison yard. Though, apprehensive, he asked the warden if he could speak to him.
The two men, separated by glass, met in a visiting room, talking over telephones. “I could hear his voice, and I choked up,” said Douglass. “He scooted up close to the glass [and said], ‘I’m so sorry for what I did to your family. I wanted you to know that. I’m in the wrong, and you’re in the right, and I want you to put it behind you.’ I told him for the last 16 years ‘I’ve wanted nothing more than to see you dead.’ Later on I asked him, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘I’ve asked myself that a thousand times. It was senseless.’”
As the two men talked, Douglass said, “Ake started crying. He was cuffed, trying to hold the phone and to wipe tears. It was really strange that part of me felt this closeness to him. This strange event that happened 16 years earlier had created this weird bond.” Finally, “I looked at him and I just said, ‘I forgive you.’ It was like poison draining out.”
And in an instant, the world of two men was completely transformed.
That’s that thing: God wants to transform us, to change the world through us. And from what I’ve seen, the world can use all the help it can get right now.
God doesn’t need a better me, a souped-up version of the person I am. God needs us, a community of living sacrifice so that we may demonstrate what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect—and so that those who’ve so often found themselves as the objects of fear and hatred can know the transforming power of love and welcome.
It doesn’t take much. God can work miracles, you know—even with a corpse.