Deep down I think that all of us feel a need to belong. When we are at school and through adolescence we can experience incredible pressure from our peers – whether it is about the latest fashions, clothes, mobile phones, games and accessories, or makeup. In some respects that pressure continues into adulthood – have you heard that expression ‘keeping up with the Jones’?
Many years ago now, when I was planning on moving across the Pennines with work I went to check out some houses that were for sale in different areas around Warrington. One house was located on a leafy estate and as I pulled up outside, I noticed that almost every house on the estate looked practically the same and every house had a BMW in the drive. It was a little disconcerting; but what was most disconcerting was how at practically the same time several of the owners of these houses came out and started to wash their cars. It felt like we were in a clone village. It seemed a little like keeping up with the Jones’ taken to an extreme.
Another illustration would be to consider how we are defined by where we were born. Sometimes people might ask us where we come from. With years of being away, it has been fascinating for me to see how people responded when I said I was from Yorkshire. Even though the period of the War of the Roses dates back to the 15th century, for some people there is still an odd tension with those ‘from across the Pennines’ – and it wasn’t until I moved to the North West that I heard how some people consider Yorkshire folk to be tight. On the other hand, I would say that some of the most generous hearted, loving and giving people I have ever known are from Yorkshire.
Thinking about these illustrations, it seems to me that it all comes down to what defines and shapes us, and our identity, and what we feel a need to conform to. There are some things that we could well do without – such as living in a clone village, or the tremendous peer pressure we can all experience. We are not called to be like a chameleon which takes its colour from its surroundings. We can sometimes pay too great a price to ‘belong’. I think Paul speaks into this in our passage from Romans which sets out for us the basis for Christian living, the marks of a true Christian and what should be central in what defines us – LOVE.
Sometimes people pay such a price to belong, to conform, that they lose sight of their very identity and personhood, and they lose sight of God. No wonder Paul urges us, because of God’s mercy, to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. And in that there is a double bonus. God delights in us making that sacrifice AND in being all that we are created to be, and we realise our true worth – which is not defined by this world in which we live in. Instead it is defined by God’s love.
We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Christ himself is both the pattern and source of this renewal and transformation, Christ who can help us to see the world through his Father’s eyes. One author wrote “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within.” You see, it isn’t until we are able to see the world through the Father’s eyes that we are able to “test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Today’s passage (Romans 12:9-21) is a tough passage, a big “ask” and at first reading it is easy for us to feel inadequate. But these challenges should be what we genuinely aspire to. It raises the question…when the rubber hits the road, what should love look like? How do we live out our faith and work out our salvation?
- Love must be genuine and sincere. One translation says “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.” How do we know if love is genuine? How do you know I love you? How do you know God loves you? We know if someone really loves us by the “being” and the “doing” – the things they say, the things they do and in that there is consistency and constancy. Genuine love is self-sacrificial.
- We must outdo one another in showing honour. What does honour look like? It seems to me that we don’t hear much about honour any more. It features in the marriage service though…the groom is asked “Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” The Bible tell us we are to honour our parents, honour those in authority, honour our Church leaders, honour one another and of course honour God. There is a difference between honour and respect. In a worldly sense, honour is often given on the basis of position, status, or wealth, but it can also be granted on the basis of character. For me to honour someone goes beyond that…it is to acknowledge that they are created in the image and likeness of God and worthy of dignity and value. We give weight to someone’s presence and existence.
- We are to be patient in suffering. Put your hand up if you are gifted at being patient in suffering. I am anything but patient in suffering, as those who know me well recognise. And I think that in those times we begin to lose patience, we need friends who come alongside us and remind us that we are not alone and God is with us.
- We are to bless those who persecute us; and not curse them. The response from the child in me to this is “It’s not fair. Why should I bless those who persecute me?” If you have ever fallen out with someone, did you feel like blessing them at the time? I think in the brokenness of this world, we often want revenge or payback. We see it all the time, and often when people want to impose their sense of justice and be satisfied – like a tit for tat. The question is, if we are mean to someone as I am sure at times we will have been, would we like to be blessed or cursed? If we cannot practice grace and mercy, how can we possibly expect to receive grace and mercy? If we are truly honest with ourselves, would we like to be judged by our own standards?
- This is emphasised still further when we are told “We are not to repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” And “We are never to avenge ourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” And finally, “We must not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It seems clear that the reason why so much emphasis is placed upon this, is because it is really important. How many times are we called to forgive? We must not bear grudges. We have to let go. That might mean that every single day we give the person who has wronged us to God. It is costly. But in it is freedom. I say again “We are not to conform to the pattern of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of our mind.” Our imperative must be to overcome evil with good, and that is precisely what Christ did.
- Last of all, we are not to be haughty, but associate with the lowly. We are not to claim to be wiser than we are. For me that means we must acknowledge our dependence on God and our interdependence on one another. In acknowledging our dependence on God, we are saying we cannot do this alone. And in that dependence there is no space for pride and no space for haughtiness. We are beggars seeking to lead other beggars to find the bread.
It might be that you have found yourself struggling, struggling to love, struggling to forgive, and struggling not to be conformed to the pattern of this world. It’s ok to acknowledge these struggles and invite God into the middle of them.