I’ll admit it (like many of you don’t already know): I’m a comic book geek. I love the stories of the superheroes in print and in the theater. For the release of the second Avengers movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I re-watched the first one and both Captain America movies. He’s my favorite Avenger, because quite frankly, he’s the most normal.
Yes, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America has the Super Soldier serum coursing through his body. But he’s pretty much a regular dude. He can’t jump over buildings, or fly, and if bullets aren’t deflected by his American shield, he can be shot. The thing is, he has that serum that makes him stronger and faster, but he still has to train to make it active. In the first film, he goes through Basic training with the Army; in the second film, he laps the Mall in Washington while the Falcon runs with him.
Rogers has the potential inside of him, but he has to train to bring it to fruition. That’s a lot like us: we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, but if we’re not using it, if we’re not striving to be more like Jesus, we’ll never reach our potential.
Now, some of you are like Allen Iverson a few years ago, “practice, are we really talking about practice?” I thought we spent all of this time believing, having faith, you mean we have to do something?
The author of James said it pretty succinctly: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” It’s like swimming: you’re either pulling ahead or you’re drowning; you can’t be stuck in the middle. Yes, Jesus’ sacrifice saves you from sin, but if you’re not growing to be more like Jesus… you’re drowning.
Paul lays out some ways we train. First, he says we’re to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God in the way we live (Romans 12:1-2). Some of you know from training for 5ks, half-marathons, ATV races, softball games – you have to sacrifice things if you want to get better. Eat less, eat right, get sleep, lift weights, save money. Whatever it is, you sacrifice something to get better.
Paul says to be more like Jesus, we need to figure out a few things about what it means to be like Jesus in the first place! He stresses humility (12:3), team building and gift identification (12:4-8), and finally, love.
Now, most of us have a friend, parent, spouse, or child who can pop our bubble when it’s getting too big, who can bring us back to earth, and remind us that we still wake up with bed head on most days. Humility seems to find us! But team building takes some work, and so does gift identification. Have you ever taken a spiritual gifts survey? Have you ever considered how you might be someone God wants to use for the kingdom of God? If you’ve never taken one of those surveys, see me afterward, and we’ll chat. You have gifts and God wants to use them.
But the second half of Romans 12 is all about the love. Not fake love, not puppy love, not “like.” But love.
Paul says love should be sincere. That we should recognize real love and hold onto it, as family, as friends, as children of God (12:9). He says we should be devoted – compelled by our feelings of love – to each other, to the point where others receive more honor than we do (12:11).
Do we love like that? Do we hold the elders (not the ordained, but the older people!) as so special that we seek them out for advice, and remind them of how much they are valued? Do we encourage the children and those in the midst of a struggle? Do we seek to bear each others burdens? Paul says that’s what real love does.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (12:12).
That alone could preach – or drive us insane. I am not patient – I do not like to wait. My impatience can rob me of my joy and my hope, and rather than driving me deeper into prayer, impatience urges me to speed things up and take care of them on my own, rather than staying faithful… in prayer.
It’s like the Yoda quote I love: ““Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” When we fail to be patient, we lose hope and lack faithfulness. But if we’re patient, even in the midst of the struggle, God provides a way out of it.
But, wow, Paul is not done meddling. “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (12:13). Do you know anyone in need? I imagine you do – even if it would be easier to ignore it. I know a young couple who is homeless and looking for a job. I know a single mother of an infant who is looking for a car. I know people who are not sure how they’re going to find the energy to make it through the next week. And they all go to our church.
Paul didn’t need to tell his audience to go save the world. He wanted them to train by going and saving their brothers and sisters in church. Paul is urging us to train to be more like Jesus by loving the people we already know, let alone the Republican/Democrat, rich/poor, black/white/Hispanic, Muslim/Jew/Baptist/ISIS individual we see about on television and grumble about.
You thought all of that was personal, poke-you-in-the-chest kind of butting in? You haven’t seen anything yet! Paul wants to talk about ridiculous love. Crazy, spectacular, train for the kingdom of God kind of love. Stuff that is so ridiculous, it almost has to get under your skin and bother you if you’d let it.r
Bless the people who persecute you. Not just don’t be mean back but wish them well.
Don’t think you’re better than you are, and be friends with people no one else will be friends with.
Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If possible, live at peace with everyone.
If you have an enemy who is hungry, feed him, thirsty, give him a drink.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That last one kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? Don’t let evil overcome you, but overcome it with good. Can we actually do that?
You can forgive your spouse, ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, child, parent for the harm they have caused you? Can you pray that God would love them so much that their lives would be blessed and successful?
Can you think of that person in your life who no one wants to talk to because they are so annoying/rude/mean/standoffish/unapproachable/uncool/fill-in-the-blank? Can you imagine a world where tomorrow you would walk up to them and intentionally bless them by being present?
We hear a lot about how Christians should be offended by this and that. We know there’s truth, and that the world can’t see the truth we see. So, we’re encouraged by the talking heads on conservative television (and some pastors) to “fight back”. And Paul shows up and says, “as much as you can control it, be at peace with everyone.”
Paul argued for the risen Christ, he died for him, too. But he didn’t fight people, he didn’t aim to hurt them. He trained to be the speaker and teacher he was so that he could tell even the people who would condemn him to death: “you are loved.” That’s radical training, my friends.
Back when I was swimming and running competitively, we swam and ran longer than the lengths of our competition. It wouldn’t do any good to just do the minimum of the race, because then our bodies wouldn’t have fine-tuned to the speed, distance, and stamina we needed. We had to exceed the expectations, to reach farther, so that our training would prepare us for the race. So that the competition itself would feel easier.
In our training, our membership vows as United Methodists, we promised to participate by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. That’s the bare minimum. Are we training for the event, for running the race of a faithful race, in a way that brings glory to God and prepares us for the kingdom?
Or are we chalking it up to “practice” and ignoring the instructions?
The race is upon us, and pulled spiritual muscles, and Holy Spirit-dehydrated souls will let us down in the long run. We need to prepare for the long haul, and trust that our training will be sufficient.