Probably one of the most popular songs ever is Imagine by John Lennon. You certainly wouldn’t want to build your theology upon it, as it denies heaven and hell and wishes for the evil of religion to be vaporized. The song goes on to express high-minded, utopian dreams of people all living in the oneness of harmony and love. “A brotherhood of man … Imagine all the people sharing all the world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”
Nice sentiments. But it is a dream. And it would be better to bring heaven back into the equation for this to ever be a reality.
But imagine if God’s people, God’s family of faith – the church – were to live and function in a way that exemplified the love and character of Christ. Imagine that; what would that look like?
Perhaps it would look like a lot of people practicing Paul’s admonitions to the Romans in our passage today in 12:9-21.
There is something in this list of short and quick exhortations to prick the conscience of every one of us. We might read along and be able to check off three, four or five consecutive items as practices we employ to live out our Christian lives. But it doesn’t take long for us to hit one that reminds us of a current or recent failure in our experience.
As I read this passage and look back now at four decades of church leadership service, I will say that the first people who come to mind as the most effective and beloved members I have known are those who could be largely described by this list. Some of these individuals were, to be fully honest, not necessarily the brightest and most gifted people by the world’s standards (or even those of the Christian community). But the genuine and sincere love that burned through them for God and for other people resulted in them occupying greater seats of service than those whose gifts appeared obvious. And I’m convinced these simple servants of the Lord will inhabit the biggest mansions in heaven!
We could take a great deal of time in expanding each of the items listed in these verses and how they might look in application within the Christian community. But for our purposes, let me boil it down to one common denominator: those who would best exemplify the deeds and characteristics Paul pictures here are those who most have a heart for other people that is bigger than their need to satisfy themselves.
Long before a Christian churchman gets to questions like “Are my needs being met in this church?” or “Am I being fed by the teaching?” should be questions like: “Am I able to use my gifts here to serve other people?” or “Have I been able to give here to people in need and display hospitality?” or “What can I do to increase unity by loving those who are sometimes unlovely?”
We all need to be less annoyed by other people in the family of faith. Even when they have said or done something to deserve a smack-down or cold shoulder, the entire church would be better off by rather finding a way to kindly reach out and serve that person. Jesus did that for us – “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Imagine us all acting like Christ. Then the church would be as one.
12:9 – Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Ask not what your country (or church) can do for you, ask what you can do for your country (or church). Or as Jesus succinctly said, (quoted by Paul, I think), “It is better to give than to receive.”