Rules for living
So in Christ, we talked about last week, in Christ we are one body, each of us members of one another. This unity, Paul reminds us, is something we have, like everything we have, by grace; we did not create the unity of the people of God (let’s face it, we’re actually pretty rubbish at creating unity) – it’s not a human organisational unity, but a profound theological truth. Whatever it looks like, however we feel about it, we are one body in Christ.
And Paul went on to emphasise that this unity is not one of uniformity; quite the opposite, in fact; the functioning of the body depends upon our difference.
In the miracle that is life, within the first week after conception, something quite remarkable happens. In the tiny bundle of cells that is beginning the process of growing to become a person the cells are no longer all identical copies of the original; the ones on the outside of the cluster slightly different to ones in the core.
This is the beginning of the process of differentiation; the development of the two hundred or so different types of cell that make up your body; cells each of which has identical DNA, but different structure, different function, different role.
Perhaps if Paul had known modern biology he would have chosen this analogy; we all share the same basic identity; one body, taking its very being from shared DNA; but diverse in roles, gifts, graces.
So how then does the body function? Really, when you get down to this level it’s pretty simple; each cell, each organ, does its part; but more than that, each cell, each organ, does what it does not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others, for the benefit of the whole.
And it’s this sort of interdependence that Paul is leaning into as he lays out the implications, in this passage today, his rules of living – and in particular, for living together.
Rules that he summarises, so as so often, with the command to love: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour”.
I especially love the second half of that: outdo one another in showing honour. It’s as if Paul wants to say “I know you love to compete with one another, that it’s in your very nature to want to be better than the next guy; so go for it! Compete – strive to outdo one another – but do it in a way that matters. Be the best at showing honour. Be the best at blessing.
And the whole of the rest of the passage paints a picture of what that looks like. What it looks like for a cell, an organ, a member of the Body of Christ to function as part of the body.
And this picture is one that Paul paints by this quickfire, almost impressionistic sequence of short sharp descriptions of the Christian life:
Do not lag, be ardent, serve the Lord. Rejoice, persevere. Contribute; extend hospitality, Bless, Rejoice, weep. Live in harmony; do not be haughty; do not claim wisdom. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, live peaceably with all. Never avenge yourselves
You could take any one of those and spend a whole sermon pulling it apart; to work carefully through the whole list is the work of a book, not a fifteen minute reflection. So I’m just going to pull out three of these which struck me as I read this list; maybe as you were listening to the reading God drew another to your attention. But here are my three.
“Weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice”.
I think the reason this jumped out at me was that I saw something new in it – or rather, something new in myself as I read it. I’d always figured that weeping with those who were suffering was the challenge: that rejoicing with those who rejoice was more a sort of quid pro quo; we get to share in one another’s celebrations because we share in their hardships.
We know at the moment just how hard it is to weep with those who weep. Don’t you feel like you are just running out of tears as you weep for the nations ravaged by COVID-19, for the families who have lost loved ones, for the people of Lebanon, for the friends and families of the victims of suicide in our schools.
Weeping with those who weep can be hard, but everyone likes to rejoice, right?
But Facebook has changed my view. I don’t know if you are familiar with the term “bragbooking” – it’s the tendency that people have on social media to post their successes (or, often, those of their children) while they stay silent when things don’t go so well.
Which means that if you are feeling that life’s a bit tough at the moment, if your kids aren’t winning the prizes, passing the exams, achieving great things, all you see is the rejoicing of those who are.
And I don’t know about you, but sometimes that makes it really hard to genuinely rejoice with them. Without at least a hint of envy creeping in to sour the celebration.
The second phrase that I’ve picked out will come as no surprise to those who’ve often heard me speak – it’s one of my favourite texts: extend hospitality to strangers. That word hospitality in Greek is philoxenia. Xenia means ‘the other’, ‘the alien’, ‘the foreigner’; it’s the same root as we have in xenophobia, fear of the one who is different.
And Philos; which is love, but in particular brotherly love, family love.
Philoxenia, translated hospitality, is “family love to the one who is different”.
Paul pairs the idea with “contribute to the needs of the saints” – look after one another within the body of Christ – but don’t stop there. Extend hospitality to strangers. Extend familial love for those are different to those that you don’t know.
Normally when I speak on this phrase, or on this word, I want to emphasise that aspect of hospitality; the reaching out to those who are different. And that’s certainly as important as ever – in a time in history in which xenophobia seems to be weapon of choice for politicians and tyrants on both sides, in which stirring up fear and hatred of those who are different – those who worship differently, those who dress in a way that marks them out as different, those whose sexuality is different.
Fear of the stranger is used to justify the very worst of our nature, and the call of the gospel does not just reject this: it calls us to the exact opposite. Not just to reject xenophobia but to replace it with philoxenia; familial love for the stranger.
But in this time of lockdown I think we are also challenged by the much more conventional meaning of hospitality; the welcome that we offer to one another. Especially, perhaps, to those of our own fellowship who are feeling isolated, excluded, unable to join us for the worship that they so value.
In the weekly notices I wrote about possibility of creating small ‘bubbles’ of Church; groups meeting in small gatherings in people’s homes, just as the early Church did, as a way of reconnecting with one another, and especially of enabling those who have been isolated to reconnect with their community. Perhaps the challenge of hospitality today is for us to consider whether we might be able to go beyond the fairly comfortable experience of Zoom Church to invite others into our bubbles, to re-connect not because we need it (though we do) but because others need it more.
And the third phrase which struck me: If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
I love Paul’s realism here; as far as it depends on you. We only control one side of our conflicts; though we know that when we choose peace it makes it possible for the other to do so too, we cannot compel others to live peaceably.
But Paul adds another rider as well; ‘If it is possible’. There are times when living at peace with others is not possible, not desirable. There are things in our world with which we cannot live in peace. We cannot live at peace with injustice. We cannot live at peace with the entrenched disadvantage that blights our indigenous sisters and brothers. We cannot live at peace with an economic system which places no value on the preservation of our environment for the future. We cannot live at peace with a refugee policy which leaves those who have already suffered so much locked up on remote islands.
But let those things put our other conflicts into perspective. Most of our conflicts, most of our strife, day by day, does not fall into this category. How is it that within the body of Christ we seem to get more worked up about styles of music and positioning of furniture than about what Jesus called “the weightier matters of justice”?
Those are, as I say, just three of the many examples Paul gives in this passage for how we live out our role as members of one another in the one body in Christ. If something else in the passage spoke to you, I’d love to hear about it.
We are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
We have different roles to play, so let us play them for the common good.