During this period of Lent we have focused not of giving up something but offering something of ourselves to others, and we have used as a our focus for those thoughts, the passage from Romans 12. We’ve looked previously at what it means to treat other members of the church as our Christian brothers and sisters, and with this week’s passage Paul gets even more counter-cultural.

Romans 1 2: 14 - 16 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited

There is an echo from the Beatitudes in his words.

Mathew 5: 3-12 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.  Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

As well as blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Mourning and rejoicing are in those same beatitudes.

Focus: Blessing

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse

Our chosen scripture starts with a big ask – to do good to those who have done wrong to us. We will be looking at this whole area more closely next week, but we can already see how strongly Paul emphasises it – saying it not once but twice.  

‘Cursing’ may, to us, conjure up images of witches’ chants over cauldrons of boiling eye of newt and toe of toad or of pins being stuck into voodoo dolls, but it really just means simply bearing ill-will towards someone – which is the start of a slippery slope.

Our first reaction when attacked is to retaliate, but we as Christians are called to the exact opposite.

The Holy Spirit is the only one who’s really going to help us turn it around – we might just about be humanly able to muster up the will to ignore those who hurt us, but to turn that into blessing needs divine input. 

For a model reaction, we need look no further than Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:34):

Then Jesus said, ’Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

As he was being put on the cross, Jesus had compassion on those who were hammering in the nails.

 

The pastor J Sidlow Baxter reflects on this: Even the hardened soldiers must have been taken aback with his prayer, for that gracious plea was spoken just at the point when most crucified criminals shrieked curses at the executioners and spectators…They had taken away everything he had, yet even crucifixion could not take away his love.[1]

Sometimes praying for people who have hurt us is even more difficult than being outwardly friendly because it requires us to really be honest with God about what’s going on in our hearts. Over time, consistent prayer is actually what will transform our feelings of pain or unforgiveness too.

Sidlow Baxter pulls no punches when he writers: “How big we seem in our self-imagined right to hold a grudge! How petty, how ugly, how pygmy like we really are in our unforgiving snobbery.”[2]

Focus: Empathy  

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.

This may seem straightforward on the face of it, but the pessimistic writer Gore Vidal said: ‘Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside of me dies.’ His brutal honesty reflects some of the difficulty we may have rejoicing with others, especially when we ourselves are facing difficult times.

How many times have you heard someone tell of something good happening in their lives, and someone will speak over top of them to tell of a better story relating to them.  Why couldn’t the second person just rejoice with the first?

Paul’s call here is much more than to be just nice. His call is about being united to each other, as Paul further explains in 1 Corinthians 12:25–26:

…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

When we understand the connection we have as one body, we are affected by each other’s joys and difficulties and want to respond appropriately.

More than that, if we are on the receiving end of such empathy we feel honoured and nurtured in a community then we are stronger and more able to weather the ups and downs of life. 

Joy is infectious. As the body of Christ this joy is not just about a knees-up with friends, or our own comfortable social circle; this is about genuinely rejoicing with all our church family. That is what makes us distinctive. 

We are more able to rejoice with others because our main source of joy stems from the hope that we have in Jesus (v. 12). It’s often tough to keep an eternal perspective in the forefront of our minds, but when we do, it frees us up to experience the joy and sorrow of those around us without envy or bitterness.

Standing with each other in sadness or difficulty is also important. It can lighten a burden, reduce the sense of isolation or provide comfort. A church family is like any other family: it experiences the highs and lows of life and these are better experienced together. 

In John 11:33–36 we see how much Jesus was affected by his friends mourning:  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply m oved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’

Even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead and that they would soon be rejoicing, Jesus wept with his friends and empathised with them in their grief.

It shows true selflessness to regard another’s emotions as if they are our own – to walk in their shoes, so to speak. It means holding back on the advice (although sometimes this may be necessary), listening, and imagining somebody else’s situation and sharing in their pain. It’s what it means to belong to one another (v. 5).

Focus: Humility

Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited

Verse 16 is translated in some versions that we should be ‘of the same mind’ – not that we must agree on every issue but that we should empathise with another’s position and honour one another above ourselves (v. 10).  This is only possible when we are willing to submit to Jesus as the head of the body (Ephesians 4:15).

Philippians 2:5–8 describes the Christ-like mindset that promotes harmony amongst Christians:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! 

So if Jesus loved others without discrimination who are we to see anybody as beneath ourselves?

Another possible interpretation of verse 16 is to do with being willing to perform lowly, menial tasks. In this, too, Jesus is our perfect example – performing the act of a slave in washing the disciples’ feet (John 13). 

In a ‘me first’ world, it’s the norm to put others down to improve our situation. But as followers of Jesus, it’s not about bettering ourselves but about lowering ourselves.  Humility is the antidote.

 

If we want to live in harmony with other people, we have to start with keeping our own minds open and teachable, learning from our own errors rather than pointing out others’ weaknesses. We already have the love and acceptance of our Father God, and when we understand the significance of that, it releases us from the pressure of having to prove to everyone else how much we are worth. To him we are worth the very highest price he could pay.

What this could mean for us…

In light of all this then, we can be content in whatever position we are currently in, as Paul learnt to be

(Philippians 4:11–12)

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Our ambition, instead of improving our status or wealth, is to be as much as we can like Jesus. 

Today, many of us are used to seeing carefully photoshopped and spin doctored presentations of people on social media or in magazines and on TV, but these verses seriously challenge that kind of selective display of the good bits of our lives.

Instead we can start to look out for those unglamorous, un-facebook-able menial tasks. Spend time with and learn from those who are outside the limelight.

Who can you rejoice with this week? Who can you mourn with? How can you put aside your own feelings to share in somebody else’s?

In our 40acts, let’s step up to the challenge to do good not only to our friends but also to those who have hurt us. Or let’s spend time with someone whom we would usually avoid. We don’t need to fear rejection when we’re safe in the knowledge that we already have the friendship and love of our creator.

Prayer

Where humility is in short supply, God grant us servant hearts, As we seek to be followers of Christ. Where many live in the darkness of injustice, God make us beacons of hope, As we seek to bring the light of Christ. Where we encounter barriers and stagnation, God make us channels of positive change, As we seek to share your transforming love. Where there is division and dissention, God make us communities of blessing, As we seek to restore your harmony and peace. Amen.

 



[1] J Sidlow Baxter The Master Theme of the Bible 181-2

[2] Ibid 183