Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Many and the One: Sermon on Romans 12:3-8

It would have been a pleasant afternoon. Tired, Agrippa Menenius Lanatus walked out of the city gates along with nine of his most distinguished colleagues. He was in the last years of his life, and his energy was waning. But the republic was in crisis. It was so young, the republic; not even twenty years had passed since Rome had tossed its last king to the curb. Only a couple years ago did Rome repel the last effort of King Tarquin and his son to invade and reclaim a throne that was no more. Barely out of the woods. But the republic was in danger of dissolving in its infancy, devoured by the maw of class warfare.

Over the past few years, debt had gotten out of hand – at least, the lower class, the commonfolk, the plebeians, seemed to think so. Frequently pressed by violence or thrown in debtors' prison, they called out for debt relief. Many in the senate hadn't thought it prudent to give in. What kind of government would pander to the whims of the rabble? The patricians, the upper class of noble breeding, had a responsibility to lead as they saw fit. It had always been that way here, and it was that way everywhere they knew. Those were the points Appius Claudius kept hammering home whenever the senate met, anyway – Appius Claudius, that Sabine-tribe merchant who'd defected to Rome with all his riches and bought himself into the patriciate.

With the senate in gridlock, class warfare threatened to break out in riots in the streets. Twice, in the face of peril from invading Italian tribes, the senate had offered a truce – a get-out-of-jail-free card, but a temporary one – to those who'd fight for Rome. It was the only way to get the plebeians to do their civic duty, it seemed. And twice, after each time, they seemed to expect things would be different afterwards. Twice disappointed were the plebeians. After their military oaths were extended by decree, the plebeians in three legions staged a walkout – took their weapons, took the sacred standards, and withdrew to a hill outside the city. Many of the plebeians in Rome burst out the gates to join them. To the senate's relief, they didn't threaten to join with the city's enemies in plunder – after all, many still had elderly parents, spouses, or children within the walls. But neither would they defend Rome or return to tilling the fields or anything else, and they were considering leaving altogether.

With the bulk of the plebeians having deserted the city, and hostile tribes lurking in the countryside, ever hungry for an opportunity to take back whatever Rome had won from them before, the senate had little choice but to meet. Some, like that hard-line aristocrat Appius Claudius Sabinus, urged no compromise: let the plebeians go, let them starve, or let them come crawling back begging. Others, like Agrippa Menenius Lanatus and Manius Valerius Maximus, had lived long enough to remember what civil wars really looked like. They condemned the senate for looking on plebeian misfortune as if it didn't impoverish the whole city, and urged them to restore the plebeians' rights and offer mercy. The senate, at last, agreed, and sent ten senior senators to make a deal.

That's why Menenius was walking. Deep in thought. But they hadn't even gone the whole three miles before a contingent of seceders met them on the road. News had already reached their camp. Negotiations began. But just like the last time, things took a bad turn. Two of the envoys, Manius Valerius and Titus Larcius, spoke too harshly – were too quick to scold the plebeians, too quick to defend the senate. In turn, the spokesmen of the seceders, Sicinius Bellutus and Lucius Junius, issued far-reaching rebukes and laid down an angry ultimatum.

So Menenius, desperate to pacify this situation before it spun irretrievably out of control, called for silence so he could speak. And speak he did, at length. He said he would neither excuse the senate nor accuse the plebeians; rather, he praised the plebeians and appealed to their neighborly instincts as good, law-abiding citizens. He saw the problems the plebeians faced, and promised concrete actions: debt-relief now, and cooperation to issue a law to fairly govern debt payment in the future. He offered them a vision of a city, a commonwealth, where social classes like patrician and plebeian don't compete, don't disparage each other, don't look to their own interests, but amiably work together for the genuine common good, embracing each other in friendship and cooperation.

To that end, he said, he'd give them a parable. He spoke of a person whose body parts each had a mind of their own. The hands had opinions, the feet had opinions, the mouth had opinions, and so on. And over time, in this body, some of the parts began to resent the stomach. After all, they reasoned, the stomach just sat there, passive receiver of the food that the feet had to approach, the hands had to grasp, the shoulders had to carry, the mouth had to chew. Why should the working parts feed this lazy freeloader whose urges kept bossing the rest of the parts around? And so those parts, Menenius said, went on strike. But what, he asked, happens to the body when they do? The whole body starves, because without nourishing the stomach, nothing is nourished.

Just so, Menenius explained, “A commonwealth resembles, in some measure, a human body. For each of them is composite and consists of many parts; and no one of their parts either has the same function or performs the same service as the others” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquities of Rome 6.86.1). What's true of the human body, he explained, is true of the body that is the republic. The rest can't do without the stomach, nor can the stomach get by without the rest. The parts, with all their diverse functions, need each other for the body to stay one healthy thing. And with that parable, Menenius won the favor of the plebeians and, with further negotiation of practical safeguards for plebeian rights, he quelled the social strife and saved the Roman Republic.

True story, from over 2500 years ago. The famous speech of Agrippa Menenius Lanatus paved the road toward social reconciliation, turning back the first secession of the plebs and putting an end – at least for his generation – to the class warfare that threatened to shred the republic in pieces. Twenty-first-century America could no doubt learn some key lessons. But what every Roman of later generation would know about the story – part of the patriotic lore they were fed from childhood – is that famous parable Menenius came up with: Rome as a body of many members with different functions meant to support each other, all necessary to the common good.

Like I said, every Roman knew that story. I'd go so far as to say Paul, living over five centuries after Menenius, knew they knew that story. I think Paul was no dunce at his Roman history. He was an educated man, raised a Roman citizen from birth in a provincial capital and leading intellectual center of the Roman world. So, writing to Romans who were raised on this story and who lived under the rule of Appius Claudius' many-times-great-grandson Nero, it's no wonder that what Menenius said about an earthly commonwealth, Paul will say about what he sees as a heavenly commonwealth on earth: the church. It isn't Rome that's the most important body; it's the church, which the Romans have split into little partitioned clubs. Sounding like Menenius, Paul tells them, “As in one body we have many parts, and the parts don't all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually parts one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).

What Menenius said of the Roman Republic, Paul sees as even truer of the church. We're “one body in Christ.” Not many bodies. Not that each house church, each apartment church, is its own separate body – no, the whole Christian network in Rome, and beyond Rome, is one body” – not because they all grew up together from their infancy, not because they all have a common language or a common culture, but “one body in Christ.” If that's true, then what goes for bodies must go for the church. “In one body, we have many parts.” That's just the way bodies work, don't they? The body of Christ is no ameoba, no protozoan, no single-celled organism. No, bodies are complex, bodies are composites. Our bodies have eyes, ears, noses, mouths, arms, legs, hands, feet, hearts, lungs, stomachs, kidneys, livers, pancreases, and so, so much more – more than Menenius or Paul even saw in their time. Even today, with all our advanced technology, we're still discovering new features of human anatomy. One body has many parts.

And those parts, Paul says, “don't all have the same function.” Menenius saw that in Rome: the patricians had some functions, and the plebeians had some functions, and not all the same one, at that. There were lots of jobs to be done, lots of roles to be filled: cultivating fields, serving in the armed forces, carrying on trade overseas, working at assorted crafts, and more. Menenius saw the Roman commonwealth as “composed of many classes of people not at all resembling one another, every one of which contributes some particular service to the common good, just as its members do to the body” (Antiquities of Rome 6.86.4). And Paul sees the same thing happening in the church. The parts don't have the same function; they have lots of different functions. Each part brings something unique and special to the table. And importantly, all those functions – like Menenius said – offer “some particular service to the common good.” They're what makes the body united. Without all those functions continuously going on, a body dies; and death means ceasing to be one unified thing, but disintegrating – coming apart.

One body. Many parts in that body. Many functions of those parts. One body living by the many functions of the many parts that are in the one body. The many and the one. The life of the church. And that, Paul is telling us, is how a 'renewed mind' thinks. We talked last week about Paul's call for you to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And a mind made new doesn't think of itself in isolation. A mind made new thinks big-picture – thinks of the church as the body of Christ, and takes that image seriously. And that's why, we saw last week, rational worship – the worship that comes from a mind made new, thinking rightly – involves presenting our bodies as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). A sacrifice is something we surrender control over, something we give up completely. It's an extreme step, sacrifice is. But we give our bodies to God as a living sacrifice – one that doesn't die, but in fact gains more life through being sacrificed, given over, given up. But how will God use our bodies when they're sacrificed to him? Well, if our bodies are sacrificed to the God who is the Head of Christ who is the Head of his Body, the Church, don't be surprised if God uses your body for the health of Christ's Body. To be a living sacrifice means giving your whole self to God for that. And anything less is not the kind of worship appropriate for people who can think clearly. Because this is the heart of God's will for you: to be a body part in Christ (cf. Romans 12:2).

See, that's how God wants us to see ourselves. Paul's talking to Romans, but he's talking to us, too. We are one body – right here, this very congregation – but not us alone, but the whole worldwide church. We may not all think alike. We may note all see the world alike. We may not all vote alike. We may not all work in the same profession. We may not all talk with the same accent. We may not all be from the same area originally. We may not all have the same life experiences. We may not all have the same personality or temperament. We may not have very similar bank account balances. We may not go on the same sorts of vacations. The places we live in may not have too much in common. But whether in the whole worldwide church or in this local place, “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually parts of one another” (Romans 12:5).

To that end, Paul explains that “one body” has “many parts, and the parts don't all have the same function” (Romans 12:4). I may not serve the same function that you do, or you over there, or you right here. And vice versa. And that's good, because if we all served the same function, we'd be a real mess of a body! Paul explains that these different functions operate by “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6). These are God-given things, things that emerge as the Spirit puts them into us or brings them out of us. It's a work of God's grace in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and ruling today. Paul offers here examples of seven gifts, seven functions, and how to use them well (Romans 12:6-8). It's not an exhaustive list. Everywhere in his letters he lists different 'gifts,' the list looks different each and every time. Maybe even Paul couldn't get his brain around just how many different sorts of gifts, different sorts of functions, different sorts of parts, there were in Christ's body. Just like we're discovering new parts and features and functions in human anatomy in 2018, maybe the same's true in the anatomy of the body of Christ.

One of the ones Paul says we might see is “prophecy” – some measure of new insight from God, the kind Paul had when everything about God's mysterious plan for Israel and the nations suddenly clicked for him, or the kind Agabus had in seeing a famine on the horizon or terrible danger in Paul's future. Sometimes that sort of thing may well happen in the church. Praise God! All Paul tells us here for how to use it rightly is to keep it in proportion to faith – to make sure every new insight fits with sound doctrine, and to be humble enough to stop running with your new insight when you reach the limits of what you really heard (Romans 12:6). So maybe that's your gift. If it is, use it “in the proportion of faith” – but use it, honor it, as one function carried out for the benefit of the whole body.

Or maybe, Paul says, maybe the gift you got is to be the one doing some teaching. Maybe you're good at diving into the Bible, and knowing all the history and the words and the ideas, and you can explain what's going on, you can put it in a way that makes sense to others and is clear and is accurate. Maybe you're good at passing on and handing down what got passed on and handed down to you. Maybe instructing is just what God has made you good at. Paul says, Use that gift! That's a function you fill, and it's a function this body needs. How can you best use that gift to benefit the body? Use it “in teaching,” living out what you teach (Romans 12:7).

Or maybe, Paul says, maybe the gift you got is to be “the one presiding.” Maybe you're good at being a leader. You've got the organizational skills to keep things humming. You can see what needs to be done, and you can run a meeting, and you can direct things in a way that puts the skills of others to good use. Does that sound like you? Well, if it does, Paul's guideline for how to use it is this: “In diligence” (Romans 12:8). Namely, with the sort of aggressive efficiency and thorough care that will indeed keep things humming along smoothly, without letting all the details slip through the cracks. Because efficient, thorough administration and leadership are a function this body needs, one it can't do without or look down on. If that's you, use that gift.

Or maybe, Paul says, maybe the gift you got is practical service. The word Paul uses is pretty flexible. A lot of times, it could refer to what a waiter does. Sometimes, it referred to the work of those who assisted in religious ceremonies in the Greek and Roman world. It could be used for ambassadors, but has connotations of running errands. Maybe that's you. Maybe you're good at waiting tables. Maybe you're good at running errands. The practical stuff, the humble stuff, the stuff that isn't flashy but happens sometimes behind the scenes, making sure that everyone has what they need in order to carry out their function – is that you? Has God given you that? If so, use that gift! That's a function you fill, and it's a function this body needs. It's the work of a servant, and it may not be glamorous, but Paul bids you to embrace it as real service, and use it in serving (Romans 12:7).

Or maybe, Paul says, maybe the gift you got is comforting, exhorting, encouraging. Maybe you're the sort of person people can turn to when they've got a problem and need advice or a hug or just somebody to be present with them. Maybe you're the rare sort who does know what to say when bad things happen, and how to say it. Maybe you're sensitive, you're gentle, you're devoted. Maybe you've got the character of a parent or a nurse, and building up the hurting is where you thrive and what you do. That's one of the gifts Paul mentions, a gift that God distributes into the body of Christ. Is that something you can do, and do well? Maybe you're where God tucked that gift away. It's a function this body needs, and if it's a function you're gifted to fill, use that gift! Be that sensitive and warm and tender presence, have the actions and words to encourage and cheer and heal, and use it like a clotting factor for the whole body of Christ, to heal and repair what's been broken.

Or maybe, Paul says, maybe the gift you got is to be “the one who shares.” Back in those days, the church used to eat together – a lot. Not just an annual picnic or a quarterly potluck. Not just an occasional cook-out or hot dog roast or ice cream social. It went beyond that. It went beyond a monthly batch of pastries, or a weekly time of coffee and donuts. They ate a full meal together every week, and maybe even ate together every day. And some in the Roman churches, Paul said, had received the gift of being able to put food on that table, often out of their own pocket, to provide these church dinners for the church as a whole, and thus feed the people of God. Or maybe there were other ways they could provide for the church, not as individual people one by one, but as a whole, taken together. These days, we don't eat together that often. Maybe we should do that more. But just think, just consider, that in Rome, food scarcity was a real issue: a lot of the poor were at risk of going hungry. Think how impactful it was, in the church, to know that you had a supper with fellow believers to look forward to, to rely on to quiet your whimpering or roaring stomach and get you through the day. I don't think too many of us are in that situation, at least not so far as I know. Maybe that's because we've self-selected to exclude the poorest in our broader community. But in any case, there will be times when the church as a whole needs to be fed, needs to be provided for, needs to be tended to. And Paul says some will have the gift of being that kind of giver, and putting that food on the table. Is that you? If so, use that gift! That's a function you fill, and it's a function this body needs. Paul only says to do it in simplicity – no ulterior motive, no hankering for credit, no ostentation or needless fancy, but a commitment to living the simple life so that you reckon more of what you have as shareable.

Or maybe, finally, Paul says, maybe the gift you got is to do acts of mercy. Maybe you're driven, by the grace God has given you and the way he's wired you, to be the one who, by wallet or by hands, aims to meet the real human needs of individual people inside or outside the church. Maybe you're gifted to care for the sick. Maybe you're gifted to ensure that the dead receive a proper burial. Maybe you're gifted to give handouts to those with their hands out, or to tend to the needy in a hands-on way. Is that you? Are you gifted for acts of mercy, acts of individual provision inside or outside the church? That, too, is a function this body needs, so if that function is one you can fill, go on and use that gift (Romans 12:8)!

Paul doesn't rank these in order of how important he thinks they are, or how noble he thinks they are. Can't say Paul really cares much about that sort of thing. These gifts are all necessary. None are expendable. There's not a one of them that the church can say, “Well, we don't really need that kind of thing.” These are among many functions that need to operate in the one body of Christ, and in its local church manifestation right here. Do we have all of these operational, or are some systems offline? If they're offline, we're in trouble. If some are being shut out, we're in trouble. We can't last long if they are.

As a body, we cannot last long if we fall into class warfare or partisanship or other forms of divisive bickering and exclusionary praxis. Menenius saw that. Paul saw that. We have to see it. It does no good for somebody with one function to proclaim it the best way to be a Christian, and treat the others as expendable. It does even less good to pretend the Christian life is something a person lives on his or her own, in isolation. Because it just ain't so. An ear, cut off in a box by itself, is not exactly a paragon of life. If you watch enough crime dramas, it's usually the start of a very disturbing case. The same is true for a Christian cut off in a box by him- or herself – it's a sign that something very disturbing has happened, and just like isolation from the body is no good for the ear, isolation from the local church is no good for the believer. Nor is it good for the church, which needs the diverse functions of the many parts in order to keep healthy and in motion. We cannot afford to shut out or exclude or look down on each other's functions – that's why Paul writes, “Everyone among you must not think of himself above what he ought to think, but to think in sober-thinking ways” (Romans 12:3).

And the most reasonable, the wisest, the most sober-thinking way to think, is the way a renewed mind thinks by instinct. It's to view the church as the body in which you, each of you, are one part. You cannot live separate from the church. Church is not primarily an event. Church is not primarily a building. Church is not primarily a program. Church is a society, a commonwealth, a body. These functions aren't just used on Sunday mornings. Does your heart beat once a week? Does your stomach digest once a week? No! Body parts are in use all the time – 24/7/365. “Living sacrifice” is a full-time thing; “one body in Christ” is a full-time thing. Americans aren't used to thinking like this. We're used to expressive individualism, to hobbies, to compartmentalized lives. No wonder we're in such trouble. But Christians must get used to thinking like this, being like this, acting like this. If Menenius, a pre-Christian Roman senator living before Ezra or Nehemiah were even around, could see it, surely we can. Train yourself, train yourselves, train each other, to view yourselves, not as individuals who sometimes come together and attend the same events as your church friends, but as parts who are meant to continuously function as a single body of Christ, whose aim is to heal and save the world.

So ask yourself, each of you, “What is my function? What different, distinctive gift do I have as a result of the grace that God gave specifically to me? Which part am I?” And then devote yourself actively to doing that. It doesn't mean you never have to do anything else. Teachers have to comfort others. Leaders have to do acts of mercy. Bankrollers of the church may need to wait on some tables from time to time. But with whatever grace God has given you, get it operational. Employ your gift actively to function within the body, for the body.

And then as you look around you, not just in this church but in other churches, the people you see there are not your competitors. The church around the corner is not your competition. The big church in town is not your competition – even if, sadly, sometimes churches can try to run roughshod over each other. But no, we are not competition. We are the same “one body in Christ.” That means the people in those other churches, and the people in this church right here – even the ones you don't care for, even the one you've had grudges with in the past, even the ones you're disappointed in or dissatisfied by – they are your body parts, and you are theirs. We are, Paul tells us, “individually parts, one of another” (Romans 12:5). We are diverse, not all alike. But we belong, as living sacrifices, to a God who chooses to give us to each other as parts of the body of Christ. So do not look down on those who fill other functions, who exercise different gifts, who are wired in different ways, who bring different things to the table, as it were. Be, live as, act as, one body with them. Use your gift for the health of the whole, whatever it is, and don't hold it back. Thanks be to God, in the name of Christ. Amen.

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