“Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.” (Romans 12:10-13 HCSB)
If the lack of resistance, whether through the lack of exercise or the lack of gravity, has an impact on the overall strength and health of a person’s physical body then does that same basic principle apply to the “Body of Christ?” When the church lives in an environment where there is no “resistance” does it grow weak and lose a noticeable part of its overall health? Does the Church’s skeleton (theology) become more porous, less dense, and lose its ability to support the body? Do the Church’s muscles (actions) become atrophied and weak, unable to perform basic functions?
If so, then the challenges facing the Church in the days ahead are not issues that will cause her to fail – though she will undoubtedly make some mistakes and missteps – they will cause her to grow stronger, more capable, even more nimble and better able to meet these challenges.
Those words popped up on my Facebook memories from two years ago. Words that I had written and shared from some time studying about the church in the book of Acts – prePandemic. Just for a second, go back and read them and let that thought sink in. In late September of 2019 we had not yet heard of Covid-19 and were not thinking about a global pandemic. Yet, we face challenges of some type every day. Their intensity may wax and wane, but each of us faces some type of physical, sociological, philosophical, psychological, emotional or relational challenge on a daily basis. These challenges present us with varying levels of resistance across the broad spectrum of our lives and personalities. In other words, God is making us fit for life and godliness (see 2 Peter 1:3-12).
Along those lines, we often misunderstand the spiritual gift of prophecy. We tend to think of it as some means of “foretelling” of future events and outcomes. If I only knew what was coming, I could better prepare for it, right? Technically, God’s Word tells us in general terms what to expect and pastors/teachers to prepare us for any and all of these situations. He tells us how He wants us to prepare for and respond to life. While we aren’t given the specifics, He does tell us how we should live, act, react, think and care for ourselves and others regardless of the specific circumstances. That’s the real purpose for the pastoral gift of prophecy, telling others what God’s Word says about living life in accordance to and in harmony with God’s purpose and plan.
I am convinced that God’s request for Adam and Eve to “walk with Him” in the garden is His ongoing desire for each of us – to walk with Him, alongside Him. In fact, isn’t that precisely what Jesus called the disciples to do, “come walk with me, join me, follow me and I’ll make you into ‘fishers of men’. You’ll gather men of all types, backgrounds, skills and personalities for my purpose and plan. Gather them together into a family of believers, a fellowship of disciples, a church. This is precisely the group that Paul is addressing as he tells them how the Gospel should impact their fellowship: “Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12:10-11)
In this week’s focal passage, Paul continues these thoughts and reminds us of their reach. Sadly, our modern culture puts such a strong emphasis on individualism and independence that we often overlook or minimize the importance of our call to interdependence and fellowship within the church. We gather for corporate worship, but do we really come together in fellowship? Paul began this section with the admonition that we must not “think of ourselves more highly than is right or appropriate.” When we over value ourselves then we under value others. To fellowship is to not only see the needs of others but the value and worth of others as we live and serve together.
Two weeks ago (I was away on vacation and relaxation last week), I pointed out that we must not be lazy but boiling with the intensity of God’s Spirit as we serve the Lord. Notice that the intensity we are to have is not just activity, in a general sense, but a fervency in obedient service to Christ. Christian discipleship is not just the busyness of doing something, anything in the name of Christ but is the result of God’s Spirit causing us to boil with intensity as we obediently serve Him. Paul follows this up immediately with “rejoice in your hope; be patient in your affliction; be persistent in your prayers.” So, our service to Christ is not only empowered by the Spirit it is also inspired by our hope in the power of the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. We must be motivated by hope; rejoicing in our anticipation and expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promises in and through Jesus.
But, it is easy to lose our motivation whenever we get slapped up side the head with affliction in the midst of serving Christ. So, Paul joins three phrases together following his call to action; rejoice in hope, patient in affliction, persistent in prayer. We must keep ourselves centered on our hope in Christ, even while we patiently endure affliction and persist in our prayers for God’s help and strength. To be patient means to “bear up under” or “stand your ground” when things try to knock you down or force you to retreat or back down. We often see challenges and difficulties as the enemy but God is capable of using those things to achieve His purpose, to strengthen His people and to harden their resolve for obedience. As I stated in the introduction, if resistance strengthens our physical muscle then might God also use it to strengthen our spiritual muscle, our faith? We must be patient in affliction; resisting the urge to quit or failing Him under the burden of obedience.
Hope can keep us focused and centered on God’s power when the battle grows intense, but there’s nothing quite like a word of encouragement from Him when we start to falter or grow weak. That’s why Paul tells us that we must also be persistent in prayer. As we stand our ground in the midst of affliction we should continuously pray. Unfortunately, Christians often resort to prayer as a last resort when it should be our first response. Paul is NOT suggesting we abandon our position and seek out a time of reflection and prayer in the midst of the battle. Not a chance. Instead, he’s calling for us to cry out in prayer in the heat of the battle and then listen for God’s response, persistently – continuously. When we become spiritually inflamed, boiling with the power of God Spirit and seeking to be obedient to our Lord we must remain focused on the hope we have in Him, standing our ground when affliction tries to drive us back and persistently praying for God’s strength and guidance.
Why is that important? Because affliction has the ability to cause us to lose focus on our call to obedience. When affliction comes, we often focus on our troubles instead of focusing on our Lord. We become so focused on our troubles we lose hope, we lose spiritual ground or fall under the load, then we grow sullen, silent in our fellowship with God. However, when we are focused on Christ then our hope keeps us motivated to action, it keeps us strengthened as we bear up under the load brought on by affliction, and it keeps us in communication with our Father and hearing His Word of encouragement and guidance.
When we are able to stay focused on obedient service to our Lord in the midst of affliction, then we are able to share with the saints in their needs and to pursue hospitality. This is the essence of the New Testament Church – living life together, sharing with each other when there’s an unmet need and caring for one another. “Oh, you need one of those? Come over, I have one and it’s now yours.” If your completely focused on your personal afflictions then you won’t notice the needs of your neighbor and you certainly won’t pursue hospitality. While hospitality might have been a practical necessity among Christians in the early church, it is a spiritual necessity among modern Christians. We need to pursue hospitality, not necessarily because others need a safe place to stay in a dangerous culture, but because we need the spiritual disciplines and Christ-like character development it produces in us.
To be honest, some of these words are difficult for me to write. While I am much more open to “sharing” with other Christians, I am very independent and a product of my culture and I tend to resist the interdependence that Christ desires in the church, especially when it comes to hospitality. I tend to be very private and I find it difficult to be hospitable, let alone to pursue hospitality. Yet, there it is… pursue hospitality. It literally means to “hunt for opportunities to love strangers.” That’s not just a passive openness to host someone in your home but actively hunting for opportunities to express God’s love and kindness to those you don’t know and who may resist or reject your faith.
I doubt that many of us have ever considered how hospitality can be used to fulfill the Great Commission, but that appears to be Paul’s intent. That’s why Paul words this in such a strong way and why it is a critical spiritual discipline to develop even in our culture of independence and privacy. Especially in our culture of independence and privacy! We often think that folks tend come to faith in Christ through “church” events or evangelistic events and crusades but God has always used a “one-on-one” or a relationship model for spreading faith in Jesus Christ. Folks might hear the truth of the Gospel through evangelistic, church or public Gospel presentations but they tend to submit to and trust these truths when they experience these truths in or through a personal relationship. I know some of you might be questioning my words, but consider this:
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me! ” So he got up and followed Him. While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ” But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13 HCSB)
Jesus didn’t have a home, but He still used Jewish hospitality as a means of establishing a relationship with Matthew and calling him to faith and fellowship. When questioned by the religious leaders (Pharisees) about His tendency to visit the homes of tax collectors and sinners, He stated: “those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.”
Finally, Paul ends this section with another rather radical commandment: “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Opening ourselves up to hospitality with strangers also opens us up to persecution. But these aren’t just Paul’s words…
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48 HCSB)
The love of God goes beyond the love of man, farther than what we would do in ourselves. If you only love those who love you, what have you done that resembles God? Even tax collectors do that. If you greet or welcome only your brothers, what have you done out of the ordinary? Even Gentiles do that. Be perfect, be DIFFERENT from the world, be mature, be complete, reach your intended goal, be like God!
Oh man, Paul knows us. Doesn’t he? He knows our tendencies because he fights them, too. He says we should bless them, not curse them. Don’t do what everyone else does. That’s easy. That’s human. That’s what a man or woman without God’s Spirit would do, but that’s not what a follower of Christ does. Don’t take the easy path by cursing your persecutors, take the path of the cross and bless them! I’m not going to tell you this is easy, it isn’t. It’s hard. Really hard! That’s the point. The way of Christ is hard, really, really hard. That’s why it requires faith. That’s what it means to walk in the Spirit and not the flesh. That’s why we must focus on hope, stand our ground in the face of affliction and continuously pray for God’s strength. The path of the cross is difficult. That path takes you into the depths of the heart of hatred where you can plant the seed of God’s love and continuously pray that it takes root and grows.
Our culture doesn’t need a church that looks like itself, though that’s what it desperately wants. Our culture needs a church that is striving to live and look like Christ, that is striving to love like God. It doesn’t need a church that is a political powerhouse, it needs a church that is spiritually empowered. That’s the church we’ve been called to be. That’s the church Paul is calling the Roman house churches to be and the church I’m calling us to be. Will you walk alongside us as we seek to walk with Him? Let’s walk this way of the cross together, brothers and sisters in Christ.