Romans 12:3-8 – Transformed Relationships
Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is to prophesy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.
Our nation is deeply fractured. And these divisions have reached the point that we view those who differ from us not as compatriots but as people who live in an entirely different country. In protests and counter-protests, on social media, and even in our choice of news channels, these fractures entrench themselves. Even basic public-health guidance has become a flashpoint. And I’m afraid we’ve moved beyond the point where a return to “normal” can be achieved by symbolic gestures or speeches or prayer-vigils. The divisions among us can only be resolved by real, substantial change.
And thank God for that!
When tens of millions are unemployed and yet the stock market soars, things must change. When policing methods, the wealth gap, and a lack of access to affordable health care continue to disproportionately brutalize and kill black and brown and native people, things must change. When more than a hundred and seventy-four thousand people die from a preventable illness, and for a hundred seventy-four families who are grieving as a result, things must change.[i]
But how will change come? And from where will change come? Well, as I thought about these questions I remembered the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this exhortation, Paul challenges the individualism that is apparently plaguing this “new church start” in Rome. He told the congregation to use their God-given talents, their individual gifts for the benefit of all.
If one’s gift was to proclaim the hard truth, to challenge the status quo, to lay bare injustice… then that person should become a prophet. If another person’s gift was serve those who were struggling or hungry or sick or in prison, that person should devote them self to service. If still another person was gifted as a teacher, they should devote themselves to teaching. If encouragement was one’s thing, then become an encourager, a cheerleader, a confidant. In other words, Paul wanted them to “stay in their lane” as it were, to take the time to discover their calling, and then fulfill that calling to the best of their ability.
And notice something here. None of these “gifts” we’re meant to be used for individual gain. Paul said, “…individually, we belong to each other.” That’s profound! “…individually, we belong to each other.” And I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. There’s something deeper going on here. You see, Paul wasn’t only talking about those within the Roman Church; later in this letter Paul says, “…each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up.”[ii] So, that means that these “gifts” that Paul was talking about (challenging injustice, service, teaching, and encouraging) these things are to be used for the benefit of all people, for betterment of the church family and beyond, out in the wider community. This is what I call, “Paul’s beautiful vision of possibility”
And this same vision still exists in the world today. God is calling us to recognize, in a very profound way, the beauty and workings of a body whose parts function together. Each of us have our own role and importance, each of us bring our own gifts and abilities to the table, each of us play an important role in the unfolding of the Present Realm of God.
This is important to understand! It’s important because the progress and the spiritual growth, and the strong sense of community that we’ve enjoyed in our churches, didn’t come from one or two or even three individuals. We have these things because many, many people, across many, many years, have taken these words of Paul to heart. Many hands make easy work, especially when each hand is doing what it does best.
Now, there’s a challenge in all this as well. We, like the Romans, live in an age of individualism. We live in a culture that values wealth and power and winning above all else. And we’re all a part of and participate in this cultural norm. There’s no way to escape it. But what we can do, what we must do, is put wealth and power and winning into proper perspective. And that perspective allows us to be countercultural. Countercultural in the sense that we recognize these norms, and because of that recognition, we don’t allow the lure of wealth, power, and winning to outweigh our capacity for empathy.
Empathy. That’s an important concept. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. I’ve often hear empathy likened to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.
Now, not that all of our experiences are the same, not that all of our grief, not all of our broken places, are the same, they’re simply not. But empathy suggests that we as human beings have the capacity to suffer with, to share brokenness with each other, and, we have the capacity to begin to move toward wholeness, together. It’s like Paul suggests, each of us has a calling, a gift, whether it be teaching, or encouraging, or service, or seeking justice; collectively, we have the necessary tools to continue to be and to become to an even greater degree, congregations grounded in empathy.
Which brings me back around to my original supposition that “our nation is deeply fractured.” So, here’s my question. If we were to ground our shared calling in this concept of empathy, how might our view of mission, of ministry, be transformed?
I don’t know. Maybe an empathy-based church could help to begin to heal divisions within our community and beyond, across our nation and the globe, by addressing our collective pain and by acknowledging our shared brokenness. It seems to me that a church grounded in empathy would dedicate itself in the work of justice and peace and equality for all people, because that’s what Jesus taught and lived over and over again in the gospel stories. Jesus himself was a living example of how empathy could and should be the root of our faith.
I mean, can you imagine what beautiful, healing work hundreds of thousands of faithful empathy-based people of faith might accomplish? Systems of oppression named and dismantled. Educational disparities acknowledged and addressed. Hunger revealed and alleviated. Hatred within and beyond the walls of the church relegated to history and the doors, both figuratively and literally, swung open wide, inviting all people, welcoming all of God’s beloved. What a beautiful vision that would be!
One final thought before we come together in prayer. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, once said, “Every day, at home, I have the astonishing and humbling opportunity – together with my wife Sophie – to nurture empathy, compassion, self-love, and a keen sense of justice in our three kids.”[iii]
My friends, when a church grounds itself in empathy it becomes an example for generations to come. I think that’s the final piece of this beautiful vision that Paul had in mind. He implored his hearers to put aside prejudice and racism and nationalism, (he called them stumbling blocks) in favor of walking a mile in the shoes of another. He encouraged his audience, time and again, to be open to the possibility that each of their individual gifts, when combined, would create what we in the United Church of Christ have articulated as “a just world for all.” And finally, I think Paul knew, that to share Christ, to really share Christ, that couldn’t be done from some lofty throne of judgement, but rather, from a place of empathy.
May each of us, as we continue to discern and discover our gifts, use them to transform Paul’s beautiful vision of possibility into a beautiful vision of reality. May it me so. Amen and Amen.
[ii] Romans 15:2 Common English Bible (CEB)