“…let nothing be wanting among you. Then all is well and will be well. Encourage one another to seek out the poor, sick, fatherless, widows and imprisoned and make up their necessities and wants. Then there will be nothing lacking. And keep in discerning that you may not be ensnared nor made a prey upon….” Geo. Fox 1659
The Good, The Acceptable and the Perfect
When Paul wrote his letter to Rome he had never been there and didn’t know the situation there or his audience. In the Apostolic age there was no uniform and official organization of the Church at Rome. The Christians there depended on and were well served by ‘mutual exhortation and instruction’. Because of their diversity of gifts, they had a vital and spiritual differentiation of functions. What is clear is that no particular organization was wanted or needed by them to ensure their standing as Christians. This new religion, early Roman Christianity, most likely resulted from a process described as ‘a quiet and fortuitous filtration’ as people moved in and out of the capitol of the Rome dominated world.
Paul writes to them as if they were Gentiles. But whether Jew or Gentile, under the emancipation from the law by Jesus Christ, at least as Paul understood it, all human beings were on the same footing: moralism, legalism, even Pharisaism were in the last resort an attempt to be good without God. So, from where does the impulse come for good behavior for members of the Christian community?
Romans 12: 1-8
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
Let’s start by looking at verse 2. What Paul addresses here is clearly the matter of spiritual formation.
2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The primary question each of us continually ask is “…what is the will of God for me”? How would I know it if I stumbled over it? Paul’s answer is that the will of God is “what is good, what is acceptable and what is perfect”. Anything less than this short list of attributes can not be what God intends or desires. Well, that may be an interesting starting point but it hardly answers the kind of questions most of us raise. We want to know whether the open heart surgery being contemplated, or the job opportunity that requires leaving a secure position or the purchase of the hybrid car, or giving the person on the street corner a five dollar bill is or is not the will of God. Paul evidently isn’t going to give us some secret formula that gets us a ‘Will of God’ card in the game of life.
The first of his short list isn’t all that hard. One thing we know is that what God created God called good. That includes glaciers and mosquitoes. It includes Jews and gentiles. It embraces things that work like they are supposed to and things which to us seem to be aberrant, and that includes human beings who at birth are formed differently than most of us, human beings for whom physical or psychological trauma has caused them to function different than most. It even includes those who have violated the most basic standards of human conduct. We have no license to declare evil what God has declared to be good.
I never said that we would necessarily like what Paul had to say – I just said that what he had to say was pretty easy to understand. But it is not a normal and typical human perspective – to be able to posit good where all we see is evil. But of Paul’s list that is number one.
The second is, “what is acceptable”. This one may be a bit more difficult. The struggle is for us to get into God’s head (now there is an anthropomorphism for you!) and try to grasp what is ‘acceptable’ to God. What can God accept? In our imaginations we’ve sorely limited what we think God will accept. Most of our strong feelings of aversion are driven by our culture, what we learned at home. Well, the good news is that God stands ready to accept you – and are you already scrubbed clean and complete?
Interestingly enough Paul discusses acceptability at the beginning of the fourteenth chapter. In the first part of his discussion he writes: ‘Accept anyone who is weak in faith without debate about his misgivings.’ He goes on to ask his readers who they are to pass judgment on another?
But then Paul lets the other shoe fall. The subject of the discussion are the scruples some within the faith community held about eating or not eating food offered to idols. This was not an issue for Paul. He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that idols were not competitive gods so food offered to them was as good as any other food. That is what he knew for himself. That was his own standard. But he writes: ”If your fellow Christian is outraged by what you eat, then you are no longer guided by love.” “Those of us”, he writes, “must accept as our own burden the tender scruples of the weak, and not just please ourselves. Each of us must consider his neighbor and think of what is for his good and will build up the common life.” His argument is that the Kingdom of God consists of justice, peace, and joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit. By the mid point of the fifteenth chapter he says: ‘In a word, accept one another as Christ accepted us’
But here is yet another atypical human attribute – to willingly accept as one’s own burden the scruples of another. Many counselors today would warn you about getting caught up, co-dependently, in another’s dysfunctional behavior, letting the scruples of others control your life. Yes, there is a danger there. But when you know what is true for you, you can choose what path you will take – and sometimes it might well be to choose to be sensitive to the needs of others. Some have actually called this the standard of love.
The third of Paul’s short list, understanding that which is perfect (gr. teleiov), stretches us a bit more. Those of us who have grown up in what has been called a holiness tradition have been shaped by a spiritualization of the word ‘perfect’. We’ve made it the equivalent of being without sin by the grace of God. But Paul uses it here as a synonym for words like complete or ‘ethically adequate’. Moses charges the levitical priests to be ‘undivided in your service to the Lord…’(Dt.18:13). In the Sermon on the mount Jesus charges his hearers with these words: “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” (Mt.5:48). In II Timothy perfect is defined as being “thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” So what is perfect is about our actions toward others. This is an ethical quality. It is about how we live responsibly in community which may mean speaking out, taking a stand for what is right and just and opposing that which is wrong no matter how popular it may be. Now that not only doesn’t come naturally to us it is down right scary.
To acknowledge what is good in the face of public condemnation, to accept others in spite of their differences and further to accept the burden of adjusting one’s own life to keep peace in the household of faith and then to be undivided in our dedication to the Lord – well, Friends, it ain’t gonna’ happen unless something transforms us – renews our minds. Philippians 2:5 in the King James version says: “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus.” Today we’d describe this as a cognitive change – to see things in a wholly new way. We will never be able to know the will of God if we let the world form our frame of reference.
For Paul, there was no distinction made between faith and practice. It is the warp and woof of one piece of cloth. Matter of fact, such a distinction can’t be found anywhere in the New Testament. Paul develops his characteristic faith statements under practical compulsion. He promulgates no doctrine which does not imply a corresponding practice. Our faith growing from our new relationships with Christ determines our duties to God and others. They carry an intrinsic moral imperative. There is a Christian ethic that has a range, a delicacy and a flavor all its own. The will of God is what is good, acceptable and perfect.
Hear the rest of this passage:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
Our moralism, our legalism, even our Pharisaism are in the last resort our feeble attempt to be good without God. Goodness, acceptance of others and their issues and being ‘perfect’, living our Christian lives with integrity, audacity, and courage have to come from Christ’s own spirit within us as our minds are renewed and as we are transformed into the citizens of God’s kingdom.
Preparation for August 31
The Gospel is still Matthew, verses 21-28 of chapter 16.
“From this time on” it begins. This isn’t just a moment in time, it is about Jesus’ mission, a mission that, on its face seems utterly hopeless. And then he seeks to recruit us into his vision for the future.
Romans 12: 9-21 is the reading from the Epistles for this week. It is a list of challenges to our discipleship.
Exodus 3: 1-15 is the burning bush episode. Do God’s words to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people…” have a meaning for us? What about your own sense of call or vocation echoes that of Moses’s.
Another Old Testament reading for the week is Jeremiah 15:15-21. You might want to sit with these words for a while. How does it fit with the Matthew passage? Can one’s call feel like an injury that refuses to heal? Jeremiah wasn’t to be a salesman – he was to be an example, a stalwart and consistent voice for God.