Monday, September 20, 2010

Reflections on Romans Chapter 12 - Part I

A couple of weeks ago I reflected on Luke 10:38 – 42, the account of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. My focus was on encountering the passage as it is written as opposed to the way we would have it written; and teaching it as it is written, not as we would write it. Do we have warrant to mitigate what is written? In the instance of the Luke passage, do we have warrant to interject how vital Martha’s serving was when the passage clearly does not teach that, in fact it teaches the opposite – but we don’t want to hurt any Martha’s do we? While we may go to other Biblical passage to teach the importance of serving those around us, we may not go to Luke 10:38 – 42 and if we try to make Luke 10:38 – 42 teach the importance of serving we give the lie to our professed high view of Scripture.

If we can teach Luke 10:38 – 42 without interjecting the importance of Martha serving those around her then we will have done a good day’s work; if we cannot do so then we have not led our audience into and through that passage.

Having said this, I am now going to be the policeman who arrests himself. I seem to be doing this frequently, catching myself having never actually read a Biblical passage that I have been reading for over 40 years. Perhaps this is one reason why I am sensitive to passages like Luke 10:38 – 42, I speak from experience.

I realized this week that I have never read Romans Chapter 12, despite the fact that I know its contents. This is a good example of what happens when we focus on one or two verses in a passage to the neglect of the context. It is also a good example of what happens when we compartmentalize a passage and don’t see the connectivity of the writer’s thought. It is as if we actually think that the writer wrote in starts and stops, in a series of unconnected thoughts, as if his intent was to write verses when there were no verses in the original text – I’m speaking of numbered verses of course, not poetic verses which abound in Scripture. I am pretty certain that the Biblical writers did not write with the goal of having stand-alone sentences that lend themselves to verse cards to be read at the daily breakfast table.

Romans 12:1-2 have been as much a part of my life as salt and pepper. I cannot recall a time, other than my early years when I did not know Christ, when I didn’t know and use those verses. And perhaps that word “use” is a clue – they were there to use, not to obey in context. One of the reasons I “used” them was that they are familiar to many Christians, either that or people have been nodding their heads when I cite them to appease me or to act as if they know them. Another reason I quote them is because of their message – we are to offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds – not being conformed to the world.

Verses 1 – 2 were my first compartment when thinking about Romans Chapter 12.

The second compartment was verses 3 – 13, a picture of the Body of Christ. I often “used” this passage in parallel with 1 Corinthians Chapter 12 and Ephesians Chapter 4. 

The third compartment was verses 14 – 21. I had a passing acquaintance with this section, I could say, “Hello”, to it but I frankly never stopped to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with what Paul was writing, and I never really considered it as a call to obedience. I’m going to return to this section later because it was while being drawn into this section that I realized that I’d never really read Romans Chapter 12. In fact, it was by meditating on Romans 12:21, the last verse of the chapter, that I realized that I’d never read the chapter. I begin at the end (verse 21) to get to the beginning (verse 1); and having arrived at the beginning I could then travel back to the end and understand the significance of the trip after more than 40 years of traveling on a road that I didn’t see and therefore didn’t understand.    

Permit me to restate this: Prior to this week, when I came to Romans Chapter 12 I “saw” three compartments, three sections; verses 1-2, verses 3 – 13, verses 14 – 21. The fact that I quoted and meditated on verses 1-2 with such frequency over a period of 40 years reinforced this compartmentalization. Many ships have hulls which are compartmentalized with water-tight doors between the compartments that can be closed in the event of a leak or gash in the hull, thus compartmentalizing the water so that it does spread through the entire hull and sink the ship. Compartmentalizing is good for ships, it is bad for minds. Compartmentalizing water that doesn’t belong in a ship is a good thing; compartmentalizing understanding that belongs in the heart and mind is a bad thing.

What good is it to be able to quote a verse if we don’t know what it means? To quote a verse without knowing and responding in obedience to its meaning is to be inoculated against understanding it.

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. Gracious, I hadn't noticed that either. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Perhaps one reason we don't see connections like this, is that we preachers and teachers generally choose a "manageable" portion of scripture to deal with. It's been my experience that discerning a proper pericope or inclusio is hard work in and of itself.

    When I have felt the need to preach an entire chapter, I find it difficult both for me and my listeners to follow--we're simply not accustomed to, nor have we been educated in, dealing with lengthy passages. See, even that last sentence was a bear, wasn't it.

    Your observation also fits with something I realized when preaching through Romans. Many consider it a compendium of Paul's theology, but I found it to be deeply pastoral for a church struggling with conflict. Your insight is more evidence of Paul's pleading for their getting along with one another in Christ.