Read Romans 12:9-21 (and Deut. 6) here.
Today I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to start this message by teaching you a song. Some of you may already know it. It goes like this: 
Jesus, be the center
Be my source, be my light, Jesus
Jesus, be the center
Be my hope, be my song, Jesus
That song is a prayer, asking Jesus to be in the middle of us – in the middle of our thoughts and in the middle of our lives, in the middle of this gathering, and in the middle of this message.
Take a deep breath, and as you breathe in, say thanks to Jesus for that breath, and for being at the center of us.
I started this way today because today is the sixth week in our eight-week journey through the different ways that Jesus is making a difference in our lives. We’ve talked about time, money, technology, spirit, and body. Today we’re talking about community. We especially need to make sure we have Jesus in the center of us because Jesus said, “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name…”
For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. –Matthew 18:20
Yes, that’s what Jesus said, but we all know what really happens. Whenever two or more are gathered, somebody’s going to say something we don’t like and there’s going to be trouble. And, actually, in the verse before that one, Jesus says:
Truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. –Matthew 18:19
Whenever we gather together in Jesus’ name and pray together in agreement, Jesus is among us, and God will hear and answer our prayers. Do you think maybe he made that commitment because he felt he was safe?
There are all sorts of conversations we could have about what that says about prayer, but for right now I want us to focus instead of the power of gathering, and especially of gathering for a common purpose.
We are by nature people who gather. When God created Adam he gave us some insight into our wiring. God said,
“It is not good for the man to be alone.” –Genesis 2:18
We were not made to be alone. We were made to be in community. But it’s not long before there’s trouble, even in that first example of community, because Adam and Eve disobey God and get cast out of Eden. So it’s no surprise that so much of what Jesus teaches, so much of what Paul writes in his letters, is about how to get along with one another, which brings us to our text for today in Romans 12, Paul’s list of good behaviors for Christians. I read from the NRSV a few minutes ago, in which the first verse we read, verse 9, says:
Let love be genuine. –Romans 12:9
In your bulletins, there’s a card that says,
“Directions for Christ’s Disciples”
On that card, there’s a list. [Read the list here.} This is what Romans 12:9-19 says in the Message version of the Bible. Do you see what the first item on the list says?
- Love from the center of who you are
Jesus, be the center.
How many of you have worked in customer service or retail?
One of my first jobs when I was in high school was working at Carl’s Jr., a fast food chain in California. I started out up front at the register taking orders. This was back in the old days when people still used actual cash to pay for things, and so you’d enter how much they gave you, and the register would tell you how much change to give back. Now everybody has cards, so if the register breaks down, you have to close the store because there’s no way to let people pay, but back then if the register broke down, we’d just do things the old fashioned way – with our brains. On one of these days that the register was broken, I looked up to see who was next in line and there was Dr. Prouse, the man who had been my sixth grade teacher. When I was in his class, he called me tsetse. Do you know what a tsetse is? It’s a fly that’s found in Central Africa.
Tsetse flies carry a disease that’s commonly called sleeping sickness. One day in class, Dr. Prouse had asked me a question that I didn’t answer right away because I was distracted, maybe daydreaming. He said I was sleeping, and must have been bitten by the tsetse fly, and from then on he called me tsetse. He was the kind of teacher that joked a lot, but also expected a lot from his students, and when I saw him in my line, I was nervous. Being nervous, I wasn’t as quick about figuring out his change, and so he said with a big grin and a twinkle in his eye, “Come on, tsetse, I know you know how to do this.”
He was just being friendly, and it was fun to see a friendly face, because when you work at a cash register you also hear lots of complaints. Sometimes they’re legitimate and sometimes they’re simply the result of someone having a bad day or a bad temperament. Inevitably when you work in retail, you’ll complain about the challenge of hearing negative comments, and someone will say, “But these are the people that pay our salaries. Without customers, we’d have no jobs.”
Maybe the hardest thing about working in retail is that you have to be nice to people, even when they aren’t nice to you.
The funny thing about that is that Paul’s list of directions for Christ’s disciples, the list of Christian behaviors we read from Romans 12, sounds a lot like the training we receive to work in retail. In the business world, the motivation is to be nice to customers so they’ll keep coming back, so that the business makes money. But Paul’s not concerned about making money. Paul’s concerned about being like Jesus.
Maybe the hardest thing about being a Christian is that you have to be nice to people, even when they aren’t nice to you.
Do we really have to?
Well…in a word…yes. Why? Because Jesus said so.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
–Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, John 13:34
Notice that it’s in all four of the gospels. And it’s not just in the gospels. It’s everywhere.
Leviticus 19:18, Romans 13:8, Galatians 5:14, 1 Peter 4:18, et al
“Et al” means there are lots more places, too many to list here. Why are there so many? Because it’s really important. In fact, it’s fundamental to who we are as Christians, and as children of God.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. –1 John 4:20
Do we really have to love one another? Yes. How do we do that? And now we’re back to the list in your bulletin from Romans 12 which goes into some detail about all the different ways we love one another. As you look down the list, you’ll see that some of them are easier than others. Our challenge for this week is to take that card home and pray about it and pick one item on the list to work on. Ask God to help you with that item. Ask Jesus to be the center.
Challenge: Pick one item on the list to work on.
It’s important that we work on getting along and learning how to truly love one another because we were made to be in community with one another. We are drawn to one another. Writer and theologian C.S. Lewis talked about that in speech he gave at the University of London in 1944. He talked about a desire we all have to be in relationships with one another, to be inside what he calls the “inner ring” of relationships, to be a part of a particular group or gathering. Others might call this our need to belong. Lewis says that we will do or say things specifically because we think they will get us inside this “inner ring.” And we will be discouraged, even to the point of despair, maybe even to the point of violence, when we are excluded from a ring we desire to be a part of. Lewis says,
“The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
I think we see this at work in the extremes to which people are willing to go to be accepted into fraternities and sororities. Sadly, even if we do all the right things, sometimes we still get left out. This can be devastating. One man who experienced this is leadership consultant Charles Vogl. In his book The Art of Community he tells about feeling left out of the cliques and inner rings when he was a student at Yale University. His solution was to create a new community by inviting people to have dinner at his home on Friday nights.
At first not very many people came, but after awhile more people did come, and eventually the dinners got to be too tiring for Vogl and his wife to keep up on their own, so they organized a team of volunteers who planned the menus, cooked the meals, and prepared the space. One who came to those dinners was a student named Melo. He was from the Philippines. When Melo was about to graduate, he took Charles to lunch one day and told him how he had struggled to fit in to American culture and to keep up with his classes at Yale. His first year at school, his mother got sick and died and Melo couldn’t go home to see her one last time or to attend her funeral. When he did get home for summer break, Melo considered staying in the Philippines because he was so discouraged about losing his mother. “It didn’t matter that he had a full scholarship and was one of few Filipinos to study at Yale. It was just too hard. He couldn’t do it. “Then,” Melo said, “I remembered your invitations to the dinners at your house. And I knew that I belonged. I knew that I wasn’t alone, and that gave me the strength to come back.”
Melo wanted to make sure that Vogl knew that those dinners had changed his life by offering a place for people to gather and “create deep relationships that serve, support and heal.”
Isn’t that why we gather here at church?
Our culture is changing, as culture will always do, and so people are not going to church as much as they once did, and people do not join clubs and organizations as much as they once did either. Researchers are finding that it’s not because people don’t believe in God, because large numbers of us still do, and it’s not because we don’t need to have relationships, either. We still do, but we are making those relationships in different ways and in different places. That’s why it’s all the more important that in all the places that we go and in all the ways we connect with people, whether online or in person, we behave in the ways that Jesus and Paul encourage us to behave, so that people will see Jesus in our lives, and hear Jesus in our words.
Jesus, be the center.
That’s why I’m challenging us all to pray over this list from Romans 12 this week. The more we look to God for help with this, the more we will be successful, because the more we look at Jesus, the more we reflect his glory.
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. –2 Corinthians 3:18
Why do we want to reflect that image? Because people are drawn to Jesus. That’s why our prayer at the beginning was “Jesus be the center.”
It’s so important that we keep our focus on Jesus as the center of our lives and of our church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor and theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, wrote about this in his book Life Together. He said that without Jesus at the center, we have no basis for community.
“Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.”
Bonhoeffer encouraged us to be less concerned about measuring the size or success of our churches, less concerned about coming up with programs or grand visions and dreams, and instead to be thankful. He said:
“Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
The more thankfully we receive what is given to us…
Our second challenge for today: Be thankful.
- Today I am thankful to be in this community. I am thankful to be your pastor.
- I am thankful that you took the time to come here today and worship our awesome God with us.
- I am thankful for you.
Communities gather around a common focus, a common center. Ours is Jesus, who lived and died and rose again so that we could have fellowship with God and with one another,
- …so that we could know what genuine love looks like,
- …so that we could be a community with Jesus at the center
And all the people said…amen.
 “The Inner Ring” by C.S. Lewis: https://www.calvin.edu/~pribeiro/DCM-Lewis-2009/Lewis/the-inner-ring.doc (accessed 10/12/2018)
 Vogl, Charles. The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging . Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pg 25