MESSAGE FOR JULY 30, 2000 FROM ROMANS 12:13-14

 

          This week, we continue our trek through Romans 12.  You’ll recall this chapter, like all the others in Romans, deals with the subject of the gospel.  Paul, in this section of Romans gives some ways the gospel impacts a person and/or a group of believers.  Those who have truly received the gospel live transformed lives.  We know from 12:1-2 that this life is very different from the world and this transformation occurs as our minds are renewed with the truth of God.  As Paul shows the transformation the gospel brings, he begins his treatment with the area of Christian community.  The gospel should have a tremendous impact on how Christians relate to each other.  This relationship we have seen is to be marked by love. This love is a deep, powerful, comprehensive love.  This love is not superficial in word only, but is worked out in clearly manifest ways.  It is heartfelt, not hypocritical.  It is a comprehensive love, not only clinging to the good in one another, but also hating the evil that dishonors God and destroys us.  We saw from verse 11 it is a love showing forth a burning zeal for God.  It is a love that is (v.12) “joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” 

Finally, last time we saw that this kind of gospel-produced, transformed-life love is willing to share materially with those in need.  This love is seen in our attitudes, how we think and feel and our bank accounts, how we give our money away.  This is a “rubber-meets-the–road” community love.  It is the “real deal” and it is a beautiful and natural outgrowth of the gospel in the life of a believer.  Jesus says, this love is what pronounces to those outside the church that we are followers of Christ.  Conversely, to the degree this love for one another is not present, our greatest identifying mark as Christians is blurred or erased completely.   This is the kind of love that should mark Christian community and if we do not have this kind of love, we need to work hard at finding out why not because chapter 12 implies the gospel produces this kind of community love in the transformed lives of believers.

One aspect of this love we did not get to is found in the last phrase of verse 13.  Let’s read this phrase as well as verse 14.  “… Practice hospitality.   14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”  Paul says another aspect or manifestation of this love found in believing communities where the transforming power of the gospel is at work is; the practice of hospitality and the blessing, not cursing of those who persecute us for Christ’s sake.  Notice that in these manifestations of transformed-life, community love, Paul briefly changes direction.  Up to this point, he has focussed on how the transforming power of the gospel impacts inter-church relationships—how we relate to other brothers and sisters in our local body.  In contrast, you’ll notice that both of these expressions of community are directed outside the immediate community.  In other words, we see here that true Christian community produced by the gospel also has expressions that reach outside the local body.  That is the main idea under which the others will be grouped this morning.  The vibrant, supernatural Christian community produced by the gospel also expresses itself outside the established local body of believers.  

          Within that context of how Christian community impacts those outside the local body, Paul here treats two very different expressions of love for two very different situations.  The first way this transformed life is manifest to those outside the local body is that we are to be those who “practice hospitality.”  Both of the words in that phrase are much more graphic in the original than they are in English.  The word translated “practice” is actually a word taken from the context of hunting.  Literally, it means to “pursue as if in a chase or hunt.”  Paul says we are to be intensely proactive in our hospitality.  This is not a hospitality that only occurs incidentally when the opportunity presents itself.  What the transforming power of the gospel inclines the believer to do is not only to be available to be hospitable, but to actively pursue this ministry to others.  Like a hunter chasing after his prey, so are believers to be pursuing people to show hospitality.

          The logical question, in light of the intensity with which we are to pursue this ministry to others is, “What does Paul mean here by hospitality?”  The word “hospitality” in the original literally means “a love or fondness for strangers.”  Those people to whom the transformed person is hospitable are not primarily good friends, but strangers.  This was especially important in the Ancient Near East where hotels and motels were not existent and inns, like the ones that were full in Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus, were little more than large open rooms where perhaps dozens of strangers would flop down for the night.  If you were travelling in the ancient Near East, it was probably assumed that you would spend the night with a stranger whose house or tent you passed along the way.  It was part of the culture that your home was open to anyone who needed a place to stay and there were a number of cultural practices which Paul doubtless would have been included in his understanding of hospitality, many of which we see modeled in the Scriptures.  Let’s look at some of these just to get a snapshot of what would have had to have been in Paul’s mind when he penned these words.

          As a host, you were expected to wash the feet of your visitors.  We saw this expectation in John 13 in the upper room where Jesus played host to the disciples.  The host was also expected to anoint the head of the guest—the stranger--with oil. You’ll remember in Luke seven, the Lord embarrassed Simon the Pharisee by pointing out that a prostitute had done what he had been unwilling to do as a host. Two basic expressions of hospitality were greeting your guest with a kiss and anointing him.  Simon did neither and the Lord pointed out those omissions.  As a host you would also, without question, feed and water the person and their animals.  In John chapter four, we see the women giving Jesus water and nearly all of Jesus’ earthly meals during his three year ministry were given to him by someone else out of hospitality.  “The son of man has no place to lay his head.”  He banked on the hospitality of others.

We see in Genesis 19 from the example of Lot that the guest was made the lord of the house, while the host became his servant.  We see too in the story of Lot that the host was expected to protect his guests even if meant sacrificing a family member to do it.  And we know that part of what you did as a host is to ask the guest to stay longer than they intended.  It was expected that the host would try to delay the departure of the guest.  Do we see this picture of hospitality that would have served as a template for Paul’s use of that word?  Have we got the picture of what Paul meant by hospitality?  That was the kind of hospitality Paul certainly had in mind when he exhorts us to “practice hospitality.”  And he says, pursue with the zeal of a hunter the opportunity to do that kind of sacrificial ministry to strangers. Chase people down.

The obvious question that arises to us who live NOT live in the ancient Near East, but in 21st century America is “what does this text mean to us?”  Let’s face it, most Americans would far rather stay in a clean hotel than with strangers they meet along their journey.  Our highly self-sufficient culture has rendered irrelevant many of the specific hospitality expressions of the Bible world.  Hospitality today has largely been transferred from the home to a mammoth hospitality industry.  And if someone tried to pour oil on our heads, we would run for the hills. So how are we to apply this to us?  How does the gospel today transform lives in this area of pursuing chances to be hospitable?  How does this expression of a gospel-transformed life express itself today in the church?  Even though the specific expressions may be different, the command to pursue people to show them culturally acceptable forms of hospitality is still in force.  The spirit is still the same.

Before we move on to application, let’s clarify a misconception about biblical hospitality.  Practicing biblical hospitality does NOT require putting on an elaborate gourmet feast for the guest.  The expectation of Scripture is that you simply do your utmost to meet the basic needs of the person.  Many of the meals given were bread and water because that’s what people had to give.  This idea that to be hospitable, you have to kill the fatted calf and have a banquet with four different kinds of forks, comes much more from Emily Post than the Bible.  Being hospitable in biblical terms simply means to pursue people to meet their needs and make them feel at home when they are not at home—to make them feel as comfortable as possible. 

Far too many Christians fail to even begin in the ministry of hospitality because they wrongly feel they have to be Martha Stewart in order to be faithful.  This intimidates people and the false pressure they feel scares them from being faithful to this expression of the transformed life.  There is a place for those people in the body of Christ who can seemingly effortless host gourmet meals, but that is not necessarily hospitality.  We must never forget that hospitality is an expression of love, not culinary or domestic expertise.  It is far better to be in the company of someone who genuinely cares about us, but is very simple in their expression of that, than to be with someone who, although they may serve a fantastic dinner, doesn’t really show genuine love to us.  Proverbs 15:17 says, “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.”  The issue is love, not extravagance.

But let’s get back to the question of how we apply this teaching on hospitality to strangers in the local church today.  There are doubtless many applications.  But we see what is perhaps the most basic, the most obvious expression of how the church is to express Christian community by zealously pursuing this vital hospitality to strangers in the matter of how the local body of believers relates to visitors/newer people on Sunday mornings.  That is a self-evident application of this text. Again, there are others, but this is certainly among the most obvious.  People transformed by the gospel, whose minds are being renewed, will relate in a certain way to visitors to the local church assembly when we meet together.  They will practice hospitality with the same love as Paul understands that here in Romans 12:13.

I don’t know how many of us are aware of this fact, but one of the loneliest places to be in the world to be is in a church filled with other believers who are not reaching out to you with Christian hospitality.  It’s my opinion that every Christian should take a minimum of one week a year and visit a church where they have no social network, no position, no connections.  It is a very difficult experience.  You may go in and hear good music, a decent sermon, but if you leave that place without a meaningful connection with someone there, most people will not count that church experience to be a blessing.  The church is not music and it is not sermons, it is people.  Therefore, it is not surprising that most people’s initial and often lasting impressions of a church are shaped by how they are treated by the people in the church.  Were they warm?  Did they show me that I mattered to them, that they in some way cared about me?  Did they move out of their comfort zones and their circle of church friends to express any real interest in me?

If Paul’s call to the church to express the gospel-transformed life means anything, it means that when we come together as a body, we are to come with a desire to pursue, with the intensity of a hunter, strangers or visitors who are new to our body.  We are not simply to meet new people and say hello during the greeting.  We are to practice hospitality.  That means that we are to come to church with a mission to pursue those visitors or newer people and make meaningful connections with them.  We don’t do this so the church will grow.  We don’t do this so the new people will assimilate and give money to the church.  We do this because part of having a life transformed by the gospel for the glory of God means to have a love or fondness for new people.  And if that isn’t being done by a local body of believers, what that might very well indicate is there are not many people whose lives have been all that transformed by the gospel.  There are not many people whose minds are being renewed.

The transformed life produced by the gospel is expressed not simply in greeting visitors.  This would include intentionally making a larger lunch to feed people in your home, or treating someone to lunch in a restaurant.  Those would be very much in line with biblical hospitality.  It means pursuing people who are new to our fellowship and who need to experience community with the body of Christ.  From the comments I repeatedly and consistently hear in our church, this is a very weak area for us.  There is very little evidence in this area of our ministry of the transforming power of the gospel.  That means we must repent of the sin of being conformed to the pattern of this world in this area.  The world is superficial and surface.  The world says “hello” to a stranger and thinks that is more than enough.  The people of the world stay in their self-centered comfort zones and don’t expend energy ministering to the needs of others.  That’s the world.  And sadly, tragically, that’s us when we fail to energetically pursue establishing meaningful relationships with new people here.

As a church, we reach out in certain ways with letters and coffee mugs and other things, but that in and of itself is not even close to an adequate expression of hospitality.  That is done fundamentally by the brothers and sisters in the pew on Sunday morning.  We must be intentional about this.  We must pray, “God, help me to get out of my circle of family and friends and established ties with new people today.”  We must go to the Lord and say, “Lord, I’m not going to church today for my comfort today, but to, by your grace, show the transforming power of the gospel in loving visitors.”  This is part of Christian community and we as a church must, by God’s grace repent of our sin and move from a superficial greeting to meaningful connecting with newer people.  We are called to do whatever we can to make them feel at home because if they are believers, they are among family!

As we move to the second of these two expressions of a transformed life we move beyond being hospitable to strangers. Next, we see that the gospel transforms us in the area of how we are to relate to those who are persecuting us.  Paul is probably paraphrasing Jesus’ commands in Matthew and Luke when he says in verse 14, “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”  This command is sheer madness to the world.  This goes against everything in our old man.  Think about this for awhile.  Someone ostracizes—give you the cold shoulder or keeps you out of a particular social circle for being a Christian.  Someone prevents you from getting a deserved and much needed job promotion because you love the Lord.  Someone makes fun of your kids because you are believers.  Someone physically attacks you or a family member because you live for Christ.  Think about how that would feel.  How do you, as a person transformed by the gospel, respond to the persecutor?  You do NOT curse (Paul is careful to state that explicitly).  You do not do what comes naturally.  You do not return evil for evil.

You don’t ignore or avoid that person.  You don’t simply flee that person.  You don’t simply tell them to leave you alone.  You don’t report them to the ACLU. You…bless them.  You live your life to bless them—to do good to them.  You pray for them, you speak kindly to them.  You go out of your way to do nice and pleasant things for that person who is in some way making your life miserable.  Folks, this is off the charts.  All of Christian conduct is impossible and we can’t do any of it anything close to acceptably without supernatural empowerment.  That means showing hospitality or doing anything else we are called to do.  The difference between this command and the other Christian ethical demands is NOT that the others are possible to do in a manner pleasing to God and this one isn’t.  They are ALL impossible.  The difference is, we can FAKE a whole lot of the others in the flesh for a while.  There is almost NO ONE who can fake this one for any length of time.

As unrealistic as this command sounds (and few if any other religions calls you to BLESS those who persecute you), this is part and parcel of the early church.  Christ gives this teaching at least twice in the gospels and on the cross he models it.  He blesses his persecutors by interceding for them, asking the Father to “forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”  Stephen, the first New Testament martyr likewise blessed his persecutors in the same way—praying for them as they were stoning him to death.  Paul practiced what he preaches here.  This was not mere theory for Paul.  He testifies in 1 Corinthians 4:12-13, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.”  Its clear that this command is not a pious platitude placed in the New Testament so that believers can wonder at the beauty of the Christian ethic.

So often, we take this command as just that.  To actually do this—to bless those who are persecuting us is so abstract, we can very easily not take it to heart.  It remains a glorious Christian ideal that no one seriously expects us to live out.  That is especially true in an evangelical culture that is so worldly, there is very little persecution.  But Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,”  So, we first need to ask, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted and I am not being persecuted, what does that say?  The logic is inescapable there.  But beyond that to Paul’s point in Romans 12, are we people who seriously carry this expectation of ourselves to bless our persecutors?  If someone were to come on a Wednesday night and give a testimony that they were receiving threats from a co-worker because he hated them as a Christian, how would we respond?

Some of the responses are predictable.  We would make sure the person knew of their legal rights in a free country.  We would pray for safety for the person, we would pray against any seed of bitterness being formed in our brother—we might even pray for the person making the threats so they would stop persecuting our brother.  But, would be pray that our brother or sister would be given wisdom and insight so that they could know the best way to bless this persecutor?  “Lord, our brother has a marvelous opportunity to show forth the life of Christ here.  God, would you please help him to know the ways that he is supposed to bless this one who is threatening to fire bomb his house.”  Would the discussion seriously turn in that direction?  My guess is that it often would not because this is so foreign to us.

When we come up against a clear command of Scripture that is so foreign to us as to be, on a practical level, irrelevant, what are we to do in that situation?  When we are this far from a clear, biblical command, the only response is to humble ourselves before God and admit to Him the obvious truth that we, at this level, don’t really know very much about what it is to be a Christian.  We need to come to him and confess, “Lord, I’m not even burning bright enough for you to attract any persecution from a world that hates your light. How much less am I filled with your Spirit that I would realistically bless anyone who persecuted me for my faith.”  We need to be gut honest before God and cry out that He would fill us with His light, which WOULD in turn bring some form of persecution.  We need to cry out to God for a touch from him that we  would have the heart of Christ, so that when the persecution comes, we would bless those who in some way mistreat us.

As it relates to the issue of ministering hospitality—pursuing it in the area of newer people to our church.  We must repent of our sin here and resolve by the grace of God that we do not exist for ourselves but for others and to reach out in genuine Christian love to those who are new and newer among us.  This is the gospel lived out.  This is the supernatural life of Christ.  May God make us poor in spirit.  May God cause us to mourn over these areas until we have contrite hearts that display the glory of the gospel.

 

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