Original Date: 
Sunday, May 12, 2013

Romans 12:9-13 Who Do You Think You Are? Friends

What Would You Take?
If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only take three items with you, what would you choose?

It’s a fun little exercise. A way to test your ingenuity, or to discover what you value the most in your life. I found an forum on the google machine—or the “googler” as I like to call it—that asked that question and then recorded people’s answers.

Some people took the question quite seriously and broke out their full Survivorman expertise. They said things like: “a multi-tool, a flint stick and some rope.” Or “a blanket, a water filter, and lots of food.” Another person got sort of sentimental, saying: “my husband, my son, and my daughter, because they give me the strength to get through everything!!”

Still another referenced a famous movie, saying he’d take along “a volleyball, so I’d have someone to talk to. An ice skate, for dental repairs. And a flashlight that shuts off automatically, so I don’t lose batteries after doing said dental repairs.”

One of my favorite answers came from the engineer who said he would take “a fully fueled helicopter, a pilot to fly it, and since the exercise says I should have three items, I’d also have spare parts for the helicopter just in case.”

But the best answer is the one Beth found on Pinterest. It said: “If I were stranded on a desert island and could only bring three items I’d bring: Michael Phelps, a saddle, and a gold medal tied to the end of a stick.”

It’s an interesting thought experiment: what would I do if I were all alone? While the idea might sound appealing to some of us in the short term, I think we all realize just how difficult that would be. One of the reasons Tom Hanks started talking to the volleyball in Castaway was to illustrate a universal truth: we all need somebody to talk to. We were not meant to be all by ourselves. Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, still you were meant to live in community.

We are in the midst of a series called Who Do You Think You Are? The idea is to get a Biblical picture of what it means to be human. A theology of humanity. We’re trying to get at what God has designed us to be.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at Genesis 2:18 where God says: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” That was our introduction to the idea that God has made us male and female. That God designed the genders to complement and complete one another.

But, aside from the beginning of marriage, that verse also reminds us that God created us to have relationships. Married or not, we are creatures that need other people around us. Isolation on a deserted island may be survivable—especially if your name is Bear Grylls—but it’s not the way life is supposed to be. We were created to be friends.

Paul’s Friendship Axioms
In the book of Romans the Apostle Paul spends the first 11 chapters spelling out depth and the power of the gospel. He explains our great need, and the great lengths God went to in order to save us.

Then, starting in chapter 12, Paul starts to unpack the implications of the gospel for our lives. The whole book can be broken down into this simple outline: This is what God has done, and this is how you should live because of it. The second half of the book is very practical and yet profound.

And in the midst of sharing how we should live in light of the gospel, Paul gives a series of short, compact statements—you could call them axioms—about how we should relate to each other as Christian friends. Romans 12:9-13, this is a description of Biblical community:

9Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

I see at least 5 things in these verses that we should apply to our relationships. 5 things we should strive for as Christian friends.

No Masks Allowed
First, we should strive for Authentic Relationships. As Christians, we should seek to have friendships that are more than surface-only or fake. Romans 12:9, the first part:

Love must be sincere.

The word translated “sincere” here is actually a form of the word hypocrite. You’ve probably heard that hypocrite was originally a way of referring to actors in Greek theater. It wasn’t originally a bad word, it just meant “somebody who was playing a role.” Pretending or acting.

In fact, in ancient Greek theater the actors didn’t act, so much, as they wore different masks to represent different characters. It was more like a reader’s theater where the actors held up different masks whenever they read a different part.

So what Paul is saying here is that love should take off the masks. That, as Christians, we should strive for relationships free of the need to put on a good face or to put on airs like we have it more together than we really do.

Too often, in the Christian world, we feel the need to mask who we really are. We come to church and we feel this pressure to look really spiritual and put on a happy face. We have that greeting time at the beginning of the surface and we pump a bunch of hands and we wear big smiles and we act like we haven’t got a care in the world, when inside we might be really struggling and hurting.

Now, I’m not suggesting that in the 30 seconds we have to greet each other you should pull somebody aside and tell them that your dog has cancer and that your car has to go in for repairs and that you’re really struggling with feelings of anger toward your boss—that’s not the time or place for that—but I am suggesting that if your relationships at church never get beyond a handshake and a smile then we are not doing a very good job of building community.

We all need authentic relationships where we can take off our masks; where we can admit to our sins and our struggles, our fears and our failures.

Think about it: one of the things we recognize as Christians is that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We should understand better than anybody else that each of us continues to battle our selfish natures on a daily basis. We believe that we all desperately need Jesus’ grace in our lives.

Matt Chandler writes:

So why pretend we’re more than we are if everything is built on Jesus’ righteousness and not our own? Why the need to be fake? The gospel frees us to be authentic, to admit that our struggles and strengths have not been fully sanctified, and to allow others to apply the grace of God to areas of our lives that desperately need it. (Creature of the Word, p. 55)

So we need to strive for Christian relationships built on honesty and transparency, where people can experience (and help others to experience) freedom from wearing masks. Let’s help one another get past the need to pretend we have it all together. Let’s create safe places to admit that we make mistakes. Let’s trust each other enough to share some of our yuck with them. And, let’s be the kind of people who, when someone shares some yuck, respond with grace and love.

Let love be sincere. Let’s take off the masks.

Safe, But Not Soft
There’s a flip side to that, though. Striving for authentic, grace-filled relationships is not the same as saying that anything goes. The second thing this passage talks about is Accountable Relationships. We need friendships that will help us to fight against sin. The second half of verse 9:

Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

The word “hate” here is translated as “abhor” in other versions of the Bible. It’s a word that means to “shiver in horror”, sort of like the way your body reacts to jumping into a cold lake. Believers are supposed to shudder at things that go against God’s purposes. We should have a physical revulsion at sin. We should hate evil.

So, we need to strive to be a community where we have a safe environment to be honest about who we are, but always with this one notable caveat—without excusing sin.

While we want to celebrate grace and always point people back to the grace of Jesus, we must never lose sight of why grace is necessary in the first place. The reality of the depth of evil that brought Jesus to the cross, and the enormity of the suffering He experienced in order to deal with it, should motivate us to despise sin in our lives that much more. Grace should never make it easier for us to sin; it should always make sin that much more distasteful to us.

And one of the ways God has given us to wage war against sin in our lives is Godly brothers and sisters who have the courage—and the genuine concern—to say to us: “Maybe this is an area of your life that you should change.”

I think of the story of David. Following his dalliance with Bathsheba and the wretched way he disposed of her husband Uriah, David thought he had gotten away with it. He took Bathsheba as a wife and made like the child she bore was conceived in a legitimate way. Now, I’m thinking there were plenty of people in the palace who could do math. And I’m guessing they could figure out that the timeline from Uriah’s death to Bathsheba’s mourning to David marrying her didn’t actually leave enough time for a normal pregnancy. But David was the king. I’m sure people could figure it out. But who would dare to say anything?

David believed he had covered his tracks and, I’m guessing, he truly believed what he had done wasn’t that bad.

And then God sent the prophet Nathan to him. Nathan very skillfully and creatively told David about a rich sheep farmer who had plenty yet who cruelly and selfishly killed the pet lamb of tenant who had very little. When David became appropriately upset over the injustice of the story, Nathan caught him short by proclaiming: “You are the man!”

Nathan took the courageous step of holding his friend and king accountable for his sin. In the end, Nathan helped David far more by pointing his sin out than he would have by remaining silent.

Proverbs 27:6 says:

“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

It is not real love to see someone in danger and yet pat them on the back—or kiss them on the cheek—and tell them everything is fine. No parent who sees their child playing on a busy street is going to say: “I know it is dangerous, but look how much fun he’s having.” We’re going to yell and scream and run and grab and get our kids to safety. That’s real love.

In the same way, Christian friends take responsibility for holding one another accountable and confronting the evil in one another’s lives. That’s real love.

Our goal must be to create environments that are safe, but not soft. Environments that embrace people in their brokenness while still guiding each other to wholeness in Christ. “Gospel-centered community exists with the grace-filled tension of receiving sinners while simultaneously making war on sin.” (Chandler, p. 57)

“One Up” Each Other
Third, we should seek to have Affectionate Relationships. We need friendships that are grounded in genuine love for each other. Verse 10:

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Paul actually uses three words here that get at the idea of love: “devoted”, “brotherly,” and “love.” In fact, the compound word he uses for “brotherly love” is a word we are familiar with: “Philadelphia.” Philos in Greek means “brotherly love” and “adelphos” means “of the same womb.” So, as Christians we are called to possess a deep brotherly love for each other as though we were literally born from the same womb. As Christians, we can say of each other: “This is my brother from another mother.”

Put together then, this phrase could be translated as “Love one another warmly” or “be kindly affectioned” or even, as John MacArthur offers: “Be lovingly loving with one another with loving love.”

As Christians, we are called to care deeply about one another. We are the family of God.

This has always been a hallmark of Christian community. Aristides, a pagan orator who bore no love for Jesus or the church, even remarked on this counter cultural trait of Christians as a reason to scorn them. He said: “If these Christians hear that any one of their number is in distress for the sake of Christ’s name, they all render aid in his necessity.”(quoted by Chandler, p. 59) Aristides didn’t think much of that, but to me it sounds like a community I want to be a part of.

Paul even says that we should “honor one another above ourselves.” Other translations say we should “Outdo one another in showing honor.” In other words, we can make a competition out who can love each other more.

My friends and I have all sorts of silly competitions. If we go out to eat, we try to outdo each other by seeing who can do the most damage to the buffet. If we’re just standing around in the backyard it won’t be long before we try to outdo each other in lawn darts or a footrace or seeing who can lift the most firewood (usually not me). During the workday we try to outdo each other by seeing who can write the funniest email. (In fact, as I was writing this sermon I was engaged in an email dialogue in which we decided to call Jay “the grass whisperer.” We’re pretty sure that if you drive by Jay’s house late at night you can find him on his lawn with a nail file and fingernail clippers making sure every blade grass is just right.)

But here is a Godly competition: who can outdo the other in acts of service? Who can set aside their own glory and preferences in order to honor and build up their friends?

In the church, we should constantly be asking how we can honor those around us:

• How can I be concerned about you and your needs?
• Why shouldn’t I take the farthest parking spot?
• What if I go last so that you can go first?
• Can I take a meal to someone who is experiencing illness?
• How can I disadvantage myself for your advantage?
• What would it mean to consider you more significant than me?

Christian friendships are built out of affectionate relationships. We should see one another as members of the same family and seek to outdo one another in the giving of honor.

In This Together
Fourth, in an effort to keep my string of words beginning with “a”, I’ll say that we should have Always Relationships. We need friendships that weather all sorts of circumstances. Verses 11 and 12:

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

These sound like instructions to an individual, the kind of things you need to do in your Christian walk all by yourself: stay fervent, stay joyful, stay patient, keep praying, etc. But given the context, with these verses coming right after a couple of verses on love and right before another verse on love: you get the impression that Paul isn’t just talking about things we need to do on our own, but things we should be doing as Christians together.

Maybe it is helpful to remember that the letters of the New Testament—with a few exceptions—were not written to individuals but to churches. Most of the Bible is instruction to communities of believers. The idea was that this epistle to the church in Rome would be read aloud to the assembly and it would be studied, talked about and practiced in community.

So Paul isn’t just saying: “Hey you, Joe Christian, be fervent and keep serving the Lord.” He’s saying: “Dearly loved brothers and sisters in Christ, be fervent and keep serving the Lord.” We are being instructed to rejoice, together. To be patient, together. To pray, together.

That’s why I say we need “always” relationships. If you look at the list, you’ll notice that this covers the full spectrum of circumstances. When things are hopeful and we’re filled with joy, we need Christian friends to celebrate with us. And when things are bad and we need patience, we need Christian friends to suffer with us. In all times, we should be praying together.

When our zeal is lacking, and we feel like God is far away, we need Christian brothers and sisters to help us fix our eyes back on Jesus. When our spiritual energy is running out and we don’t feel like serving any more, we need Christian friends to cheer us on and share the burden.

The day is coming—and this is our great Christian hope—when there will be no more funerals, no more tragedies or disasters, no more cancer, no more sickness, no more sore throats or heartburn or poison ivy rashes, no more anger or tears. A day is coming when there will only be joy. But in the meantime, we live in the midst of all these horrible things, at times overwhelmed by them, and we need one another to journey over the peaks and valleys together.

Mi Casa es Su Casa
Then, fifth, we need Generous Relationships (I know, I know, it doesn’t start with an “a”. I wracked my brain and couldn’t come up with a word. If any of you can think of a good word that starts with “a” and tell me between services, I promise I’ll change it before the second sermon. Then you can attend the second service free of charge and see you word up on the screen.) We need friendships that are generous. Verse 13:

Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

A true mark of Christian community that is formed out of what Christ has done for us is a supernatural spirit of warmth and hospitality. When we remember that Christ who was rich made Himself poor for our sakes, then it is easy for us to be generous with our fellow believers.

“Practice hospitality.” Literally, that says “pursue hospitality.” We should hunt down opportunities to be hospitable. Like a hawk diving on prey, we should be on the lookout for opportunities to welcome people into our homes (or our church) who don’t ordinarily belong there.

And the verb used here implies continuous action. This isn’t something we are enjoined to do once or twice a year—at Thanksgiving or during the Super Bowl—but something we should be pursuing at all times.

As far back as you want to go in history—from Abraham welcoming weary travelers into his tent to Mary and Martha making room for Jesus and His band of merry men to the early church making sure there was someone to wait on the tables of the widows—hospitality has been a hallmark of God’s people.

The verse says we need to be persistent in our practice of hospitality. Hebrews 13 says that we should not neglect it. Evidently it is something that we can easily fail to do.

Indeed it is.

The physical force of gravity pulls everything to the center of the earth. In order to break free from earth-centered life, thousands and thousands of pounds of energy have to push a rocket away from the center. There is also a psychological force of gravity that constantly pulls our thoughts and affections and physical actions inward toward the center of our own selves and our own homes.

Therefore the most natural thing in the world is to neglect hospitality. It is the path of least resistance. All we have to do is yield to the natural gravity of our self-centered life, and the result will be a life so full of self that there is no room for hospitality. We will forget about it. And we will neglect it.

So the Bible bluntly says, "Stop that!" Build a launching pad. Fill up your boosters. And blast out of your self-oriented routine. Stop neglecting hospitality. Practice hospitality. (John Piper, Strategic Hospitality, Aug. 25, 1985)

Christian friendship is generous. Christian community is built around hospitality.

Don’t Tell PETA
Finally, let me wrap up with a story.

On Friday I went with some of the church staff and some members of the board to a leadership simulcast in Orange City. And one of the speakers we heard was Dr. Henry Cloud, who was talking about the importance of relationships.

He told us about some research that had been done several years ago. Apparently this was before PETA took over the world, because the research involved monkeys. They took a monkey and put him in a cage and then they subjected him to all sorts of stress. I don’t know exactly what they did to him, but they really tried to freak him out. Loud noises. Pictures of predators on a screen. Shaking his cage. Offering him a banana and then taking it away. That sort of thing.

They went until the monkey was just wide-eyed and trembling. And then they took some blood. And what they discovered was that the monkey had measurable, physiological responses to fear. They found all these toxins in his blood that were way high, things they could relate directly to stress.

But then they did an interesting thing. After the monkey had calmed down and all his numbers were back in order, they opened the cage door and put another monkey in there with him. They gave him a buddy.

And then they subjected both monkeys to all the same stressors. Tried to freak him out all over again. And then they drew some more blood. And you know what they found?

They found that the blood toxicity was only half as high as it had been when the monkey was alone. When monkeys went through stressful circumstances with a buddy, they were able to cope that much better.

So my question for you is: Who is your monkey? And, probably more important, who can you be a monkey for?

We were not made to live on desert islands. We were not made to go through life alone. We need to be in community. We need authentic, accountable, affectionate, always, generous relationships. We need friends.