When my children were younger, I had an epiphany. I was sitting in the living room playing with Sam and I said, “Do you know who made me a mother?” He sort of looked at me, puzzled, like this was a trick question and he went with, “God?” as his and the obvious answer. But I said, “No. You did.” He was quite amazed at that and felt very empowered, and so did I, because the truth of it is, Sam and Katie make me a mother everyday. Everyday they teach me what it means, how best to do it for each of them and differently, and everyday I make mistakes, but get the glorious privilege of waking up the next day as their Mom, because they create me so. It’s how God intended it, I think. God created us so that our growth and development and meaning would depend on someone else. Think about it. The teacher is gifted by God, yes, but she doesn’t become a teacher without her students. A coach is gifted with leadership and encouragement but doesn’t achieve his goals without the team. The doctor is gifted with wisdom and skills but doesn’t heal without her patients.
There is an African proverb that says, “Because we are, I am.” It is a profound confession of the need for community, for others, in order for us to know who we are, in order for us to live out our life’s purposes. Because we are, I am. This is the heart of Paul’s words found in Romans 12:1-18.
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. Do 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.
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, so 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; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
In these verses, Paul wrote the first church covenant ever. This is what it means to be the body of Christ, he says, the Church.
You’ll notice it’s never described as an individual sport. Any time Paul mentions the unique gifts an individual may have, whether it is the gift of leadership, teaching, healing, serving, or any gift, you get the idea, he always, always qualifies it to say, these gifts are for a very specific reason. Gifts are for the good of others. Gifts are for building up the body, strengthening community, helping someone else, not for the individual’s satisfaction or reward. How about you?: What gift do you uniquely bring to the body of Christ?
The gifts Paul talks about aren’t just personal skills or qualities, but the gifts of God, from God, which, let’s be clear, are everything. Our jobs, our wealth, our families, our possessions, our intelligence, our strength, our very time on this earth, are God’s gifts to us—biblically speaking, there is no “mine,” only God’s. And so the role of the Christian then is to take care of what is God’s and use it wisely and generously for the purposes God designs, lived out in Paul’s covenant—to love, to share, to heal, to create peace and hope, to bless. It is our greatest purpose—to share all this with each other, with strangers, and with the world.
In Romans, Paul’s words describe 4 circles of relationships—those within our own Christian community, hospitality to the “saints” by which he means other communities and strangers, blessings directed toward one’s “enemies,” and peaceable interactions with everyone. And every verb is in the plural form: this is what Christ looks like in community, what Christ looks like, if he became “plural.” In the Church, Christ goes from the singular Son of God, to the plural body of Christ with diverse and varied parts, yes, but existing for the purpose of the One, whole Christ.
It means understanding the truth that “because we are, I am.” Our communal life—our mission, our ministry, our care for each other and for the world is central to our being, as important to us as anything else. Because we are, I am. “Because we are the church, I am able to follow Christ in the world. Because we are a body of believers, I am able to have faith, to grow in faith, to be strengthened in faith. Because we abide together and in Christ, I am able to be challenged and stretched, I am able to be forgiven and to be forgiving, I am able to be healed and to heal, I am able to be generous and blessed to receive. Because we are, I am.”
Author Nevada Barr (Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat) tells of a comment her father used to always make that she didn’t quite know how to argue with until she got involved in a church. He would say, “Why go into a dark airless building with a bunch of hypocrites on a beautiful Sunday morning when you can be outside in God’s country?” I recall reading that and thinking to myself, if we can’t answer that question convincingly, what in the world are we doing here? Her answer eventually came to this: “A mountain is for finding and adoring God in the wilderness. Church is for finding and adoring God in community with others, through others, because of others, in spite of others.” Because we are, I am.
Many of us have some sort of “Pledge or Commitment Sunday” annually as we dedicate our tithes and offerings to God, making known our commitment to generosity. But what exactly are we committing to? We tell our kids to honor their “commitment” when they don’t want to go to soccer practice or a play rehearsal. So, even to us, commitment ends up sounding like a boring sort of thing that grown-ups do and use to explain why they are so unhappy. But that’s not it at all. Commitment is what brings out our best when circumstances would bring out our worst. A commitment forces the best of us when our habits, our whims, our comfort zones, our preferences, and our judgments would keep us confined, stagnant, comfortable, narrow-minded, or refusing to be challenged or inspired or moved to action. Paul’s words this morning call for commitment, not just to the ideals he describes but to the community that is charged with practicing them. He knows they are difficult and likely beyond any one of us, so he says, in essence, “Don’t try this alone.” You need each other. Remember, “because we are, I am.” So I thank you today for your pledges and promises, the ones you make and the ones your congregation makes. Thank you for your commitment and for offering each other your very best. I thank you all for making each other into this unique, this incredibly gifted and generous and vibrant plural body of Christ we call the American Baptists.
~Rev. Stacy Emerson
Stewardship Facilitator, Mission Resource Development
American Baptist Churches USA