Commentary on Romans 12:9-21
It can be challenging to preach from this lectionary passage.
It’s not that it lacks substance. It’s that it touches on so many aspects of life in Christ that it’s not possible to cover them all in one sermon. The passage — or portions of it — might work best for retreats or as a devotional source for a year of monthly meetings. If one seeks to cover this in one sermon, it might help ahead of time to survey a worship committee, board, or whole congregation to see what people most want or need to hear about.1
Paul starts off with love. He uses different words to describe this love, either agape or several Greek words based on the root philia that convey the idea of friendship. Although agape and the other words have somewhat different senses, one can overdo the distinctions between them. Many expositors of biblical texts speak of agape as if it refers to something far higher and deeper than friendship, something one finds only from God or Christ or from the highest levels of Christian care, compassion, and commitment.
It’s worth noting, however, that John 3:16-21 — an essential discussion of love, salvation, and judgment — describes judgment in this way: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). This love people have for darkness is signified with the word agape. One can aim a deep, enduring love in the wrong direction — agape distorted into the deepest throes of addiction, as commitment to destruction, as despising what is life-giving and good. Of course, agape is overwhelmingly used in its positive sense throughout the New Testament, but any love can go wrong, even agape.
Most importantly, in John, Jesus defines the agape that he has for his disciples and that he wants them to have for one another (John 15:12-17). He defines agape in terms of philia: “greater love (agape) has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). On that basis, he declares that they are in fact his friends (John 15:14-15), and as such, they are to agape one another (John 15:17). These words for love and friendship in John are practically synonyms, describing each one in terms of the other.
Similarly, in today’s passage from Romans, the different words for love amplify and clarify each other. “Let agape be genuine,” recognizing that it can be faked. Let your agape be sincere, like love for brothers or sisters (philadelphia) or like love you have for your best friends (philostorgos). Love them warmly, with devotion, with sincere concern for their well-being. If asked if members of their church are their friends, these Romans are not expected to say, “Well, not ‘friend friends,’ more like just ‘Facebook friends.’”
Verses 16-18 could enhance the exposition of what Romans 12:9-10 call on us to put into action.
The community is also urged to take their lives and ministry seriously, with deep commitment. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” This encourages members of the body of Christ to throw themselves fully into their calling, without reluctance or hesitation. Serving the Lord cannot happen only on Sundays. As Alice Walker said, “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”2
This verse could be described as framing a classic three point sermon — rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer. Although these are translated as simple, unadorned imperatives, they are probably most effectively presented in a linked series of narratives that illustrate — maybe out of the life of one’s congregation — how one might actually go about doing any or all of those three things.
This verse could also serve as the framework for a retreat. Regardless of the context in which one speaks to this verse, the spiritual practices it invokes do not come easily to anyone. One might assume that any of these imperatives are best followed with the guidance of mature, seasoned believers.
Romans 12:14-15 similarly invoke practices not easily adopted by either beginning or longtime believers.
Romans 12:13, 19-20
Unlike our natural tendencies, these verses call on us not only to address the cares, concerns, and challenges of people like us, who we already know and love, and who already know and love us. Nor do they limit the horizon of our concern to our extended family, to existing members of our community, or to people who actively support us and never threaten us. The verses challenge us to care for people in need, regardless of how they fit into various religious, social, or political categories.
We all already know that scripture calls on us to love God and neighbor, even love our enemies. We often ignore the biblical admonition to love the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:19). Further, current television shows, movies, and video games (each of which constitute multi-billion dollar industries), as well as the United States’ political and foreign policy tendencies, consistently promote the myth of redemptive violence. Even in our churches, we have few models for turning away from vengeance or for helping either our enemies or the strangers in our midst.
Again, incorporating these perspectives and practices calls for guidance from mature, experienced believers who have suffered and emerged as whole, loving, resilient people of God.
Putting all these verses into practice, empowered by grace and God’s living presence, enables any individual or community of faith to live into a closing admonition and prayer: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
1. This commentary, especially when focusing on particular words, utilizes the biblical software Accordance, which provides electronic access to Greek-English lexicons for New Testament studies, particularly:
Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene A. Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. 2 vols. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989.
2. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Mariner Books; Reprint edition (May 19, 2003), p. 351. (Accessed from Amazon on June 25, 2017)