Readings: Jeremiah 15. 15-21; Romans 12. 9-end; Matthew 16. 21-end
Theme: Tips for Life
In bookshops it is common to see a series of books entitled, ‘Tips for Life’. There is clearly a hunger in society for an orientation to life and how we can live it well. Of course, the answer to the question of the best way to live one’s life, depends on the goal that you see as the purpose of life. For Christians, this goal is union with God and service of one another.
In the reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans today, we have St Paul’s version of ‘Tips for Life’. They begin with:
‘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 honour’.
‘Let love be genuine’. Surely, this is the one of the highest aspirations that we can hope for in life. To demonstrate genuine love is demanding. It requires that we have our focus on the goal of becoming a true friend of God, who is love. To be genuine means, as it did for Jesus, that we must enter on the journey to Jerusalem, a journey which leads to suffering and through this, to the resurrection. Suffering is the price we pay for genuine love, as we experience most poignantly when a loved one dies. It makes us vulnerable, because the casing that we put around ourselves for protection is removed as we allow the other person to affect us and we them.
Genuine love is not difficult to spot and because of this it is meant to mark out the Christian community as distinctive, ‘See how these Christians love one another’. This love is a key way in which we display our commitment to Christ and so witness to those around us that the love of God is what we are about.
St Paul goes on to say,
‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’.
This follows on from the notion of genuine love. Genuine love means that we share in the highs and lows of others. Concretely, this can mean many different things. Listening to someone in difficulty, enjoying a chat about someone’s success, celebrating a friend’s wedding, and many more ways that we can do this. In each case, we put the other person at the centre and create a space for them to dwell in us with their joys and sorrows.
The admonition, of St Paul, to ‘associate with the lowly and to not claim to be wiser that we are’ is one which speaks of the humility of Christians to neither over- nor under-represent our wisdom and knowledge. Sharing freely what we know and the insights we have gleaned from our following of Christ is a service, as is admitting that we do not know everything, because it shows that we are interdependent, and as such, share with the lowly in the virtue of humility.
Perhaps the most difficult of all the ‘Tips for Life’ that Paul gives us is the one regarding those who persecute us. We are admonished to ‘Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them’. For most people this is not something that comes naturally. We are programmed by evolution to survive by either fighting or flying from conflict to secure our safety. And so, if this is not natural, we should not be surprised to find that without God’s help this is not possible for us. We might say that this kind of behaviour is ‘supernatural’ in the sense that it results from receiving a special grace or gift from God. To love one’s enemies is not something which we can really grit our teeth and do by human effort. It has to come freely as a graciously given gift of God.
So, following St Paul’s ‘Tips for Life’ clearly marks out a path for us to follow, a goal for us to strive for and a set of values and virtues to which we should aspire as Christians.
Yet, I suppose if we are being honest with ourselves, it is also good to recognize that so often we fail and do not achieve these goals; we do not practice these ‘Tips for Life’. I don’t know about you, but I find that the principle difficulty in living the Christian life is the fact that the it takes a lot of inner security to have the space to exhibit these qualities. When we are stressed, or tired, or feeling overwhelmed and out of our depth by situations it can all seem too much, and it feels like we just want to pull up the drawbridge and keep the world out. And, I think it is important to say in reflecting on St Paul’s words that self-care is not a selfish thing. It is essential if we are to be of service to others. As they say on the aircraft just before take-off, we should put our own oxygen mask on before we try to help others. The consequence of overstretching, is that we tend to burn out. We lack the oxygen required to be of real service to others if we are not looking after ourselves.
Moreover, serving others can also sometimes become a distraction from taking care of ourselves. We can throw ourselves into frenetic activity as a means of avoiding issues that we ourselves need to deal with. So, perhaps a key ‘Tip for Life’ that we need to have as Christians is also ‘balance’, the balance to work harmoniously in caring for others and ourselves. Such a balance allows us to maintain the course over the duration and not to burn out.
The Christian life is a marathon it is not a sprint. It requires that we maintain our capacities for giving and receiving, for allowing the love of God to shine in our hearts in peace and security.
Perhaps this is really the ‘genuine love’ that St Paul is speaking about. It is genuine in that it is authentic. Neither presuming it can do everything nor assuming that it has nothing to give. We each have something to give, but we first need to receive so that what we give is the love of God. In living in this way, we ‘hold fast to what is good and love one another with mutual affection’.
So, let’s pray for one another that we can live these ‘Tips for Life’ healthily and joyfully so that others will come to know the love of God through us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Amen.