“ I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement.”
This time of year is a time when, for many young people the chickens come home to roost. Over the last week or so A level and GCSE results have come out, and as ever there have been scenes of young people in tears of delight or of disappointment as they have opened the fateful envelopes to find out what the examiners’ judgment is of their work.
Of course, it’s not just students who feel the weight of judgement. Most jobs include some sort of appraisal, formal or informal, annual or ongoing. People may be judged on how many sales they’ve made, how many patients they’ve treated, what their customer satisfaction rating is. Even Jesus, in our Gospel reading, wants to know what judgements people are making about him. He reveals a surprising judgement on Peter too. Much to Peter’s surprise Jesus sees in him a rock-steady character which no one else seems to have recognised so far.
Often, of course, the judgements that are most crucial are the ones we make of ourselves. We are often our own harshest critics, comparing our bodies against those of models or sporting heroes we see in the media, our families with others at the school gates, our lives with those who seem so much more certain and sorted out than we are. We’ve all got an “inner critic” asking “what do people think of me? “ “what do I think of myself?” “Am I doing ok, or just kidding myself?” “Am I a good enough parent, child, spouse, friend worker, Christian…?”
That inner voice may be negative, but it can also be falsely positive too, convincing us that we are fine and that all is well, when really it isn’t. We are shocked and indignant when someone else points out a failing we need to deal with. It’s a tricky business coming to that “sober judgement” Paul talks about.
Paul has a particular situation in mind when he makes this comment in his letter to the Romans. He’s heard that divisions have broken out between the Christians in Rome. Some had Jewish backgrounds, others had Gentile, non-Jewish backgrounds. Each group thinks they are better than the other. Jewish Christians assumed that they ought to have the biggest say in shaping the church. After all, Jesus had been Jewish, and they shared with him that deep knowledge of the scriptures and traditions that had shaped him. But the Gentile Christians had embraced the good news that God was doing something new, and they believed that their voices counted for just as much as those of the Jewish Christians.
To complicate matters, a few years before this letter was written, all the Jewish people, including the Jewish Christians, had been forced to leave Rome by the Emperor Claudius.
That meant that the Gentile Christians, the ones who didn’t have all that Jewish heritage behind them, were left to cope as best they could. And guess what? They did just fine – that’s how it seemed to them anyway.
When the Jewish Christians came back a few years later, they found that these Johnny-come-lately Gentiles were disregarding all their treasured rules. They’d begun to shape a Christian community of their own, and they thought it was all the better because it had cast aside its Jewish roots. God was done with all that history, the Gentile Christians said. Judaism was old hat. Why would God be bothered if you ate pork? Hadn’t Jesus put an end to all that nit-picking?
The Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians were locked into a war of words with each other, each thinking they had it right, and the others were missing the point.
Throughout the letter, Paul comes back to this tension between them again and again. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, he says. Neither Jew nor Gentile is perfect. God is making a new creation, but it’s one in which Jews and Gentiles are equally valued. Here in chapter 12 he tells these warring groups that whether they like it or not, they are now one body. Everyone brings something unique and valuable.
“Get down off your high horse!” says Paul to both groups. Learn to see yourselves as God sees you, as people with gifts, people he loves, but also people who are flawed and incomplete, people who need others to find the fullness of life God intends for us all.
It’s good advice. Like most good advice, it’s not exactly rocket science. The interesting question is why we find it so hard to live like this, to come to that “sober judgement”, that realistic reflection on ourselves which would enable us to see ourselves and others clearly. We puff ourselves up or pull ourselves down. We hide from others and we hide from ourselves. We treat others as less than they are, so that we can feel bigger.
So how can we find the courage to look in the mirror honestly and acknowledge what we see there?
Paul gives us some more clues if we have eyes to see them. Notice how, in this passage, he talks about the mercies of God, the grace of God, the will of God, the gifts of God. We aren’t just one body, according to Paul. We are one body “in Christ”. What’s he trying to tell us? It is that first and foremost, we are God’s children, God’s creation, people who belong to God, not to ourselves. The gifts we are so proud of aren’t really ours, they are God’s, which he has given to us. The failings we berate ourselves for are just evidence that God’s work in us isn’t finished yet, not a sign that we are intrinsically bad. Or maybe it is even just that we’re trying to be people he never meant us to be. He may not have created us to be Olympic athletes or scientific geniuses or supermodels, so why do we judge ourselves harshly for failing to reach those goals?
Present yourselves as a “living sacrifice” says Paul to these warring Christians. Sacrifice was a familiar part of their world, in a way which it isn’t to us. Essentially, though, when you sacrificed something in the ancient world you were acknowledging your relationship to the god you sacrificed to, your dependence on him. “All things come from you, and of your own do we give you” said the Bible, words we repeat when we offer the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
So Paul tells the Roman Christians that the only way they can come to a healthy sense of themselves is by acknowledging that they don’t belong to themselves anyway. They belong to God. They are God’s possessions. The gifts of the Gentile Christians, their insights, their ideas, which they think are so brilliant and necessary, aren’t theirs at all. They come from God, who is working through them. And that means that the gifts, insights and ideas of the Jewish Christians are also God’s too. Neither group needs to push their own agenda aggressively to silence the other. It’s quite the contrary. They need to listen to each other, so that they can hear God’s wisdom in all its completeness.
We don’t have to be anxious about what we can and can’t do, what gifts we have and haven’t got. We don’t have to pretend to be something we aren’t. God is doing his work, in his way.
The image Paul uses of the body is a good and helpful one, not least because bodies aren’t fixed, static things, machines that can only do one task in one way. Bodies can do all sorts of different things, in all sorts of different ways, to meet all sorts of different circumstances. What has your body done this week? Gone for a walk? Baked a cake? Hugged a friend? Played with a child? Thought an interesting thought? (Brains are part of bodies too!) Bodies can adapt and learn, and often have to. Most bodies are, or will be, disabled in some way at some time in life, either permanently or temporarily. Illness and injury may limit our bodies, but every body can be a blessing, to us and to others, in what it can do, whatever that is. Stephen Hawking’s body is almost completely paralysed, and yet, look at what he has achieved.
That’s a very timely message for us here at Seal Church. Several significant people have moved on, or shortly will, from Seal Church over this summer. We’ve lost the Harvey family with their move to Hadlow. We’ll soon be losing Stephen Bloxham, who has shared his many gifts with us so generously over the past 8 years or so - musical, community building, fundraising . As ever, there are members of our congregation who aren’t able to be as active as they would like to be because of illness. And each year, there are some we lose through death. “How will we manage?” people ask me, whenever we have these significant losses to our little church family. “I have no idea”, is the honest answer, but I am sure that the God who gave those people to us in the first place is still at work here, and that he’s providing the gifts we need to do what he wants to. Things may change. They may not be as we expect or are used to. But if we trust God, welcome others and open our eyes and our hearts to what he is doing in our community we will end up with a church that is alive with his life, whatever it looks like!
One commentator on this passage said, “God doesn’t want something from us, he wants us”*. We were created by God. We are his children. When we present ourselves to him as “living sacrifices,” all we are doing is putting ourselves back where we belong – in his hands. And that is all we need to do. This, says Paul, is our “spiritual worship”– the only kind of worship that can really heal us where it matters, straightening out our distorted judgements and enabling us to see ourselves and one another as the beloved people we really are.
*Ben Witherington: Paul’s Letter to the Romans p.85