A lot of churches have physical signs that they put out in front of their property, on which they post the week’s sermon title or a “thought for the day.” This week, I did a Google search of church signs. Here are some that I found:
For better or for worse, these physical signs tell us something about these churches. Now I know that many of the signs that I’ve just shown you are tongue-in-cheek, or just plain mistakes. But others may give us a clue as to whether we would want to be a part of their community.
But in addition to physical signs, churches have spiritual signs also. They might not be as evident to the person driving down the street, but eventually, once you get to know a church or individual church members, their spiritual signs become easier to read. The question for us this morning is “What sign do people see when people look into our lives, or when they look at Spring Hill Baptist Church?” In other words: “What’s Your Sign?” “What’s Our Sign?”
In our scripture passage for today, the apostle Paul addressed the Church in Rome. In chapter 12, one of Paul’s main points was that Christians are to offer their bodies (plural) as a singular sacrifice of the one body. This is their “reasonable worship.” And in verses 9 to 21, Paul gives what seems to be a hodgepodge list of moral exhortations that would encourage members of the church in Rome to live in such a way as a sign that point others to Christ.
For my sermon this morning, I want to propose three images, or more specifically, three hand signs that reflect Paul’s main thrust of this passage. It won’t cover all the ideas in these verses, but it might help us better to grasp what Paul is trying to teach us this morning about the signs of a healthy Church body.
The first hand sign that this text seems to suggest is the hand sign for “Love.”
If I’m not mistaken, in the American sign language, this sign means “I Love You” because it is a combination of “I” and “L” and “U.” For Paul, a sign of a healthy church is one that it is marked by love. In verses 9-12, Paul uses FOUR different Greek words for “love” to make his point.
- Paul uses the word agape in verse 9, which you might know to be the self-sacrificial kind of love exemplified by the love of Jesus Christ. Agape love, Paul writes, is sincere, or literally, “without hypocrisy or pretense.” Such love is sacrificial and sincere, and not two-faced and fake.
- The second word for love used by Paul is found in verse 10: philostorgos – which is the mutual love of parents and children, and husbands and wives. This word is often translated as “be devoted” to one another.
- Be devoted to one another in love. This word for love is: philadelphia – which is the love of brothers and sisters, not so much in the sense of siblings in one family, but in the sense that as humans, we are all sisters and brothers. As some of you may know, that’s why the city of Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love.
- The fourth word for love is found in verse 13, when it says, “Practice hospitality.” The word hospitality is: philoxenia – which literally means the love of strangers.
Love is the first sign. Jesus said the “greatest” commandment is for us to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and all of our strength. We are to love God with every ounce of our energy. We should bring intensity to the loving of God. Then Jesus commands: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Our love for God naturally overflows to a love for our neighbors. And in John 13:34-35, Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our love for God should spill over to other people.
How wonderful it would be if people associate the name “Spring Hill Baptist Church” with “Oh yes, that’s a really loving church. You can tell that they love each other. They honor each other above themselves, and they love those who are not part of the church by helping those in need, by welcoming new folks and students into the community, by inviting others into their homes for meals, by visiting those who are sick and in prison. They seek new ways to love and serve God.”
What’s Your Sign? What’s Our Sign? When people see us, do they see love?
The second hand sign that this text suggests is the hand sign for “blessing.”
It is a sign made with the thumb, the index and second finger extended with the third and fourth fingers closed. This gesture, in which his first two fingers and his thumb are extended and his third and fourth finger are closed, is among the most frequently occurring of Christ’s hand gestures in Christian art. It emerged as a sign of benediction (or blessing) in early Christian and Byzantine art, and its use continued through the Medieval period, and into the Renaissance.
A couple of months ago, my family took a family vacation to Europe. We visited Rome and Beth and I toured the Vatican. In St Peter’s Basilica, there’s a statue of St. Peter sitting in a chair. Here’s a picture I took. If you look closely, you’ll see that his right hand is giving the sign of blessing, while his left hand is holding the keys to the church. Peter gives the sign of blessing.
The Church is called to be a sign of blessing. For Paul, a sign of a healthy church is one whose members bless instead of curse. Here, Paul teaches us to bless others in three ways.
- Verse 14 says: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” We bless others in what we say to them. To “bless” others is to literally say “good words” to them, to praise them, to invoke God’s favor upon them. When people persecute or pursue us to harm us, we are to invoke God’s favor instead of evil upon them.
- Verse 15 says: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We bless others in how we respond to them. This text teaches us to empathize and identify with those around us, for we are a part of the same body of Christ, and the sufferings and joys of our brothers and sisters in Christ very much affect us. And this same sense of connection extends not only to our Christian family, but to our HUMAN family, as well. It means that we cannot stand untroubled by our knowledge that there are children and adults who go to bed hungry here in Charlottesville and Ruckersville. God calls us to be a blessing in how we respond to others.
- Verse 16 says: Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” We bless others in our attitudes toward them. We are called to care about each other as we care about ourselves. The last thing we need is for us to be known as a church whose members are constantly bickering with each other, or as people who only associate with folks like ourselves in terms of beliefs, social status, or income.
We live in a world filled with cursing, filled with people who rejoice when bad things befall us, filled with folks who are constantly trying to put us down. In the midst of this world, Paul is saying that the body of Christ should be a beacon of blessing to others.
What’s Your Sign? What’s Our Sign? When people see us, do they see blessing?
Now, can you guess what the third hand sign that this text suggests? Hint: it can be found in verse 18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” That’s right, the third hand sign is the sign for “peace.”
For Paul, a sign of a healthy church body is one whose members practice peace. Paul writes in verse 17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” But that is SO against the prevailing attitude of our culture. Our culture says, “If people hurt us, we have to hurt them back.” Perhaps you’ve been in city traffic and seen “road rage” at its most typical. Perhaps you’ve seen drivers so angry with a tailgater or a slow driver that they use an entirely different sort of hand sign….but we won’t go there.
Today is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Fifteen years later, al Qaeda has faded in the background, but today, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and ISIS have replaced them. Make no mistake, their acts of terror, violence and destruction are evil. When I hear of terrorist attacks, there’s a part of me that wants to exact revenge, to hurt those people in the same way that they’ve hurt us and other innocent people. While there is definitely a place for justice, my attitude only perpetuates the circle of violence, and fans the flames of hatred in my heart.
Now ISIS is an extreme example of an enemy, and in ethics, it is a bad idea to use extreme examples to illuminate and instruct how we should act. It is more instructive for us to think about the people we consider our “enemies” in our everyday life. That person might be a troublesome neighbor, an insensitive boss, a student who’s just a jerk, someone who “gets our goat.” They do something to belittle us, humiliate us, to tear us down. It is times like these that I need to be reminded of Paul’s teaching, which says that it is God’s responsibility to exact revenge. A Christian’s responsibility is this: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.” This echoes what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
This is a hard teaching; it goes against our nature. But when we look at the life of Jesus, we see how Christ loved his enemies. While hanging on the cross, Christ prayed for those who persecuted him by saying: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
But what’s this about “heaping burning coals” on the heads of your enemies? In my research, I found three main interpretations for this strange phrase, none of which in my view is vastly superior over the others. Some commentators see this phrase to mean that our acts of grace will heap the coals of hell on our enemies’ heads as part of God’s vengeance; others feel that our deeds of mercy might prick the conscience of our enemies and shame them; others link the expression to ancient rituals of repentance.
Here’s the thing: the “burning coals” portion of this verse is probably the least important part of the section. I’ll admit it: it’s a little mysterious, a little murky. Fine. Let’s set that aside and concentrate on what is NOT murky about this passage: Paul’s overwhelming exhortations to us to live in peace, to act with mercy. Paul is not asking us to be doormats. Paul is realistic about the difficulty of all this. Perhaps that’s why Paul writes that “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceable with all.” Sometimes peace is just not possible, sometimes we need to get away from these people and protect ourselves. But we can do that without hate in our hearts, and a need to exact revenge.
One final word about the sign for peace. This hand sign is thought to have begun in Europe during World War II when a V for “victory” was painted on walls as a symbol of freedom from occupying forces. The sign was widely used by peace movements in the 1960s and 1970s as a symbol of victory for peace and truth. So this sign also reminds us that Jesus Christ has secured the ultimate victory over evil and death through His resurrection from the grave, and brought us peace with God. The church is a people who are living in the victory of the resurrection. The church knows how the story is going to end: God will ultimately defeat all evil. And death will be no more. We are called to live in this new reality through the victory that Christ has already secured. That is the only way that we might not be overcome by evil. It is only through Christ, the Prince of Peace that we may overcome evil with good.
What’s Your Sign? What’s Our Sign? When people see us, do they see peace?
Love. Blessing. Peace. These are the signs that Paul calls us to show, if not with our hands, then through our lives.
I started out this sermon talking about the funny signs that people post in front of their churches. I can make fun of church signs since I’m not responsible for one! And I’m glad that I don’t have the pressure of thinking up a weekly message like that, trying to combine wisdom with wit in 15 words or less.
Spring Hill Baptist has a sign also, but it’s not just the physical sign that you see as you drive toward the church. That sign is you and me, and the way we live our lives. Let’s post a positive message this week, broadcasting God’s love, blessing, and peace.
I preached this sermon at Spring Hill Baptist on September 11, 2016.
Taken from Romans 12:9-21