Strive for what brings peace
St. Paul is abuzz this week with Vacation Bible School. Upwards of 150 children are responding to the Hero Hotline. Inspired by SuperMeer – hardly a mere cat – and “The Professor,” they are learning to be God’s superheroes for the world.
At the heart of the program is a verse from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Let us strive for the things that bring peace and build each other up” (14:19). For the elementary school set, that translates into Hotline Hints like “Work Together,” “Help Others,” and “Follow Jesus.” As these heroes grow, I hope they will look deeper into the richness of what Paul was saying.
The congregation in Rome to which Paul wrote was a mixed bag of folks. Different groups within it understood the gospel differently, with varied implications for how to live as a follower of Jesus. Those differences ran deep. His writing indicates that some could even be said to “despise” other believers for thinking and behaving differently from them (Romans 14:3, 10). Near the letter’s outset (2:1-3) and again near its close (14:10), Paul challenges their habit of judging one another. It’s not a pretty picture.
Paul was no namby-pamby relativist, with an anything-goes kind of attitude. If there is any doubt about that, see his strong language addressing the believers in Galatia (Gal. 1:6-8; 5:12) and in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:17-22; 2 Cor. 13:2-4). Yet when it comes to the polarization among the Roman believers, his focus is not on enforcing absolutes. It is not even on which position is right or wrong. It is on sustaining relationships within the congregation and on deepening the mutual support of the members.
“Resolve never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another…. If anyone is hurt by what you decide to do, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you choose bring about the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (Romans 14:13-16). Paul’s gospel does not measure the community by whether it has the right answers; it measures by what the impact is on others. If being right means someone else gets hurt, then being right has become wrong. No one stands in God’s place to know the absolute truth, but we all stand in relationships with other people. We are responsible for living those relationships with as much compassion, generosity, and understanding as possible.
Paul has learned this from the way God deals with us. From God’s perspective, we regularly get things wrong in all sorts of ways: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Yet God has not condemned us or abandoned us, but rather has built a lasting relationship with us (Romans 5:8-11). If God, who does know the absolute truth, can focus on the relationship with us more than on our being wrong, then surely we can do the same with others.
God’s generosity with us is what Paul calls “this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). It is the model for his plea to the Romans: “strive for the things that bring peace and that build each other up.” In these days of sharp polarization in our own communities, I’m glad that our youngsters in Vacation Bible School will end their week with a Hotline Hint that will serve them well their whole lives: Show Grace.