The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Year A, Proper 18)
“Back to School: Paul’s Syllabus” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Ezekiel 33.7-11
Psalm 119.33-40
Romans 12.9-21
Matthew 18.15-20

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Welcome back! Our program year at the Advent officially/unofficially kicks off with the feast of St. Michael and All Angels on Sept. 29, but with Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer, lots of us are streaming back to our normal lives after a packed few months. Today as we commission our church school teachers and our register for their classes, there’s a palpable sense that things are beginning again. There’s a little chill in the air at night, football is back (someone should tell the Pats), school buses are rolling again. From first grade through grad school, I went back to school every fall for a quarter century. I love going back to school! Everything is potential; anything’s possible. One specific thing I love that may be lost on you: I love syllabi! I love getting the list of what we’ll read this semester, what topics we’ll study, what my professor expects of me. This week my oldest daughter, Ellie, brought me a paper to sign from her her 9th grade theology teacher — an outline of the teacher’s expectations of Ellie in the class. Made me feel all warm and tingly just to hold it!

In Romans 12, Paul gives us a “syllabus” — a list of his expectations for the Roman church and, in turn, for us. In the 13 verses we read today, he gives us 26 (!) imperatives, 26 commands, 26 behaviors that should mark the life of every Christian. Let me assure you: I don’t have a sermon with 26 points. What I want to do is pick out just two of these commands to look more closely at, and then look at our motivation for living how Paul exhorts us to live. So two points — First, the marks of a Christian, and second, the motive of a Christian.

First: The Marks

Verse 9: Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection . . . . [And skipping to verse 13:] Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. (12.9-10, 13)

If you read the first 11 chapters of Romans, whenever Paul talks about “love,” it’s about God’s love for us. But here in chapter 12, he pivots to talking about our loves. Paul says “Let love be genuine,” and then he takes 12 verses to list what genuine love looks like. So these 26 imperatives aren’t just a jumble of miscellaneous commands; they’re all about how we are to love. As one commentator says, “each staccato imperative adds a fresh ingredient to [Paul] the apostle’s recipe for love.”

Now look closely at that recipe — Paul has in mind two different kinds of love. The first kind is philadelphia, the word for “brotherly love” or “sibling love.” That’s the love we are to have for one another, the love we practice in here. Real Christian community is to be marked by the love family members share inside the family. What’s that mean? Well — Look to your right; now look to your left; look back at me; even if you can’t stand one of those people, you have to love them. That’s how families work. Siblings don’t pick their siblings, but they love each other because they’re family. In this room there are republicans and democrats, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old . . . . Somebody in this room believes what you believe; others in this room don’t. But we’re a family, so we go all out to love each other no matter what.

  • Share your resources with each other. You got a car? Somebody else here needs a ride to mass.
  • Serve at coffee hour or Compline.
  • Host a neighborhood group in your home.
  • Give generously to support our life together.

That’s philadelphia.

But two verses later there’s another kind of love, and you it’s hidden in your English bibles — Practice “hospitality.” The word for hospitality is philoxenia. “Xenos” means “stranger.” Philadelphia is family love; philoxenia is “stranger love.” Not love in here, but love out there. I heard a pastor preach on these words one time, and he said we have to:

work like crazy at loving the insiders, people with your same beliefs, people that you know. [At the same time] work incredibly hard at loving outsiders. There is intensity and openness . . . . The word xenia . . . means a stranger, but as a verb it means ‘to take in a guest,’ so philaxenia is an incredibly strong word and a very gospel word. Philaxenia means to love, to open your living space, to open your wallet, to open your resources to people who otherwise you’d be suspicious of.”

If we aren’t doing that all the time as a community of faith here on Beacon Hill, then we are dying. As a church, we’re dying. Jean Varnier is a Canadian theologian who, back in 1964, decided God wanted him to welcome two men with developmental disabilities into his home. That’s what philoxenia meant for him. Today, the community he founded, called L’Arche, is actually 147 communities, in 35 countries, on all 5 continents. This is what he says about hospitality or love of the outsider:

Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share . . . . A community which refuses to welcome — whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors — is dying spiritually.

  • Volunteer to serve at our Community Supper on Tuesdays.
  • Serve at Common Cathedral.
  • Come join our Mission + Outreach Team.
  • Volunteer to be part of a team that travels to Texas or Florida to help those communities rebuild after these devastating storms.
  • Be an evangelist — share your faith with a neighbor over a cup of coffee.

Paul commands: Love each other like crazy in here, at the same time that you love the stranger like crazy out there.

Second: Our Motive

Paul gives 26 commands, but can you love on command? I can’t. That’s why it’s always important, whenever we see a command in scripture, a “what” we are supposed to do, remember to look very closely for the “why.” Because every time St. Paul give us an imperative, it follows an indicative.

Put it another way: Our duty follows our doctrine.

This is classic Paul — only now, after eleven chapters of doctrine in Romans, does he start to lay out his ethics. For Paul, the imperative (he compels us to do) always follows the indicative (what God has done for us). Romans 12.1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God . . . .” Everything goes back to having experienced mercy.

Brennan Manning, in Christianity Today (

One last little example. Brennan Manning died in 2013. He’s on my Mt. Rushmore of people I wish I’d have had dinner with. Describing himself, Manning once said: “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” In his memoir, All is Grace, he wrote this:

My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that it the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion.

In a word, this vulgar grace is mercy. That’s the gospel — God showed us mercy — therefore, we should be marked by mercy. God loved us, therefore we go and love and return. Mercy is the motive, the only motive, for the love that marks our lives.

What’s a better time than the beginning of another church year together for us to recommit ourselves to loving each other and then, together, loving the world? Paul gave us the syllabus. Let the classes begin.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Go Deeper:

  • John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994): 330.
  • Sermon by Dr. Timothy J. Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on 24 April 2005.  An .mp3 of the sermon is downloadable from
  • “L’Arche,” (last visited 8 September 2017).
  • Jean Varnier, Community and Growth (New York: Paulist, 1989): 266-67 (quoted in Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999): 160).
  • Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2000): 26. See Agnieszka Tenant, “Ragamuffin: The Patched-up Life and Unshabby Message of Brennan Manning,” in Christianity Today, 15 April 2013 (
  • Brennan Manning, All is Grace (quoted in William McDavid et al., Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, Va.: Mockingbird, 2015): 53).
  • An audio file of a version of this sermon is available at
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