Monday 22 October 2018

Romans 12: God’s New People #6 – How to Think of Yourself

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Romans 12:3

How would Holconius the cabinet-maker hear this? What would Sabina the stoneworker make of it? Or Iris the barmaid, or Primus the slave, or any of the others who belonged to the small Christian community in Rome?

Those are the questions Peter Oakes encourages us to consider in his fascinating book, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level. From a guided tour through the remains of houses in Pompeii and a reconstruction of their possible occupants, making due allowance for differences in Rome, he invites us to imagine the social makeup of a house church in Rome. There are about thirty people: several householders with their spouses, children, and slaves; some, including slaves, from other households where they are the only Christian, and a few homeless people. When they meet, they squeeze into the largest room they have access to – a workshop rented by the wealthiest person among their number.

Just in case they were in any doubt, Paul’s message is for all of them: ‘I say to every one of you’, he writes. In God’s design, each of them has the amazing privilege of living out the renewed mind in how they think about themselves: ‘do not think of yourself more highly than you ought’.

We can so easily dismiss a call to humility as a truism. Doesn’t everyone believe it to be a good thing? But that simply wasn’t the case in first-century Rome. As Peter Oakes points out, in a society which was fiercely competitive for honour and status, Paul makes it clear that ‘there is no basis for seeing oneself as superior when the only measure is faith, a gift from God’.

Away from first-century Rome, there is something here for those of us whose egos are just about held in check by a sense of decorum (because it would reflect badly on me) rather than any exercise of spiritual discipline. There is something here, too, for those of us who are self-deprecating in the hope that someone else will feel obliged to praise us. Where is my source of self-worth? In what others think of me? In my latest achievements? In the need for constant acclaim?

For us, as for Holconius and Sabina, we are no more than what we are before the cross of Jesus. The measure for how we think of ourselves flows out of the gospel, and it’s the same fixed standard for all of us.

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