August 30, 2020

Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

“Overcome Evil with Good”

Thank you, Marianne and Gabe, for sharing that beautiful ministry of music, “Ancient Words.” Sometimes, when I am reading Scripture, I almost forget how ancient the words actually are. I open the Bible expecting the words to say something to me and to our community today, and I lose sight of the reality that they were written so long ago, in another language, to ancient communities of faith in a land far away.

And yet, the ancient words do still speak to us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God teaches and guides us through the Scriptures as we seek to follow the Way of Jesus even today. We need to do the work of reading and thinking about them, considering the setting and historical circumstances that they first addressed, and applying them to our time and place, but they are indeed relevant for us.

The lectionary passage that really struck me this week was the section from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the first century Roman Church. In the first part of chapter twelve, Paul instructs them about how to get along as a Christian community – valuing each member, sharing the variety of gifts they have received, and honouring each other in love.

Christians today know how hard it is to live together in community – whether as Christian families, congregations, presbyteries, or whole denominations. We have to make decisions together. We have to respect differences. We have to figure out how to avoid conflicts (or better yet, how to work through conflicts when they do happen). Divisions and factions within our Christian communities, or within the church as a whole, are a poor witness to the world. They hinder our mission of love, and quite frankly, make being Christians not very fun at all.

In the first few verses of today’s passage (starting at verse 9), Paul is still teaching the Christian community about how to live with each other well: “Let love be genuine;” he writes, “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour…”

Love stands at the head of the list, of course, as the most foundational rule for Christian community – what we already talked about with the children this morning, that love is the greatest commandment. And, as in other places like 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul explains what love is all about, it quickly becomes clear in this passage that love is not just feelings.

Love is not about the feelings that Christians having for one another, but it is about the practical care for each other that marked the early church. It included showing mutual affection, honouring each other, rejoicing together, enduring struggles together, praying together, and providing for each other’s needs.

Taking note of that line that says we must “outdo one another in showing honour,” one commentator explains that the Greek can been translated literally as they should “go first and lead the way in showing honour to one another.” So, we’re not just talking about people responding with kindness when someone else treats them well. But we’re talking about a community that is overflowing with people who are intentionally trying to “go first” and “lead the way” in being good to one another.

Is that a good description of you within our congregation? Is that a good description of us within our presbytery or within the wider Christian community? I certainly find that to be a challenging instruction, to go beyond simply responding to expressed needs, issues, or complaints, and to become more and more intentional about “leading the way” in showing honour to others in the Christian community.

But after those first few verses, Paul shifts away from instructions for living together within the church towards how Christians must live together with those outside the church – their neighbours and people of other faiths, including those who may be persecuting or treating them poorly, including those who would attack and harm them.

We do not know of specific persecution in the Roman church during the 50s, but Paul assumes, here as elsewhere, that persecution will come to those who remain loyal to Jesus. And he teaches them clearly that the appropriate response to it is blessing, not cursing.

The New Interpreters’ Commentary suggests that “At this point, Paul stands firmly with Jesus and the entire early Christian tradition against all other traditions known to us. The noble stories of the Maccabean martyrs typify the tradition Paul would have received: the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees 7 go to their deaths calling down solemn curses on their persecutors. But in both Jesus’ teaching and his own practice there was a strikingly new note: Hostility was to be met with prayer, and violence with blessing.”

This is a difficult teaching, indeed. The commentary points out that “It is hard to imagine this teaching (in Paul’s letter) becoming the norm in the church, as it clearly did from the very start, unless it was firmly rooted in the words and example of Jesus himself.”

Jesus, who taught: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus, who in today’s Gospel passage seems already to understand that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, and be killed. Jesus, who would not show hatred or violence towards his enemies. Jesus, who would hang on the cross and pray for those who had put him there: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Can we do this? Can we pray for those who have hurt us or offended us? Can we pray for them, and not just for them to change their minds or be different than they are… but can we pray for God to forgive them and to bless them?

It reminds me of the news some time ago that the Democratic Speaker of the House in the U.S., Nancy Pelosi, mentioned that she prays for Donald Trump regularly. She doesn’t pray AGAINST Trump, as others may be inclined to do, but she prays FOR him, perhaps asking God to forgive him, and guide him, and bless him.

Paul has two more significant instructions for the Roman Church and for our Christian communities today. He entreats us to do our utmost to live peaceably with all people, and he begs us not to retaliate or seek vengeance when we have been wronged.

The Roman Christians lived within a culturally and religiously diverse context in which they were a small minority. And in this post-Christendom era, the Christian church today is starting to experience again what that feels like. One possibility for minority religious groups is to keep to themselves, avoiding negative responses from others and the risk of being influenced by the ideas or customs of their neighbours. But that’s not what Paul tells them to do.

As the New Interpreters’ Commentary elaborates, “They should not keep themselves aloof; if someone in the next street dies, they should be prepared to sympathize and join the funeral procession, and if someone is celebrating, they should throw their hats in the air as well. It will not do, just because the society around is potentially or actually hostile, to adopt a snooty attitude; much better to know how to establish common ground and to find ways of making friends.” Paul says, “Live in harmony with one another.”

Finally, there is the strong call not to retaliate when others do us harm. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… never avenge yourselves,” but instead, show love for your enemies. “Overcome evil with good.”

Commentator Karen Baker-Fletcher assures us that “Paul is not suggesting that people are not accountable for their actions. He does not condone persecution, bullying, or domestic violence. He is very clear that Christians should resist injustice, because he strongly speaks against evil.” He exhorts us to turn away from it and to “hold fast to what is good.”

When Paul says that we should “leave room for the wrath of God,” another commentator explains that this means we must not take the law into our own hands, but “allow God to do justice – which may well be done through the appointed magistrates.”

So, we are called to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to feed them and give them something to drink as they need it. And perhaps this is not supposed to be interpreted metaphorically. Do you know the Bible story from 1 Kings 6:20-23? That’s where the prophet Elisha commands the King of Israel not to kill enemies who were supernaturally delivered into his hands, but to give them a banquet instead. In that instance, the Syrian enemies did not return to invade Israel – so the practice of showing love for the enemies actually led to some measure of peace.

There’s another passage in Proverbs 25:21-22, which Paul actually quotes in his letter, in which the writer says that taking this course of action “will heap coals of fire on the enemy’s head.” At first sight it might look as though the coals of fire were themselves punishment; but this would hardly qualify as “repaying evil with good,” since the vengeful intention would still be uppermost.

Instead, the “coals of fire” are almost certainly intended as the burning shame of remorse for having treated someone so badly. The point is, then, that treating enemies kindly is not only appropriate behaviour in its own right, refusing the vengeance that would usurp God’s prerogative; but it may also have the effect of turning their hearts.

Baker-Fletcher suggests that “Paul offers a new way of living for everyone. Experiencing God’s love through the many gifts of Christian practitioners is powerful enough to turn anyone to the good news and practice of Jesus Christ.” Isn’t that a wonderful idea? That our radical, unexpected, counter-intuitive love for our enemies might actually be the cause for others to turn away from evil and towards good, towards God.

Of course, it’s not a new idea. It’s exactly what Jesus did and why he did it. He loved his enemies all the way to the cross so that we might experience his love, and turn away from evil and towards good, towards God.

“When God came to defeat evil, it was not achieved by using an even greater evil, but by using its opposite, namely, the surprising and initially counterintuitive weapons of goodness.”

And here’s an idea that I really loved when I came across it this week: “To be consumed with vengeful thoughts, or to be led into putting such thoughts into practice, is to keep evil in circulation [You know… passing hatred back and forth between us like families feuding or gangs at war with one another…] whereas the way to overthrow evil, rather than perpetuating it, is to take its force and give back goodness instead.”

Of course, I’m thinking about the myriad responses to the present racism and violence against Black people in the U.S. Christians are not supposed to ignore or remain silent in the face of all that is happening. But we must not return hatred for hatred, or violence for violence.

I was encouraged this week by the example of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. Cameroon’s 27 million people have two official languages – English and French – but the people in the two linguistic groups are divided and in serious conflict. It is now at the level of violent armed conflict between the English-speaking militia and the nation’s military and security forces. Increasing violence and insecurity in Cameroon has forced more than one million people from their homes. The devastation is enormous.

While also trying to support and help the people of their communities, the Presbyterian Church has submitted a list of proposals to the national president of Cameroon. The church is hard-hit in the country’s conflict because about 80 percent of its adherents, activities and economic ventures are found “in the war zone” and the church is predominantly English-speaking (which is the minority, persecuted group).

The church’s response stands in contrast to the cycle of violence that surrounds them. The church has organized interfaith services and peace discussions. It has regularly sent pastoral letters to its communion recommending “salient proposals” for the reinstitution of peace and tranquility. In March 2020, the moderator led an international delegation for a meeting with the prime minister to brainstorm on concrete measures to resolve the crisis in Cameroon.

Let us pray for the church in Cameroon, and for all who suffer persecution, hatred, and violence, whether based on language, race, religion, or some other difference. May God give us courage to stand in solidarity with those who suffer and to speak and act for justice. May God give us faith to believe that we will not be overcome by evil, but we will overcome evil with good.

Martin Luther King Junior’s famous words come to mind, perhaps inspired by this passage as well: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”