“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, and serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (Romans 12:9-11)
You all have heard the verse about entertaining strangers from the book of Hebrews before I’m sure. I think it goes something like this. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels in their underwear.” You heard that verse before? That might be a corrupted version. I think that’s the version according to the unawares. Here’s a more accurate version of that verse: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). This translation makes more sense.
Let’s continue with Paul’s teaching from Romans: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” (Romans 12:14-16) In other words don’t be conceited. Avoid self-righteous trips, thinking that you are better and more important than others. Look at yourself with sober judgment, as we talked about last week. This is very practical stuff. “Love one another. Hold fast to what is good.”
Paul instructs the Christian Church in Rome and also St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon to do our best to live in harmony with others. Make a concentrated and focused attempt to do what is right and responsible and just. Rejoice with those that rejoice and weep with those that weep. Rejoicing with your brothers and sisters that are celebrating a milestone or something special that is happening in their lives. That’s pastoral care too. It’s not just about ministering to those that are going through hard times. It is also rejoicing for those that are celebrating good things. And, of course the flip side is to weep with others in their sorrows. “Weep with those that weep!” Walk beside and with others, at least to the best of our abilities, during the difficult times.
Okay, this passage so far has included some very difficult teaching, but now we get to the part of Paul’s lecture that is almost impossible to follow, and it is what I consider the hardest part of this passage. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
We are talking about Christian virtue and Christian maturity. Recognizing evil by knowing that in the end judgment belongs to God. “In the end judgment belongs to God!” Paul says we are to practice justice and to care for one another. When it comes to hospitality we are encouraged to outdo one another. We are encouraged from scripture to show mutual affection, of both giving and taking. That’s what a welcoming church is. Showing hospitality to strangers. Isn’t that a picture that we would like those outside of the church to think about when they see the church? Isn’t this a picture of how we would like the whole world to live?
You might say, but we can’t change the world. There is evil in the world. Yes, there is evil. This passage instructs us to not be overcome with evi,l but overcome evil with good. But, what about the evil people that wrought havoc in our world, people like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin (Russia), Idi Amin (Uganda), the Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq and Syria? How do we justify this and overcome evil with good? Sure God will avenge them in the end, but what about justice right now?
Okay, how do we apply these verses to the world we live in? Let’s be practical. How do we respond to these words in the right way? “Beloved never avenge yourself, but leave room for God. And if it is possible with you, be at harmony with all people.” I’m not going to tell you that you should be a pacifist or to support a just war theory. Christians hold to both of these positions. For the first three centuries of the early church until 312, when Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the Roman Empire, the early Christians were all pacifists. Historically in the Christian Church, this is when the “Just War” position came into being. That position is this: “We do not attack unless we are attacked.”Now, it is much more complicated than we have time to discuss this morning. Just War is the theory that all our military academies follow and teach. I’m not going to tell you whether you should be a pacifist or hold onto a just war theory, because like I said, Christians hold onto both of those positions. Ambrose (a theologian of the early to mid 300’s) later developed this position held by Constantine, but added to it with this teaching: “We don’t attack or retaliate unless we are attacked and our nation has been invaded or attacked.” His student, Augustine of Hippo, and other theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Paul Tillich and Richard Niebuhr followed this teaching. Other Christian theologians and philosophers through the centuries that are pacifists include Hippolytus, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King and Stanley Hauerwas.
But, all of these theologians agreed on one thing: “But in the end, justice is mine says the Lord!” Jesus was persecuted and martyred because he stood up against the injustices of a dominant system of government that persecuted anyone that opposed their principles for another set of principles, especially if they were called spiritual principles, because the principles of the Roman kingdom were called the principles of God.
We are commissioned by Jesus to stand up against injustice, and to do that in a way that you feel God has called you to do. Jesus was put to death because he established the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God; He imposed them as a grid over the whole world. It’s like Jesus is saying that there is a grid, and this grid covers the entire known world. And, over this grid I am introducing a whole new set of principles, the principles of love, harmony, justice and peace.” These principles are diabolically opposed to every facet, every pathway on this grid. They stand in contrast, juxtaposition to the dominant system of power. That justifies injustice, unfair treatment and flies in the face of true religion and truth. And, by the way, this truth that Jesus and Paul are talking about will set people free, but it might get them killed just as it got Jesus, killed.
Sometimes we look at the cross and all we see is that Jesus died for our sins, and I think we miss an important message. Jesus stood up to injustice, hatred and all types of evil, and He tells us to pick up our cross and do the same, to speak out on the same issues that He speaks about, to put this teaching into practice in our lives. In Jesus time as a man on earth, and in the early church, Rome was in cahoots with the religious elite that controlled both religious and political life. To follow the teachings of Jesus, to deny that Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, was the son God or the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, the savior of the world, meant trouble for all Christians in the early church. And, we know from history that this was true. It is no wonder that they were all pacifists.
It may not be true for many of us, but it is true for many Christians in our world today. Martyrdom and persecution is happening In Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and many other places in our world. “God says vengeance is mine!” I don’t understand what it means that final judgment is God’s part, not mine. That’s way above my pay-grade, but I do believe that in the end good will triumph over evil.
Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, and serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; and extend hospitality to strangers.
Let love be Genuine
Year A 12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 31, 2014
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen