12th Sunday after PentecostRomans 12:9-21 Elizabeth & Richard Deibert
August 31, 2014
Elizabeth: Last week we read the first half of Romans 12 and considered the challenge of committing ourselves to a transformed life in Christ, in which we give ourselves completely to service to God and humanity. Continuing today, Paul spells out in short ethical instructions what Authentic Christianity looks like in daily living.
People usually summarize this passage with its opening line – “Let love be genuine” – or with its ending line – “Overcome evil with good.” Richard and I believe that the reason those lines are so definitive for the whole passage – and for the whole of Christian life – is that they describe Who Jesus Christ is. Even those who do not believe that Christ is God, believe that Jesus’ love was genuine and that He responded to evil with good.
Because these verses are short and dense, piling one upon the other in rapid succession, I’ve asked Richard to alternate with me in exploring what these imperatives mean for us today. First hear the entire passage, and then we will walk through one verse at a time.
NRS Romans 12:9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 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." 20 No, "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." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Richard: As Elizabeth preached last week, Paul has just finished his description of the glorious Christian Gospel. For 11 chapters in Romans—probably the most famous writing in history—Paul describes the new glory of God’s grace that is ours through Jesus Christ. Now in chapter 12, he focuses the concrete particulars of metamorphosis—the transformed life that is now possible for all of us through the Lord Jesus Christ. “Be transformed!” he commands us. God has gloriously gifted each of us so that we might glorify the Church. The power of God’s grace in our life together is real and makes a difference in this world. So let us struggle together to live as authentic Christians.
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
With the coming of Jesus Christ into this world, the world learns for the first time that Love is the Source of everything real. You and I have been baptized into—united with—this God-Who-Is-Love. We have been clothed with the Nature of Jesus Christ, Who IS Love. Therefore Paul charges us to act in harmony with the Nature of Jesus Christ that belongs to us.
Paul puts it like this: “Your love must be non-hypocritical.” That’s the Greek word for “genuine” or “authentic”—non-hypocritical. Authentic love is non-hypocritical love. Authentic love hates evil and clings to good. Paul uses strong words here to define authentic love: abhoring evil and intimately clinging to good. It’s the same word used elsewhere for sexual union and it creates a powerful word picture. Love is so desirous of good that it despises evil. Authentic Christianity refuses to love falsely and craves union with goodness.
10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Elizabeth: Authentic Christianity produces a community in which no one is left out or under-valued. Mutuality is the key word here and means that love is always being passed back and forth. Everyone is devoted to valuing the others more self. Can you imagine the church where each member is devoted to blessing the others, giving back more love than was received, competing to show greater honor to the other. “No, let me do the dishes. No, tell me about your day first. No, I’ll take the burdensome task. Please, take my seat, my place, go ahead of me.” Can you imagine a politician who was shaped by life in an authentic Christian community, who dared to boast in the opposition’s strengths rather than weaknesses?
11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Richard: Authentic Christians are enslaved to Jesus Christ as Lord, which means that we are enslaved to Love. Most translations choose to domesticate this and say that we “serve” the Lord due to obvious negative associations with slavery. However Paul sees Christian life as enslavement to the Lord of Love. “You have been bought with a price,” therefore you must not be lazy in your devotion to Jesus. Serve your Lord, Jesus Christ, with a burning spirit because He is the Lord of Love.
12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Elizabeth: Authentic Christianity never stops joyfully hoping and never becomes impatient in the midst of suffering. But joyful hope and patient suffering can only be sustained by unending prayer. Prayer creates a God-like perspective that nurtures faith and enables us to trust in God’s Providence, no matter how negative our circumstances. If we answer the call to this kind of authentic Christian life, we will see that God is working in all things for good.
13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Richard: Authentic Christians actively seek to meet human need. We are not lazy toward humans in need. Because we share the Nature of Jesus Christ, we naturally attend to need. Any need, any time, any human, inside and outside the church. Yes, it’s a heavy burden. But it is our joy. Because this is exactly what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
The text does not say that we must meet the need. It says only that we must attend to the need. The way he says this is moving: “Be fellowshipping with the needs of your fellow Christians; and be striving to love strangers.” Listen to that again, it’s wonderful: “Be fellowshipping with the needs of your fellow Christians; and be striving to love strangers.”
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Elizabeth: Authentic Christians never curse others, even when they deserve it. As Jesus showed, this faithful restraint is only possible by the power of God. When someone is cruel to us, it is so tempting to feel justified in giving it right back to them. But this only perpetuates the cycle of cruelty. Listen for the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved. Don’t be afraid, I am with you.” Don’t be defined by cruel behavior or insulting words. Don’t become entrapped by bitterness. Rise above. Rejoice that someone else’s behavior has no power over you. True power is found in love, in the strength to resist violent words and actions by giving back blessings.
15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Richard: This is beautiful and tender. Authentic Christians are sensitive to the spiritual struggle of others. We resonate with the spirit of the other. It is not first about our individual spiritual fitness; it is about fitting our spirit to the spirit of others.” Which is exactly what God has done for us in Jesus Christ: fitted the Divine Self to our human self. So we never neglect the struggles of others. Instead, we “tune” ourselves to the spirits of others and resonate with them wherever they are.
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Elizabeth: Harmony means there’s more than one note, the notes are different, and they blend together into beautiful music. Harmony is what makes music more than just a collection of individual notes. Every note matters, the low, the high, and the ones hidden in the middle. In this age of information technology, we all think we need to impress people with knowledge. So we are tempted to pretend that we know more than we really do. But this damages community. Authentic Christians are humble. They’re honest. They listen well. They do not rush to speak. They always seek to harmonize with others, even ones they might consider less important.
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Richard: As Paul said earlier, authentic Christians hate evil and cling to what is good. Now he says this again with different words. We are united to the Lord of Love, Jesus Christ. Therefore it is no longer our nature to pay evil back with evil. The word “noble” in Paul’s day means that which is universally true and right and beautiful.
So, no matter what is happening to us, no matter what another person is doing to us, the authentically Christian response is to what is noble—to seek for the other what our Lord Jesus sought for those who were crucifying Him.
That’s exactly what the Amish did in 2006 after Charles Roberts walked into school in Lancaster County and shot 10 young girls, killing five of them and himself. The killer’s parents understandably started to relocate from the community, but the Amish came to their house the night of the shooting and asked them to stay. One mother and father, who had lost two daughters that day, came to the killer’s funeral and were the first ones to greet his mother and father with forgiveness. Not only that, but the Amish donated money for the killer’s widow to help her raise their three children. “Take thought for—provide—what is noble in the sight of all.”
18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Elizabeth: Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Every movement that has truly changed the world for good began with peaceful people, who spoke the truth in love, who were assertive but not aggressive, who clarified and worked for compromises because they were able to see another’s point of view. Authentic Christians are peacemakers. They have a secure identity that does not resort to fight or flight. They are respectful of human relationships and they persist in the difficult work of negotiating with persons with whom they disagree.
19 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.”
Richard: This desire for revenge is an incredibly persistent and strong temptation. But it is a fleshly desire lingering from our old, fallen natures. Revenge is absolutely foreign to the Nature of Jesus Christ, which we now share. So Paul returns to it again and again, emphatically. Authentic Christians see the world like their Lord Jesus Christ sees the world. We know and we trust that God’s way of dealing with evil—which Scripture calls God’s “wrath”—is infinitely superior to our way. Infinitely superior. Paul even quotes God’s Personal word in Scripture to make this clear: “Leave revenge to Me, period.” Authentic Christians are devoted to Jesus Christ, and like Him, we never—NEVER—seek revenge.
20 No, "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."
Elizabeth: Authentic Christians nourish their enemies. They undermine evil by doing unexpected good. But heaping burning coals on the heads of enemies doesn’t sound very peaceable, does it? Here Paul is quoting from Proverbs 25:21-22. This idiom “burning coals on the head” means “stirring up the enemy’s mind” or “searing truth into them.” Some of us have had the feeling of burning faces when someone embarrasses us in public.
MLK in a sermon on loving enemies said, Just keep being friendly [to that person who mistreats you.] Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Richard: Paul’s last word in this passage is a powerful one: “You are conquerors. Therefore, conquer … with goodness!” People of God, our nature is being transformed into the glorious Nature of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why we must not live falsely, but authentically. How we deal with this world and the people in our lives must reflect the way our Lord Jesus Christ lived in this world. His Nature was to conquer evil with good. And that is now, by grace, our nature.
So let us be true to our nature. Let us be authentic, genuine, non-falsifiable, and non-hypocritical. Because it is through us that the world is learning about the Lord of Love, Jesus Christ, through Whom everything came into being and to Whom all things will finally return.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.