August 25, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
“In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” That is a hymn lyric that many Christians know. But the notion of the cross towering over various temporal “wrecks” gained new poignancy just over a dozen years ago when we saw on the news—and for those of us who went to Lower Manhattan we saw it also in person—that iron-girder cross towering over Ground Zero. That iron-girder cross became one of the most frequently photographed parts of the that grim and terrible place.
For many people in this world, that’s the function of a cross: to mark a bad and tragic thing. You see fields of crosses at Arlington National Cemetery and in the vast graveyards near Normandy, France, That’s what we do: we place the cross at locations of death. We do not generally, however, sink crosses into places of life, liveliness, or anything else that has to do with our everyday business.
Even in lower Manhattan prior to September 11, 2001, no one would have thought to place a cross anywhere in the plaza of the World Trade Center. Not only would such a religious symbol have been shunned as a violation of church and state, seeing the symbol of the cross smack in the midst of this country’s greatest symbol of economic power would have made no sense to most people. What would a cross have had to do with all that bond trading and all the other high-octane business that people once conducted in the Twin Towers?
Today the cross from the wreckage of the towers is included in the newly opened memorial museum. But a group of atheists recently filed suit to have it removed from the museum because of the religious nature of the cross. A federal judge threw out the suit at the end of July. So the iron girder cross stays in the museum but I suspect that even so, you won’t see a cross near the new Freedom Tower or anywhere else in the newly revamped World Trade Center complex. The cross will stay where it belongs: at a memorial commemorating death.
Yet in Matthew 16 Jesus presents the cross as something to which we cling every day. When preaching on this portion of Matthew 16 from the Year A Common Lectionary, we need to remember as preachers that despite our Christian familiarity (perhaps over-familiarity) with the idea of “taking up a cross” and following Jesus, this image is actually quite counter-cultural, cutting against the grain of expectations in terms of what people usually associate the symbol of the cross with.
But perhaps we need to be aware of how at odds this familiar image is even with what many faithful church members think as well. Has the cross become more of a political statement for some, flaring into people’s consciousness mostly when controversies erupt about the placement of a cross in public places or public school classrooms? Do we in the church understand the daily reality of the cross in our own lives or do we tend to “reserve” the cross for special occasions, political fights, or cemeteries?
This lection of Matthew 16:21-28 follows immediately on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. Jesus told the disciples in verse 20 to keep that secret for now but what he did not want to keep secret was his own understanding of what being the Christ involved. And the chief thing Christ-ship involved was suffering and death. That is why, as verse 21 tells us, Jesus talked about these grim topics “from that time on.” But, of course, it didn’t sit well with the politically minded disciples, starting with the one who had just made the good confession—and whom Jesus had just blessed mightily for having done so—namely, Peter himself.
Peter still holds the world record for the fastest change in spiritual status. Within the span of only a few minutes, Peter went from “Rocky the Blessed” to “Satan the Scandal”! The change-of-status happens when Peter/Rocky, takes it on himself to give Jesus a little lesson in theology. So he pulls Jesus aside away from the other disciples the way the president might consult with his chief-of-staff on matters that don’t concern the “little people” around him. Peter assumes the posture of a superior instructing an inferior.
With his arm draped around Jesus’ shoulder, Peter quietly but sternly upbraids Jesus, “God forbid this should ever happen to you, Lord!” That’s when Jesus calls Peter a Satan, but not just that: he calls Peter a skandalon, a scandal, which in Greek refers to a rock over which a person stumbles. Simon is still getting depicted in rock-like terms, but this time he’s not a foundation stone but a trip-hazard! Then, just to be sure Peter, and now all of us, get the point as to what makes the difference between being a useful building block or a dangerous stumbling block, Jesus launches into his famous words about bearing the cross.
The cross, and our ability to let our everyday life be shaped by that cross, is what creates the difference. But that means that the thing that even hell itself cannot touch is not something powerful the way the world reckons such things but something weak. It’s weakness that hell cannot attack. It’s vulnerability and the gospel way of suffering servanthood and gentle love that the devil and his hosts cannot exploit.
Jesus indicates that just viewing life the way he viewed it will itself lead to a degree of suffering. If the cross, and faithfulness to the Jesus who died on that cross, is going to shape our everyday lives, then conflict with the prevailing culture should be expected. There may be certain promotions we shouldn’t get or take as Christians, certain business opportunities we should decline, certain things we won’t go along with, say, or do.
A person can gain the whole world, Jesus warns, but still lose his soul. And if in the end, when Christ returns in glory, a person does horrifyingly discover that his soul has been forfeited, then not all the riches of this earth will be enough to buy that soul back. Some things come to us only as a gift of grace. Life with God is just such a gift, and it was purchased for us by Jesus on a cross.
Every day and in every place, that cross towers over us, and we should not want it to be any other way.
Some years ago author and New York Times columnist David Brooks detailed the sprawl of what he called “Sprinkler Cities.” These are giant suburban metropolises that have sprung up from virtually nowhere in the last two decades. In order to make such Sprinkler Cities attractive to would-be new residents, city planners are very careful to build all the basics. Chief among the absolute necessities to which people insist on having access are, of course, shopping outlets. And so among the first things to spring up from nowhere on once-desolate patches of prairie are giant slabs of asphalt on which are built things like Home Depot, Petco, WalMart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Barnes&Noble, Linens-n-Things, as well as area-code-sized Old Navy stores. Some of these malls, Brooks says, are so big they could almost qualify for membership in the United Nations. Ringing these behemoths of commerce are other vital landmarks of the newly formed Sprinkler City, including theme chain restaurants of the Macaroni Grill/Olive Garden/Outback/Cantina Charlie’s/Cheesecake Factory/TGI Fridays variety.
If you travel through these new suburban meccas, you’ll see all the logos, signs, and brand names you would expect to see, but you’ll see no cross, and actually precious few churches. It’s hard to know what the cross of Jesus would have to do with a Sprinkler City. The cross is not a symbol of strength. Instead it’s a somber symbol of weakness, of death, of tragedy. It’s also a symbol of hope, and in a sense the cross at Ground Zero was meant to point beyond those horrors toward something better by and by. But short of the need to see some hope beyond a bad moment, the cross is not something to which you turn your eyes–not on good days anyway.
In verse 21, Matthew tells us that Jesus explained to the disciples how all of that must happen to him. It’s the tiny Greek verb dei that is used there, and throughout the New Testament this notion of absolute necessity is routinely linked with the sufferings and death of Jesus. This simply had to happen. That word dei may be tiny, but it packs a great theological punch. But in Matthew 16, Peter apparently missed hearing that little word “must” because he seems to have concluded that this suffering and death stuff was just one possibility of what the future held. But since it was only one possibility among many, Peter figured it was best to avoid it. In preaching on Matthew 16 today and in a time when choice is valued by many people above all else and when being overly directive is often offensive to people, we in the pulpit need not shrink from the power of this particular dei where Jesus is concerned nor fail to make the connection that because that had to happen to Jesus, we now have to take up our cross, our symbol of living death, and follow him. This is not just one option for how to live like a Christian (as though choosing the happy-clappy and easy way of the health-and-wealth televangelists were an equally valid option) but it is the way. It has to be this way.
Do we understand this?
Author: Scott Hoezee
All of life has at least a little suspense to it. Sometimes such suspense is a good and happy thing, the kind of thing a child feels when anticipating opening Christmas presents or awaiting the start of a long-anticipated birthday party. Few phrases can titillate a child as much as the two words, “You’ll see!”
You pick the kids up from school and say, “I have a special treat for you waiting at home.”
“What is it, what is it!?”
“Awww! Just tell us!”
Or we watch some mystery movie and we eagerly anticipate the climactic scene when “the other shoe drops,” when the mystery is solved, the murderer unmasked. The suspense of it all keeps us rapt or, in the case of a cracking good novel, keeps us turning those pages.
But there is of course also such a thing as medical suspense, and that is not very fun or amusing at all. The lab results are due Tuesday, and so you find yourself staring at the phone more often than not as that day passes by so very, very slowly. Suspense like that generates a knotted feeling in the pit of your stomach the likes of which you can hardly find words adequate to describe. Most of the time, however, you don’t need to describe that anxious, suspenseful sensation. Once a person has had it him- or herself (and most all of us have at one time or another), no description is needed. “I feel kinda, I dunno,” you may say to someone else, who will then respond, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”
We’d probably all like to think that this kind of anxious suspense does not apply to the life of faith. At the very least we like to entertain the idea that however we may feel religiously and spiritually at any given moment, for sure the great saints of old, the heroes of the faith, the high-profile Bible characters we’ve learned about since Sunday school–they at least had a clearer vision, a firmer faith, a certainty to which we do well to aspire. But as we see in Exodus 3, even someone with as direct a line of communication with God as Moses could not escape the suspense dimension of faith. Despite all the assurances and signs of confirmation we may have in this present time, the simple fact of the matter is that to have faith is to live to a significant degree in the future tense.
Maybe even Moses wished eventually that this wasn’t so. He wasn’t snooping around looking for any great calling in life. In fact, his life changed pretty much the way anyone’s life changes (if it ever changes at all, that is); namely, his life changed smack from within the context of just another ordinary day on the job. In his commentary on Exodus, John Calvin praises Moses for his great patience. For years and years, Calvin notes, Moses was living in Midian, tending sheep for his father-in-law. But all the while he was patiently waiting for the other shoe to drop, for God to summon him to active duty at last.
Far be it for a man from Calvin Seminary to disagree with John Calvin but . . . I dunno about this one.
The truth is that there is no evidence that Moses was waiting for anything. We as readers of Exodus may know that Moses was a man of destiny, God’s elect and select leader of Israel. But there is no evidence that Moses knew that. So far as we know, God had never before spoken to Moses. Sure, the story of how Moses escaped Pharaoh’s holocaust must have been something Moses knew about, but maybe he accepted it as just another fact about his own history. If you were born in the backseat of your parents’ Buick while the car was parked under an overpass during a fierce thunderstorm because your father just couldn’t get mom to the hospital in time, well then that’s an interesting detail of your life, and you have maybe re-told that story hundreds of times. But how large really does that loom on your mental horizon most days? Probably not much.
And so also for Moses: he may have deemed himself mighty lucky to have been discovered by the princess that day while he bobbed around in his little reed basket in the River Nile–and he may have really loved growing up in the splendors of Pharaoh’s palace–but none of that necessarily made him feel like a man of destiny. If anything, while living in Midian, Moses had no doubt long since concluded that he had messed up a good thing. He lost his temper one day, slipped a knife between that Egyptian’s ribs, and ended up fleeing Egypt to save his own skin. If Moses had ever entertained fantasies of greatness, they died a long time ago. His best days were behind him. He was a shepherd now and that was that. He had a wife, a family, a father-in-law who had given him a job. End of story.
So far as Moses could see, Midian was his future, and a pretty predictable future it was at that. Maybe it even depressed him a little. Maybe some mornings he awoke hoping to see sunlight streaming through palace windows only to smell the mustiness of his tent. Maybe some days as he awoke he thought he heard the sound of the butler bringing him his glass of freshly squeezed juice only to realize with a sigh that it was just his wife spooning out mush into the baby’s bowl. However Moses felt about life in Midian, it looked for all the world as though it would be his lot forever.
About the only good thing you could say about it was that it was predictable. It may have been a routine, vaguely humdrum existence, but at least it was stable. You fed the sheep. You sheared the sheep. You cleaned up after the sheep. And then you did it all over again. That’s life, right?
Does it sound like even your life? At one time or another we all feel stuck. We’re stuck in a dead-end job. We’re stuck living in a house that is increasingly tattered but we can’t afford to fix it up, much less move somewhere else. We’re stuck in a relationship and the fire went out of the thing a long time ago. We suspect that maybe we are in the wrong place, the wrong career, the wrong church, the wrong everything. And we are just sure that God will not do a blessed thing to change matters anytime soon, if ever.
Who knows whether any or all of that was going through Moses’ head. But I think John Calvin was almost certainly wrong: Moses was not biding his time in a laudable exercise of great patience. Instead Moses was doing what needed to be done to put bread on the table for his wife and kid. He was on the job, tending sheep. Today we might say he was just sitting at his desk, working on the assembly line, driving his bus, getting the groceries. He was doing the same things he’d done a zillion times before when suddenly he saw something out of the ordinary. A bush was on fire. That alone may not have been too unusual a sight to see in a desert environment. Usually, though, these thorn bushes would flame up and be consumed in seconds. This one was different. It kept burning but never lost its shape. No branches were falling in flames to the ground. No ash was building up.
It seemed worth a second look, and it was that willingness to pause, to turn aside, to break with the routine that changed Moses’ life. The voice of God spoke to Moses and told him he was on holy ground (an amazing fact given that our work environments are generally the last place we expect to be holy in any sense!). But Moses was in the presence of God as it turned out, and God had a message that, at first, seemed to have nothing to do with Moses personally. God was concerned for Israel. Well fine, who wasn’t? They were being treated abominably by the Egyptians and no one knew that better than Moses. So God was concerned and was determined to get them out and into the Promised Land once again.
But if Moses at first viewed this as no more than a news flash about events and things outside of himself, that soon changed. “And you, Moses, are the one who will do all this!” Moses says the only thing anyone could say, the very same thing any one of us would have said: “Who am I to do this?” It’s a good question, but did you notice God’s answer? Or rather, did you notice what God did not say?
God does not reply, “Who are you!? Why, you’re gifted, man! You are strong, brave, bold, courageous. You’ve got leadership skills, an aptitude for influencing people. I’ve looked you over, Moses, and you’ve got the 12 habits of highly effective people down pat! I’ve passed you through a Meyers-Brigg inventory and you come out with precisely the combination of emotions that will propel you straight to the top! You, Moses, are the logical, the obvious, the natural choice!”
God doesn’t say anything like that. “Who am I?” Moses asks. And God says in essence, “You’re nobody. But I will be with you.” That has to be enough for Moses. Meanwhile God bolsters all of this a bit more by proffering Moses a sign. “I will be with you, Moses, and here’s how you will know that this is true: some day you will have the Israelites in tow and all of you will worship me right on this very mountain.”
Now I don’t know about you, but as confirmations go, this sign strikes me as a tad unhelpful. Suppose you go to the bank to request a $10,000 loan. The loan officer will almost certainly ask you, “And how do I know you can pay this back? What collateral can you show me?” But it will not cut any ice with the bank if your reply is along the lines of, “Well, you’ll know I can pay it back when I do. Right after I have returned the last red cent to you, then you will know that I am a reliable loan applicant.”
No, that’s not the drill. Not at the bank at least. What good is a sign if it comes only after the very thing you want confirmed has already happened? Moses doesn’t think he can lead the Israelites out. God says he can because God will be with him. Moses wants to know right then and there how he can be sure of that, and so God says that he’ll know God is with him only after he has completed the very work that he is sure he cannot do.
“You’ll see,” God as much as says. In other words, Moses had to move forward in the suspense of faith. That didn’t sit too well, and so Moses presses things a bit more. “OK, so you are sending me, you say you will be with me, and I’m willing to try to tell all that to the people, but they’re going to want to see some I.D. Who exactly should I say told me to do all this?” God’s reply is the famous “I Am Who I Am. Tell them that I Am sent you.” Moses must have been disappointed. The gods of the Egyptians had some really cool names, monikers that evoked flood and thunder, blazing sunlight and rainstorms, power and might. Compared to all that, “I Am” seemed a little nondescript. If someone known as Richard the Lionhearted invites troops to follow him into battle, the very name inspires confidence. But there may be a reason why in history there has never been a famous military general whose name was Gilbert Skinnypants or Eldon Knockknees! Names are important!
Exodus 3 is, of course, the famous, first-ever revelation of the divine name “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” as it used to be rendered. Pick up any commentary you want, however, and you will find that to this day scholars still cannot agree on the precise meaning of that name. And if three or so millennia later we don’t have it figured out, you have to assume this wasn’t crystal clear to Moses that day at the burning bush, either.
“Yahweh” means either “I Am Who I Am” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be,” or some combination of the two. In any event the name evokes constancy, faithfulness, steadiness. Whoever this God is, he will not change. Maybe that is why God immediately goes on to remind Moses that in addition to who he is right now and who he will continue to be into the future, he is also the God of the past, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have past, present, and future all coalescing around that odd-sounding name. “I don’t change, Moses. The Unchanging One will be with you.” And it had to be enough for Moses. He had to trust the past to secure the present, and he had to trust the present to bring him to that future time when the sign would be given.
He had to live in suspense, in short.
So, many times, must we. But living with suspense is still different from living in total doubt. Moses may have had to leave Mount Sinai without every possible reassurance he might have wished for, but he did proceed, he did believe enough to move on. God rooted his “I Am” faithfulness in the covenant past. Through the Spirit of Pentecost he roots his constancy for us now in nothing less than the cross and empty tomb. The God who did all of that has promised to be with us. He has promised to prosper us in the work we do and leaves open the possibility that he is doing more now, and may call us to do more in the future, than we could possibly imagine.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 26 is the poet’s plea for God’s “vindication.” It pictures a courtroom in which a defendant begs the judge to declare her innocent. The poet insists she’s innocent because she has led what she calls a “blameless life.” (1) Yet such a plea may seem to theologically clash with the profession that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). To pray for God’s vindication on the basis of a worshiper’s righteousness seems to contradict the doctrine of grace. In fact, we might argue that Psalm 26 sounds like the Pharisee’s self-righteous prayer of Luke 18:11: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men … I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
Questions about God’s grace and Psalm 26 aren’t exercises in esoteric theology. Since the Psalter is still the songbook of the church, worshipers want to know how to let the Spirit make this psalm and others like it their own. So those who preach and teach Psalm 26 will want to carefully explore it with worshipers. Is Psalm 26 a negative example of an Old Testament prayer that stands in contrast to “Christian” prayer and faith? Is it, as some worshipers have asked, just the prayer of a young, slightly arrogant poet? Or might we think of Psalm 26 as the prayer of an older saint for a younger, less godly worshiper?
Those who preach and teach Psalm 26 will want to admit that there are no readily obvious answers to such questions. It is hard to know how to juxtapose Psalm 26 with the doctrine of grace that the Church so deeply treasures. That apparent incongruity may even make this psalm an opportunity for worshiper feedback and discussion with its preachers and teachers.
Certainly those who lead others through Psalm 26 will want to note the nature of the “vindication” (1) and “redemption” for which the poet pleas. 21st century Christians often think of redemption as God’s rescue from sin that grants worshipers eternal life. However, Old Testament worshipers had a less fully developed concept of eternal life. When they begged God for vindication and redemption, they were often pleading for rescue from immediate circumstances and threats. When, then, the poet begs for redemption, he’s likely pleading for God not to grant him eternal life because he’s been so blameless, but to rescue him from some imminent danger.
On top of that, some scholars suggest that the psalmist is saying her “blameless” life consists not so much in perfectly obeying God’s law as in persistently trusting in the Lord (1c). She seems to be reminding God that she has refused to and continues to refuse to take matters into her own hands. So it’s almost as if she’s claiming that she has received God’s grace with her obedient trust in God’s good plans and purposes. In that light, the moral integrity the poet describes in verses 2-8 are simply expressions of that unwavering trust.
The poet invites God’s scrutiny and examination of his life. This takes much courage. After all, God already knows everything about it. Honest Christians also recognize how deeply sin is embedded in our very being. Yet the psalmist is confident that God will find that his inner attitudes match his outer actions.
In verses 3-6 it’s as if the judge is seated and the defendant presents her case for her unwavering trust. In that way it’s reminiscent of Luke 18:3’s widow who keeps begging a judge to right a wrong an attacker has done to her. Here, as James L. Mays notes in his excellent commentary on the Psalms, the poet prays to the God who is the nations’ and individuals’ judge because God alone knows hearts, minds, feelings and intentions. She asks God to order things so that she lives, not dies. Psalm 26’s prayer echoes that of Jeremiah who begged God to vindicate both his mission and message.
In Psalm 26 the poet presents three couplets that demonstrate his faithful trust. In verse 3 he claims that he constantly focuses on God’s sovereign grace. He insists that God’s love is always “before” him. The poet adds that he walks constantly in God’s truth, that, in other words, he serves the Lord “come what may.”
Verses 4 and 5’s couplets reflect the poet’s careful choice of people with whom she chooses to have relationships. She refers to “sitting” at both the verses’ beginning and end. Scholars note that such “sitting” refers to long-term residence, to becoming a citizen and adopting the customs of surrounding people. So the psalmist isn’t claiming that she doesn’t interact with the “sinners” the way Jesus himself did. She’s talking, instead, about refusing to adopt the disobedient ways of those who rebel against the Lord.
In the middle of those couplets the poet refers to “consorting with,” that is “hanging around with” such rebels. Hypocrites are those who build their lives as webs of lies. Their actions hide their true selves from other people so that people never really know them. Yet “evildoers” (5) don’t even try to hide their rebellion against God in that way. The psalmist insists that he doesn’t adopt either those openly rebellious or more hidden sinful ways.
These couplets invite those who preach and teach Psalm 26 to reflect with worshipers on the nature of their relationships. What are the potential dangers of associating with deceitful people? What are the possible benefits of interacting with the “wicked”? How do worshipers try to influence such people in godly ways instead of being influenced by rebels’ disobedience?
In verses 6-8 the psalmist describes the opposite of consorting with sinners. He describes the beauty of joining God’s children in heartfelt worship and thanksgiving to God. He insists that he prepares his heart and hands so that he can enter God’s presence. Such “cleanliness” reflects the kind of life that’s wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. Here the poet recognizes the importance of being in God’s presence, not just in Jerusalem’s temple, but also in a whole life lived in God’s presence. The Spirit uses that ongoing presence, after all, to equip worshipers to live with an unwavering trust in the Lord.
Yet the psalmist recognizes that the world and culture in which she lives is very different from life in the “house” and presence of the Lord. So she begs the Lord not to carry her away with, that is, judge her with that sinful and sometimes bloodthirsty culture. Rebels come, after all, not with clean hands but with hands that are full of things by which they try to control both their circumstances and God.
“Vindicating Michael” is a blog that claims to be dedicated to “vindicating Michael [Jackson] for the people who truly knew and trusted him.” However, it takes a rather curious approach to doing so. Posts include a transcript of a 13 year-old plaintiff against Jackson as well as the summary of the complaint a mother made against Jackson about molesting her son. The blog’s graphic and disturbing descriptions seem to try to vindicate Jackson by blaming his actions on his unhealthy attraction towards boys. It also tries to shift at least some of the blame for Jackson’s behavior onto the parents who let their children interact with him.
That makes this blog’s plea a striking contrast to the psalmist’s plea for vindication. While the blogger seems intent on defending Jackson’s behavior by blaming others for his misbehavior, the psalmist claims to be innocent in his behavior.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
I had been meditating on Romans 12 for some time and I simply couldn’t get excited about all these little sound bites of advice. Then, as I mused, I noticed a tiny red bug scurrying across the yellow pad on which I was making notes. He zigged and he zagged; he doubled back, walked the edge of the paper; he went in circles. It was clear that he had no idea where he was going or how to get there. His journey was entirely random and meaningless.
I thought, that’s how life is for many people these days. That’s when I saw these sound bites in a whole new light. The Word of God answers the big questions: why are we here, where are we going, and how do we get there. In these simple words of Romans 12:9-21, God give us some detailed directions on how to live along the way. Specifically, Paul tells us how to live with those who are favorably inclined toward us and with those who are inclined to make life hard for us. As they put it in the military, verses 9-16 are about the “friendlies” and verses 17-21 are about the “hostiles.”
The section that covers our duties to those who are friendly toward us seems like a hail of disconnected duties with no pattern to help us remember them, sort of like a shotgun blast of commands. But I can discern two loose clusters of ideas. Some commands are about our relationships, while others are about our general attitude toward life.
It’s not surprising that the first word about relationships here is love. All Christians know that our first duty toward both friend and foe is love. We know that perfectly well, but we don’t do it perfectly well. That’s why the command is “love must be sincere.” The word “sincere” in Greek is taken from the theater. It is the word from which our word hypocrite comes. It referred to someone who wore a mask on stage. Don’t love theatrically, on stage, so that others will see and applaud you. Love authentically, from the heart.
What does that mean? Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, ”How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” That’s what Paul shows us here—the many ways of love toward the “friendlies” in your life. He begins with, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.” As Christians, we are brothers and sisters, but, of course, family members don’t always get along. It takes work to make families work. That’s why Paul uses the word “devoted.” Brotherly love doesn’t come naturally, so we’ll have to be intentional and concentrated in our efforts to love the friendlies.
Here are more ways to love. “Honor each other above/before yourselves.” We all crave honor, but love demands that we put the honor others before our own. Similarly, we must “share with God’s people who are in need,” even showing them hospitality. I say “even,” because hospitality is more than inviting someone over for the occasional lunch. It means making room in your life for someone else, sharing your life with them. In an age of privacy and individualism, it takes real sacrifice to love someone enough to actually let them into your life.
Paul reminds us that there is an emotional component to sincere love. Verses 15 and 16 tell us that sincere love rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn. No matter what song others are singing, whether a happy little ditty or a funeral dirge, we are to be in harmony with them. Similarly, love allows the “different” into our lives, whether they are higher or, especially, lower on the social register. Here is an important counter-cultural word for our day. Society around us is increasingly stratified, divided into all kinds of classes and cliques. No matter where we are on that social scale, says the preacher of love, we should not get the idea that we are above anyone. Sincere love means that we are willing to associate with people of low position. Love is willing to get involved in situations that make us uncomfortable.
Scattered through these commands about our relationships are words about our attitudes toward life in general, implying that the way we live in relationship is greatly impacted by the way we look at life. Verse 9 sums up the overall attitude that will help us to be better lovers. “Hate what is evil, cling to what is good.” That’s a direct reversal of what seems to be the attitude of much of our world, which appears to love what is evil and hate what is good. Think of the content and tone of the most popular TV shows, like “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and the recently departed “Breaking Bad.” Paul calls for a new attitude that loves good.
The only way to maintain such an attitude is to do what he says in verses 11 and 12. “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor.” It’s easy to get lazy about our spiritual life and lose our fervor, so Paul urges us to stay on fire for the things of God. That fervor will show itself in two ways. First, we will be joyful, because we believe there is always hope. And second we will be patient in affliction, because we know God has a good plan. In order to maintain such attitudes, we need a strong lifeline to God. That’s what prayer provides us—not a way to get what we want, but a constant communion with God. Prayer is the basis for a life filled with positive attitudes. If we have that lifeline, we will see all of these commands as part of our willing service. All of these duties will overwhelm us with a huge burden of guilt, unless we see them as “serving the Lord” in gratitude for his mercy.
Such love for those who love us is hard enough, but now Paul turns to loving those who are hostile to us. Verses 17-21 are particularly relevant in this age of hostility. From our highways to our high schools, in the inner city and out in the suburbs, we are living in the age of rage. Even though we Christians know better, we are easily sucked into the vortex of fury that spins through our culture. So we need to hear the Good News Paul proclaims in this list of hard commands. I call it Good News because it is based on the fact that we are now part of the Kingdom of Light, not the Kingdom of Darkness. Therefore, we must live in a different way, and we can. We are free to respond in a new way to evil that is visited upon us by the hostiles in our lives.
Here is the Good News. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” This is not a denial of evil. There is plenty of evil out there, and sometimes it touches us. Indeed, sometimes it is intentionally directed at us. There are many things we can do in response. But the one thing we must not do is repay evil for evil—retaliate, seek revenge, get them back. That’s a blanket command, and as such it seems overly simplistic. How can we live by such simple words in such a complex world?
Well, first of all, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody (verse 17).” Paul is talking about prevention here. Be sure that the way you live doesn’t stir up hostility. The heart of prevention is doing what is right. That doesn’t mean we have to be a hostage to everyone else’s whims. Christians are not called to be doormats. But doing the right thing will at least prevent justifiable hostility. Of course, that is no guarantee that we’ll escape the rage of this age. Indeed, doing the right thing will actually provoke opposition in some circles.
So Paul’s next word is both realistic and helpful. ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (verse 18).” “Crotchety Christian” should be an oxymoron. Go out of your way to live at peace with everyone. That may not always be possible, and we should not seek peace at any cost. Christ could have avoided death if he had simply stopped doing the will of God he was sent to do. But he didn’t stop doing God’s will, because he was committed to saving us. So we must stick to our Christian principles, even if that causes trouble. We can’t be at peace with sin and evil. Love for others may lead us to rebuke them and disagree with them. And that may well lead to conflict with them.
That brings us to Paul’s next command. When you’ve done the right thing, tried to live at peace, and have still become the object of someone’s evil hostility, what do you do? Paul has a negative word and a positive one. “Do not take revenge….” Does that mean we have to let them get away with it? That’s how it feels. But Paul has an ominous response to our feelings of helplessness. “Leave room for God’s wrath.” Don’t you take revenge. Let God do it.
Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t seek justice. It is perfectly legitimate to seek justice by using the law, by calling the police, for example, or taking someone to court. And we may be called upon to serve in the military where we pursue justice by the use of force on some occasions. But that’s a far cry from private citizens seeking vengeance on their own. It is not the Christian way to let your anger move you to hurt someone.
We can be sure of this. “God will repay.” God will. That’s his job, not ours. “It is mine to avenge. Vengeance is mine.” When humans seek vengeance, it leads only to the endless cycle of hurt and revenge and hurt and revenge that we see in wars around the world and in the drive by shootings in our inner cities. We can’t win in the vengeance business and we shouldn’t try. It is not our job. It is God’s.
Our job, says Paul, is to love even our enemy. That doesn’t mean we have to like our enemy. But we have to love our enemies, in the sense of doing good to them. Verse 14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Further, says verse 20, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” Speak blessing and show kindness to your enemy, for “in doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
How do those last words fit with Paul’s warning about not seeking revenge? The best explanation I’ve seen is this. It has to do with shame and guilt. In showing such love to your enemy, you will move him to a burning sense of shame and guilt, which may in turn lead him to repent and make things right. This, of course, is no guarantee that kindness will move every hostile to become a friend. Paul simply tells us that our motive should always be love that seeks the best for another, even an enemy. So, in the end, we will remain on the side of good, rather than getting dragged over the line into the Kingdom of Darkness. That’s why Paul ends with, “Do not be overcome by evil.” That’s exactly what will happen if we adopt the methods of evil. It will suck us in and overcome us. Instead, we must “overcome evil with good,” and so demonstrate that we are part of the Kingdom of Light.
The question remains how we should preach this long list of ethical obligations that everyone knows perfectly well. First, we must be sure to frame it all as the Good News it is. All these commands are not a burden, but a blessing, a part of the good life we enjoy as members of the Kingdom that is not of this world. Second, we should frankly acknowledge that we all know these things. But given the pressure of our culture and drag of our own lingering sin, we need to be reminded of things we already know. In fact, when I preached on these verses, I ended with these words. “But then you already knew that. I just wanted to remind you, because you won’t hear this anywhere else these days.”
One of the things that make Pope Francis so attractive to the world is his willingness, even delight, in associating with those of low degree. His passion for the poor, his embrace of the grotesquely deformed, his washing of prisoners’ feet, his preference for a simple lifestyle, his disciplining of church officials who live like princes—all of this downward mobility has struck a chord with a world yearning to see sincere love in action.