August 24, 2020
The Proper 17A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 16:21-28 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 3:1-15 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 26 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 12:9-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 107 (Lord’s Day 40)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“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 when we saw on the news—and for those of us who went to Lower Manhattan in the months after 9-11 we saw it also in person—that iron-girder cross towering over Ground Zero. That cross became one of the most frequently photographed parts of that grim and terrible place. It is now on permanent display as part of the 9-11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan.
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? Indeed, the editor of Time magazine—in the special edition of the magazine that came out after the terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center—wrote “If you want to humble a nation, you attack its cathedrals.” The Twin Towers were cathedrals of commerce. But they needed no cross when they were standing upright. The Twin Towers were about power, about wealth, about life!
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?
Of course, some while ago I became aware of “The Hill of Crosses” in Lithuania. It began in the 19th century. When Lithuanian citizens were murdered by the Russian Czar, the people would memorialize the victims with a cross. Soon many crosses began to go up. The Russians hated them and so tore them down. But the memorial kept building and today there are thousands upon thousands of crosses. What began as a memorial of death became a defiant symbol of hope eventually. Hope emerged from the crosses.
That is something of what Matthew 16 is finally about, too, though it did not look like that to the disciples.
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 is 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.
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?
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 few 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/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.
Author: Stan Mast
And, now, for the third and most important actor in the drama that unfolds in the book of Exodus. In last week’s reading from Exodus 1 and 2 we met the villain, Pharaoh, and the hero, Moses. Now we meet the director, producer, creator, redeemer– God, Yahweh, “I am what I am.” God is mentioned at the end of Exodus 2, but that was just a flicker of the stunning theophany that will blaze on for 5 chapters beginning in Exodus 3.
Indeed, until the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is the most awesome theophany in the history of redemption. I say that because it is the beginning of the main act of redemption in the Old Testament, namely, God’s liberation of his people from the house of bondage. Yes, God had appeared and spoken to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thus inaugurating the covenant partnership between God and Israel. But all of Israel’s history will be focused on the history-changing action of God in the Exodus. And that massive movement of God began here at the burning bush when God called Moses to be God’s man, God’s mouth, God’s mediator in the drama of salvation.
While God has been active behind the scenes in the lives of his covenant people for four hundred years (as we have just seen in the story of Joseph), God has been invisible and inaudible since his last conversation with Jacob. One can sympathize with the misery and rage of the Israelites as they suffered in Egypt. Where is our God? Why doesn’t God come to help us? Why is God so silent? Here at last God shows up with words and deeds that will shake Egypt to its foundations and shape Israel for the rest of its future.
It all began with a curious phenomenon in an unlikely place. Having fled from Pharaoh after killing an Egyptian, Moses has been transformed from a prince of Egypt to a shepherd in far off Midian. Pursuing pasture on the far side of the wilderness of Sinai, Moses has inadvertently camped at the foot of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. He didn’t have a clue, until he saw that curious sight—a bush on fire that just kept burning and burning. The text says that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within the bush.” But Moses didn’t see the angel; he only saw the fire. Rather than being awestruck, he was merely curious. So, he ambled over to see “this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
That’s how this epic theophany began—with a curious sight. It is fascinating and telling how often the story makes reference to seeing; maybe after all those years of invisibility, God needed to be seen to be believed. At any rate, when “the Lord saw that [Moses] had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’” With that, the audible part of the theophany overwhelms the visible. Using the curious sight to gain Moses’ attention, God now has something to say, something that will change Moses’ life and the history of the world.
God’s conversation with Moses contains 13 distinct pieces of dialogue. It begins with this call consisting of the divine summons (“Moses! Moses!”), the declaration of limits (“the place where you are standing is holy ground”), and the divine identity (“the God of your father… of Abraham… Isaac… Jacob”). After each divine word, Moses gives the appropriate response: “Here I am.” He took off his sandals. And he “hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
That interplay of divine and human, revelation and response, grace and faith will characterize the entire story of the Exodus and, indeed, the story of redemption through Christ. Though God could have liberated his people all by himself, he chose to act through a mere mortal, and a flawed one at that (though in the case of Christ the flaws were all ours, assumed by him as our substitute).
Now comes the substance of God’s revelation to Moses. Contrary to what Israel might have assumed about God, given their terrible situation in Egypt, God has “indeed seen the misery of my people….” And God has “heard them crying….” And God is “concerned about their suffering.”
God reveals not only his observation and his feelings, but also his actions on behalf of his suffering children. “I have come down,” words that anticipate the ultimate coming down of the One who emptied himself and became obedient unto death on a cross. God has come down from his throne above the heavens “to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land….” Salvation is not only from; it is also to. It is not only freedom from bondage; it is also freedom for flourishing. Hell will be overcome; heaven will be enjoyed.
At this moment, Moses’ heart must have been soaring with joy and hope, but then God stunned him with the words of verse 10. “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” It’s easy to imagine Moses saying, “Wait! What? You said that you were going to do those things. Surely you don’t need me. You can do it yourself. Leave me out of it.”
But this is God’s way of working in history. Yes, there are occasional flashes of naked power (as in the Ten Plagues), but an unrelenting display of divine power will destroy humanity (as suggested by Moses covering his eyes when he realized that he was looking straight at God in a little burning bush). Instead, God stoops to conquer, using a man who isn’t very excited about his role in the project.
So begins Moses’ effort to talk his way out of God’s plan. He raises objection after objection, beginning with this humble question that leads to the soaring revelation of God’s real name. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses is suggesting that he is a little nobody, but, in fact, he was more than that, much more. He was the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, a member of the royal court, trained in all the wisdom and policies of that court. Yes, he was a fugitive from Pharaoh. And yes, that Pharaoh had now died. But Moses wasn’t nobody. He protests too much.
God isn’t having it. However, God responds not with an affirmation of Moses’ ability as people do today (“you can be anything you want to be!”), but with a promise about God’s presence. “I will be with you.” The success of your mission depends not on your ability and power, but on my constant presence with you. Where else have we heard those words in Scripture as God gives a major commission to God’s people?
With cheekiness born of terror, Moses doesn’t simply bow before God’s gracious and powerful promise. Instead he raises another issue. “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask, ‘what is his name?’ Then what shall I say to them?” God’s answer is as important as his promise to deliver his people. He tells them the name by which they are to call upon God for the rest of history. Tell them, “I am what I am.”
Volumes have been written trying to penetrate the enigmatic name God reveals to Moses. I will not attempt to give a definitive explanation. I will simply make a few observations. First, it is fascinating that the name comes out of a sequence of questions and answers. “Who am I?” “I will be with you.” “What is his name?” “I am who I am.” God is saying, it doesn’t matter who you are, because who I am is more than enough to accomplish what I promise.
Second, the actual name can be translated several ways, but the essence of it seems to be that God simply is. God is not the product of other beings, or forces, or resources. Everything else in the world has been made, or developed, or evolved. Only God simply is—self-existent, independent, sovereign, beyond the control of any other power.
Therefore, in the third place, it is astonishing that this supremely independent “I am” should bind himself with unbreakable promises to a community of puny humans who will constantly disappoint God. That’s why God identifies himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” With those words, we are directed to focus on the story of God with his people, rather than trying to penetrate the mystery of God’s essence.
Our concern should not be with ontology, but with history. We cannot penetrate the inner being of God, but we do know that we can count on God to keep his promises. He has done that for generations now beginning with Abraham, and he will do it for Israel through Moses, and he will do it for the world through Christ. Pharaoh may be mighty, a god among humans, but he is no match for the God who created all humans, covenanted with a chosen family, and will save the world through one Man.
Theologians make the distinction between God “ad intra” and God “ad extra,” God as he is in himself and God as he makes himself know in his works. In this name revealed to Moses, God gives us a hint about what God is like in himself. But his greatest revelation of himself came through his saving work in Christ. As John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Or as Jesus himself said again and again in the Gospel of John, “I am, I am, I am.” “Who do you think you are?” asked his enemies. He stunned them with this answer. “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am (John 8:58).”
What is the first thing we ask when we meet a new person? “What’s your name?” We’re not simply being curious. The fact is that you can’t have a relationship with someone until you can call them by name. Perhaps Moses asked God’s name because he was simply afraid of his meeting with his fellow Israelites. But God told him that name so that every succeeding generation could call on that name with confidence, so that he could be “remembered from generation to generation.” And, says Paul in Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Preachers of a certain age will recall the famous words of cartoon figure, Popeye the Sailor Man. “I am what I am and that’s all what I am.” That was his way of saying, “I’m just me, so don’t try to make me something that I’m not. I’m my own unique self, nothing more or less. Deal with it.” In our individualistic age many people today say something like that.
But the fact is that all of us are the product of multiple forces that shape us into who we are. I am Stan Mast, son of Herm and Ruth, husband of Sharon and father of Greg and Ben. I am a preacher, a golfer, a reader, a friend, an enemy. All of those relationships and duties mold me, restrict me, enlarge me, modify me, motivate me, control me.
But the God who reveals himself to Moses is not restricted, enlarged, modified, changed or controlled by anything or anyone. So, it is an absolute miracle of grace that such a sovereign God should give his life to save those who are mere creatures of time and space. Why would he do that? “For God so loved the world….”
Author: Scott Hoezee
For the 1999 edition of the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, illustrator Barry Moser sketched two portraits of David. The first is of the young David, the “getting ready to slay Goliath” David.
He’s young, brash. The eyes say it all. He has his whole life ahead of him and he’s confident it’s going to be a good life. There is a little of the Dirty Harry “Go ahead, make my day” look to him. He’s ready to take on Goliath and all takers while he’s at it.
The second Moser portrait flashes forward quite a few years. This is King David, the David who is old and restless enough that he’s about to make the mistake of his life with a neighbor woman named Bathsheba.
Again, the eyes say it all. They are downcast, not defiant. They are weary (insofar as we can see them at all) not energetic. The spring has gone out of his step and in the springtime when the kings go out to make war, he stays back in Jerusalem now. Battles are for younger folks, not him anymore. That confident and perhaps cocky young boy who used to slay bears and lions and giants and who used to be really good at outfoxing old King Saul . . . he’s just a memory.
Psalm 26 is ostensibly “Of David” but if so, this poem was written by that younger David, not this older King David. By the time he arrived at the twilight of his life—post-Bathsheba, post-Absalom, post-major familial dysfunction—he would no longer be able to say “I have led a blameless life . . . I have not faltered.” (And if he did try to say something like that in the presence of, say, the Prophet Nathan, he would run the risk of giving Nathan a goodly case of the giggles.)
But all that aside, what do we make of a poem like Psalm 26 and these wild claims to a thoroughgoing innocence and blamelessness? Who talks this way? I come from a Reformed tradition in the Calvinist line and so have spent most of my life watching people hold grim contests to see who can out-confess whom. Far from bragging on our blameless selves, a lot of people I know who have done more noble kingdom work than I can fathom are nevertheless pretty quick to say that even the best deeds we have to offer up to God are but “filthy rags” in God’s sight. From where I come from, the late Lewis B. Smedes summed it up well with his cheeky line “Anyone who knows he’s Totally Depraved can’t be all bad!”
Psalm 26 is not the only such poem in the Hebrew Psalter. There are other places where you can find a version of the prayer found also here, “Test me and see if there be any wicked ways in me.” Personally, I have never prayed that to God. I know full well what he’d find if I got tested. And anyway, when Confession of Sin is a standard part of Sunday worship as well as of personal piety, it goes without saying we are already admitting up front there are wicked ways within us.
So how do we take a psalm like this one? How do we preach on it? Do we need to issue calls to try to crank up both this kind of rhetoric AND the peerless, sinless living that would need to stand behind it? That would seem false. Do we need to say that this should be the goal of every believer—including every follower of Christ to this day—and so see Psalm 26 as a kind of aspirational Finish Line? There may be something to that as a goal and so one could go that direction.
Or do we see this as the prayer of someone who is cognizant of his faults but yet still confident in the cleansing forgiveness of God that will let God see us as redeemed people? Could Psalm 26 be preached and understood in such a way that this is how God sees us when our lives are hidden in Christ through baptism? Maybe. Of course, even as baptized believers we struggle and—here it comes again—there is therefore that need to engage in confession of sin as part of our life-long cycle of dying and rising with Christ.
Does it cash out the meaning of this psalm if we were to see it as a kind of “all things being equal” kind of prayer? That is, the psalmist is saying, “OK, I know there ARE false ways in me. I have, after all, written my fair share of Psalms of Confession too! BUT . . . that is not who I want to be. I want to follow your righteousness. And as part of that, I really do shun the company of evil people. I really do refuse to go along with their wicked schemes and I really do sacrifice for what sins I have and then loudly tell anyone who will listen how good and gracious and faithful you are, O God! So I may not be perfect but when I stand inside your forgiving grace, I am clean. When I oppose liars and those who scheme to vandalize your shalom and take advantage of the vulnerable, I am on your side, O God. Don’t let me be put to shame! Don’t let those same people get the better of me. Search me to see how much I love you and then deal with me accordingly by your grace!”
Reading Psalm 26 this way need not mean reducing it to the old “Hey, God, I ain’t no saint but I’m a lot better than mafia hit men and drug dealers so . . .” That would be a “lowest common denominator” way to make this psalm excuse morally sloppy living on the idea that so long as you aren’t among the worst of the worst, you win by comparison. That take on this psalm would cheapen it.
But if we read it as a lyric statement of trust in God’s grace unto forgiveness and as an ardent desire to live into—and to live up to—that grace by faithful living and a shunning of the quick and easy shortcuts too many people take in this fallen world, then we might dare take these words on our lips after all. Yes, if Psalm 26 was written by David, then it nestles in next to also Psalm 51 and its well-known (better known) words of confession and remorse. That’s the way of it in the Psalter and in the real life the Hebrew Psalter well mirrors. But in Christ we should be able to say we desire no wicked ways within us, we should be able to say we desire to be blameless. And we surely should be able to say that when we see the mad and wicked paths down which so much of our world beats a path again and again, we will not go that way but will stand with our feet firmly planted in the things of God.
In this sermon starter I hinted that in some traditions, there is a de facto kind of competition to see who is better at chalking up even their best deeds as only “filthy rags” in God’s sight. What this points to is a tricky balancing act that may well be a core part of the Christian life: how to assess our spiritual standing and how to think about the Christian acts of love and mercy we do.
On the one hand, to do nothing but pile-drive ourselves into the ground as greasy, worthless sinners does violence to the waters of baptism that have made us—the New Testament tells us—already now a “new creation.” In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul told us to regard no one—ourselves included therefore—from a merely human point of view. In Christ, we are a new people. On the other hand, that does not give us license to sin, of course, nor does it mean that for now we can consider ourselves finished with the need to confess those sins that still cling to us and trip us up. But we are blameless now in God’s sight through Christ.
So also with our good deeds: on the one hand if the Holy Spirit is at work in us as promised to nurture and grow the Fruit of the Spirit on the branches of our lives as well as to bring forth the specific Gifts of the Spirit with which have been bestowed on us, then dismissing them as filthy rags is at once ungrateful and unmindful of where these good things come from: they come from God via the Spirit. On the other hand, if we pay too much attention to such deeds and use them as the measuring rod of ourselves against others—or as that which we think is actually our Entrance Ticket to heaven someday instead of God’s grace through the blood of Christ alone—then we have tipped too far the other direction in ways that also obscure the heart of the Gospel.
These balancing acts are not easy. It counts very nearly as a spiritual discipline to pull them off consistently. But this is a vital part of Christian living.
Author: Doug Bratt
When my family travelled in Asia we saw nearly countless products that were imitation brands. One of our favorites was “Poma” (not Puma) athletic shoes. Those knock-offs, in fact, looked quite a bit like the real thing. But they were actually low-quality counterfeits.
When he invites his readers to “love” in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul calls us not to a knockoff brand but a specific “brand” of love. The apostle summons readers to the genuine love God showed to naturally unlovable people through Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. It’s the kind of love that God also graciously lavishes on God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Such genuine love is not the gooey feeling young adults may get in the pit of their stomach when they’re around someone to whom they’re attracted. The kind of love Paul recommends is, instead, more of a decision that God equips Christians to make to want and do what’s best for all people.
So Paul suggests that those who sincerely love “hate what is evil” and “cling to what is good” (9). Jesus’ followers push us away from what displeases God and hurts people, but hold tightly to what honors God and blesses people.
Even Christians, however, naturally view what is evil as good and what is good as evil. We also naturally look at our enemies as despicable, those who can’t do anything for us as disposable and powerful people as indispensible. So, for instance, it’s naturally easier to view the county councilman who can do something for me as more important than the Salvadoran immigrant who serves fast food.
Paul, however, calls his audience to resist the urge to ration our love on the basis of peoples’ status or ability to “repay” us. Those who genuinely love the way Jesus loves us don’t just love those who can help us. Christ’s followers view as valuable enough to love perhaps especially those who can’t or won’t help us.
So God’s children lovingly “honor” those whom no one else even notices. We look for ways to work for the good of people like children, the elderly, poor people, immigrants and even followers of other religions.
When I was a young boy, we called Mr. Vander Honing “Mr. Pepperoni.” Not because he’d give us sticks of pepperoni, but because he’d always give my sister and me peppermints before church. We remember him because he lovingly honored little children like us.
Romans 12’s proclaimers might assume all Christians do that. However, Paul suggests that the Christians in Rome were, in fact, stingy with their love. They seemed to look down their noses on others the way we might, for instance, be tempted to look down on those whose political leanings differ from our own.
Paul calls Rome’s Christians to a different way, to the treatment of our all of their fellow Christians with the same kind of love we naturally reserve for their family members and friends. Instead of ignoring people with whom we disagree, Christians treat them as people whom God creates in God’s image and for whom Jesus Christ died.
In fact, Paul seems to suggest that his readers, instead of waiting for others to pay attention to various “little people,” invite others to imitate us in honoring people on society’s margins. We take the initiative to do things like show interest in children and greet visitors to our churches.
Yet Rome’s Christians to whom Paul writes seem to be more interested in treating each other the way others treat them than the way God treated them. We sense they were just waiting for others to take the lead in being genuinely loving. It’s as though I were to say to my wife, “Let’s not share a meal with the Rodriguez’s until they first have us over for dinner.”
The Roman society of Paul’s day was shame-based. So the apostle may be saying something like, “If you take the lead in showing people honor, you’ll embarrass them into honoring others as well. They’ll want to ‘keep up with you’ by loving other people.”
That in part plays itself out when Paul literally writes, “Being of the same mind toward one another, not setting your minds on the heights” (16). He says something similar when he closes his second letter to the Corinthian Christians by calling them to “be of one mind.”
Yet what does it really mean to be of the same mind toward one another, to, as the NIV translates it, “be devoted to one another”? Does it mean agreeing on everything? Does being devoted to each other mean that, for example, Christians must agree on just whom the Church should baptize?
No, living in harmony with each other may mean that we sometimes need to agree to disagree. Jesus’ followers recognize that God created us to live in the kind of community that sometimes requires us to loosen our grip on preferences that stand outside the gospel’s claims. “Sincere” love abandons all claims to any kind of superiority.
In fact, instead of claiming superiority, genuinely loving people choose to deliberately associate with people who may naturally seem to them somehow inferior. God’s adopted children spend time with people with whom they have little or no common interest. Genuinely loving people actively seek common ground with people with whom they don’t agree.
Mel White was a man who was homosexual who once worked for the very conservative minister, Jerry Falwell. Eventually they became friends, even though they strongly disagreed on God’s view of sexual behavior. They worked together to reduce violence against people who are gay. White cried when he heard of Falwell’s death.
Christians don’t necessarily change our opinions to match those with whom we associate. I don’t, for instance, have to give up my belief that Michigan’s football team is superior to Ohio State’s in order to hang around with Buckeye fans. But I do need to surrender my belief that I’m somehow superior to Buckeye fans. I need to find ways to look at those with whom I disagree as my equals instead of down on them as my inferiors.
Arrogance is, after all, like warm water that steadily drips on a sheet of ice. Eventually it destroys even the strongest sheet that is community. Sooner or later a feeling of superiority wears away our sense of unity with our Christian brothers and sisters.
In fact, no Christians have legitimate spiritual reason to look down on each other. After all, we know that all of us are naturally of what Paul calls “low position.” It’s hard to look down on anyone when you’re naturally on the spiritual ocean floor.
Since God has shown all Christians equal amounts of God’s grace, God has put all of God’s children on the same floor, spiritually speaking. In fact, Romans 12 suggests that God’s gift of love changes even the way God’s adopted children view our enemies. Those who sincerely love the way God loves no longer view ourselves as superior to even those who have harmed or still want to harm us.
God, after all, created in God’s image even those who have made themselves our enemies. Even if our enemies have blurred that resemblance, we know that only God’s grace keeps us from acting as badly as, if not worse than, they do.
That’s a reason why Jesus forbade his followers from retaliating against those who harm us. He never verbally or physically lashed out at those who considered him their enemies. Even when people stripped, mocked and spit on him during his trial, Jesus never retaliated.
Now he invites his adopted siblings to imitate him in refusing to repay evil with evil. While we’re right to demand justice for others and ourselves, we leave punishment up to the courts and God.
In fact, the apostle challenges his readers to both do what’s right toward and make every effort to live at peace with our enemies. So Christians don’t just figuratively and literally put our hands that somehow want to hit those who have hit us in our pockets. God’s dearly beloved people do all we can to reach out our hands, not our fists to make peace with our enemies.
What’s more, Paul expects his readers to lovingly serve rather than take revenge against those who harm us. God alone is, after all, in the revenge business. God’s people’s business is to serve even those who deeply hurt us. Those who follow Jesus lovingly do what we can for the good even of those who want no good for us.
Of course, Romans 12’s proclaimer should never even imply that will be easy. It took a woman I’ll call Mary more than thirty years to forgive the dad and brothers who’d systematically and repeatedly abused her. In fact, only God’s Spirit could eventually equip her to be as reconciled to them as was humanly possible.
Paul implies that there’s immense power in such reconciliation. He suggests that by letting the Holy Spirit equip Jesus’ followers to sincerely love those who do evil, we can begin to overcome evil with “good,” as he calls us to do in verse 21.
This word “overcome” or, literally, “conquer” was an important one in Roman society. The authorities celebrated the victories over her enemies of the Roman goddess Victoria with monuments, coins, parades and public games.
Paul, however, celebrates a new and completely different kind of victory in verse 21. He celebrates an overcoming that happens not by force, but by sincere love, courtesy and hospitality. In fact, the apostle echoes Jesus by suggesting that even a drink of water given to a thirsty person somehow becomes a way of lovingly overcoming evil. Even a kind word spoken to a humble slave extends God’s kingdom.
The Roman Christians to whom Paul writes were both marginalized and under great pressure. Authorities, in fact, continue to drive some of our brothers and sisters in Christ into secret meetings in private homes and workshops.
Paul, however, offers us courage and confidence by reminding us that, equipped by God, we can overcome such evil with sincere love. It won’t happen overnight or even necessarily within our lifetime. Yet God promises to give genuine love, not evil the last word.
In an article in the June 15, 2017 Washington Post entitled, “When a Black Woman Has Maximum Ancestors,” Deesha Philtaw writes about Jennifer Teeg. As an adult Teeg learned her biological grandfather was Amon Goeth, the infamous commandant of the Plaszov-Krakow concentration camp.
While she never knew him, she learned her grandmother who’d cared for her was Goeth’s common-law wife. Teeg’s grandma died “in denial about the human suffering she witnessed and was still madly in love with a man who tortured others for pleasure.” Human psychology, Philtaw ultimately concludes, “can permit us to continue loving people even as we condemn their actions.”