Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 3, 2017
Romans 12:9-21 Commentary
Some years back some more of Richard Nixon’s infamous White House tapes were released, this time revealing no less than the evangelist Billy Graham being complicit with some virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric. Not only were Rev. Graham’s remarks at variance with his public approach to Jewish-Christian dialogue but they were more significantly so very, very un-Christian. To his credit, Rev. Graham apologized back then.
But in response to this incident, an Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times in which Rev. Graham found a rather unlikely defender in the person of former Nixon legal counsel, Leonard Garment. Mr. Garment claimed that the real tragedy of this incident lay less with Rev. Graham’s public shame and more with the way this eroded the boundary between private life and public life. Garment asserted that despite the revelation of Rev. Graham’s private anti-Semitism, the evangelist’s positive public actions toward Jews should be largely unaffected. In a free-speech society, the private realm must be protected. So we should limit our assessment of public people to what they do in public and not pry into what should remain properly private. The problem with this incident is that finding out about Rev. Graham’s private words may cause some to regard his public actions as a facade, as fake. But that is a wrong conclusion to draw, Garment wrote. A person should be able to say whatever he wants in private even if he acts another way in public. Both realms can be genuine.
Mr. Garment may or may not be making a valid point for the functioning of a free society. However, from a Christian vantage point, his attempt to wall off private words from how people behave in public is wrong-headed. There is a word for ranting against Jewish people in private while embracing them as your friends in public, and the word is not “anti-Semitism” but rather “hypocrisy.” Christians regard hypocrisy as a grave sin. But if you disconnect private thoughts from public deeds, then you cut the nerve of hypocrisy, you undermine the very possibility for such a thing as hypocrisy to exist.
The verses from this lection in Romans 12 are ultimately about avoiding hypocrisy. In verse 9 the apostle Paul kicks things off by asserting, “Love must be sincere” and the sense of sincerity Paul has in mind is the opposite of hypocrisy.
Commentators have long been vexed by these thirteen verses because on the surface, this looks like a hodge-podge of advice thrown together willy-nilly with no over-arching theme. In verses 9-16 Paul doesn’t even use any verbs. Literally translated it sounds like, “Love, sincere; brotherly love, to each other; in hope, joy; in affliction, patience.” It’s almost as though Paul is ticking off a laundry list of virtues, piling them up quickly so that he doesn’t forget to include them before he runs out of ink in writing this letter.
But other commentators have come to view this section as unified with that opening phrase, “Love must be sincere” setting the theme. In Greek, the word Paul uses means a love free of hypocrisy. A hypocrite was literally an actor. In ancient Greek theaters, actors usually wore masks as part of their on-stage costume. And so hypocrisy eventually became associated with play-acting, with having a false front, with hiding your true feelings behind a mask. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be something he isn’t.
It’s a deadly sin for Christians partly because new life in Jesus starts on the inside. But if Christ does not live in your innermost thoughts, if the most you can do is fake a Christian attitude toward other people, then something is fundamentally amiss. It makes duplicity your lifestyle. You spend your days keeping people from seeing what’s really going on in your heart. But how can you claim to live in the light of Christ if you spend most of your time keeping others in the dark?
So Paul begins by telling us we need agape, we need God-like, Christ-like love at the private center of our existence so that if we then show this love out in public, it will be a natural extension of what is lovely inside us and not a hypocritical cover for something unlovely inside us. In fact, love needs to be in control even when we are confronted with people who are genuinely nasty. What’s more, if it is a non-hypocritical, sincere love, then treating scoundrels well is not simply “going along to get along” even though we secretly wish they’d fall flat on their faces and get what they have coming to them.
That’s why verses 17-21 are also key. Because in the course of life, we sooner or later encounter truly difficult people–individuals who wound us, wrong us, betray us, and so make us want to strike back. Justice, we think, demands that they both know what they’ve done to us and get punished for it in some way, too. We have the right to strike back, we think. We have the right to take some satisfaction in seeing the guilty get their just deserts. But Paul, taking a cue from the revolutionary ethics of Jesus, says no to all that. Paul says that a sincere love has to set the tone even when our hankering for a greater justice makes us want to respond in kind to evildoers. And if you’re tempted to think, “Easy for him to say!” keep in mind that Paul was writing this letter to people living in Rome. For those Christians, talk of persecutors, evil people, and nasty neighbors was not an abstract subject!
Nevertheless, Paul commands love, and not tit-for-tat justice, be the thing that sets believers apart from the rest of the world. Why? Because that’s how we embody the gospel of our God in Christ. The last verse tells us not to overcome evil with evil but to overcome evil with good. That’s not simply high-sounding advice, it serves equally well as a summary description of exactly what Jesus did in his ministry and, ultimately, in his death. Jesus met the evil of this world head on but he countered it with love and grace, not balled-up fists and merciless judgment. Living in love and harmony with this world’s difficult and evil people is simply part of what it means to be caught up in the rhythms of the gospel.
That’s who we are as Christian people. That’s how we became Christian people. So Paul is saying that it’s wrong to get the greatest thing in the universe by grace and then turn right around and take revenge on others. Paul says this most plainly in verse 19, though there is a little verbal time bomb ticking away in that sentence that we mostly miss noticing. Because in verse 19 Paul says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.” But the word translated in the NIV as “friends” is the Greek word agapetoi.
Paul didn’t use the word “brothers,” as he does in many other places. He didn’t use the more generic Greek word for “friend,” as he surely could have. Instead he used a term based on the word agape. Agape is that special, divine love that we get by grace alone. So in verse 19 Paul is throwing in a very loaded word when he says, “Do not take revenge, my dear agape-people!” As phrases go, this one was a poignant knock between the eyes. People who have been graced with God’s agape can’t turn around and live vengeful lives.
Bad things happen. That is an unhappy facet to life in this world that seems unlikely to change. The gospel calls us to absorb such evil, to show Christ to the world not just when doing that is relatively easy but to display the grace of Jesus precisely when some in our world would surely agree that we’d have every right to slap back if we wanted. Justice demands it, society says. The gospel demands something else. You cannot walk around as a living example of God’s graciously unfair way of doing things only to then behave like someone so fixated on fairness that you can never let even the slightest slight slip. As some have noted, that old adage about “an eye for an eye” sooner or later leaves everyone blind.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had for many years a key political operative in his corner named Louis Howe. Howe was a chain smoker and hard drinker who also had the physical appearance of a gnome—he used to give Eleanor Roosevelt the creeps. But he was hard-driving and shrewd, and FDR needed this as his own tendencies to go along to get along may not have served him well in the hardball arena of politics. One of Howe’s characteristics is that he never forgave anyone who had ever slighted FDR even a little. At a party one evening, Howe was in the presence of Eleanor when he was sharp and dismissive of a man who came up to greet the First Lady. Eleanor asked Howe why he had done this, and he then reminded her of something unkind that man had said to FDR a quarter century earlier. “Goodness” Eleanor exclaimed, “I forgot all about that.” Howe replied, “I NEVER forget!”
But when we live our lives in such a tit-for-tat, vengeful, unforgiving way, there is little room left for sincere love. What remains is a pile of bile where our soul should be.
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