Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 30, 2020
Romans 12:9-21 Commentary
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.”
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