Text: Romans 12: 9-21
By: David D. McDonald
August 30, 2020
1When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
3The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
NRSV ROMANS 12:9 –21
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
At the time that Paul wrote his letter to the Romans probably somewhere between 54 and 58 A.D. it was clear that the world as he knew it was torn asunder by violence. The Jewish people of Palestine were stepping ever closer to open rebellion. Soon the Legionnaires of Rome would drive the Jews from Jerusalem. At the ancient fortress of Masada in A.D. 70 there would be a massive slaughter of armed Jews who had taken up positions along its walls and were determined to resist the Romans to the last man, which they did. Since most of the first Christians had Jewish ancestry, Rome outlawed Christianity and persecuted Christians as well. For Christians of that time it would be so tempting to hate Roman soldiers. It would be a great temptation to seek vengeance against Jewish brothers and sisters who not only provoked the wrath of the Romans by their terrorism, but also cast dispersion upon all Christians.
Even though we know all this about life in Roman society during the days of Paul, it still strikes me that we have just scratched the surface of daily life for the Christian in those days. Somehow, someway, they forgave all that hatred, all that bitterness on a day to day basis. We can only imagine the courage, the strength, the emotional fortitude that forgiveness required of those people. We often struggle with how to forgive a few ill-spoken words, a hand gesture, or a driver cutting in abruptly to a parking space for which we were waiting.
What if we were being asked to forgive the slaughter of our family or the raping and pillaging of our city or the throwing of fellow church members into a hungry den of lions to be torn apart and devoured alive? In our quick and hasty reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans we often miss the enormous behavioral and ethical demands of the letter.
Misunderstanding scripture often makes us smile as well as cry. Consider the 23rd Psalm for example. Is there any passage of scripture closer to the heart of Jew or Christian? Is this not a passage which many of us simply do not remember when we learned it? By first grade, many of us had already been coerced or bribed into memorizing it. That does not mean we understood it fully then or even now have plumbed fully the depths of its meaning. My wife, reading a copy of Presbyterian Outlook began to chuckle. She reached over and said, “Read this.” The following is what Marj Carpenter had written:
A first-grade boy objected when his mother offered to walk with him to school, so she asked a neighbor who walked each morning with her daughter to follow along behind her son. The little boy walked to school with a friend, who asked on the third morning, "Who's that woman and little girl who follow us?" The boy answered: "That's Shirley Goodness and her daughter Mercy. Every night my mother makes me say the Twenty-Third Psalm, where it says, 'Shirley Goodness and Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.' So I'm stuck with them." (Presbyterian Outlook 2/20/2012)
Many a child looks back on their experience in the church and feels that they were “stuck with” too many rules, demands, expectations, and God seems to be described as that big somebody who was always looking over their shoulder, waiting for some temptation to come along so He could Zap’em. They grow up to be teen-agers who can hardly wait to get “unstuck” from a few obnoxious people and so miss out on all the good, godly saints.
Paul writes to this group of Roman disciples that in spite of being thrown in dungeons, tested by fire, hated and persecuted at every corner, God loved them, God loved everyone, and somehow they were charged with the task of finding a way to be kind, merciful, and hospitalable even to their worse enemies.
A few examples may help us to draw Paul’s vision into focus.
Clara Barton, the founder of the nursing profession, never was known to hold resentment against anyone. One time a friend recalled to her a cruel thing that had happened to her some years previously, but Clara seemed not to remember the incident.
"Don't you remember the wrong that was done to you?" the friend asked Clara.
"No," Clara answered calmly, "I distinctly remember forgetting that."
(Illustration cited from, Speaker's Treasury of Anecdotes About the Famous by JAMES C. HUMES, p.132.)
Booker T. Washington, one of the great American Black leaders, wrestled at one period in his life with the gross difficulties of forgiveness but found the path to victory. He said,
"When I saw the injuries and insults hurled against my people, I grew to hate white men. I hated them until my soul dried up. Then I took my hatred to Jesus Christ. He took the hatred out of my heart. He showed me how to forgive and how to love white men." That's the path to forgiveness, whether someone has snubbed you or hurt your business or killed your loved one. Stand at the foot of the cross, look to Him who hangs there, ask Him to give you His love.”
(The illustration cited is from, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SERMON ILLUSTRATIONS Compiled by David F. Burgess, p. 83)
Another illustration comes from the early history of mission work in North America. As often is the case, when mission workers first embark in their efforts in a new country, the first challenge is communication. That is, how do we tell the gospel with new words so all can understand. Consider this story:
The first missionaries to Labrador found no word for forgiveness in the Eskimo language. They had to coin one, and they made a glorious choice:
This is the quality of God's mercy to us. It determines the nature and measure of our merciful forgiveness person to person.
All three of these illustrations demonstrate what the apostle Paul means when he writes:
“Live in harmony with one another…”
The unity, peace, and prosperity of any community depend upon its people living with good will towards one another, forgiving others. It can be a fearful, but absolutely necessary part of faithful living.
“The theaters of the ancient Greek world, which still existed in Paul’s times, were large structures seating tens of thousands of people. Although they were acoustically perfect, the actors still might seem very small to those sitting far away. As a result, the actors wore tall masks with exaggerated features to make it clear what emotion they were expressing. These masks were called hupokrites, from which we get the word hypocrites.
Wearing a mask as an actor is one thing. Wearing a mask as sharers in the body of Christ is another. We expect an actor to display emotions appropriate to the character, whether or not she or he is actually feeling those emotions, but we ought to be suspicious of people who wear a mask, figurative, to hide what they are really feeling. We might translate Romans 12:9 as “Don’t wear a mask; show real love!”
Genuine love is at the heart of everything else the apostle commands us to in the name of love: holding fast to the good, loving each other with mutual affection, rejoicing in hope, sharing patience in suffering, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of our fellow believers but also showing hospitality – a Greek word that literally means “love for foreigners” or strangers – all of this is summed up with the final words of Paul in this chapter: do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The recent Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to wear masks and I find that one of the most difficult things to do is to be sure I really understand what others are saying. I am used to reading people’s lips and facial expressions as well as the sounds they make while speaking. Masks make good communication more difficult, yet they also communicate that the danger of the virus is even greater.
No doubt there are times when we have to put a good face on things, when we tell someone they’re looking good even after they have endured difficult treatments for instance. But the challenge of Jesus, through these words of Paul, is to turn away from evil, turn away from vengeance, and to stop wearing a mask. We should be honest, open, generous, and thoughtful while we actively serve each other in real and unfeigned love in the name of Jesus.”…
– Frank Ramirez
God came to remember sin no more. He came to save and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was a sign of God’s redeeming love. He came not to avenge the wrongs of humanity, but to save us from our sins. Throughout His life, Christ exhibited this Spirit of kindness and mercy. Even in His dying moments on the cross, Christ did not seek revenge on His enemies or those who forsook or betrayed Him. No, even there He extended the merciful hand of His Father to a thief crucified beside Him saying:
“This day you will be with me in Paradise.”
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine forgiving someone who stole and wrecked your car? What about someone who killed one of your children?
Those who seek to live as the people of God will live according to Paul’s radical principle of ethics:
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
What the world needs now is a great multitude of people who embrace this simple principal:
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”