Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
Throughout this season of Epiphanytide, wherein we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, our weekly readings come from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. These challenging selections serve us well as it is the church’s way of reminding us, year after year, of what it means to be a Christian called out from the world of the Gentiles even as we dwell in the last moments before the dawn. In last week’s epistle, St. Paul commanded each and every follower of Christ to join our Lord in a sacrificed life—a life literally given over to God to serve in the fullness of our human destiny. The apostle gave this command surrounded by the darkness of an evil world whose slavish agents were moving to crush his message of sacrificial love, unmerited forgiveness, and assured hope. He knew it was, and is, the church’s mission to stand against this evil, but he also knew that standing up means pain and rejection and suffering. He knew that standing up means being challenged every day by a broken world which will use any means to make us sit down, close our eyes, and pretend all is well—ignoring the pain of the damned and the tears of the lost. Paul, the apostle to the newly freed Gentiles, is telling the Roman Christians they must stand up while evil mocks and rages, slashes and burns, all while singing the praises of the Living God—thanking Him for the opportunity to be a sacrifice.
The evil-genius of our Enemy, and his appropriation of so much American Christianity, has been to get us to ignore this most important aspects of the Christian life. All of us have been exposed to a false gospel which says we can have the joy of Christian peace without embracing the sacrificed Christian life described in Chapter 12 of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. This promise of false joy is built upon a lie and hand-crafted to appeal to our vanity. In it, Christian peace is ripped from its proper place in God’s perfect time-table, and we are led to believe that we can enjoy heaven on earth by building a cocoon of temporary comfort around ourselves. For example, our church is surrounded by thousands of people, and every Sunday morning the majority of them choose to spend more time with their pillows or eat too much breakfast or watch one more screen. We should look at their behavior, their open rebellion against their Creator, in the same way we would look at a newly discovered tribe on some remote island found worshipping the Sun: both are lost, both need to be found. In fact, the Sun-worshipping tribe is in a much better position because at least they are looking for a god outside of themselves rather than religiously feeding the insatiable appetites of human desire in a doomed attempt to find meaning. While this situation is tragic, we are blessed that our mission field is right outside our doors, filled with people who are consumed by lies and inoculated against Christianity’s true nature by all the pastors turned adult daycare workers tripping over themselves to dilute the gospel with sweet tasting poison. We are blessed that after placing our souls and bodies on God’s altar, we are now prepared to be God’s means of drawing the lost tribes of Fayette County back to Him.
Blessedly, God the Holy Spirit has not only given us new hearts to love; He has also connected us into the undeserved gracious mercy of the Father, and part of this unmerited love for rebellious sinners reveals itself in the spiritual gifts bestowed on God’s people. The list St. Paul gives us today is not exhaustive, but it describes the main tools available to a people standing up for right in a world gone wrong. In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul tells us that these gifts differ in importance— after all, God reserves the right to call people to different positions within His church—but receiving a more conspicuous example of God’s power in the world does not make the receiver personally greater or more important; no, we are not playing by the world’s rules where the powerful are worshipped like gods—occupying our minds and blinding us to the true God. Rather, every Christian’s identity, no matter what his position in the church, is as a subject of equal dignity in the kingdom of God, for each person has been saved from the same deserved wrath by the same sacrifice of Christ. Our identity begins and ends in that reality from which springs our new untainted nature fully realized at our physical resurrection from the dead. Everything we have is a gift, and every good thing we do is a gift from God to the world that men might glorify our Father.
Grasping this reality takes some doing. It forces us—if we take it seriously—to exorcise some false ideas about the Christian life right from the get go. First, our primary purpose in life is to use our God given gifts to advance the gospel; for it is the gospel that will still be true long after whatever career or hobby we love fades away. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard in our secular employment; rather, it means we must know why we are working and for what purpose. We do not work for ourselves; we work for Christ, or we work for ashes. We have been given every penny, every breath, every heartbeat for the glory of God, and amazingly, over and above all of that, we have been given divine gifts with which to stand firm until our Lord returns. The church needs its people to find spaces within it to use their gifts: we need artists and teachers and custodians and bakers and every man and woman to step forward and say like Abel, “How can I bring my first and best to God?,” and with that mindset, even if we are murdered by one of our human brothers, we can know that our God will avenge us and put right what weak men thought they could destroy. We live for the Body of Christ, or we are not a member of that body; we are a healthy limb fulfilling its divinely mandated function in the world, or we are dismembered, and the church suffers without us—like a veteran with an amputated leg running in a marathon: the journey will be harder with one leg, but by God, we will finish the race. The church will prevail because Christ has already won the war. The only question which remains is will we desert our Christ led brothers and sisters in the battles against evil in which we are privileged to fight?
What comes next, in verses 9-21, are what are often called, “The Marks of the True Christian,” but I prefer to call them the scars of the true Christian because every line we read of this constitution for the new humanity should challenge our comfort, every stroke of the pen should cut into our hearts, and every time we follow its Christ worn path we will be scarred like the glorious resurrected Sacrifice we follow. St. Paul tells us to “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:9-13). Until verse 9 of chapter 12, ἀγάπη—the word Paul uses to describe genuine, sacrificial love—had always been used to describe the divine love, publicly revealed in the Son’s sacrifice of Himself for the sins of the world, but here (in the already in-breaking new world Christ’s resurrection made a sure reality) Paul reveals that a Christian’s love for others will be infused with a divine character. Our love, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will be painful as we shed layer after layer of the unnecessary trappings of this fallen world—as we focus our lives on uttering the unconditional, “YES,” to all that Christ asks of us. Yes, I will be my brother’s keeper. Yes, I will zealously seek out good works for the kingdom of God. Yes, I will rejoice in the face of the violent and seductive tribulations of the fallen world. Yes, I will pray like I’m before the throne room of the Almighty God. Yes, I will open the home Christ gave me to bring the lost into His kingdom. Yes, I will do all of that and more because I am ready to be so fervent in thy Spirit that I burn on His altar as a sign and symbol to all men that God is on the march and wrath and love are coming with Him. We will be scarred in this world if we are Christ’s, but we can take it if the measure of our strength is God and not man.
But we won’t just be scarred in this life; no, the Christian is called to be more than scarred, more than marked by the presence of the divine. We are called to carry the cross: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21). The Christian is ordered to take on the great sacrificial mission so brutally and beautifully made real in the cross. We are not aided by magic powers or inhuman protection from the Spirit; no, we are ordered to feel what it is like to walk among those that hate us and love them all the same; we are ordered to stand as they abuse us—always putting the gospel mission before our own pride or comfort. When we are called away from our fishing boats or our tax collecting booths, our cubicles or our corner offices, our favorite brunch spots or our cozy retirements, when we are called by the bloody and vindicated Savior who owns eternal life, we are called to follow Him so closely we feel the heat of His breath and the sound of His voice. A voice crying out, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” St. Stephen died with those words on his lips, and we too are to die every day with those words on our lips, supremely confident that the God who has already saved us will bring us through these last few dark nights. No one can take His love from us, and so we are free to give ourselves for the world. We are free to embrace those that hate us and know that God will use our sacrifice for His glory. We are free to run toward the hurt and the scared and to bring them the medicine of immortality. We are free to do the hard thing—free to follow our Savior and dive into the sadness of the human condition: rescuing people who do not want to be rescued, loving people who do not want to be loved. All the while rejoicing when they attack us and thanking God for the opportunity to be more like the King the world spit on and murdered. For we are Christians, or we are nothing; we are Christ followers, or we are nothing. May we then be Christians: may the gospel be our power, joy our daily bread, and may the righteous scars of this life be a daily reminder of Whom we serve.