Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).
One Friday in the year A.D. 33, the Creator of every beautiful thing we have ever seen was scourged and nailed to a cross by the creatures He lovingly knit together in their mothers’ wombs. We can imagine that the temptation to utterly destroy us must have been lurking in the truly human heart and mind of the unjustly murdered messiah. The very man of very man who just the night before had sweat blood and prayed to His Father to find some other way to save our rebellious race—a means of making love and justice come together with something other than the beams of a cross—this man had every reason to rebel against the undeserved mockery and pain we put him through. He had every reason to take justice into His own hands and break our backs in the vengeance fueled rage our sin surely deserves. This violent end of the human story would have been both fair and fitting: our uncreation at the hands of our rejected Creator: a perfectly reasonable outcome for a people capable of inventing crucifixion, Auschwitz, and abortion.
Instead, the impossible happened. Our Lord looked out at the gloating crowd and His weeping mother, and said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (St. Luke 23:34). St. Paul, earlier in the letter we read today, establishes the magnitude of this willing, sacrificial love: ‘…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…’ (Romans 5:8,10). Contained within this miracle is humanity’s only hope—a victory won with true love, untainted by hatred or cowardice. We who are justified by faith in the blood of Christ live and breathe in the new world this victory makes possible. The new world where the never-ending madness of human violence gives way to mercy and peace; where humanity’s disordered usurpation of God’s rightful command over life and death ends with our surrender and adoption as the children of grace. A new humanity preparing for the new earth where the Creator who defeated death will banish death forever.
It is in this new world of Christ’s resurrected glory where we can reasonably and with assured hope live and die in the same way Christ lived and died—not for ourselves, not even for our families and friends, but for our enemies. There is no path which so powerfully goes against our every fallen instinct, and so there is no life which greater reveals our faith in the new earth to come: a world not of our choosing or of our deserving but of our destiny. If we are living for that world then we will, by definition, not be living according to the standards and practices which the damned deem prudent or honorable or courageous. We have to assume that all of our instincts and feelings are not only unreliable but actually irrelevant when our primary goal is to follow the Christ we meet in Word and Sacrament. We have been told so often that our desires and will are inherently good that we too easily forget or refuse to believe that, as Jesus says, all evil comes from our wounded hearts and disordered wills. It isn’t even that left to our own devices we will be neutral in the war between good and evil; no, without the constant careful pursuit of holiness we will simply be living in various conditions of evil—only comforted by the meaningless definitions of good and evil and love fed to us by the anti-Christs in our lives.
I don’t care who we are, there will be a part of this New Covenant way of life against which every fiber of our being will scream at us to resist, and that is how we will know for what we need to pray and fast for to beseech divine assistance. We will not conquer our particular evil on our own any more than fallen humanity was able to conquer death on its own. Here, we might be tempted to say, ‘Ok pastor, you want me to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to take up my cross, to bless my persecutors, to live in harmony, and intimately associate with the people I have every right to hate, but wasn’t Christ divine? I’m not divine, so won’t I be graded on a curve?’ The short answer is, ‘No.’ We won’t be graded on a curve because that’s not how any of this works. Our salvation is not a negotiation; it is a surrender. Part of ending our suicidal rebellion is submitting to a way of life which will seem absolutely crazy to a world obsessed with comfort and power and pleasure. Part of cutting ties with the fading hopes of this fallen world is for us to pray that the Holy Spirit do the impossible in our lives—that He would take the weak and sinful people we are and daily transform us into the kind of people who will live out Romans 12 without giving a damn about the consequences. In short, that the Holy Spirit would make us Christians actually represent that name in a way our undefeated Savior would recognize. If that isn’t our daily quest, we should stop calling ourselves Christians; if that isn’t why we get up every day, we should stop taking our Lord’s name in vain.
It is only when we place the discipline of a disciple of Christ at the heart of our lives that we can become useful soldiers in the fight against evil. But again, if we are living out the new way to be human, if we are following in the path of Christ, our weaponry against that evil will always be counter-intuitive. St. Paul writes, ‘Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all’ (Romans 12:17). Just as Christ responded to our evil at Calvary with sacrificial love, so we are to respond to the evil of others; just as Christ’s true conflict was not with the Roman Empire or the Sanhedrin, our true fight is not against whatever ignorant slave to evil to whom we find ourselves in conflict. Our every action is being witnessed by the lost souls God has providentially placed around us, and our every move must be a reflection of the King we serve. To be a follower of Christ is to accept that our temporary embarrassment or humiliation or pain or death is completely worth it if through our sacrifice even one soul can see the reflection of Calvary in our lives. Remember, St. Paul is not asking for us to give God something that isn’t already His; if we are ransomed souls, if we are saved, then we already belong to God, and He is simply instructing us how to use the life Christ bought back from the abyss. Our dutiful and holy participation in the Christian life serves as a reflection to men and angels and demons—to all creatures—that evil can be stopped, and if evil can be stopped once, it can be stopped again and again and again. We can stop making deposits in the bank of human misery because the riches of Christ are already ours.
Which brings us to the toughest part of today’s reading. St. Paul writes, ‘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” (Rom. 12:19-21). The two paths that lie before us, the path of Christ or the path of the Evil One, are clear: we either share in the Gospel’s victory over the world or we seek our own private victory through the suffering of another. We either trust that the death of God the Son was enough to reveal forever that God is more serious about justice than we will ever be, or we trust in the petty, imperfect justice we can wring out of another ignorant and lost human. Of course, our just and loving God has indeed set up earthly mechanisms by which evil will be punished in this short life; some will be dealt with by the ‘governing authorities’ whose terrible responsibility it is to administer temporal justice; others will be given up to fester and rot in the prisons of their own debased desires, but make no mistake, all men will be subject to the judgment and eternal vengeance of God in the end. To make way for the righteous wrath of God is to understand that we deserve to be destroyed by it ourselves, but Christ has allowed Himself to be destroyed in our place, and so it is His right to carry the sword of vengeance and to distribute it to whom He wills. And blessedly, since this terrible burden does not lie with us, we are free to fully live in light of the Gospel, to love our enemies in the way Christ loved us when we were His enemies.
This victory, the unique Christian victory over evil, is something wholly different from any other possible way of life: it is the victory of the undeserving enemy who has been justified by faith and made alive and free through the grace of God in Christ. For the sake of the world, we must put our whole trust and confidence in the victorious power of the Gospel. Not in our own power, not in our own virtue, not in our own sense of justice; no, all our trust must be in Christ and that faith cannot fail to win the day.