First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 11

William Loader

Pentecost 11: 28 August  Romans 12:9-21

Paul has just challenged the Roman Christians to see themselves as the body of Christ. Individuals are like members of that single body. Each member has a part to play. There is no room for rivalry and also no need for it, because our confidence rests not on making ourselves better than others but in believing the gospel: that God values each one of us. God's righteousness or goodness is the foundation of our faith and our being.

What does it look like when people live on that basis? In our passage we see something of the answer. It could easily have come straight from a Jewish teaching manual of the time. There is nothing particularly Christian about it. It represents the best values Paul has learned and now sees as needing to characterise the community of faith. Notice the focus on genuineness and the priority of love. That is no empty commitment. It includes recognising what is not love, namely evil and resisting its sway. The good we are to hold close to is defined by love, not by a set of rules. It is not about not doing anything wrong, but about living from compassion.

Mutual love and honour or respect is fundamental to good community (12:10). There is no room for exploitation of any kind. Nor is there room for shaming behaviour. We are to be free from having to win (by making others into losers). Paul urges a positive attitude in 12:11. Some people need to hear that it is possible to choose depression and want to stay there. Depression is bad enough to have to cope within itself, so that there really is no value in choosing it if we can help it. For Paul this is less about rules of behaviour and more about choosing to believe in hope. Hopelessness can be a way of life frequently allied to the comfort of feeling one is a victim. There are enough genuine victims in our society. Where we can choose, we do not have to make ourselves victims. Instead Paul urges a stance which will hold us up even in situations of adversity (12:12). Paul knows that one of the secrets of the nourished life is the nourishment of prayer, time spent in the presence of God believing in grace.

Paul is not interesting in a self serving happy communities of people caring about each other. He widens the vision to include making contributions to people beyond our horizon (12:13). The word for making a contribution is a form of the word, koinonia, which means both fellowship and engagement with others out of common concern. Paul has been making great efforts to raise money for the saints in Judea. Paul cannot separate love from money. We need to love with all the resources we have. Otherwise love is not "genuine" (12:9). The outward looking focus comes to us also in the word about hospitality. In the ancient world it was absolutely vital that strangers, including visiting Christians, be welcomed and looked after. Paul knew this from his own experience. In today's world it has less to do with hosting visiting preachers and more to do with taking seriously the plight of refugees.

It is easy to curse those who oppose us. Bitterness so easily takes root where we collapse into feeling our value is threatened when people oppose us. It becomes even more subtle when we know they misunderstand or are being directly malicious. Violence has a way of sucking its victims into cycles of violence and making its own disciples. It can be hard keeping one's spirituality sufficiently centred not to drift into such eddies. To bless our enemies is not to condone their actions, but it is never to lose sight of their humanity and dignity as persons (12:14).

To rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (12:15) can sound mercurial: we play games with ourselves and others. But Paul assumes we can be in a state of being where we can make room for people - in their sadness and in their gladness. We are not so preoccupied with ourselves that we cannot accept people where they are. 12:16 brings us back to the dangers of self preoccupation and the rat-race of worrying about ourselves. He is not suggesting we pretend we have no wisdom or play at being of no worth when we know we have worth. That is false humility and manipulative (it manouvres for a reward). Rather, let's have a realistic assessment of ourselves and come to terms with it.

In 12:17 we are back with conflict. Paul warns again against engaging in defensive and aggressive power struggles where we feel we must beat someone down if we are to make our way up. Pay-back may seem like a way of "getting even" but it is not a way of getting justice. Justice has to be more than arithmetic. Without reconciliation or acknowledged difference there can be no balance. Paul is also realistic. Peace is not always possible (12:18). We need to bear that in mind when Paul urges submission to the structures of authority in society in the next chapter. Sometimes it is not possible.

Paul ends the chapter with some typical wisdom of his time derived from Proverbs 23:21-22 (12:19-20). Unfortunately it is too close to vengeance. It seems to be saying: another way of getting back at people is to burn their consciences with hot coals by doing good to them and making them feel ashamed. That is simply self interest in disguise. Paul's use of the self-serving piece of secular wisdom goes beyond self-interest. He stays with the image of victory. You win a victory by overcoming evil with good. It is not another way of getting one's own back on people. Paul does not speak of evil persons in 12:21, but of evil, itself. Confront lovelessness with love, confront hate with grace. That only makes sense if the love is genuine. Such genuine love never writes people off, not even enemies. It is never sucked into revenge and the spirals of hate and violence. It breaks the cycle. This is more than a wise rule or even an ideal. For Paul it is part of living out of the gospel of grace. It is a fruit which the Spirit can reproduce in us if we let go of fear.

Gospel  Pentecost 11: 28 August  Matthew 16:21-28

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