Holding Fast to the Good — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13A (Romans 12)

Romans 12:9-21 New Revised Standard Version

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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.

What is the good? According to Paul, it’s rooted in love. This love is meant to be genuine. So hate what is evil, but hold on to what is good. We live in challenging times. All across the globe, the powers of division and hate are on the rise. It often takes on political dimensions, but it runs much deeper. It seems to have taken root in our souls. I notice it in myself. There is anger in the air. While that is true, it’s not the anger that’s the problem. It’s the way we experience it. When I participated in community organizing training, the trainers emphasized the importance of channeling anger against injustice toward change. That is how I read the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a call to channel anger at injustice toward changing the status quo of white supremacy. I affirm this premise, but at the same time, love must guide how we engage the world. It is the love that comes from God that enables us to channel anger against injustice toward transformation. Now, the love that is required here, the love that Paul speaks of in this passage isn’t sentimentality. If we consider the two great commandments, love of God and neighbor go together, and the love of neighbor must involve seeking justice for our neighbor.

If we look back to the reading for the previous week (Romans 12:1-8) and focus on verse 2, we will hear Paul urging us not to be conformed to the patterns of this world or present age. Instead, he urges us to be transformed by the renewing our own minds. What follows in the reading for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost is a fuller expression of what this transformed life looks like.

What Paul describes here in verses 9-21 of Romans 12 is rooted in that opening declaration. It is a continuation of his urging of the followers of Jesus to present their lives to God as a living sacrifice, which is our logikos or reasonable worship. What Paul describes here is a different way of living than prescribed by the powers that be. It is a way of living marked by love, by grace, by forbearance. It is a call for hospitality to strangers and compassion for those in need. It’s realistic and yet hopeful.

                It’s realistic in that it recognizes that some will persecute the followers of Jesus, even if at this point there wasn’t any evidence of wide-spread persecution. Some of what Paul addresses here might be more internal than external since we’ve already seen Paul address in chapters 1-11 some of the internal disputes between Jewish and Gentile believers. Who he might have in mind here is not clearly defined, but whoever is being addressed, Paul tells them not to curse their opponents. It offers a realistic picture of life, in that it recognizes that some will do evil. While this is true, we are not to return evil for evil. Instead, live peaceably with one another.

Now when Paul wrote these directives, this emerging community was a powerless minority religious community. They lacked support and sponsorship from the government. They appeared to many in their communities to be a rather strange group. They had the markings of Judaism, and yet they were different. One reason for suspicion was that they failed to observe the religious traditions of their neighbors, which made them look unpatriotic. Offering sacrifices to the local gods was the equivalent of saying the pledge of allegiance. So, it’s no wonder this community faced persecution. They were dangerous. But Paul encourages them to leave things in the hands of God. He draws from Deuteronomy 32:35, in leaving vengeance in the hands of God. He draws as well from Proverbs 25:21-22, in suggesting that if we feed our hungry enemy or give drink to the thirsty enemy, we place burning coals on the enemy’s head. We may find the reference here to vengeance to be unsettling, but we feel that need to set things right. Paul says, leave it in the hands of God.  

               It is a word of hope, hope that is rooted in a community that is defined by love. In fact, Paul encourages the community to outdo each other in showing love for one another. We all enjoy a bit of competitive spirit, so what better way than through being zealous in our service of Christ through the love of one another. If there is to be hope as we move forward through these times, it will require a sense of community, a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. Hope is found in the community we call the body of Christ. And this hope is rooted in love, which as Rochelle Stackhouse points out is “energetic and profoundly optimistic, and rather countercultural in nature.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 16].

So, how do we live out these core values in our daily lives, so that we might demonstrate what the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ really looks like? Paul closes this selection with this admonition “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Perhaps we can think here in terms of what some call spiritual warfare. As Richard Beck reminds us that if we only think in terms of social justice as an expression of God’s calling, we will miss something deeper. We miss the deeper spiritual dimensions, which is why loves is required. Beck writes that “love is what prevents the political struggle from dehumanizing and demonizing flesh and blood” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 61]. Thus, following Beck, “Spiritual warfare is putting love where there is no love. It is the action of grace in territory controlled by the devil, being true to love in a world that is cold and lonely and mean. It is the kingdom of God breaking into and interrupting our lives” [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 184]. Therefore, let us hold fast to what is good, as revealed in Jesus.

Heart with Cross, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57557 [retrieved August 22, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/29807771@N02/5964131678 – liv4gss.

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