Romans 12:14-21; Matthew 16:21-28
13th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 03.09.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week we looked at the first verse of chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, written in about 63AD. It was all about our love for God, offering our whole lives in worship. In a city full of temples and sacrificial worship, Paul was calling the Christians of the city to offer their bodies, every aspect of their lives, in worship to God. Next week, we will look at some other verses in this chapter that explore what it meant for the Christians in Rome to love and support one another. Today, our reading from Romans focuses on the attitude Christians should have to their wider community, even when they are experiencing conflict or persecution.
This was a live issue for the Christians in Rome. Thirty years earlier, their faith had been born in the crucible of religious and state persecution as Jesus was killed on a cross. And as our Gospel reading reminds us, Jesus told his followers, “if you will follow me, you too must take up your cross”. As Paul was writing, Christians in Rome were suffering. Like many minority groups with unorthodox cultural practices or beliefs, they were becoming a target for violence, a scapegoat for social ills and economic hardships. (Today we may see it with attacks on migrants and refugees.)
Christians would be regularly beaten up in the streets, or have buckets of excrement deliberately dropped on them from above as they walked by. Within a couple of years of Paul’s letter, it was to get terrifyingly worse as such behaviour was to be given state approval. In the aftermath of Rome’s great fire that saw most of the city destroyed, the emperor Nero made Christians the scapegoat. People’s anger and despair was taken out on them. Christians literally took up their cross, as many were crucified. Others were burned as human torches lighting up the city parks. Others were sown into animal skins and then wild animals let loose to devour them as entertainment in the colosseum.
How should Christians respond to this growing pogrom against them? Paul’s answer was as simple as it was difficult: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and not curse… do not repay anyone evil for evil… do not take revenge… overcome evil with good.” There was no police force in ancient Rome. If a wrong was done to you, the only way of getting recompense, was to retaliate. Most people joined street associations – a cross between a trade union and a social club – but they also acted as a brutal enforcer of retributive justice. If a member got beaten up or killed, revenge on the offending person would be swift and unmerciful. But that would all too regularly spark a spiral of tit-for-tat violence, with whole neighbourhoods descending into all-out war, as rival associations defended their members. Like Belfast during the time of the troubles, or street gangs in some of our cities, violence would escalate as every act of brutality was responded to in kind.
So with no legal recourse, and indeed often with the State’s open support of the violence, how should Christians respond? Should they form their own protection groups? Should they enforce an eye for an eye type justice. Paul, echoing Jesus teaching in the sermon on the mount, gives a categorical “no”. Christians were to break the cycle of violence before it even got started. They were to refuse to look for vengeance. Instead they were to love those who persecuted them; they were to pray for them and bless them.
That must have been such a hard and costly message to hear. And it still is today. We may thankfully not experience persecution for our faith in this country in the same way, but all of us no doubt wrestle with how we deal with those who have wronged us – people at work or school, or people in the community, or even people in our own families. It is so tempting to want to take revenge, or to give them a taste of their own medicine, or to make them suffer just a little bit what they have done to us.
But Jesus, and here Paul too, are uncompromisingly clear – that is not the way. We are to go out of our way to do positive, uncalled-for acts of kindness to those who have wronged us. This is different from reconciliation – that needs genuine repentance on behalf of the wrong-doer – but such kind acts may prompt remorse (the “burning coals” that Paul speaks of). But even if it doesn’t, the act of ridding ourselves of the desire for revenge, can set us free emotionally and mentally. We are refusing to allow our future lives to be determined by the evil that someone else has done. Its bad enough that they’ve done whatever it was; why should they then have the right to keep us in a bitter and twisted state? That’s what Paul means by “not being overcome by evil.”
Are we nursing bitterness and anger towards someone? Do we ever have a desire for revenge? Paul’s challenge then and now is for us to let it go, to choose a life shaped by love, not bitterness.
Such an approach to conflict would have made Christians in ancient Rome very distinctive. Initially, it may have left them vulnerable to further attacks, but gradually their commitment to love would have begun to win many over. But it was not their only distinctive quality. They were a community that as Paul encouraged them to be, were not proud, but willingly associated with people of low position. Indeed, the church in Rome went out of their way to welcome in the poorest of the poor, the widows and orphans, and to treat as equal members those who had no legal rights of any kind in the Roman world, the vast numbers of slaves.
In her excellent novel, Phoebe, the theologian Paula Gooder paints a picture of the church in Rome reaching out to a remarkable range of people – slaves, widows, free citizens, wealthy businessmen and Roman senators – and treating all with equal respect and honour. That is the kind of community we too should aspire to be – one that is welcoming and honouring of all – old, young, poor, rich, African, Asian, European. How do we feel we are doing with that? And in our workplaces, in our community groups, are we championing the needs of those on the margins, those who get too easily overlooked? The early church was a beacon of light, shining for justice and inclusion. Can we be too?
The church in Rome was also encouraged to be a community of peace and empathy. In a city where conflict was the norm, and life could be brutal, Christians were to work at living at peace with others, to find ways of resolving conflicts. And a crucial step in that process was to identify with others. In Paul’s words, “to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to mourn with those who mourn”. When the next door neighbour’s grandchild was born or their relative returned from a long time away, to join in the celebrations, to delight in the joy of others. And when someone else lost their husband or saw their house burn down in one of Rome’s all too frequent fires, to come alongside, to share the grief and the pain.
Are we people that celebrate in the joys of our neighbours, colleagues, friends and community? Are we people that others naturally turn to when they want to share good news, because they know we will be delighted for them. As Christians we should not only be the sharers of good news, but the people that others want to share their good news with. Can people say of us: “I’m going to tell such-and-such because I know just how pleased they will be.”
And likewise, we are to be people that are there for others at times of sadness and grief, caring, loving, willing to listen, a supportive presence. Are we the people that others can come to share their sadnesses and their anxieties?
No wonder that the church in Rome, small, vulnerable, persecuted as it was, grew in numbers. It was a community that sought love rather than revenge, that reached out and valued everyone no matter who they were, and who genuinely rejoiced with those rejoicing and mourned with those mourning.
As we pray that God will help us grow in our love for our community, may God help us to be like those Christians in ancient Rome.