The first part of today’s message (Romans 12:9-21) reveals that the earliest Christians couldn’t always get along. It is strangely comforting to know that even Jesus’ ancient followers struggled with the same interpersonal issues that cause trouble today. I don’t want to dwell on negativity, but the early church was as divided and nasty as anything we’ve seen since. Any purported golden age of Christianity is only a cruel myth. Then as now, people act badly and it remains a monumental challenge to live Christian principles.
Now get ready to be positively energized. Paul’s enthusiasm leaps up from the page with rapid-fire advice. There’s so much good stuff he wrote: be zealous in serving God, outdoing one another in showing honor, acting with genuine love, rejoicing, persevering, being hospitable, living harmoniously with humility, being peaceably, avoiding vengeance, redeeming enemies, and overcoming evil with good. Whew! It’s exhausting to just list the highlights let alone put the great advice into practice. Getting along with people—even us holy church folk—has never been easy. If being righteous were easy, then everyone would do it (regrettably, not enough do).
The Old Testament failed in its attempt to legislate morality. In contrast, the New Testament mantra of love often requires that we struggle because love is not easy. In some ways it would be easier to just follow a written code, such as the Ten Commandments, rather than trying to figure out what is the loving choice every moment of every day. Love requires us to avoid evil and “hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9b). The problem is in policing our own behavior. People can react harshly when facing their hypocrisies and inconsistencies, the discrepancy between what they say and how they act. This is why we need to first and foremost manage ourselves, cultivate awareness, and expos the darkness in our own hearts and minds.
And now the second part of today’s message, which is a bit of Jesus’ peculiar prose (Matthew 16:21-28). Trying to get through the difficult text is worth the effort because we seldom gain much by burying our heads to avoid difficulty. The situation started when Jesus shared with his closest friend Peter how the evil, elite bureaucrats would seize and kill Jesus. Peter was rightly horrified by such talk but Jesus responded by calling Peter “Satan.” Jesus seemed frustrated about Peter’s questioning because Jesus was determined to die a martyr and Peter’s remarks seemed to challenge this. We know from the Garden of Gethsemane episode that Jesus wavered, and perhaps some of those later strains are also evident here. After putting Peter in his place, Jesus lectured about the necessity of sacrificing life for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
Even in the heat of the moment Jesus’ oratory flowed and overcame Peter’s impudence: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26a). So, as we progress from the shock & awe of this verse we can pick ourselves off the ground and try to learn something. How about your priorities? Stop and think about value, such as your life verses all the earth’s wealth. The life of which Jesus spoke is not just ordinary biological existence but rather the type which is fulfilled by God-given bliss (we might call this a life of wellbeing). Jesus’ in-your-face question echoes through the ages and is worth paraphrasing: What would you be willing to exchange for your soul? Hopefully, your answer will be “nothing!”
Then there’s the claim of vengeance, the part about evildoers being judged when Jesus comes with an army of angels at the end of history. I feel weird about this. I can imagine that if I were tortured and abused on earth then I might, possibly, be expected to obtain consolation in knowing that my enemies would be slaughtered and tortured as part of their final judgement. But is also seems depressing that at humanity’s end a final stroke of vengeance prevails (albeit from God, which supposedly makes it OK). What would it be with a different ending? What if God would choose something other than vengeance to wrap up history? Justice is great, but taken too far one wonders what is the point of attaching it to God who represents the epitome of redemptive love.
Jesus ended his lesson by saying that some of those people hearing him would not die before his second-coming. Unless we all missed something, Jesus never made his return, which means that hiding somewhere are some very old, first-century Jewish Christians still waiting for their Lord. Don’t be too bothered by this. After all, we worship God and live through principles, not uncertain prophecies. Thank God that we don’t have to reconcile such “mysteries” as when trying to explain why Jesus didn’t return according to the text. Enough is our daily challenge to embrace life and share love and truth.