Back in the mid-1970s there was a time of severe gasoline shortages. In many places people lined up for miles at service stations to gas up their cars. There’s a story told about a man who was in a line like that, and as he waited for his turn at the pumps he was getting more and more concerned because his tank was already on empty. Finally, just before his turn came, his engine quit, and he had to actually get out and push his car to the pump. As he was doing this, the young woman who was in line behind him pulled out and slipped in ahead of him, laughing at him on the way.
Well, he found a novel way to get his own back. It turned out that she was driving the same kind of car as he was, with one exception: he had a locking gas cap, and she didn’t. So, while she was in the office paying for her gas, he quietly changed gas caps with her, giving her the locking cap. However, he kept the key firmly in his own pocket!
We can probably all laugh at a story like that, because we can easily sympathise with the young man’s annoyance, and his desire for retribution. It’s something we’ve all felt and will probably continue to feel as the years go by. But while we’re laughing, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the suffering that this human drive for vengeance causes around the world. Let’s think about Israel and Palestine, where for half a century bombing has been followed by retribution which has been followed by more retribution over and over again, with no side willing to break the cycle for fear of being thought weak by the other. Or let’s remember Northern Ireland, where over thirty years of violence had its roots in actions that happened centuries ago. What’s particularly tragic about that situation is that the perpetrators claimed the name of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ and invoked the name of Jesus to bless their violence – as has often happened, sadly, in Christian history.
Today’s reading from Romans deals directly with this subject. It’s a wide-ranging passage dealing with a lot of issues in the Christian community, and rather than trying to touch on everything it mentions, I want to focus on the second half of the passage; it deals with the question of how we as Christians should relate to the world around us. Paul suggests two things. On the one hand, we’re to do all we can by our words and behaviour to give the Christian message a good name in the world. However, when this fails to win us friends, and when we are attacked and even persecuted for our faith, our response is to be a Christlike one – not taking vengeance on our enemies, but rather loving them, forgiving them, and going out of our way to be a blessing to them. In this way, says Paul, we are to overcome evil with good.
In many places in the world today, of course, this is a life and death issue. In recent weeks we’ve seen the spectacle of ISIS terrorists telling Christians in Iraq that they have three choices: convert to Islam, leave, or be executed. And this is only one example of the sort of violence against Christians, and other people of faith, that exists in many parts of the world. For instance, in many countries in the Middle East it is a crime for a Christian to obey Jesus’ Great Commission and invite a non-Christian to put their faith in Jesus. In some countries in North Africa Christians have been subjected to vicious persecution, torture and rape and brutal murder. If you want to keep in touch with the harsh realities that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ face around the world today, one of the best ways to do that is to follow the blog of Canon Andrew White; Andrew is vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, and over the last few weeks he has been posting some horrific stories about the evils being inflicted on Christians and other people of faith in the territories now controlled by ISIS terrorists.
Here in North America, we tend to face indifference and apathy rather than persecution, although if you try to live consistently by the teaching of Jesus, you’re going to get some dirty looks at times, and even some angry words. This is particularly true when it comes to the subject of loving your enemies; I’ve discovered that many people seem to be particularly offended by the idea that we should respond to evil with good. And of course, that brings us directly to what Paul has to say to us in Romans in today’s passage.
How is a Christian congregation to behave in relationship to the world around it? How are we as individual Christians to conduct ourselves? Paul has two things to tell us.
First, do your best to enhance the name of Jesus Christ by the way you live and the things you say. Paul says in verses 17-18: ‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’. The New Living Translation, as usual, has a helpful paraphrase: ‘Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see that you are honourable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone’. So what’s this all about?
Nicky Gumbel tells a story about a Christian man nicknamed ‘Gibbo’, who was working at Selfridge’s, a big department store in London. One day the phone rang, and when Gibbo answered the phone the caller asked for Gordon Selfridge, the owner of the store. It so happened that Gordon Selfridge was standing right there, but when Gibbo told him about the call, he said, “Tell him I’m out”. Gibbo held out the receiver to him and said, “You tell him you’re out”. Selfridge took the call, but he was furious until Gibbo explained to him, “If I can lie for you, I can lie to you”. From that moment onward Selfridge had the highest regard for Gibbo and trusted him implicitly. He recognised the value of honesty, and even though it was inconvenient to him, he respected Gibbo for it. Unconsciously, you see, Gibbo was ‘taking thought for what is noble in the sight of all’, or ‘doing things in such a way that everyone could see he was honourable’.
To give another example: in some countries in South America, no food is provided for people who are in prison; it’s the responsibility of their families to provide food for them and to bring it to them each day. This is very difficult for those prisoners who have no families. In one of those countries, I’m told that the Christian organisation ‘Prison Fellowship’ has taken on the responsibility of preparing food for prisoners who have no families and taking it to them each day. In those countries, when you say the word ‘Christian’, the picture that comes to mind is, ‘the people who feed the ones who have no one else to feed them’.
So we’re to ‘take thought for what is noble in the sight of all’. But Paul is realistic about this; he adds, ‘If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ (v.18). In other words, he recognises that sometimes circumstances will be outside our control. I may work hard for reconciliation but the other person may have no interest in it whatsoever. Never mind; I’m to do all in my power to be at peace with that other person anyway.
If we try to give the Gospel a good name by the way we live and the things we say, over time this can often go a long way toward easing tensions. However, this will not always be the case. Paul recognises that sometimes society will still choose to attack the Christian church. What are believers to do in that situation?
First, we’re not to take revenge on those who hurt us. Look at verses 14 and 17: ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Do not repay anyone evil for evil’. One of my vivid childhood memories is the phrase ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’. If I heard it once, I probably heard it a thousand times, because my brother and I were always fighting each other! My Mum would say, “Don’t hit him”, and I would reply, “He hit me first!” Up would come her finger and she would say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right!”
Paul gives a simple and direct reason for this command: in taking revenge we are usurping the role of God. ‘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”’ (v.19). God alone knows all the details and all the motives of the human heart; God alone is the one who can be trusted to act with perfect justice and mercy. To take it on ourselves to take revenge is to claim to be God, and it’s a fundamental principle of the Christian life that God is God and I am not!
But our response is not just a negative one, the absence of revenge. Rather, we’re to be proactive, taking the initiative to love and do good to those who hate us. Paul says in verse 20 ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink’. In other words, take a look at this person who hates you. What needs do they have? Is there some way you can be a minister of God to them in their need? As Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘The best way to destroy an enemy is to make them a friend’. This is the way the Christian Church is meant to take the offensive against its enemies; not with the sword or the gun, but with hands that serve and hearts that love. Paul sums it all up by saying ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (v.20).
A moving story about this comes from the era of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. At one meeting early in their work, the Commission gathered to reach a verdict on a particularly brutal case involving an elderly woman. A group of white police officers, led by a Mr. van de Broek, admitted their personal responsibility in the death of her eighteen-year old son. They acknowledged shooting him, setting his body on fire, and partying around the fire until the body had been reduced to ashes. Eight years later, the same officers took the woman’s husband into captivity. The woman was forced to watch while the officers doused her husband with gasoline and then ignited a fire. The last words her husband spoke to her, in the midst of the blazing pyre, were ‘Forgive them’.
Now the time had come for justice to be served. Those involved had confessed their guilt, and the Commission turned to the woman for a final statement regarding her desire for an appropriate punishment.
“I want three things”, the woman said calmly. “I want Mr. van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband’s body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.
“Second, Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can be a mother to him.
“Third, I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. And, I would like someone to come and lead me by the hand to where Mr. van de Broek is so that I can embrace him and he can know my forgiveness is real”.
As the elderly woman made her way across the silent courtroom, van de Broek reportedly fainted, overcome by emotion. And then the silence was broken when someone began singing, ‘Amazing Grace’. Others soon picked up the words of the familiar hymn, so that finally the entire courtroom was joining in song.
The person who started the singing, of course, had identified the reason why Christians are to act in this way. God is a God of amazing grace, who has chosen to forgive us, not to take vengeance on us. We call ourselves Christians, which means ‘Those who follow Christ’. The reason we are to bless those who persecute us rather than cursing them is that this is the way Christ acted, and we are under orders to imitate him.
For us as Christians, this is the big issue. It’s not about ‘Does this way of living work?’ The gospel offers us no guarantees about that, and perhaps we should remember that both Paul and Jesus, who both lived this way, were eventually executed by the state! No - the reason they both command us to act in this way is not because it works, but because it’s the right thing to do, the thing that God does. This is what faithful Christian discipleship looks like. This is our calling as a Christian community. So let us pray that God will give us the help of his Holy Spirit so that we can be faithful to our calling and show the world the face of Jesus Christ.
I want to close with the words of a blessing based on this passage, a blessing I remember my dad using at services when I was very young. Maybe we’ll use it at the end of the service today too. This is how it goes:
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you forever. Amen.