The first part of today’s message (Romans 12:9-21) offers rapid-fire advice. The significant bit here is that the earliest Christians couldn’t always get along with one another. I suppose it is strangely comforting to know that even the nearest and dearest ancient Jesus followers struggled with the same garbage that mires us 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 do bad things and it is as difficult as ever to live Christian virtues.
Now get ready to be positively energized. Paul’s enthusiasm leaps up from the page. 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 all of this good advice into practice. Indeed, getting along with people—even us holy church folk—has never been easy. If it were, then everyone would do it (regrettably, not enough do!).
Whereas the Old Testament failed in its attempt to legislate morality, the New Testament mantra of love often requires that we strive to fill-in the missing blanks; love is not easy. We could argue that it is less troublesome to just follow a written code, such as the Ten Commandments, rather than trying to figure out in every instance what is the loving thing to do. We often know what we ought to do, that 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 don’t like it when someone tries to point out hypocrisies and inconsistencies between their faith confession on the one hand and their unloving behavior on the other. But clearly we need to manage ourselves, to cultivate awareness, and restrain evil.
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. Well, here we go . . . . The situation started when Jesus shared with his closest friend Peter how the evil, elite bureaucrats would seize and kill Jesus. Peter rightly decried such events but Jesus responded by calling Peter Satan. Jesus seemed frustrated about Peter’s questioning. Jesus was determined to die a martyr and Peter’s talk might have undermined Jesus’ resolve. We know from the Garden of Gethsemane scene that Jesus wavered, and perhaps some of those later strains are evident here. After putting Peter in his place Jesus lectured those around him 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 Jesus’ response we can pick ourselves off the ground and try to learn something. How about overarching 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 true life, the type which is fulfilled by God-given bliss. Jesus’ in-your-face question still rings through the ages: What would you be willing to exchange for your soul?
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 sort of weird about this. I can imagine that if I were tortured and abused on earth then I might, possibly, get some glimmer of consolation in knowing that my enemies would be butchered and slaughtered. Vengeance is reserved for God alone and not for any ordinary human court. However, it’s depressing that at humanity’s sunset a final stroke of vengeance prevails. What would it be with a different ending? What if Jesus, God, and whoever will be the ultimate executioner would choose something other than vengeance to wrap up history?
Jesus ended his lesson that day two-thousand years ago by saying that some of those people hearing him would not die before his second-coming. Unless I missed something, Jesus hasn’t made his second debut, which means that hiding somewhere are some very old, first-century Jewish Christians still waiting for their Lord. Just praise and thank God that we don’t have to try and figure-out such “mysteries” Enough is our daily challenge to embrace life and share love and truth.