Romans 12: 9-21 (indirectly, Matthew 16: 21-28)

Some time ago on social media, I saw a picture of a message board, apparently outside a church, which read: Love your enemies – it messes with their minds. Now, there is a certain amount of both humour and cynicism in this message; but at another level, it actually points us toward not just what some may regard as the counter-intuitive heart of Christian faith, but also Christianity’s movement toward a state of being that is contrary to our nature as humans.

Afterall, it is very human to be tribal and parochial, to divide human life into a case of us and them. Those whom we identify with, those whom we care about, those whom we know and trust are part of us; and everyone beyond the boundary line of us is them. And whilst we might acknowledge a kind of general intellectual principle that we should treat them the way we would want them to treat us, nonetheless, it is a very human impulse to regard those who are “beyond the pale” of us (however defined) as not really deserving or worthy of the same kind of regard or treatment that we naturally extend to those we identify as “one of us”.

And yet, love your enemies – it messes with their minds, also messes with our minds; because it runs profoundly and deeply contrary to that natural instinct to categorise. In other words, this message points us to a truth that goes beyond being a general principle or a kind of aspirational statement or “best case” scenario. It is actually part of a compelling call to a new and different kind of life that is part-and-parcel of what it means to be a person of faith living in a community of faith as part of a life of faith.  When Christ in today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew declares take up your Cross and follow me, one of the “crosses” he is pointing to is not just the Cross of his own suffering, but the Cross which we must bear in terms of walking against the stream of common public perception, of received wisdom, of conventional thinking and understanding. These are the kinds of “truths” which we assume are universal, which are part of our common human heritage, and which turn out instead to be products of culture and society. And accommodating them is part of the compromise we often feel we need to make in order to “get along” with others.

But Jesus calls his disciples into something different. And in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he is calling the community to whom he writes to something different as well. The context of Paul’s letter to the community in Rome is one of conflict. Paul elsewhere in his letter indicates that he was preparing for a missionary journey to Spain[1]; but he has in the meantime received news of the divisions and conflicts that have consumed the community in Rome. And so he is writing to them personally, ahead of a hoped-for visit to Rome itself. Now, as it turns out, he makes that journey to Rome under circumstances quite different from those he was planning. He is arrested, and as a Roman citizen he appeals to the Emperor, and is transported to Rome under arrest for his trial[2]. But the Letter to the Romans is written before those events, when Paul was planning on doing other things.

Nonetheless, it is a very delicate and potentially explosive situation into which Paul is stepping. The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that, during the reign of the emperor Claudius, the Jewish community in Rome was expelled from the city as a result of disturbances concerning a certain “Chrestus”[3]. Now, most scholars are of the view that “Chrestus” is a Latin (mis)transliteration of the Greek Christos – Christ[4]. And the conclusion which the scholarly consensus draws from this passage in Suetonius is that the Jewish community in Rome was deeply divided over the question of whether or not Jesus was the “Christ”, the promised Messiah who fulfilled the Jewish Scriptures. Clearly, some followers of Jesus had arrived in Rome at a relatively early date, and as with other Jewish communities within the Roman Empire, their assertion that Jesus was indeed the Messiah was a matter of considerable controversy. But if Suetonius is to be believed, the conflict within the Jewish community in Rome was more than just a theological disagreement resulting in an exchange of angry words; it must have resulted in a social disturbance of such significance that it not only came to the emperor Claudius’ attention, but also resulted in him issuing a decree of banishment against the Jewish population of Rome.

So, the situation in Rome is one of significant conflict. Now, it appears that by the time of Claudius’ successor Nero, the Jewish community in Rome has re-established itself – but the divisive issues remain. This is the community to whom Paul is writing.

What, then, does Paul say to this situation of conflict? In a manner reminiscent of that church message board, Paul tells his audience to love their enemies because doing so will be like pouring hot coals upon their heads! In other words, it will mess with their minds! But aside from that little bit of practical cynicism, Paul’s message to this community is a radical and profound one. He is saying to them that the Cross of the Jesus whom they claim to follow, the Cross which he took up, was the Cross of love. It was a Cross that symbolised his preparedness to sacrifice himself for the sake of the very people by whom he was being sacrificed. This was a Cross that was not an expression of imperial or religious or social power, but was an expression of the powerlessness of love in the face of evil strength – but a powerlessness that nonetheless overcomes precisely because it slips between the cracks of conventional thinking.  It does not conform itself to the modes and forms and structures of power which society and its received wisdom declare to be authoritative. In its helplessness and its powerlessness, love triumphs.

And love triumphs precisely because it stands in solidarity with human suffering. I once put up a sign on our own notice board – which I lifted from social media, as so much is these days! – which declared: solidarity is the political name for love. And that is what solidarity indeed is: it is about standing with the powerless and the helpless, in our powerlessness and helplessness to change their situation, as an act of love, knowing that we make ourselves vulnerable to oppressive power in the process. But it is this vulnerability and helplessness that ultimately triumphs and overcomes, precisely because it does not operate according to the rules of power or the standards and conventions of social and political normality.

Paul is addressing this community in conflict and dispute and instructing them not to exchange barbed words, or insults and threats, or respond to oppressive power with oppressive power. Rather, they are to respond with love, with blessings, with kindness and hospitality, with care. Why? Because that’s what it means to embody the Cross, to be a community of faith embedded in discipleship to Christ. We give up power and control and authority for the sake of love. And in doing so, we move from the centre to the margins, to stand in solidarity with those on the margins whom the centre oppresses.

But we cannot do that in any meaningful and substantive way if our own internal life is riven by the same kind of conflict and dispute that is characteristic of what is happening in the wider world. Now, that is not to say that as Christians we are obliged to agree with each other all the time, that we are somehow obliged to paper over differences as though they somehow don’t exist. Being Christian – as I have pointed out more than once in the councils of this church! – is not a matter of being “nice” to one another in the anodyne, whitewashing sense of the word. We will disagree with each other precisely because there is much at stake; and our disagreements will indicate the importance of taking seriously our faith and the questions of what it calls us to. But what Paul is reminding his community – and reminding us today – is that when we disagree, when we are in dispute, we need to embody a mode of disagreement that defies the conventional understanding of what the point of being in dispute is about; which is not to win, to triumph over our enemies, but to hold the fact of disputation in tension with God’s unconditional love for us all. For if we understand that God loves each and every one of “us” unconditionally, then God loves each and every one of “them” unconditionally as well. Even the people who hurt us, or oppress us, or who commit crimes against us – God loves “them” as unequivocally as God loves “us”. Therefore, even our disputes must embody and characterise that difficult and uncomfortable reality.

And we have this in the church today. On top of all the other worries and concerns about the state of the church, and the standing of faith in the world, we have the necessity for love to characterise our disputes and disagreements in the particular example of the present proposal to change the Marriage Act in Australia in such a way as would enable same-sex couples to marry. For example, a number of my ministerial colleagues are involved in a group who are advocating on behalf of the “Yes” campaign, and who have established a social media presence for that purpose. And it takes six of them to moderate that forum, for the sole purpose of deleting the flood of abusive messages they receive and blocking the perpetrators from accessing the site again. On the other side of the question, it seems to me that no-one can make any kind of case for the “No” campaign, no matter how reasoned or principled, without being immediately labelled a bigot or a homophobe. And in both cases, this behaviour is coming from people who claim to be Christians – never mind what’s going on in wider society!

The attitude to which Paul is calling us, however, is somewhat summed up in something which I saw on social media this morning. A ministerial colleague put up a post saying the latest item of hate mail they had received had informed them that they were “hellbound” – and that they thought this would make an excellent personalised numberplate for their car! Instead of turning people’s anger and abuse back on themselves, we can disarm it. Humour is one way. But love is the way to which we as Christians are particularly called. And it’s not easy. And sometimes we won’t live up to that standard. Even Paul acknowledges this when he tells his audience to live peaceably with one another insofar as it is possible. Paul doesn’t demand of us that we be perfect, any more than God does.

But we are reminded that we have a calling. And that calling is to disarm the powers of hatred and aggression and abuse with love. Helpless, vulnerable, powerless love that nonetheless overcomes all other powers and principalities, precisely because it derives its strength from the Cross that is a symbol of love for all the world.

 

[1] Romans 15: 22-29

[2] Acts of the Apostles: 25: 7-12

[3] Suetonius, The Life of Claudius, 25. (trans. Catharine Edwards); see also Acts 18:2

[4] MacCulloch, Diarmaid A History of Christianity. London: Penguin Books, 2010, p.159

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