“God Knows” September 3, 2017
New Philadelphia Moravian Church – Rev. Joe Moore
Last Sunday, as part of his sermon series on the Word of God, Worth talked about those Scriptures that many of us find easy to overlook or would rather ignore. Books like Leviticus, with all it’s commandments and laws and ordinances; or Ecclesiastes, which despite its beautiful poetry, is ultimately a downer. And passages like Psalm 137, which talks about “dashing children against rocks.” The Holy Bible is filled with books and passages that we might wish weren’t there- passages that don’t make any sense, or those that don’t seem to have any relevance to our world today, or those that are just too bizarre for us to relate to. But it is necessary to remember that they all have their place in the Bible, they all have their own importance and significance.
Then there is another category of books of the Bible or passages of scripture that we would rather overlook or ignore. These are the books and passages that make us uncomfortable because they call us to do things that are too hard to do or require too much sacrifice on our part. Jesus was really good at calling his followers to do things like “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” or “take up your cross and follow me.” When we read those kinds of passages, we are tempted to try to explain them away as metaphors or hyperbole.
We think “Jesus DIDN’T really mean that we had to do those things. They were just examples or illustrations of the kind of things we are supposed to do, of the kind of people we are called to be.” But I don’t think that it is quite right for us to do that. I think that Jesus truly means for us to do them- to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to take up our cross and follow him. They may be difficult, they may require a huge sacrifice, they may even seem impossible. But still we are called to do them.
Jesus wasn’t the only one in the Bible who calls Christians to do something difficult. The Old and New Testaments both are filled with calls and commandments that lead us to place we don’t want to go and instruct us to do things that we would rather not do. The apostle Paul is no exception. Throughout his letters to the churches, Paul gives many instructions that are challenging at best, and some that even seem impossible. Today it’s that last verse, the very end of the passage that we read from Romans, that falls into this category. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
“Overcome evil with good? Oh, is that all? No problem. I’ll get right on it.”
Overcoming evil with good isn’t something that is very high on most Christians “to-do list”. It definitely falls into the category of those Scripture passages that we would prefer to overlook or ignore. At best, it is overwhelming to even contemplate. And at worst, it seems to be asking us to do the impossible.
Most people would say that it is impossible to overcome evil with good. And it always has been that way. The Christians in Rome in the first century, the ones to whom Paul was writing, would most likely have thought it impossible. And Christians in the United States in the 21st century can look at our world and think the same. All we have to do watch the news and we see the evil that is all around us.
At this point, I was planning to list all of the evil that we face in our world. But I decided not to, for the simple fact that we all know the evil that we are facing- the evil that we are facing as a society, as a whole, and the evil that we face as individuals. And it is all of this evil that Paul is calling us to overcome. He doesn’t distinguish between societal and individual evil. He just says to overcome evil with good.
Fortunately, he also tells us how to do that. Or at least he gives us a roadmap for how we can overcome evil with good. At the very beginning of this passage, we are told the main thing that we need- love.
It may seem like an overly simplistic idea, that what it takes is love to overcome evil, but just because it is simple, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And the love that Paul is writing about isn’t just basic, garden -variety love. He is writing about genuine love. “Let love be genuine.”
To understand what he means by this, it is important to remember the context of the statement. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a letter written to people who already believe in Jesus, who already believe that he is the crucified and risen Messiah. It is written to people who are already followers of Jesus. He is not writing to tell them about Jesus in order to convince them to believe in Jesus, to encourage them to become followers of Jesus. He is writing to them to tell them that, since they believe in Jesus and have become followers of Jesus, this is how they should live; this is how they live among themselves and live in the world, in a world that doesn’t necessarily believe in Jesus.
Paul is writing those words to the Christians in Rome in the first century and he is writing them to us today. The genuine love that is required is a genuine love for each other. It is the love that Jesus commands us to have. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus told his disciples to love one another. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus wasn’t talking about loving the whole world, he wasn’t speaking of loving strangers or loving your enemies, at least not in this instance. But instead he is commanding his followers, those who know who he is and believe in him, he is commanding them to have love for each other, to love each other with the same love that he has for them. And I think that it is safe to say that this is genuine love.
“Let love be genuine.” Or in others words love each other with the same love that Jesus has for you. When we come together as a community of believers in Jesus, as a group of followers of Jesus, our first task is to love each other with genuine love. We do that by showing mutual affection, by outdoing one another in showing honor to each other. Sadly, that is often easier said than done. For even among other Christians, it is hard to love each other.
We are all human, we all do things and say things that make it hard for others to love us. Our moments of greed and selfishness, our pride and our stubbornness, all of those things make showing mutual affection and having genuine love difficult. It’s interesting to note that Paul writes about “genuine” love, which implies that there is love that isn’t genuine, love that can be (and often is) fake love.
As Christians, we can’t allow this, we can’t have “fake love” It is our love that defines us and identifies us as followers of Jesus. I have heard it said that the congregation here at New Philadelphia knows how to love each other, that we don’t let our differences and disagreements get in the way of our genuine love. And after 11 months here with you, I definitely agree. We are able to do this because we understand that it takes work to maintain genuine love, to show mutual affection. It takes zealous and ardent service, to God, to each other, and to the community around us. It takes our being able to rejoice in hope, to be patient in suffering, to persevere in prayer. This is how we let our love be genuine, this is how we maintain our community,
And from our community of believers, from this congregation of the faithful, we can then move out into the world, we can extend hospitality to strangers, we can even bless those who curse us. Our genuine love and mutual affection for each other gives us the strength and the courage to move beyond the comfort and safety of our community and share the love of Christ with the world. It is what moves us from the internal to the external.
If it is hard for us to love each other, to love those who are most like us, it is even harder for us to love strangers, or to love our enemies. Yet that is the next step in overcoming evil with good- to bless those who persecute us, to feed our enemies when they are hungry, to give them something to drink when they are thirsty. We would much rather repay evil with evil, to fight fire with fire. We would much rather seek vengeance on our enemies and overcome evil with evil.
Now I am not saying that we are all evil at heart. I’m not saying that we want to do evil to others, that we want to hurt others. But what I am saying is that it is much easier to do unto others what they actually do unto you than it is to do unto others what you WOULD HAVE them do unto you. It is much easier to pay back what you receive than it is to pay back in love. It is much easier to overcome evil with evil than it is to overcome it with good.
And that brings us back to where we started. “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” We have seen how hard that it is, we know how impossible it seems. But the thing is, God knows it, too. God knows how hard it is, God knows how impossible it seems. God knows because God has been here, God has done that. God knows how hard it all is- from loving each other, to loving strangers and enemies, to overcoming evil with good. God knows it because Jesus has done it.
I don’t think that we pay enough attention to the incarnation, to the fact that God became human, that the Word became flesh and lived among us. Like those challenging passages in Scripture, it is something that we find easier to overlook or to ignore than to confront and deal with. Maybe it’s because we don’t understand it, maybe it’s because we can’t truly grasp its importance. But whatever the reason, the incarnation is something that we don’t pay a lot of attention to. And that is a shame because that is how God knows. It is how God knows what it is like for us to do what he has called us to do. It is how God knows how hard it is for us to be who he has created us to be.
We don’t like to really think of Jesus as human. We don’t like to think about him as “one of us.” We would rather set him apart from us. We would rather him not be “truly human.” It’s hard to think of Jesus as being angry or jealous or greedy or proud or stubborn. We would rather him be truly divine and not so human. But that misses the whole point of the Incarnation.
One of my very favorite books is “To Kill a Mockingbird” and in it, Atticus Finch tells his daughter “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This is just about the best explanation of the incarnation that I have ever heard. While it is not intended to explain what it means that God became human, it explains it just the same.
God really understands us because he has considered things from our point of view, God has climbed into our skin and walked around in it. God knows and God understands. And that gives me hope. It gives me hope that our love can be genuine. It gives me hope that we can overcome evil with good.
God, in Jesus, has done what seemed impossible. He has overcome evil with good, he has overcome death with life. And through him, we can do the same. So let us do what he has shown us, let us hold onto what he has given us. Let our love be genuine, let us love one another with mutual affection. Let us extend hospitality to strangers. Let us love our enemies. Let us do what seems impossible and let us overcome evil with good. God knows that we can. God knows.