“Faith Formation Amidst Covid 19: A Coach’s Speech to the Christian Life (3 of 4)
Romans 12: 9-21 ~ Rev. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ August 30, 2020
Our lives are very far from normal yet; however, I am among the many who rejoiced with the return of our favourite sports to television. Basketball, baseball, soccer (or what true fans call ‘football’), and hockey are among the sports now being broadcast. What has been so odd has been to watch these athletes compete with an absence of fans. They have tried to replace the energy that live fans bring…some leagues have covered up the seating to mask the cavernous reality of the stadium; others have had cardboard cutouts of simulated fans, but the players report that it has not been the same. The game commences and there are no fans singing the national anthem, no fans cheering when a play is made, there is no energy for the athletes to draw upon. As I think on this new reality for sport, it has created a whole new challenge for the coach. As you know, it is customary for the coach to offer some words to the team as they prepare to head out and play. The coach motivates them, challenges them to be their best, calls them to reach for the next level and outdo previous performances. Under normal circumstances, the job of the coach is a challenge; however, under present circumstances, the coach’s job reaches new heights. I got to thinking about the job of coach as I was studying this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans because, understood properly, I think that is exactly what Paul is doing. Paul is coaching the Christian community on the specifics of living the Christian life. What a challenging task before him, indeed!
To back up a little, we have been pondering the nature of faith formation amidst the unique pandemic time in which we live. Our environment shapes and moulds us. It can do so in a positive way for our faith, or in a detrimental one. From my various conversations and observations of these past 5 ½ months, I have seen this time to be one which holds the potential for tremendous faith growth, as we have reading through Paul’s letter to the Roman church. And so, we started two weeks ago, first considering a foundation of faith formation…mercy. We considered the grace found in mercy offered by God as a key building block to our faith formation. As we mirror this way of God in our living, our faith further forms in the ways we have been created to be. Last week, we considered an extension of that mercy in terms of sacrificial living as we explored Paul’s unique term of the “living sacrifice”. Rooted in merciful ways of living, one expression is the offering of sacrifice that leads, not to death, but rather to the flourishing of new life. This morning, we move into our third Sunday exploring faith formation amidst Covid 19 and we move into some specifics. Paul’s locker room pep talk, how we are to live, what we are to say, what we are to do? This is the topic of the later half of the 12th chapter in Romans. Paul only offers 23 imperatives, so we should get through this under two or three hours… (just kidding)
Having spent the first eleven chapters explaining the radical nature of God’s gracious love that extends to Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Paul now moves to how we are charged to live in light of that genuine love. I wonder which ones stood out for you? Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 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. 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.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The first two commands stood out for me. “Hate what is evil”. This is an interesting approach to evil isn’t it? Hatred is something which we generally are taught to avoid. Yet, here, Paul is charging the follower to have a strong reaction against evil. “Hate what is evil.” Hatred leads one’s action away from evil, to avoid evil, to actively work towards its destruction. There is no passivity when it comes with hatred. It inspires action, movement and momentum towards the eradication of evil. This is a challenging call that Paul proclaims. Is it one that we can hear and action?
Paul’s command to “hold fast to the good” also stood out for me. The verb used here is akin to the way two partners hold fast to each other in a loving relationship like marriage. To “hold fast to the good” is about clinging to, supporting, and nurturing “the good” in ourselves, the good in others, the good in the world. We know that what we surround ourselves with has a deep influence upon us. Do we allow “goodness” to influence us and grow in the communities in which we are a part of? Another very challenging call that Paul proclaims, indeed!
The most challenging part of Paul’s words, for me, came towards the end when Paul deals with vengeance and seeking justice. Paul teaches: “do not repay anyone evil for evil”, and a few verses later, “never avenge for yourselves.” I don’t know about you, but many seem pleased when wrong-doers ‘get what they deserve’. It seems to be the basic formula for almost every action movie ever made when the bad guys ‘get what’s coming to them’. Aristotle argued that justice is when people get what they deserve. The embodiment of justice, for our neighbours to the South, is the blindfolded woman holding a set of scales in one hand and the sword of justice in the other. Justice is to be impartial, detached, fair and potentially punishing. Yet Paul challenges this approach. Instead of “repaying evil for evil”, he counters that we are to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Instead of “avenging for ourselves”, we are to “leave room for the wrath of God.” We don’t generally like to speak of God’s wrath, yet isn’t there a sense in which the universe does balance itself. Could leaving room for the “wrath of God” be that of leaving room for the universe ~ which is the unfolding nature of God ~ to (one day) correct itself. Could “leaving room” be that challenging call to not judge, to not take matters into our own hands, to live with grace…and leave things up to God ~ the One who’s wisdom created and continues to? Paul continues after this challenge to punitive justice to the ways we are to treat our enemies: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them: if they are thirsty, give them something to drink….don not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Challenging, challenging words indeed! Yet, how could coaching people to live the Christian life be anything but?
Paul wrote these words almost 2 millennia ago to a very different time and a very different world. We receive them in 2020 amidst a global pandemic. A world filled with uncertainty, fear, and distress. How do you receive Paul’s guidance on the Christian life? How can Paul’s words be lived right now? Some of the actions that we have, and will, take will be ones which are deeply informed by our faith. In fact, our actions will have a circular effect in that they will further deepen our faith growth.
A few thoughts that I have about living Paul’s words…The grace that is shown as we give people social distance is a spiritual practice that honours the other. Walking around them on the sidewalk, giving them a ‘virtual hug’, finding ways to be ‘virtually’ close when we need to be distant are a few examples of Paul’s words exercised. How can Paul’s words be lived right now?
Wearing a mask is another such action. Medical experts say that the mask protects others far more than it protects the individual wearer. In many settings, the wearing of a mask is still optional. When we choose to wear it, it is an act of love; it is an act of compassionate care. It is a sacrifice we make for the larger community. How can Paul’s words be lived right now?
There is a deep need for understanding and grace in these disorienting times. Everyone is ‘off’ these days, they are not themselves, we all have shorter fuses. The grace and patience we can offer others is yet another way that Paul’s words are lived out. How can Paul’s words be lived right now?
Aside from the many challenging words that Paul offers, there was one that was incredibly supportive. Paul writes: “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you live peaceably with all.” I love his inclusion of this reminder that while we each have a responsibility to do what we can, it doesn’t ALL depend upon you. We could not begin to live out these words on our own; however, we must try! We must try (as Paul writes) “as far as it depends on you” and turn the rest over. We turn it over to living body of Christ, we turn it over to the generations that will follow, we turn it over to God’s power.
There was a powerful story that came out of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In front of a court, a man confessed to the shooting of a young man. 18 years later, he and the secret police returned to the young man’s home, forced the wife to watch, as he shot the father. The horrified court sat in silence as the judge asked of the wife “what would you like to see done to this man?” The woman, a grieving widow and mother, said softly, “This man has taken away from me all I had. But he has not taken away all of my ability to love. I want him to gather up some of the dirt from where my husband was buried. And I want him to visit me twice a month.”
Living the Christian life is filled with pain and tears, grace and growth. May we follow the one whose cross shows us the way to the eternal matters in life, and allow them to be made manifest here and now.