November 8, 2020
Grace to you and peace in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The words we read from Romans today are challenging. Paul writes to encourage God’s people but his words can be overwhelming:
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another… be fervent in spirit… rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer…”
That’s just a small portion of the first three verses. His list goes on and on.
Listening to his words it’s easy to feel exhausted. To feel unworthy. Paul’s list is overwhelming and leaves us wondering, “Where do we start? Where do we point our attention?
Let’s say you were to take one a day and really work on that one. So, for Monday, you take “Let care be genuine” and all day, you try to demonstrate genuine that. Passing by someone you say, “how are you doing?” only this time you stop to listen and then you respond to what’s going on in their life. Real care is more than the words of a casual greeting. It involves action and interaction, genuinely experienced and genuinely expressed.
Tuesday you move to “Abhor what is evil.”
If you were to do this for every one of these exhortations, it would take you almost a month to get through the list, spending only one day on each, and assuming that you could actually do it. Paul’s list is overwhelming.
I think Paul was trying to overwhelm us, not with commands about what they had to be doing, but with a glimpse, just a glimpse, of the kingdom of God coming alive among us. Paul is not setting out a twelve-step program to “build the better spiritual you.” He is revealing the varied ways in which God is at work in the world. Paul invites us to consider that vision in our small corner of this vast and evil world.
I. God’s Kingdom Comes Not with Brutal Force but in Self-Sacrificial Action:
The city of Rome was overwhelming. Think of what it was like for the early Christians there. Rome was considered the center of the world. Its public spaces were filled with monuments, arches and images honoring military victories and the imperial family. There were temples for worshiping not only gods and goddesses but even past leaders who were now proclaimed to be gods.
Consider the Altar of Peace. It was a monument built on the Field of Mars. This space was once used for military training but at the time of Paul’s letter, it was the site of much building activity. This monument to peace was built and dedicated about 13 years before Jesus was born and, in just a few years, Nero would have an image of it stamped on a coin. It was a monument that captured the glory of Rome and the imagination of her people. It invited people to participate in a much larger story. The story of power and glory leading to peace in the Roman world.
Surrounding the altar were walls of marble, beautifully decorated. At the top of these walls were human figures carved into the marble. These figures were not small. They were life size, towering over you, as you looked up from the ground. They were also very realistic. People you could identify, people within living memory.
On one side was a panel of Roman senators and priests. On another side was Caesar Augustus, leading his servants and family in procession up to the altar. Through his military victories, he had established Roman peace and now invited all people, those in the past and those in the present, to live in the glory of Rome.
The Altar of Peace invited Romans to live in the world of imperial power. They were to trust in Rome’s military might and service to the gods for the establishment of peace. If you looked closely, within the panel, there were even small children, from different nations, suggesting that all nations would come to worship at this altar and live within the power and the peace of Rome.
Now imagine being a Christian, living in Rome, surrounded by such images of power. It would have been easy for the early Christians to question the power of God. They were gathering in small house churches. They didn’t have political or military strength. They didn’t have a system of colleges and seminaries for training pastors. They didn’t have libraries of theological texts defining the Christian faith.
They didn’t even have what we know as the New Testament. They had the Old Testament Scriptures and the proclamation of the apostles, including this letter from Paul. Surrounded by images and temples of the imperial cult, the Roman Christians may have wondered about the kingdom of God. How could the kingdom of God come in a place like Rome? And when would they know that they were experiencing it?
For these Christians, the apostle Paul paints an overwhelming picture. He gives them a glimpse into the ways of God. Paul would agree that there was a war going on, a conflict that threatened the lives of God’s people. His list includes the figures of war. He speaks of the enemies of God’s people, tribulation, persecution, lies, gossip, and evil that needs to be abhorred. Yet, surprisingly, Paul does not call for aggressive military action. He does not celebrate massive military victories. He calls the people to service. Paul writes, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Which can seem easy to say when you’re not the one being overwhelmed by the evil of others.
Paul knows that the hope of the Christian lies not in the figure of Caesar Augustus but in Jesus Christ our Lord. The one who overcame and defeated evil. The work of Jesus for our salvation was not a triumphal march toward victory through the streets of Rome. It was a journey of self-sacrifice ending in Jerusalem. In the Gospel reading Jesus speaks of His passion. Here, He gives us the story of God that saves the world.
I don’t know if you have ever seen Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. That movie is extremely violent and graphic in the way it depicts the passion. It reveals that the power of Rome was a powerful force. Behind the marble displays and the beautiful monuments to peace, was a brutal power and system of punishment that stripped all enemies of human dignity. Hidden within that brutality, however, was the self-sacrificial work of God. It is that one small story, not walking in triumphal procession through Rome, but making its way through the streets of Jerusalem, that is our source of peace and hope.
Gibson’s movie has one scene that captures this vision of God and the sacrifice of Jesus that brings peace. It isn’t in Scripture, so Gibson has taken some poetic license, but it does reflect Scripture and what God is teaching us by faith to see. It’s that moment when Jesus speaks to His mother Mary on the way to the crucifixion. Jesus is bloodied and beaten. He is carrying His cross through the crowded streets of Jerusalem. He falls for the third time and Mary, His mother, reaches out as if to catch Him. Her mind is filled with images of the past. She remembers Him running to her in the streets of Nazareth. These images of the past only make the present more painful. She realizes that this time she cannot catch Him, she cannot save him. This day her Son is going to die.
When Mary reaches out to Jesus, Jesus stops and reaches out to catch her with a word. We have a moment where we see Jesus. His face bruised and bloodied. In the background is the cross. But His eyes are gazing at us with wonder. He turns to His mother Mary and He says, “Behold I make all things new.1”
When Mary’s mind is filled with images of the past, Jesus offers her a promise of the future. When Mary’s heart is breaking over the end, Jesus comforts her with the new beginning. When Mary sees death, Jesus reveals life. Jesus teaches Mary to see this horrible destruction as God’s most creative act. God is in control and at work for the world in the self-sacrifice of Jesus.
While Rome flexes its military muscle and the religious leaders implement their deceptive strategies with lies and contempt for anything holy, God’s people may give in to despair and give up their hope. But then we remember God is in control. He is at work in the world.
Jesus walks through the streets of Jerusalem to offer His life as the one true sacrifice that forgives all sins, for all people, for all time. In Jesus is our source of peace with God and hope for the world. This is the peace that Paul knows and proclaims. This peace isn’t something that we only look back at, remembering an event in the annals of history. Paul invites the Roman Christians, and you today, to live in this now, as you experience the kingdom of God.
II. God’s Kingdom Comes Not with Massive Military Victory but in Small Seemingly Insignificant Actions:
What does such a life look like?
In the Gospel reading, Jesus turns to His disciples and asks that they follow Him.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
We know these words. We’ve heard them before. Some of us have committed them to memory. Many of us have sung them in hymns. But what does it look like to live them? What does it mean to take up your cross and follow Jesus?
This is what Paul shows us in his letter. Notice the type of things that Paul celebrates in his list. For Rome, it took massive military campaigns to lead to the building of this monument. Rome had begun its conquest of the Spain 218 BC. It took 200 years of fighting and infiltration until they could finally declare victory under Caesar Augustus and celebrate that victory in this massive altar to peace.
The list Paul offers contains no massive military victories. Instead, it celebrates the small, seemingly inconsequential ways of God. Caring for the needs of the saints. Taking notice of the lowly. Offering truth among a storm of lies.
The Romans carved figures of leadership into marble and made them into gods as a way of celebrating peace. God forms His kingdom not with stones but with flesh and blood. He takes you as His people, washes you in the waters of Holy Baptism, fills you with His Holy Spirit and brings you to life. His work may not be noticed by the world. It may not be celebrated as a major turning point in history. It may simply be a moment when you rejoice with someone who rejoices, or weep with someone who weeps. This is a working of God. A real life tangible expression of God’s Spirit, at work in our world, bringing about a different kind of peace.
When encountered as a list of exhortations that come over us all at once, these words can be confusing and challenging. We don’t know where to start. But when encountered as a community, a way in which God’s Spirit works through flesh and blood in this world, these words are comforting and encouraging. They open our eyes to see the ways in which God is near us, very near us in daily life.
Once you hear these words from Paul, you begin to see God at work among His people. The vision, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant, can bring you an eternal joy. Consider the pastor who went to the hospital to visit a parishioner. She was in the last stages of cancer, heavily medicated, unresponsive, but he went to sit with those who weep.
When he rounded the corner he was surprised by what he saw. Her daughter was there at the foot of the bed. She had taken the sheets and thrown them back and was putting lotion on her mother’s body, starting at the feet. This was some expensive lotion. More than the daughter could afford. As he walked into the room, the room smelled beautiful. The daughter gave him a mischievous smile and made him promise not to tell her children. Her kids had given her this lotion for Mother’s Day. “Because you never do anything for yourself,” they said. And here she was, putting that lotion on her mother’s feet. Her mother was unresponsive. She wouldn’t know the difference, but the pastor did. That day, he saw a vision of the kingdom of God. Not carved in marble but formed in flesh and blood. Immersed in suffering. Yet alive in love. Mother and daughter. The giving and receiving of mercy. Surrounded by death and dying, yet living in an act of selfless love.
This is the vision Paul invites us to see this morning. You can go see the Altar of Peace if you want. You will need to catch a flight to Rome and go to a museum. Once there, you can stand in the stillness and coldness of that room and look at this monument, this celebration of the power and the glory of Rome. At the time, it challenged the Roman Christians. It offered a vision of peace and glory in the power of Rome. Now, the monument is a relic. A museum piece. An object of art. The victories it celebrated, the empire it served, the peace it promised, these are all gone.
The vision of God that Paul wrote about, the kingdom of God that came in Jesus, the peace of God that His Spirit works among His people, these remain. Paul wants you to see God alive and at work today in you life. To do that, Paul doesn’t need to take you to a museum. He invites you to look around you. Here, God is at work. He has called you in Christ Jesus to be His people. He has forgiven the repentant among you and made you His own. And He will stand victorious over those who bring division, deception and discord, He works in you, and through you, by the power of His Holy Spirit. You can see God at work. Not in great stories of massive military might but in small stories of self-sacrifice and everyday acts of love. In these ways God continues to work in our lives, leading us all in holy procession to that day when He will return and bring to earth His heavenly kingdom that will have no end. Amen.
1Isaiah 43:19 and Rev. 21:5