I’m really excited that we got to read the second half of Romans 12 today. I didn’t get the chance to talk about it last Sunday, when we read the first half of this chapter, but Romans 12 is actually my favorite chapter of the whole bible. There’s so much good stuff packed into it.
This passage that we read today is particularly special to me, because it’s the first passage of scripture I can remember ever being captivated by. It came up in the lectionary when I was in my last year of confirmation, right around the time that I was starting to think about what my verse was going to be.
I actually ended up choosing the last three verses of the chapter as my confirmation “verse” – and to refresh your memory, that’s the part of the chapter that goes like this:
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.Romans 12:19-21
Haha, it’s not necessarily the kind of scripture that you would expect most confirmation students to choose for their confirmation verse. Those kinds of verses tend to contain a lot less wrath and vengeance, and burning coals – which is the one part my family still remembers to this day. But for me, choosing these verses was a really powerful statement of faith.
And that’s because, when I was growing up, I was bullied a lot. The concept of having “enemies” wasn’t at all abstract to me. My enemies were the people who made fun of me because of my weight and my glasses and my clothes, because I would rather read or draw than play sports, because my mom was a teacher, and then later because my mom was dead. My enemies were the people who made sure that I came home from school in tears almost every single day.
Reading these verses made me realize that I had a choice. I could choose to be consumed – understandably – by bitterness and wrath. I could choose to seek vengeance for the suffering I had endured – or at the very least, to hold a grudge! Or I could choose not to let myself be defined by what others thought about me. I could choose instead to be the person that God created and called me to be – a tender-hearted person full of compassion and creativity and hope. I could choose to overcome evil with good.
This is the choice that Paul is encouraging his readers to make from the beginning of this chapter, which we read last week (and which was actually read two years ago today at my ordination!).
In verse 2, Paul writes:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:2
Paul knew that followers of Christ are called to stand apart from the ways of this world, to choose to follow a different path. God calls each of us into a life of goodness – the kind of life that Paul is describing in our second reading – a life that’s marked by love and honor and compassion. We are called to imitate Christ – knowing that there’s a lot about the ways of Christ, about the ways of God, that this world just doesn’t understand. And that’s why there is often a strangeness, even an otherworldliness, to people of true faith, especially in times of crisis. And that’s something we see playing out in both our first reading and in our gospel reading.
In our first reading, we see just a sliver of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet whom God had called to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem to the people of Israel. You can imagine that this did not exactly make him a popular guy. And in this passage, Jeremiah is – understandably – complaining to God that his people are persecuting him, saying to God, “remember me and visit me… know that on your account I suffer insult.”
But Jeremiah also confesses that this ministry that God has given him has transformed him and given him joy. He writes:
Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.Jeremiah 15:16
And in turn, God reassures Jeremiah. God promises to deliver Jeremiah and to give him the strength that he will need to stand apart from the crowd and speak the truth. God promises to make Jeremiah like a “fortified wall of bronze” and tells him, “I am with you to save you and deliver you.”
In our gospel reading, Jesus also experiences pushback from people who do not want to hear what he has to say. And this time, it’s from his own disciples. The disciples have seen Jesus do astounding things, like walking on water and miraculously feeding thousands of people – twice! They have heard and believed Peter’s bold declaration that Jesus is the Messiah – but it’s pretty clear in this passage that they don’t fully understand what all that actually means.
So from this point on, Jesus starts to tell his disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah. Yes, it means that he will conquer death itself – but before then, it means that he will suffer… and by extension, so will they. It means that he will be persecuted by the people who should have supported him, and ultimately that he’ll be killed by the powers of empire.
The disciples don’t understand this at all. They have seen the kind of power that Jesus has – power that could probably crush their enemies! Power that could do a lot more than heap burning coals on their heads! The disciples don’t understand all this talk about suffering and dying and rising. But Jesus strongly rebukes Peter when he protests and he makes clear to the disciples that he is deathly serious about this. They need to know what they’re in for. And he tells them plainly, if you are serious about wanting to be my followers, then take up your cross and follow me.
Jesus tells them that those who want to keep their life will lose it. Those who care more about worldly things like comfort and privilege and wealth than about imitating Christ will forfeit their lives, even if they gain the whole world. But, he says to them, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that following him will not be easy, but he promises that it is a path that will lead to life.
What all of this means for us at the end of the day is that being a true follower of Christ ultimately means being kind of a weirdo. We are called to put Christ first, before all else in our lives or in this world – and putting Christ first often means that Christians end up acting like, well, weirdos. I don’t mean to say that being followers of Christ automatically makes us enemies with everyone and everything in the world – it doesn’t; I mean, God created everyone and everything in the world! But what it does mean is that Christ is first on our list of priorities, and that fact shapes the way we live.
Taking up the cross and following Christ means being willing to make sacrifices. We are called to imitate Christ’s self-giving love for our neighbor, and that often means sacrificing our own comfort, at the very least. That’s true of the situation we’re living through now with this pandemic. Imitating Christ and loving our neighbors right now looks like: following the guidance of public health officials to wear masks and to practice physical distancing and to stay home when we can, especially to protect health workers and students and teachers and all the people in our community whose labor puts food on our tables.
None of this is comfortable. None of this is the way that any of us likes to do things. And certainly none of this makes us very popular in our communities. I have heard from many of you who faithfully wear your masks in public how uncomfortable and difficult it is to be one of the few people – or the only person – wearing a mask in a group of people. I hear you. After all, our congregation is one of the few congregations in the area that is still worshiping primarily online. And it’s because we made a commitment to love our neighbor by following guidelines from the CDC and from the ELCA. Right now, this is what it looks like to take up our cross and follow.
When life gets hard, following the way of Christ doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it tends to get a whole lot harder. But what we see again and again in these scriptures is that God’s got our back. God knows very well just how hard it is to walk the path of discipleship, and so God promises to give us the strength and the persistence to keep at it – all we have to do is ask. In God, we will always find the strength and the courage we need to stand apart from the world and, yes, to be weirdos for Christ.