Reading: Romans 12:9-21
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 honor. 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.
So easy to skim over this reading as just another laundry-list of motherhood-and-apple-pie statements about being nice people. Love others, be good to your neighbour, be kind to strangers ... yada yada yada. So easy to imagine it's all just variations on the basic homey advice to "be nice."
Until we remember the community to which these directions are written.
And how radical and challenging were the kinds of relationships being formed in that community.
And the tension between the life of this new community, and the life of the city around it and of the empire of which that city was the capital.
The Christian community in Rome was an anomoly not always well-received by the city around it. In Rome, everything in life -- everything you could be, everyone you could associate with, whether you could even own anything, where you stood (or knelt, or grovelled) in society, what rights you had (or, more likely, did not have), whether you could ever advance anywhere at all -- depended on citizenship and status, race and religion, gender and family connections.
It was a rigidly divided society, with firm lines drawn between different classes of people, clear rules about who was equal (and not equal) to whom. And the Christians were a little community that dared to be different. Out of shared commitment to a radical outlier named Jesus of Nazareth (whom Rome put to death), in the church people of all kinds came together with no regard for the rules of separation and distinction that most people around them never even thought to question.
With that in mind, we begin to see how challenging some of these directions were to follow.
We can begin to imagine concrete situations where it must have taken deep faith in Jesus and the support of other Christians to live out the gospel way, and how the way of the Christian community would have put its members at odds with their neighbours outside the faith.
And we begin to see also why it was so exciting to be Christian. And maybe one of the reasons why as many people of all kinds were attracted to the faith and to the new community, as were.