Trinity XII Proper 17 Year A 2020 Romans 12:9-21
As a young teacher I was given the job of instructing a group of thirteen-year-olds in map reading and orienteering skills. At the end of the course, which involved learning how to use a compass, a colleague and I took them out for a night under canvas on a disused airfield. Once it was fully dark, we set them the final test – navigating by compass bearings at night. The first bearing took them away from the camp, and then a succession of bearings mapped an irregular circuit around the site, with the last one bringing them, in theory, back to their tents. For the next hour, the colleague and I sat and watched as distant torches flickered in a many directions, most of them wrong. The cries of the lost filled the night air. In the end, we turned on the headlights of the school Land Rover to guide them back to camp. We had given them detailed directions, but most of them had not been able to establish a sense of direction.
That night came to mind when I read Professor A.M. Hunter’s commentary on today’s passage from the Epistle to the Romans. He points out that Paul sketches out a general pattern for Christian living:
“a compass rather than an ordnance map, direction rather than directions.”
Paul’s compass points unwaveringly towards Jesus. If you study the passage you will find echoes of the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier in the letter he had emphasised that Christians are justified – re- established in relationship with God – by faith in Jesus Christ, not by “works of the law”. Some years ago, a professor in a Lutheran seminary in the USA, asked his students this question:
“Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?”
It’s a question that confronts all Christians as we face different situations and challenges. Paul’s answer is “point your compass towards Jesus.” He offers no detailed set of rules of conduct. Instead he suggests that Christian behaviour should be rooted in a special sense of what it means to be human. To be human, Paul argues, is to be made in the image and likeness of God and also to fall short of that, to be a sinner. By giving his readers a compass pointing towards Jesus, he is telling them “Look how much God loves you, but not just you, all of humanity. Therefore, you must love one another; not just your fellow Christians but also your fellow human beings. All of them. Without exception.”
This inclusive approach to Christian living is very open-ended and that is why it remains relevant almost two millennia later as we face situations and challenges that Paul never envisaged. He knew from experience that Christians can disagree heatedly among themselves about issues of morality and church order. That remains true to this day. Paul tells us that such disagreements must be negotiated in the light of the Christian imperative to love one another.
He then suggests that if your compass points towards Jesus, your love should extend beyond the Christian community to those outside it, even to those who are hostile to it. The Roman Christians lived in a very precarious situation. Many of them, together with Paul himself, were to fall victim to a vicious persecution ordered by the Emperor Nero. Nevertheless, Paul urges them not to cut themselves off from society, but rather to engage with their neighbours, to empathise with them and not to fall into the trap of feeling superior to them. He warns of the danger of seeking revenge, of entering into the power struggles that result from that, of trying to get even rather than working to achieve justice. That warning speaks directly to the dangerous and divisive situation in the United States, where the struggle for racial justice has led to violence.
It speaks also to the divisions in our own society, the disagreements about politics, racial justice, and gender identity. Spend a few minutes on Twitter, experiencing the anger that is expressed about such issues, and you will be reminded just how counter-cultural Paul’s suggestion that we should blessing those who curse us is. We live in an era of “Cancel Culture” – the tendency publicly to condemn, shame and boycott those with whom we disagree. That isn’t the Christian way, and recent academic research suggests that it is counter-productive because it is likely to entrench the beliefs of those who are condemned rather than to bring about a change of mind and heart.
Last week a Muslim woman in New Zealand showed us the power of forgiveness. Her son was killed in the Christchurch Mosque massacre. At the sentencing hearing, Jana Ezzat told the terrorist:
"I forgive you. The damage is done, Hussein will never be here. I only have one choice and that is to forgive."
The policeman who was guarding the prisoner later told her daughter that that was the only moment in the proceedings when the convicted man showed any sign of emotion; a moving commentary on what Paul meant when he wrote those puzzling words about acting lovingly towards your enemies and heaping burning coals on their heads; not to hurt them but, perhaps, to prompt a change of heart.
We are unlikely to face the kind of challenge that Janna Ezzat faced, but we all have our bêtes noires. They might be difficult work colleagues or particular politicians. Paul is not requiring us to agree with them, nor to condone their actions. He is not even asking us to likethem in the sentimental sense of that word. Rather he reminds us that we must never lose sight of their humanity, the dignity that they have as beings made in the image and likeness of God, and the Gospel imperative to love them. Point your compass towards Jesus, Paul teaches, and you’ll find that you are called to an all-encompassing love.