Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
Our Anglican Fathers saw fit to place before the Church the whole of Romans chapter twelfth and this Sunday completes the task. The text today manifestly switches our gaze from the Body of Christ to the world, the nation, the community in which we, as a parish, have been planted. St. Paul insists that right worship, orthodoxy, not only is the worship that please God, but right worship also forms our interior lives as baptized persons as well as forming our life together in the parish. Worship may, by the grace of God, become remedial, corrective in the sense that worship is God’s instrument for our salvation and for our perfecting in grace. Orthodox worship is a matter of parishioners gathering around a specific altar in a specific parish church. Our lives are gathered up, collected, re-collected over and over again around a common altar where we worship Christ our God and where Christ comes to us in the Holy Communion. And this is the perfect image and the perfect instantiation of our participation in Christ:
For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another…?
If the first part of Romans 12 answers the questions, “What is Orthodox Worship and how are we made One in Christ,” this last section answers the question: “How should the Church and her children behave in the world that not only does not share our horizon, but is frequently alien and hostile to our horizon?” A literal horizon is the limit of my vision from a specific point of reference. Looking out from the great window behind the Altar I can see just so far and the end of my vision is the end of my horizon. If I climb to the top of the Bell Tower my horizon will enlarge the higher I go. The higher you ascend, the wider and deeper your horizon. Your personal horizon is the limit of your vision, your knowledge, your loving, your caring and your valuing from a specific point of reference — that point of reference being you. It is your horizon. What I know, how I know, what I value, what I really care about, all my potentialities and possibilities are integrated into my personal horizon.
We share as much as we can Jesus’ horizon and as we grow into Christian maturity our horizons expand to include more and more of Jesus’ horizon. Christians cannot circumscribe, draw a circle, around Jesus’ horizon, the Church’s horizon and then draw a different circle around our everyday life and treat them separately, as though one has nothing to do with the other. And as we make Jesus’ horizon more and more our personal horizon that very movement knits us together and fosters our growth corporately and individually. The world knows nothing of an authentic Christian horizon and to live as Christians in this world we must be attentive to that fact.
First, we would all do well to notice that our first inclination in interpreting St. Paul is probably wrong:
Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink…
I am pretty sure that most of us read this from an individualistic point-of-view and thus we are liable to lapse back into forgetfulness of our true state of being. We forget: If we are members of Christ we are also “every one members one of another.” If we have been baptized into Jesus’ humanity and participate in his life, we also are, in a manner of speaking, baptized into one another and there we participate really and truly in one another. No one is merely an individual person, an individual monad that is a center of consciousness and moral potential. We are not persons except as we participate in Christ and thus participate in one another. Both are important: the union of the Body and the integrity of what we call the human person. Earlier St. Paul wrote not think of one’s self to highly and the way we accomplish that is to realize that I am a member of you and you are a member of me and that is our reality as members of the Body of Christ, and that is specifically, really and truly known in the parish. Christian parishioners, side by side at one another’s baptisms and the birth and baptisms of our children and the baptisms of new converts; side by side one another worshiping the Blessed Trinity in the Holy Communion; and in a manner of speaking side by side one another visiting a homebound parishioner, providing meals for new moms and dads, or caring for the poor, and the sick –- it is because of all that — that Paul’s talk of being members of the one Body and members of one another had ultimate meaning for the Romans and it continues to have ultimate meaning for us. Christians live out their lives as parishioners both within the parish and in the world. We are never merely individuals, we are always, through the grace of baptisms, “members of Christ and members one of another.”
When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans that parish was no more than a few dozen people scattered throughout a city with a population close to 1,000,000 people. Christians had no power or wealth. Christians were invisible, non-entities. One or two families, probably merchants, had personal wealth and Paul mainly addressed them when he wrote of the gift of giving riches. Furthermore, it is fair to assume that during his 2 year stay in Rome, Paul ordained apostles, which office eventually came to be called the episcopate or as we say, the bishop. Certainly by the year 90, about 35 years after Paul wrote the epistle, each house church had a bishop and assisting priests who’s job was to preach the Apostles’ doctrine, to celebrate the Holy Communion, and to oversee the care of the poor, the sick and the widows. Still not many Christians. That is approximately what it looked like in Rome until around 110 when things began to change rapidly with lots of growth in the house churches, significant cooperation and sharing between the little parishes, and a common, centralized treasury that each parish contributed to for the aid of Christians inside and outside the city. Still Christians were mostly invisible and when Christians were noticed they were considered strange and weird — not good citizens, but not really a menace to the Capital of the World.
Urban life for Catholic parishes and their families was immersed in the Roman ancestral tradition in which the Roman family, the nursery of Roman virtue and the most basic building block of Roman society, was ruled by the paterfamilias. Roman ancestral virtue meant everything to the citizens of Rome – to be a good man or a good woman was to be a good citizen and a good member of one’s family. Our words faith and piety have a Christian meaning, but those very same words, shared by Romans were saturated with Roman virtue not Christian. They had very different meanings. We think of the faith and the faithfulness of Jesus or the piety of Mary Magdalene, but as a Roman virtue, faith is the trustworthy, reliable Roman, a family man who may be relied upon to be a Roman citizen. The virtue of pietas which was understood as religious duty and filial piety. Gravitas was the virtue of dignified self-control. Dignitas – the upshot of all virtues — was the sum of the man’s reputation and personal influence, accrued through out his life of service to the city and the family. These civic virtues were concretely represented by specific Roman gods. Stories of these gods and goddesses, religious and civic festivals and liturgies were the pedagogical tools for the formation of civic and family virtue.
How could the parish church and her children, the one Paul wrote to, flourish in a world that does not share Christ’s horizon especially since there is no escaping that very antagonistic culture? After all Christians still had to work for a living, buy food at the market, when Christians were taken ill they needed a doctor, when a Christian died he has to be buried somewhere, and children had to be educated, mentored in a trade or profession, and one day have their own families and their own children. There was no way that Christian parents could insulate their children from the pagan world, which was the looming world of Rome. Christian parents who wanted the best for their children, if they could afford it, acquired the only education available in pagan elementary, grammar, and schools of rhetoric. There is a Christian child’s school notebook of the forth century. In his pagan classes the child has recorded poems about Roman gods, goddesses that the Romans considered to be moral lessons, but from a Christian point-of-view were obscene stories. Still each time the Christian child began a new page he drew the Cross of Christ his Savior.
The way of life that Paul is insistent upon for Christians is exactly the kind of behavior that made no sense what-so-ever to the pagans of Rome because it was far beyond their horizon. Being baptized into Jesus means dying with Jesus as well as rising to a new life with Jesus, a new life that involves imitating and internalizing his way of life, his horizon. It is easy to see that Paul essentially takes Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount and assumes that we not only can, but we must to live accordingly.
Paul is concerned that Christians behave toward their pagan neighbors in a manner that may be summed up as an imitation of Christ and for Paul one’s behavior is an external signifier, a sign of one’s very real interior life. But the important point is that we imitate Jesus the Messiah who did not curse but rather he prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. And he loved them. To a Roman such a response to mistreatment was a sign of weakness and such weak behavior covered one’s self, one’s city, and one’s family with shame. From a Roman point-of-view it was considered immoral. But for Christians, wishing evil upon the person who has harmed you is simply irreconcilable to following Jesus.
Further more Paul says that Christians should not pursue power alliances but rather the Christian ought to pursue affiliation and caring relations with those from whom you think you have nothing to gain. That sound just as ridiculous today as it must have sounded to Romans back then. But it isn’t ridiculous, it should be for us a way of life. Such behavior, intended or not, dishonored Roman virtues and scorned Rome’s illusion of power. But please remember this: St. Paul was not setting out to bring down Roman culture; he was rather setting out to be faithful to Jesus the Messiah and that is our mission as well.
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink… Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.