“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. 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: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:16-21
Our Anglican Fathers saw fit to place before the Church the whole of the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and this Sunday completes the task. The text today manifestly switches our gaze from the Body of Christ to the world, the society, the nation, the community in which we, as a parish, have been planted. Epiphany I presented St. Paul’s insistence that right worship, orthodoxy, not only is the worship that please God the Blessed Trinity, but right worship also forms our interior lives as baptized individual persons as well as collectively 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. Last week we saw that 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…”
This last section of Romans twelve answers the question: How should the Church and her children behave in the world that does not share our horizon — a world that is frequently alien and even hostile to our horizon? We share as much as we can Jesus’ horizon and as we grow into Christian maturity our personal and parochial horizons expand to include more and more of Jesus’ horizon. 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 into forgetfulness of our true state of being: If we are members of Christ we are also “every one members one of another.” That is our true state of being. Members of Christ and members of one another. Paul is underscoring the reality of both the Body of Christ and the reality of the individual Christian who is, as it were, a member of Christ. Both are important: the union of the Body and the integrity of what we call the individual human person. As we saw last week, to not think of one’s self to highly may begin by realizing 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, the Church and that is specifically, really and truly known in the parish. Remember that what St. Paul could assume to be true for the Romans is true for us as well in this little parish: Christian parishioners, side by side at one another’s baptisms and the 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. This is what I am saying: 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 the parish there was no more than a few dozen people scattered throughout a city with a population close to 1,000,000 people. Christians were not a people with any power or wealth. 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. 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. Even so Christians were mostly invisible and when Christians were noticed they were considered wacky and weird — not good citizens, but not really a menace the Caput Mundi — the Capital of the World, or even the Top of the World.
Urban life for Catholic parishes and their families was a life 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 same words, shared by Romans were saturated with Roman virtue not Christian. We think of the faith and the faithfulness of Jesus or the piety of Mary Magdalene, but as Roman virtues, 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 Roman 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 — with all the weight placed on one’s outward reputation, rank and influence. Dignitas is entirely focused on the external and it has nothing to do with one’s interior life. 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 the 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 only world for just about everyone else in 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 mythological names and poems about Roman gods, goddesses, as well as moral lessons and obscene stories. Still each time the Christian child began a new page he drew a cross and Chi Rho. Consider the fact that several of the Christians named by Paul in Romans sixteen are named after pagan gods or writers.
“Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not…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…”
The way of life that Paul is insistent upon for Christians is exactly the kind of behavior that would make no sense what-so-ever to the pagans of Rome because it lies 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 those who mistreated and crucified him, but rather he prayed for their forgiveness and he blessed them and he loved them. To a Roman such a response to mistreatment was a sign of weakness and such weak behavior would cover 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, as distasteful as it may actually be, 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. It is also unmistakable that Paul wants the Christians in Rome to avoid hiding out in ghettos and rather to be Christian in word and deed. And the same can be said for taking up caring relations with the weak, the poor, and the powerless. Such behavior, intended or not, dishonored Roman virtues and scorned Rome’s illusion of power. A culture war? Yes, but not one in which we intend the destruction of another culture. 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.