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 twelve and this Sunday completes the task. 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 is remedial — it is God’s instrument of salvation as well as 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…?
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. The world knows nothing of an authentic Christian horizon and to live as Christians in this world we must be attentive to that fact.
“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…”
We forget: If we are members of Christ we are also “every one members one of another.” Paul underscores the reality of both the Body of Christ and the reality of the individual Christian who is a member of Christ. 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 and lived in the parish. Christian parishioners, side by side at the birth and baptisms of our children; 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 –- all that is the working out of our baptism — Paul says being members of the one Body and members of one another has 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 souls scattered throughout a city with a population close to 1,000,000 people. Christians had no power or wealth. Christians were invisible, non-entities. 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. Around 110 when the house churches began to grow and plant more parish churches. 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. Our words “faith” and “piety” and other words have a Christian meaning, but those very same words, shared by Romans were saturated with pagan meaning. 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 put being a Roman citizen first. 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 pagan family. Stories of Roman gods and goddesses, religious and civic festivals and liturgies were the pedagogical tools for the formation of civic and family virtue in the pagan world.
How could the parish churches of Rome and her children flourish in a world so different and so hostile to basic Christianity? 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 looming in Rome. Christian parents who wanted the best for their children, if they could afford it, acquired the only education available in pagan schools. There is a Christian child’s school notebook of the forth century that has been uncovered. 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 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.
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 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, that response to mistreatment was a sign of weakness that covered one’s self with shame. Virtues that we admire like humility and forgiveness, from a Roman point-of-view are downright immoral. But no matter! For Christians, wishing evil upon the person who has harmed you, much less actually doing harm, 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. Christian behavior, intended or not, not only dishonored Roman virtues, but it brings scorned to 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.