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Sermon for Ordinary 22 Year A

The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good

For the past few weeks it seems as if we’ve carefully been avoiding Paul’s letter to the Romans with its somewhat seemingly complex theology and synthesis of many of Paul’s major arguments.

Underpinning the book of Romans is the great doctrine of justification by grace through faith which emphasises our inability to achieve our own salvation.  But in today’s passage there is a change in emphasis from what we are not able to do to what we are able to do, or at least, what we should be able to do. 

Even so it appears they are extraordinary demands given the trying circumstances of the recipients of his letter, mainly Gentile believers in Rome who were right in the centre of Roman rule and civilisation, and probably significant persecution.

They were asked to live out their faith in a way which was commensurate with what they professed they believed. 

It’s not even as if Paul is asking the Christian community to be great heroes or martyrs, or to demonstrate great courage, for which at least they might get noticed.  Paul just asks the believers to practice love and respect, patience and perseverance.  Day in day out. For the long haul.  To be overtly hospitable, even to their merciless enemies and to see others as more important than themselves.  To dedicate themselves to the service of Christ with conscientiousness and eagerness.

Not that they will be thanked for this – in fact, the more they show these qualities the more they will differ from the society around them, and the more likely they are to be persecuted, misunderstood and disliked.

After Paul’s complex earlier theology at first glance in this passage it looks like we have been left with some relatively simple dos and don’ts.  How complicated can that be?  Even if they are hard to live out in the circumstances in which we find ourselves surely we should be able to manage what we are being asked to do here.

But Paul is not just giving us some simple rules for life which are disjointed from his earlier discussions.  What he’s talking about is the victory of good over evil and therefore a continuation of all he has been saying in the book of Romans.

Above all he says, and perhaps the key to understanding the passage and the link with what has gone before is that the readers (and us today) are not to be mastered by evil and the spirit of the age in which they find themselves, but to overcome evil with good.

Paul points out that it’s the way this is implemented is the way in which those people who profess the Christian faith live out their lives.  It is nothing less than the way and theology of the cross at work in the world

We know in Peter’s discussion with Jesus, which led to such a stinging rebuke, Peter wanted Jesus to by-pass suffering but that was not the way it was to be.  Peter saw the cross as an end to life, not the beginning.  Jesus was to turn things upside down for Peter because Jesus, more than any other, overcame the greatest of evils with the ultimate good.

It wasn’t the normal way of working.  Of calculating balances and rewards.  It was total self-sacrificial love,

Jesus showed through His life that His way was about selfless, overflowing, self-giving love.  Meeting others where they are and offering blessing and peace, not vengeance and retribution, safe in the confidence that the God of the cross (and the burning bush we read about in our Exodus reading (Ex 3 v 1 – 15) had triumphed over evil.

And he calls us to live the same way.  Doing unremarkable things which bring about remarkable outcomes as lives are changed and Christ is revealed.

Both Paul and Jesus understood how easy it is for us to get deflected away from living out the way of the cross.  To get caught up with all that is going on around us, to be overwhelmed by world events and powerful forces.

That’s why Jesus demanded obedience from His disciples.  Left to our own devices we’d easily get side tracked.  To live out the way of the cross, the way of service, love and obedience, of forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life we need the empowering of God’s Spirit in our own lives if we are truly to work with Christ to overcome evil with good.