“Aliens” – that’s the line we were in at customs. It felt strange and awkward. We didn’t belong, we were there temporarily, and our standing was negligible, we were treated with suspicion. If you’ve ever been to a foreign country, you’ve been there. Strange customs, foreign language, out of place – Peter wrote to Christians who felt out of place –
1 Peter 2:11-12 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
God’s people have always been called to live in a counterculture.
• We speak a different language (we use words like righteousness, holiness, surrendered, lordship),
• We live different lifestyles (with qualities like purity, compassion and forgiveness),
• We live by a different agenda (values like others before self, serving rather than being served, treasure in heaven rather than riches on earth).
There is a great movement in modern American Christianity today – seeker-sensitive churches. Their watchwords are relevance, consumer-oriented, marketing strategies. The push is to become relevant to the world around us, and folks, while that sounds good on the surface, I’m not sure that’s entirely possible without losing our unique identity as God’s people. We don’t fit in, nor will we, without giving in and selling out. We will always be resident aliens – dwelling in this world, with our citizenship in another. While Jesus sends us in to this world, we are not to be of this world.
When we become Christians, we change citizenship – Col. 1:13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
We renounce our worldly citizenship to become citizens of God’s kingdom. Suddenly we are thrown into a culture with different values, a different language and a different agenda. There are some differences that simply don’t make sense, that don’t feel natural, that are more than a little awkward when lived out in public.
At first, Romans 12:9-21 would seem to be a random collection of exhortations – do this, don’t do that – another list of arbitrary rules. But when you start looking at Romans 12 through cultural lenses, you find yourself looking at a primer on this new culture. How do God’s people act, what are some of those differences between a Christian and the world? What makes you distinctive from the people around you who do not know Christ? Read Romans 12:9-21 - Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I thought about lumping this material in with ch. 13 and dealing with it in a very general way, but the more I read it and thought about it, I realized this is really the nuts and bolts of Christian living. Too often we tell folks to be righteous and then send them off to figure out what that means. Well, this is what it means on a practical level. This is what righteousness and holiness look like when you step out your front door and interact with people. It’s how you treat your family, your co-workers, your friends and your enemies. And the remarkable thing is that, for the most part, they are exactly the opposite of how the world says to live life. It is “upside down” living.
Let’s just start at the beginning and listen to Paul’s very practical instructions on how to live a godly life in an ungodly world.
Love must be sincere. The world says, when you’re in a relationship, hold back, don’t trust, never let your feelings show, don’t let yourself be vulnerable or you can be hurt. Love is selfish and temporary. Use it as a commodity to get what you want. When it has outlived its usefulness, move on.
When the Bible describes love it is always the heart of God’s nature. It is the motivation out of which he does everything he does. Love is permanent and self-sacrificing. It pours itself out without regard for what it will cost and is unconditional in its giving. Paul says, never quit loving and let your love be genuine and sincere.
Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. This is an especially difficult call from Paul in a society that is constantly changing definitions of good and evil. How similar to Isaiah’s day – Isaiah 5:20 “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Regardless of how this world tries to redefine evil by reframing homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle, or abortion as freedom of choice, or premarital sex as no-strings attached, or pornography as adult entertainment, they still remain sin. And simply because they become fashionable and accepted in the world in which we live, it cannot change how we view them, because we see them through God’s eyes and we see how Satan enslaves and destroys lives – and we hate it.
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. We live in a temporary, society. Relationships are disposable. Rather than working through problems, bearing with each other’s weaknesses, we cut ties and move on. Paul calls us to permanence and loyalty to each other. When you are devoted to one another in brotherly love, it’s not because you always see eye to eye and have everything in common. It goes deeper than feelings and preferences. Devotion means you stick with each other through thick and thin, better and worse, and you hang in there with each other even when you’d rather leave. God loves faithfulness.
Honor one another above yourselves. That doesn’t fit in a world that says look out for number one, promote yourself, get yours even if you have to tear someone else down to get it. It’s tough to rejoice with someone else’s achievements and celebrate their accomplishments when you feel like you deserve it more. But Jesus says to take the lower seat at the banquet table; serve rather than be served; deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Even in the middle of talking about how we treat people, Paul brings us back to spiritual roots. How we live is not just a matter of good politics and humanism – it is based first on a relationship with God. Not a casual Christianity, but a spiritual life filled with excitement and purpose. These are strong words Paul has been using – love, hate, cling, devoted, zeal, fervor. You can’t sleepwalk through life. You can’t sit passively in the pew. God calls you to action, and to pour yourself wholeheartedly into his work. Solomon said it this way – “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. There aren’t many things that are quite as distinguishing as these three. These are the acid test of Christianity. All the correct doctrine and orthodox words don’t substitute for what you do when you are faced with difficult circumstances and suffering. The world needs/longs for joy, hope, patience and faithful prayer. These three really talk about our perspective on life. We may be surrounded by difficult circumstances, confronted by suffering and persecution, beset by unmanageable crises – but because we are in Christ we can look beyond them. Instead of despair, we have hope – instead of panic, we display patience – instead of turmoil, we have peace in prayer.
Share with God’s people in need, practice hospitality. How do you respond to other people’s needs, where are you when it’s someone else’s crisis? The world looks at the needs of others and says, “it’s the government’s job.” We look at needs and we ask “what can I do to help?” When someone brings a need before us, we dig deep and we meet those needs. Hospitality has come to mean inviting your friends over for dinner. In the first century, hospitality was not towards friends, but strangers. It was to the traveler and the needy that hospitality was extended – those who really had no means to repay your generosity. And today, hospitality means when a stranger shows up in our midst, we take them into our homes and treat them like family.
Skip vs. 14 for a moment…
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. The world says don’t get involved. We don’t want to think about other’s successes because it reminds us of our own failures. We surely don’t want to be where there is mourning because we don’t want to think about our own mortality. Paul says the Christian gets involved up to his neck in the lives of others. We care about the joys and sorrows of brothers and sisters as if they were our own. We don’t just shout encouragement from the sideline, we get down in the pit and struggle with them. We share such a powerful connection with each other that our lives become one – as Paul will write to the Corinthians about our relationships in the body, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
Live in harmony with one another. We live in a litigious society that sues over everything imaginable. We are taught to distrust and keep our distance. We build tall fences and keep others out. And we don’t do too much better in the church. Historically, we’ll fight and divide over nearly anything. Paul says, “Live in harmony” – You create, you initiate, you be responsible for building good relationships with those around you. You be the one who reaches out in love to those around you. Be more than a peace keeper, be a peace maker.
Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. How many different ways does Paul need to say what he said in vs. 3 “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” Pride is at the heart of every other sin, because pride is the choice of self over God or others. Pride separates people and divides the church. Pride polarizes factions and promotes controversy. Pride sets us up for Satan to knock us flat on our faces. Peter writes, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
Now, back to vs. 14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Then go to vs. 17 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’” Paul has some crucial instructions on how to live in a hostile world. This world acts on the principle of revenge – eye for an eye and tooth for tooth – hold a grudge, don’t forgive, never forget. The world is litigious, selfish and greedy.
Jesus’ promise that the world will hate you because it first hated him is unavoidable. Jesus’ admonition to turn the other cheek and respond in kindness to those who are evil is absolutely unimaginable. But that’s exactly what Paul calls us to do – if you are wronged, do not repay evil for evil – don’t take revenge. Instead, befriend your attacker and repay their evil with kindness. Instead of a curse, respond with blessing.
And in the process of responding in kindness, Paul says, there is an ironic sense of satisfaction you get. Because the nicer you treat your enemies, the deeper it wounds them, and the more satisfying the revenge. And in that process, who knows but that you might change their heart.
Have you noticed in all of this? Paul never tells us to shrink into the background and hide in our church buildings. He doesn’t tell us to take a passive response to the world, but rather to actively, even pro-actively meet the world head on with a counter-cultural response.
Illust – The World Doesn’t Change
Did you see the front page headline in the Boston Globe? “ENERGY CRISIS LOOMS.” Well maybe you missed it – that was the headline on Nov. 13, 1857. The subheading read, “World May Go Dark Since Whale Blubber So Scarce.”
Or perhaps this newspaper editorial, “The world is too big for us. Too much going on, too many crimes, too much violence. Try as you will you get behind in the race. It’s an incessant strain to keep pace. You still lose ground. Science empties its discoveries on you so fast you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment. The political world is news seen so rapidly you’re out of breath trying to keep pace with who’s in and who’s out. Everything is high pressure. Human nature can’t endure it much more.” That appeared on June 16, 1833.
One last word of encouragement from Paul. If you’re waiting for the world to get better, don’t hold your breath. You will always be an alien here. Paul tells us, “Be different. Take the initiative.” Jesus would say, “Be the light of the world, be the salt of the earth.” Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
An ancient rabbinic story tells of a holy man who lived in a wicked city. Every morning this holy man would go out to the gates of the city and shout back in through the gate condemning the wickedness and begging for the city to repent. The other men would sit at the city gates and laugh and ridicule the man and tell him what a fool he was. “You’ll never change the city,” they shouted out at him. And the holy man responded, “I don’t expect to change the city – I just don’t want the city to change me.”
You are in this world, but you do not have to be of this world. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.