January 26, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
There are very few things in life that are more satisfying than getting back at someone who has wronged you. I mean, the taste of that justice is sweet. Like balance has been restored to the universe. Or even if you don’t actively get back at someone, it’s hard to get really upset when your nemesis suffers something unfortunate. What goes around comes around, after all.
A few years back, someone wrote something pretty nasty about me. As a pastor, you kind of get used to people telling you what you’re doing wrong and how you can do things better. But this one went above. It was insulting and demeaning and petty. It stopped just short of insulting my mother. I was mad.
So what to do? I sat down, opened Microsoft Word, and started my rebuttal. And it was great. It was witty, it was snarky, and matched insult for insult. I also proved my own point beyond a shadow of a doubt, at least in my own mind.
But then, before I hit “Send,” I stopped and thought for a moment. My response would probably just bring out another response, maybe even worse than the first. And then would I need to respond again? Would that really make things right, or would it just make things worse? Then, a thought popped into my head. Although now that I reflect on the situation, it was probably less a thought than it was the working of the Holy Spirit. I went into the church and I prayed for him. By name. In fact, it wasn’t just a little prayer. I prayed the whole service of Matins: I sang a Venite and a Te Deum, I read the appointed readings for the day. I prayed the morning Collect for grace.
I never hit “Send.” But I do have that file saved on my computer. It’s a reminder for me to stop, refocus, and look to the goodness of God when I encounter evil. Because my natural inclination is still to repay evil for evil.
Today’s epistle presents one of the most difficult calls to action (or perhaps, calls to inaction) in the entire Bible. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
St. Paul’s teaching is a corollary to Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 6:36–48).
Jesus preaches a challenging word, that justice looks very different in God’s kingdom than it does in the world. In the world justice is repaying good for good and repaying evil for evil. But the kingdom of God inverts the schemes of the world. Not only are we called to tolerate evil people, but love them, pray for them, feed them, give them a drink. What would it look like if the Democrats and Republicans in the middle of impeachment hearings would live like this? What would it look like if Christians in the world lived like this?
We’re starting National Lutheran Schools Week today, and you can see some literature in your worship folder about the things that come along with it. But I want to highlight for you the theme verse, which we’ve been revisiting throughout this school year. It’s a verse from another one of St. Paul’s letters: 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
That’s a tall order. Rejoice always? Pray without ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? This is every bit as challenging as St. Paul’s call to overcome evil by doing good. And they are not unrelated. In fact, rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks is precisely the key to overcoming evil with good. It’s the key because it defuses our default sinful reaction and desire to get justice by our own work, it breaks the cycle of repaying evil for evil, and refocuses us on the goodness of God—the goodness by which He overcomes our evil.
St. Paul quotes one of the Proverbs about doing good to your enemies: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” That’s Proverbs 25:21–22. And it really does work—if you’re genuinely good to people who hate you, it’s worse for them than if you plot some extravagant revenge.
But the point of doing good shouldn’t be to “heap burning coals on their head,” as if we’ve discovered an even better way at getting back at people by doing nice things. St. Paul is not inviting us to be passive-aggressive.
I mentioned in my own personal story that stopping to pray was not a thought that came to my mind naturally or by some rational conclusion. Rather, I point to the work of the Holy Spirit that day—the Spirit who moves people to do some pretty peculiar things, like sing a Te Deum when someone insults you.
It is the Spirit, in fact, who is the principle behind overcoming evil by doing good. See, that’s the way God does things. The evil of our sin, of our rebellion, of our skewed sense of justice is distilled down and crystallized in the event of the cross. All of humanity’s evil focuses on the goodness of God’s Son and puts Him up on a cross to mock and jeer until it’s dead. But in His very last act on that cross, the Son bows His head and gives up His Spirit, and the greatest evil the world has ever seen is transformed into the world’s greatest good.
The same Spirit that Jesus exhaled from the cross and again on the day He rose from the dead now animates the peculiar people that we call the Church. You received that Spirit when a minister of that Church heaped cool water on your head and baptized you into the name of the One who overcomes evil. Baptism is a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, and the life of the Baptized is a life of the Spirit, a life of resisting evil and doing good, because the greatest evil has already been overcome by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So rejoice; pray; give thanks. Because
The Evil That Is Done to You (and That Is Done by You) Is Overcome by the Goodness of God
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
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