Trinity 11 - 'Overcome evil with good', a Letter to Rome

A sermon preached by Martin Carr at St John's Holland Road, 31 August 2014

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

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the western world’s foundational texts, the literary bedrock of theologians from Augustine to Anselm to Luther and Barth, yet, like many seminal works, it is probably more frequently appreciated than read. ‘A reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans’ has been the refrain of our New Testament lesson for many weeks past, and will be so for many more, but what have we learned so far from it? When I was a student at King’s my advanced Greek class focused on chapters 5 through 8 of the said epistle, and for a whole term we worked word by word and verse by verse through Paul’s thought world, teasing out the contrasts of law and faith, flesh and spirit, freedom and bondage. By the end of it all I had hoped to be an advanced Pauline scholar, but in fact I was more confused than ever. So my question today is the same as back then; what on earth is this celebrated yet convoluted letter all about, and why has it had such an influence? To coin a phrase from John Major’s government, I think we need to go ‘back to basics’ if we are to have any hope of profiting from Romans at all.

So let’s ask three questions: what was Paul’s situation when he wrote this letter, why was Paul writing to the Romans, and what was his message to them?

Firstly, Paul’s situation. Most of the information we have about Paul’s life comes to us from the Acts of the Apostles, supplemented by biographical vignettes contained in Paul’s letters themselves. After his conversion on the Damascus road, Paul had a period of reflection and learning, before departing on his first missionary journey in Asia Minor, what we would now call Turkey. On this journey he founded new Christian communities, made up of some Jews, but also, and often mainly, of non-Jews, Gentiles. The first journey was swiftly followed by a second; this time Paul crossed into Macedonia and then down into Achaea, modern Greece. On this journey he founded communities in Philippi and Corinth, as well as debating in Athens. On his third missionary journey, which in reality was more pastoral, he revisited many of the churches he had founded, spending longer in teaching and debate, particularly in Ephesus.

Paul’s reputation was growing, but also, as with his Lord, so was the opposition to his teaching. Paul now conceived a bold but dangerous plan. He would return to Jerusalem with a monetary offering for the poor in that City, after which he would depart to Rome, the capital of the empire, and then onward to virgin territory, Spain and the west. It was Paul’s ambition to peach Christ not only in the east, but across the known world. So leaving Ephesus Paul made a final journey through Greece and Macedonia en route for Jerusalem, and it is here, probably in Corinth in 55AD, that we find him as he pens his magnum opus, the letter to the Romans.

So on to our second question, why write at all if his plan was to visit on his way to Spain? In short, we do not know, as so little is certain about the Roman church and its situation, and most theories about Romans tend to beg the question by first posing a hypothesis and then interpreting the letter through its lens. But a few things we do know. Unlike the churches of Corinth, Philippi and Galatia, communities which Paul had founded, the Roman Church had an independent non-Pauline origin. So Paul needed to introduce himself and establish his authority ahead of his visit. It also seems certain that Paul wanted the practical support of the Romans in his Spanish venture – would he have hoped for money, provisions, advice, even travelling companions from Rome to accompany him? Again we can’t be sure, but Paul certainly wants to arrive among brothers and sisters who will understand his thought, and assist his ministry.

So as he writes his letter to the Romans from Corinth, ahead of a journey which he hopes will take him first to Jerusalem and then on to meet the Romans themselves as he sets out to preach in the west, as far as Spain, we turn to our third question, the one which so eluded me as I struggled with the details of the Greek text; what was Paul’s message to the Romans?

In our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah we read his: ‘I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.’ Though the letter to the Romans goes on for 16 chapters, Paul’s message boils down to something similar to Jeremiah’s – there is one God who dwells with his people, and is their Saviour. And this God is faithful to both Jew and Gentile in his promise of salvation, which has been assured through the death and resurrection of Christ.

Here in chapter 12, today’s reading, Paul issues a rule of life for the Roman community, a set of ethical imperatives. Though he was not the founder of the Roman church, he is not shy in setting a benchmark for moral behaviour. In verse 12 he exhorts them to patience in suffering. Now for the Romans, this would have had special poignancy; during the reign of Claudius, many of the community had been expelled from the city following a disturbance. Their lives were marked by fear and displacement on account of their faith. But where there is suffering, Paul assures them, there is also hope if they persevere in prayer.

And finally, Paul lifts his ethical symphony to its crescendo. There is no room for wrath, that belongs to God alone. Echoing Jesus’ words, enemies must not be hated, but fed and watered as their needs demand. ‘Do not be overcome by evil’, he concludes, ‘but overcome evil with good.’

Our world, just as that of Jesus and Paul, is one where evil can sometimes be seen to triumph. In our gospel, Jesus is realistic about his prospects: a life of supreme and unbounded love is not without cost. There are those who then as now deny the all-embracing quality of God’s compassion – they would rather kill in the name of their God than open themselves to a love which goes beyond the strictures of their own religious and nationalistic interests. Paul too in his turn would suffer the same fate, hated for a message of inclusion which the religious zealots saw as blasphemous and the authorities as politically dangerous.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’, says Jesus. Paul was committed to this radical path of suffering discipleship. As he prepared to journey to Rome, he knew that pain and hardship were a consequence of the gospel message. As is so clearly shown by the witness of the Christian people of Iraq, Egypt or Syria in our own day, faithfulness is not without cost.

Paul never reached Spain with this message, his journey ironically ended with his own death in Rome, the city which was to be his stopping off point in his westward travels. But through others the gospel did reach Spain, and then travelled northwards to reach these shores. We are the heirs of Paul, because it is our vocation to proclaim God’s liberty to all creation, to celebrate the hope which Christ gives us of freedom from death and pain, and to welcome into our community all God’s children. Though we may face a hard path on the way of the cross, we also have the assurance that in dong good, evil is already defeated, and love has triumphed. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice