28 July 2015

Bear With One Another - Ga 6:1-10

Bear with One Another
Galatians 6:1-10
July 19, 2015 – Kevin Rees - audio file at

How we treat those who are burdened reveals our true nature.

Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).  Jesus’ sublime invitation has comforted and inspired millions … billions … of downtrodden people since he uttered them in a dusty corner of Israel two-thousand years ago.  The fact is: living out of our own resources, based on our own wits, toward our own goals is, frankly, soul-crushingly exhausting.  There is a force of gravity ever-exerted upon the soul; a force that is never satisfied … that never says, “Okay, that’s enough.  I’m done.  Take a break.”  The universe was not designed to be this way, but when we declared to God with finality that we could do life on our own, he let us try.  However, it was not freedom that we harvested.  We reaped struggle, thorns, and death.  This weight of concern pulls us down into despair.  We all take our turn in the ring.  We all take our bruises.  But Christ arrests our tailspin.

But, aside from our own burdens, how we treat those who are burdened tells a lot about us.  How we deal with the brother caught in sin, or the sister who has sown chaos into her field only to reap catastrophe, or the neighbor who gets bludgeoned by surprise trials, or a stranger who collapses from fatigue on our front step—how we treat those who are burdened reveals our true nature.  We are not called to bear one another, to carry each other entirely, which is somewhat of a relief because we can barely carry ourselves.  But instead, we are called to help each other bear up; to help shoulder one another’s excessive burdens without excusing any of us from the responsibility to “carry our own pack.”  This is a balanced, mature, responsible call to community.

When I think of bearing the weight of the world, I cannot help but picture Atlas in Greek mythology bearing the awful weight of the sky on his shoulders.  (There is a common misconception that Atlas held up the world, but he actually was punished by Zeus, after Zeus defeated him in battle, to hold up the sky at the westernmost part of the known world giving name to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas Mountains.)  Supposedly a thousand years later, Atlas also plays a role in the eleventh of Hercules’ twelve heroic achievements which earned him deification.  Atlas’ daughters guarded a treasure of golden apples, which Hercules had to retrieve, but Hercules didn’t know where or how to get these golden apples, so he went to Atlas for help.  But Atlas, wearied from carrying the sky, attempted to trick Hercules into switching places with him and never to return.  Alas, Hercules double-crossed Atlas and tricked him right back, pretending a willingness to switch places with Atlas if Atlas would only allow him to shift the weight and find some padding.  Hercules left with the golden apples to get his reward while Atlas resumed serving his sentence of hard labor.  But neither mythic character portray the way the true God instructs us to deal with burdens and with other people who are burdened.

Counterfeits always lurk around the genuine; it is no different with our call to bear with one another.  Helping others often descends into a game of trickery and sucker-punching to see who will be left bearing the burden at the end of the day—like Atlas and Hercules, sadly, act out in mythology. 

Aware of such trickery not only in mythology but also in the church politics at Galatia, Paul leads us along a tightrope of responsible, social consciousness in the church in Galatians chapter 6.  To fall off the one side is to be like the legalist who heaps burdens on others without lending a finger to help.  The legalist sets others up to fail so that he can emerge, by comparison, with the better public reputation and social leverage.  To fall off the other side is to be like the libertarian who, while doing whatever he fancies without regard for long-term ramifications, seeks to dump his burdens on others to mop up.  The libertarian maintains a double standard of doing whatever he likes while at the same time expecting others to support him, aid him, and cover for him in his pursuit of self-centered gratification. 

But the Christian—or as today’s passage phrases it, “the spiritual one” or “the mature one”—is called to help with great discernment his brothers and sisters as they bear excessive burdens.  However there are two important caveats—(1) to help in such a way that does not short-circuit his own boundaries in the act of helping and (2) to help in such a way that does not bypass the other person’s responsibility to bear his own load.  It is a fine line that the church simply does not do well.  We tend to flip-flop between condemnation and enablement.  But the spiritually mature ones will, by keeping in step with the Spirit, help others without hurting themselves or others in the process.  Let’s walk this tightrope.

I.          Bear One Another’s Burdens (vv. 1-5)

1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.
5 For each will have to bear his own load.

Walking this tightrope is the thrust of this passage—between bearing one another’s burdens and maintaining personal responsibility.  It is noteworthy that just two verses before our passage Paul writes, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (5:25).  We can only walk this tightrope as we live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit.   Any other scenario of bearing burdens and interacting with people who bear burdens will involve some form of trickery, manipulation, and sin.

Brothers”—this is a Christian application, in the church.  But having said that, Paul is clearly dealing with very fleshly patterns in professing Christians and in nominal churches.  Nevertheless, we see the skeleton of our calling to live in community with brothers and sisters who encounter burdens.  We cannot export our burdens or our burdened people elsewhere to heal; they comprise part of our community of faith and we have the honor to walk alongside them to the glory of Christ.

If anyone”—this hypothetical scenario is very likely to be a real situation in any church—“is caught in any transgression.”  The language is that of a surprise wave of sin overtaking a brother who was trying to run to safety but was not fast enough to outrun the temptation.  In contrast to last week’s sermon in Ephesians 4 where the sins listed were habitual and prolonged, this hypothetical sin in Galatians 6 is—while not excusable—not premeditated.  Either way, great danger and damage comes in the wake of sin. 

The instruction in Ephesians 4 falls to the individual to “put off” the old and “put on” the new in Christ.  The instruction in Galatians 6 falls to the rest of the body; or more specifically to a sub-group of the rest of the body representing the whole—“you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (vs. 1).  “You who are spiritual” is to say, you who are mature; you who are walking in the Spirit.  It is up to the spiritually wise and the spiritually skillful to attempt to “restore” the sinning brother.

Remember our contrast here between the legalist, the spiritually mature, and the libertarian.  The legalist has no motive for another’s restoration; he is all about condemnation of others so that he can rise up in reputation and social leverage.  Jesus called out the Pharisees on this very point: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.  But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (Mat 23:4-5a).  The libertarian has no motive for another’s restoration either; he is all about self-gratification.  He helps no one unless he benefits from the transaction.  But the spiritually mature has the motive to “restore” his brother. 

A fabulously beautiful and rare action—to “restore”—it is not for the faint of heart, however.  It is the same verb as used for a physician to set a bone or for a fisherman to mend a net—it is a highly developed skill.  Though the attitude is “gentleness” and “humility,” the act itself is courageous.  Think some about setting a bone.  Have you ever broken a bone?  Would you want just anyone to set the bone?  Or for that matter, would you want just to leave it unset?  Of course not.  Neither option is viable.  You need a skilled medical worker; experienced, technical, wise, and yes, tender.  The alternative is potential lifelong disability and pain.  Yet, who rushes in to give spiritual advice to the sinning brother in the Christian community?  It is often the untested rookie who thinks he knows everything straight out of seminary or the self-coronated yet unmentored king in the church.  But Paul is not listing education or a strong personality here; he is listing spiritual maturity and technical skill accompanied by gentleness and humility.  Send that one in to restore a brother in sin; the one who “keep[s] watch on [him]self, lest [he] too be tempted.”

The church in Galatia, and the church today, is riddled with untested ministry leaders who stand on education or social reputation or just the strength of a loud voice and domineering attitude.  But every congregation has a few who walk by the Spirit day after day, year after year, who are conscious of their own propensity to sin yet have the mind to be their brothers’ keeper, in the truest sense.  Send those!

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (vs. 2).  While it is unacceptable to send untrained, inexperienced people to minister to deeply burdened brothers and sisters, it is also unacceptable just to let brothers and sisters founder on their own.  The one who is close to Christ will be engaged with others who are dear to Christ.  The more in step we march with the Spirit, the more restorative ministry we will see and attempt.

The language is particularly important here.  To “bear” (Gr. bastazo) is to lift up.  A “burden” (Gr. bare … from which we get our word “barometer” … that device that measures pressure) is an excessive weight that carries a negative tone, probably connected back to the brother caught aware in a trespass—like his arm is caught in the wreckage on the Interstate.  Get in there, Christian, and help lift your brother out from under this emergency spike of pressure.  Don’t be the bystander.  Don’t succumb to the paralysis of fear that you might be sucked in or burdened from getting involved.  Get in there and help lift the weight that is pinning your brother down. 

But be warned—if you think that you are exempt from trouble, beyond the grip of sin, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, please think again.  You are in danger if you help others.  It is good, but it is not safe.  Because yes, people do shoot the messenger; and they do murder the mediator.  “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.  For each will have to bear his own load” (vv. 3-5).

The setup is pristine.  Paul writes, “bear one another’s burdens” and “each one will have to bear his own load.”  On first take, it sounds like a contradiction … but it is anything but contradictory.  It is a sharp balance between being helpful and being responsible—we must have both to have a fully functioning response to burdens in the church.  To help without requiring or expecting personal responsibility is not help; it is short-sighted and unwise.  It actually hurts instead of helps.  To require personal responsibility without extending a willingness to help is, in the long term, irresponsible.  We need both in harmony.

But back to the specific language, for the words used between verse 2 and 5 are not the same—and that tips us off as to the best way to interpret this passage.  Listen for the difference with my paraphrase of verse 2.  “Help to lift up one another’s excessive, surprise burdens in life that are probably (but not always) connected to (either directly or indirectly) sin (personal or someone else’s or in general).”  Sickness.  Widowhood.  Abandonment.  Imprisonment.  Whatever.  It wasn’t planned, but nevertheless it caught a brother off guard and now he is treading water with a real possibility he might go under at any moment.  Compare that to my paraphrase of verse 5, “Each one, like a soldier, must carry his own everyday standard-issue pack.”  I will help you shoulder the extra burdens if they come up, just like you will help me shoulder mine, but you have to carry your own pack just like I have to carry my own pack.  It is not my responsibility to carry your pack for you.  It is not your responsibility to carry my pack for me.  It is our mutual ministry to encourage one another to bear up under the pressure of life, but it does neither of us a service to relinquish personal responsibilities.  The soldier mentality holds, I won’t leave you behind enemy lines, but I’m not going to rinse out your socks.  This is a mutual commitment to help each other without bypassing personal responsibilities.

II.         Maintain Personal Responsibility (vv. 6-10)

6 Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.
8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Maintaining personal responsibility gets more explanation in verses 6-10.  The first specific example is a commitment to share materially with our spiritual teachers—“Let the one who is taught the word share all good thing with the one who teaches” (vs. 6).  Paul refuses this right to make a living from ministering the gospel, but he teaches it frequently for the sake of the rest of the ministerial community that has to forsake other vocations to teach the Scriptures.  While little time is spent here on that principle—but the idea is revolutionary because in Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures religion merged with the state.  The state collected or allowed for the collection of taxes to prop up state recognized religion.  It is still the case in some modern countries.  But the Christian church never operated that way; they operated by the voluntary giving of the people of God as they obeyed the teaching of God to share. 

We will just leave Christian giving there for this morning, for Paul moves from this specific example to the overarching principle of sowing and reaping.  “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that he will also reap.  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (vv. 7-8). 

Sowing and reaping raises the question of “What?” but more specifically the question of “Where?”  What are you sowing, but also where are you sowing; which field?  In the field of the flesh or in the field of the spirit?  Are you investing in people or things?  Are you profiting from a lack of character or through an abundance of character?  And back to our “one another” of the week, are you “doing life” as a community or as a rugged individualist?  Are you leaving margin in your life so that if called upon you can help bear one another’s burdens or are you expecting others to drop everything to help you alone?

How you treat others who are burdened reveals a lot about you!  You might be able to trick the kindhearted people at church out of $30 every couple of weeks, but you can’t fool God.  You might be able to dump the ramifications of your irresponsible choices on the suckers who fill the pews, but you can’t escape God’s principle of sowing and reaping.  Yes, forgiveness comes in just a moment, but most times the consequences last.  The church is often happy to help in true emergencies, but you are responsible for your own pack.  Not blind karma—you get what you give—but the intelligent and equitable principle of sowing and reaping.  You are free to choose, but not free from the consequences of your choices.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who of the household of faith” (vv. 9-10).  Paul brings attention back around to the spiritually mature ones in the church; the ones who have probably been hoodwinked quite a few times by now in their kindhearted attempts to be loving in the church—don’t “grow weary of doing good.”  This is where we naturally drift—toward disillusionment, toward cynicism, toward the reinforced attitude of indifference that has been galvanized over and over again by charlatans in the church.  But no!  Don’t allow that current to carry you off course.  Why?  The same reason the charlatans should stop thinking that they can get away with a life of personal irresponsibility—the principle of sowing and reaping.  Doing good might not be rewarded in this life, but reward is waiting for those who sow to the Spirit in the field of the Spirit.

We don’t have to help everyone, but we have to be available to help whoever the Spirit nudges us to help—particularly (but not exclusively) inside the church.  We are not primarily social workers.  We are primarily ministers of the New Covenant who often, in following God’s lead, engage people in social work.  But we must not lose our primary calling.  Ours is not a life of reacting to need alone, but a life of responding to God by faith alone.  Reacting is exhausting.  Responding is resting.

Let me bring it all the way to the way we started, hopefully with renewed respect and admiration for the ministry of Christ.  He said in Matthew 11, and the words should have heightened meaning from our time spent in this relevant sister passage in Galatians 6: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).  Can you hear the significance?  “Heavy-laden” is the same word as in Galatians 6:5, “For each one will have to bear his own load.”  So is, “my burden is light.”  Even our own pack—our own load—which is our responsibility to shoulder Christ is inviting us to be joined with him.  He will take our load, and we will take his, which he described as “light” (unlike Atlas’s load of bearing the sky).  We are the bear one another’s burdens ONLY AS WE ARE JOINED TO CHRIST.  We are the bear our own load ONLY AS WE ARE JOINED TO CHRIST.  Christ goes where our brothers and sisters cannot go.  Christ endures even when we ourselves cannot endure.  As we are comforted by Christ’s companionship and his lightness of load, we are now qualified and empowered to repeat his ministry to us, to one another … and to our personal responsibilities.

16 July 2015

Speak Truthfully with One Another - Eph 4:25-32

“Speak Truthfully with One Another” – Ephesians 4:25-32
Kevin Rees – July 12, 2015 - audio file posted:

The truth without love is not truth; love without truth is not love.

I am not much for high fashion, but I understand that it is a huge industry.  From what I gather, teams of designers in Milan, Paris, and New York create coverings for humans in “high society,” which drive trends for the upcoming year, from which elements are copied and mainstreamed for several more years to follow.  We don’t see too much of that “high society” fashion here in West Tennessee, and I don’t think we’re missing out on much, but we still have fashion.  Of course our fashion trends carry labels like Carhartt® and Mossy Oak®—but nevertheless fashion is big business and humans need coverings. 

But on second thought, Dyersburg with its rich history as a textile town might have been much more connected to Milan, Paris, and New York fashion than I previously realized.  Many of the people I’ve met and the parents and grandparents of the people I’ve met might have helped to make some of the fabrics that crossed the desks of the designers in Milan, Paris, and New York.  Quite interesting!

Did you know that there is a whole theology of fashion in the Bible?  Well, not the kind that puts supermodels on runways with the paparazzi furiously snapping photos, but the universal need for humans to design, sew, and sell coverings for humans.  From the first fig leaves sewn in disgrace to the shining garments that clothe the Bride at the marriage feast of the Lamb, there is quite a lot of space in the Bible given to clothing.  Goliath’s impressive armor was a kind of clothing.  The tunic of the high priest was, too.  The sackcloth of Job, the rags that marked the lepers as outcasts, even Lazarus had a sort of clothing that carried theological ramifications.  Lazarus, for instance, was wrapped up head to toe with linen strips for burial.  And when Jesus called him back to life and bid him to come out of his tomb, it was these burial clothes that Jesus ordered off so that he could go free into his new life.  “The man who had died came out, his hands and his feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.  Jesus said, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:44).

How unusual—and how awful—would it have been for Lazarus to leave his death clothes on as he walked into the newness of life?  How putrid would it have been for him merely to cover those grave clothes with regular clothes and go make himself a sandwich in the kitchen?  It would be unthinkable.  “Unbind him, and let him go.”  There is nothing left for those old, putrid shreds but to burn them.  Let Lazarus free to put on new clothes consistent with new life.

Paul, in our text for today, is talking fashion; he is instructing the church about putting off the old clothing of death and putting on the new clothing of life.  It is a robust metaphor for habits of living.  However unlikely it would be in the fashion world, it is common in the spiritual world to fail to put off the old clothes of death before putting on the new clothes of life.

We have “garments” that carry significance to us; “garments” that we have worn for a long time that have grown to characterize us.  My mother gave me that.  I wear this in honor of my neighborhood.  That piece of clothing was a bid deal back in the day; to finally acquire that garment meant that I had arrived.  Tribesmen of the Maasi people, for instance, have colors and patterns in their blankets and sitting mats that identify them as members of tribe.  Scottish highlanders have kilts that signify them as members of the MacAlistair clan or the Fraser clan or the MacKenzie clan.  Gangs, too, show members by wearing colors: the Sharks or the Jets or the Bloods or the Crypts.  I earned a letterman’s jacket in two sports as a freshman.  You might have gotten a stripe or a bar on your military uniform.  You might have earned a white jacket at the hospital.  Perhaps you were able to upgrade to wearing a cap to signify that you were now management at the plant.

Our clothes are easily symbolic of our identity.  But what often happens when we are radically changed by Christ, given a new identity, adopted into the family of God is that we resist or refuse to take off our old clothes of identification, figuratively speaking, before assuming the new clothes of salvation.  We attempt to put on the new self over top of the old; which never, ever works.  We try to juggle both identities, but lose out on each.  The language of Ephesians 4, as well as Romans 6 and Colossians 3, is: “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). 

It is a garment switch, and good riddance!  Our old clothes are death, guilt, and shame—yet ironically we cling to them because of habit, because of addiction, because of ignorance, because of fear, and pride.  We both love and hate our sin the way a junkie loves and hates his dope.  But Paul is adamant—we cannot rightly wear both garments at the same time.  The new must displace the old; not renovate it, not spruce it up, not accessorize it, and certainly not camouflage it.

Worked into the heart of this garment exchange come several more “one anothers.”  One of the most prominent qualities of the new garment of the new self is our speech. “Speak truthfully with one another.”  Our language—like our garment—reveals our identity just like Jesus taught, “Out of the abundance of the heart a man speaks” (Matthew 12:34).  Our speech reveals the condition and the allegiances of our heart.  We need to put off the old ways and put on the new—not as a requirement of salvation, but as a byproduct of salvation.

So, let’s briefly examine this new garment of the redeemed life.   The pattern is established: put off, put on, and in each cycle of explanation Paul gives a reason or a ramification as to why this is so.  There are five of these cycles in Ephesians 4:25-32, and all of them are either directly about our speech habits or are closely connected to our speech habits.  (1) We must put off lying and put on truthfulness because we, as members of one another in Christ, our habits effect everyone in the church (vs. 25).  (2) We must put off angry outbursts and put on a commitment to deal with of our anger appropriately because if we don’t the devil gains a foothold in our lives (vv. 26-27).  (3) We must put off stealing and put on working with our own hands because we gain the inestimable blessing of being able to help others when we work responsibly and humbly (vs. 28).  (4) We must put off language that tears others down and put on language that builds others up because we are the conduit that God often uses to deliver grace and because, if we kink that flow, we grieve the Holy Spirit (vv. 29-30).  (5) And finally we must put off various ungodly habits of sin and put on godly patterns of life because we have been forgiven through the godly life of Jesus the Righteous (vv. 31-32).

I.          Put Away Falsehood (vs. 25)

25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

We must “put away [habitual] falsehood” and put on habitual truth-telling because, as members of one another, our habits—both positively and negatively—impact everyone else in the church.  We think that our lifestyle patterns are our own; that they don’t involve anyone else.  But that is simply not true.  Our vices hurt everyone.  Our virtues help everyone.  The entire group needs us both to forsake lying as a way of life and to adopt honesty as a way of life.  It is very important to all of us.

This verse is actually from Zechariah 8:16—Paul lifts it and applies to the church here with one Holy Spirit inspired adjustment.  In Zechariah the prophet instructs, “Speak the truth to his neighbor”—each to the face of the other in the one-dimensional sense of forth-telling the statutes of God back and forth in the assembly; this is proper and good.  In Ephesians the apostle instructs, “Speak the truth with his neighbor.”  There is a mutual responsibility to give and receive truth WITH one another in the body of Christ.  In another place Paul writes, “Instruct one another” (Romans 15:4) and “Teach one another” (Colossians 3:16).  It is for all of us to speak truth with all of us—not just the pastor, not just the educated, not just the professional.  There is a commitment we all must have to speak the truth; every member ministry.

But our heart—even in a redeemed state—is not a blank slate.  There are factors, both internally and externally, for all of us that pull us hard toward falsehood.  We have to compensate—not by trying harder, but by walking in the Spirit—to align our lives to our new identity in Christ.  We do not simply begin speaking the truth to one another.  We must first put off—like a garment—the old, selfish habits of the flesh and put on the new garment of the new life.  It is a process of displacement; for the old garment and the new garment do not coexist with each other.  There is the one or the other, but never the both.  Why is this important?  Because our lifestyle impacts everyone else in the church—for evil or for good.  “We are members with one another.”

This, by the way, is the reason I ask for as many members as I can to share in the proclamation of truth here on Sunday mornings.  It is our collective task—we are all called to speak the truth with one another—privately and publicly.  Honestly, I am finding a bit of difficulty on this.  But it is for you more than it is for me—sign up for your chance to speak truth with one another for this fall.  Making an arbitrary chart didn’t seem to work, so I am making an appeal for you to come to me if you want to participate in the services.  Don’t abdicate this ministry to others; take up the mantle yourselves.

II.         Put Away Sinful Outbursts of Anger (vv. 26-27)

26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,
27 and give no opportunity to the devil.

A second ungodly characteristic we must put away and the corresponding godly characteristic we must put on by the power of the Holy Spirit orbits around anger. We must put off angry outbursts and put on a commitment to deal with of our anger appropriately because if we don’t the devil gains a foothold in our lives.
It should be noted that all of these vices and virtues that Paul lists in Ephesians 4 are repetitive, habitual, lifestyle characteristics.  He does not have in mind the occasional lie or the reflective temper flare-up; he addresses the well-worn paths in our heart that carry the everyday traffic of life.  Each of us has learned how to “do life” apart from moment-by-moment dependency on Jesus—the flesh.  This was, when it started in our hearts, a survival instinct.  We self-protected, self-promoted, and self-soothed in a thousand variations.  These characteristics became our part of the fabric of our core identity so much so that we began to merge our idea of who we are and what we do as one and the same.  But when we were born again, we were given a new garment; a new operating system … a new way of “doing life,” based not on self, but on grace.  Yet having spent so much time in those old garments and so many years in those chains, they still hold a place in our hearts for what “normal” feels like.  So, frankly, we longingly put back on our garments of death even after coming to faith.

Anger—gets a bad rap.  It is certainly involved in the most heinous of crimes.  It has undoubtedly been the instigator of incalculable damage.  But anger itself is not sinful.  God is angry at times yet he does not sin.  It is an emotion like any other emotion; and emotion is not sinful.  However, what we do with that potent emotion can easily and quickly become sinful.  God uses that potency for righteousness.  We can, too, but most of the time we sin in our anger.  This is why Paul says, “Be angry, [yet] do not sin.”  Suppress sin, yes, but don’t smother anger.  You must control anger by the power of the Spirit working in you.  Otherwise, anger will quickly control you, steer you into sin, and cause great damage. 

Paul is warning us in particular about prolonged anger; anger that smolders and burns.  Instead of dealing with anger in a godly manner—for instance, channeling it into advocating for the weak, researching a better way, fueling a career change, or igniting prayer—we just let it burn long past sundown.  This is dreadfully dangerous!  We used to heat our house with firewood.  There was a constant task of loading and lighting, lighting and loading fires in our woodstove.  What many do not realize is that you have gallons of ash to remove.  And ash can retain its heat far longer than you might expect.  One occasion, after letting the ashcan cool off for several days—even with modest rain shower in the middle—I emptied the ashes in the backyard before dark one winter evening as I had done a thousand times.  But at 3:00 in the morning, Shellie sprang up from sleep on a premonition and noticed a long line of fire that was burning in both our backyard and our neighbor’s backyard!  Being winter, the hose was frozen … or at least slushy … and the water wouldn’t flow.  So Shellie and I, in our pajamas started a water brigade.  An hour later, Shellie and I went in, but there would be no more sleep that night.  Unresolved anger is like that live ember thrown into the leaves.  All it takes is a little breeze to stoke it to life.

Here’s the danger with prolonged, smoldering, unrighteous anger after dark—it gives “opportunity to the devil.”  It gives Satan a “foothold” into your house like when an intruder throws the toe of his boot into the door before you can latch it.  You are welcoming danger with undealt-with anger.  That is the reason we should keep short-accounts with anger.  You might think that your anger is your own business—and it is—but it effects all of us.  If Satan gets a foothold in your life, if he attacks you, then he impacts all of us.

III.        Put Away Stealing (vs. 28)

28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

Lying, improper anger, and now stealing—we must put off these habitual patterns of sin and put on the new habits aligning with life.  We cannot rightly add the garment of Christianity over our grave clothes of falsehood, unrighteous anger, and stealing.  We must break free, but how?  Not by resisting sin in our own strength—that only strengthens sin to fight sin in our flesh and out of our own resources.  We resist sin by walking in the Spirit.  “Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). 

Let the thief no longer steal”—stop this habitual lifestyle.  But don’t think of this merely as ski-masks and crowbars.  Stealing money, resources, time, trade secrets, etc.—all forms of thievery.  There is a subtle justification, even for the thief, to defend his lifestyle.  His definition of “normal” says, “I have to take care of myself because no one else will.”  In some twisted way, this feels right.  After all, who can be faulted for surviving the best way he can?  Well, we can and are at fault because God has personally provided a better way of “doing life.”  For us to accept God’s better way of “doing life” without surrendering over our former ways of “doing life” is to insult the gift of God.  There cannot be both, just like there cannot be a gospel that cuts out repentance in order to focus more on grace.  There must be a breaking away woven into our breaking through into the new life.  Paul essentially says, “Stop it, church!”  (Remember this is written to a church congregation!)  Habitual stealing is an unworthy savior; a counterfeit deliverer. 

When you steal as a way of life you are saying with your actions that God is unable to provide for you.  Put off this garment of death.  Instead of that putrid linen shroud, put on the new self that God has provided through Christ.  In terms of stealing, which must cease immediately.  The proper way to trust the Lord is to “rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands.”  Paul did not say, “Appeal to the government to meet your needs.”  Paul did not say, “Apply for a loan at the Title Max.”  No!  He said, “Let him labor…with his own hands.”   Why work?  “So that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”  The blessing of having modest margin in your finances through repetitive, responsible, hard work is a form of freedom.  You are set free from the prison of your thievery when you follow Christ into the ministry of generosity.  Takers who never give are in a self-made prison.  The key that unlocks it is generosity.

IV.        Put Away Corrupting Talk (vv. 29-30)

29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Lying, inappropriate applications of anger, stealing, and corrupting talk—we must put off these characteristics like the bystanders took off the grave clothes on Lazarus.  Stop your habitual patterns of unprofitable speech.  This is happening in the church, and Paul is saying “Cease!”

Our words are meant to be tools of encouragement but we often use them as instruments of destruction.  Think of a hammer.  The front end is useful for hammering nail; for building up.  The claw end is useful for tearing apart.  Words can we either used to build up or to tear down—to which end will we commit ourselves?  “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion.”  This is a personal commitment first, and a collective commitment second—but we must develop habits of profitable speech; speech that builds up others. 

I know of a congregation near Philadelphia that decided early on that it would, collectively, not quietly cooperate with speech patterns that tore down—displaced by an ironclad preference for speech patterns that built up.  If there was gossip or rumoring, grumbling or slander whispered in the halls (or wherever) the congregants were trained to say, “Let me respectfully stop you there.  I am really uncomfortable to speak about someone who is not present.  But I take her well-being very seriously.  Therefore, I will make a point to go to her this week with what you are saying to ask directly if that is indeed the case.  I will name names.”  Over a short period of time, there was a transformation of the collective speech patterns of the congregation. 

Why are our speech patterns so important?  “So that we may give grace to those who hear and [that we may stop] grieving the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”  We are the primary conduit that God uses to dispense his grace.  If we foul up the conduit of our speech with corrupt talk, then we restrict both the blessing of being included in God’s ministry of grace and we harm our fellow brother or sister in Christ by tearing down that which God is building up into their lives.

V.         Put Away Various Sinful Patterns (vv. 31-32)

31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Put away lying, inappropriate outbursts of anger, stealing, corrupt speech, and finally a catch-all list of various sinful patterns—these must happen as we then put on the new self.  “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”  Stop these. Cease and desist … but not just that, we must displace them with godly disciplines.  Instead, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”  Kindness is more than niceness; it is a calm and even treatment given to all.  Tenderness is compassion; a gut-level affection given to others.  Forgiveness is releasing others of the debt they have amassed against us.  Why are these new habits worth forming?  Why are these lifestyles consistent with the new life?  Because they follow the pattern of Christ—“As God in Christ forgave you.”  Everything we have been called to do, Christ did.

All of these lifestyles deal with words in one way or another.  Whether we sin with our words, or defend our sin with our words—our words reflect the condition of our hearts whether positively or negatively.    Satan is a liar, a thief, a murderer, a slanderer, a corrupt being that enjoys tearing down that which God delights to build up.  Jesus draws a straight line with his audience that the words we use show where our allegiances lie.  “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!” (John 8:44-45, NIV).  If we habitually use and rally to falsehoods, then we show that we are not vitally connected to the Lord of truth, if not still outside the household of faith; not a Christian.  If we habitually prefer to use and share the truth, then we show that we are vitally connected to the Lord of truth.  Our behavior does not earn salvation, but it shows when salvation has taken firm root.   This is a hard line, but it is a true line.  Our relationship with the truth demonstrates the condition of our heart—if we are still in need of salvation, if we are in need in repentance of returning the habitual patterns of the flesh, or if we are in fellowship with the God of truth. 

These are the two garments available for us to wear.  We can insist on wearing our grave clothes.  Or we can accept by faith the garments of life provided by Christ.  There cannot be a mixture of the two.  Put off your death clothes and put on Christ’s provision of life clothes.  And sometimes, we need each other to “Unbind [us] and let [us] go.”

07 July 2015

Live in Harmony with One Another - Rm 12:9-21

“Live in Harmony with One Another” – Romans 12:9-21
Kevin Rees – July 5, 2015 - audio file posted at

“There is nothing more irreligious than self-absorbed religion” (J. I. Packer).

Balance is hard to achieve, and even harder to teach to someone else.  Yet balance is essential.  Some of us have it automatically, but most of the rest of us have to concentrate to develop balance.  Not in the sense of feng shui or any mystical philosophy of centering the life force of the universe but in the sense of remaining composed, focused; being aware of yet ahead of pressure without being overcome by pressure.  The by-gone era of preachers used to call it gravitos—a ballast in the soul for staying on course amid the storms of life.  Balance is a skill and an art—in relationships, in spiritual maturity, in the “one anothers” to which we are called to live in the Christian life.  Balance is hard to define, but easy to identify when absent.

I remember a rather sophisticated conversation about balance with our son when he was learning to ride his two-wheeler.  We were in the school yard with a large open blacktop, perfect for bike riding.  Four years old and wearing his knee and elbow pads as well as his helmet—he asked me, “How do I stay up?”  I said, “You stay up by moving forward.”  Sharp as a tack, he asked back, “Well, how do I move forward?”  I said, “You move forward by staying upright.”  “Huh?” was the expression on his face, but that was the best it was going to get.  “You just have to give it a go.  It all works together.  Ready, one-two-three … here we go.”  And I gave him a push.

It was years later that I saw this similar-sounding quote by Albert Einstein.  “Life is like a bicycle, in order to keep your balance you must keep moving.”  The spiritual life, too, is like riding a bike; and love in particular.  Standing still, balancing a bike is nearly impossible.  Standing still, loving one another is nearly impossible.  We have to move forward to stay up.  We have to stay up to move forward.  We just have to give it a go.  It all works together.  Ready, one-two-three … here we go.  And the Spirit gives us a push: go love that-a way.  Will we lose balance at times?  Of course we will, especially at (but not exclusively at) the beginning of the learning process.  But when we stumble, it actually helps us learn balance more quickly; more genuinely.

Moving forward and standing upright encounters, even invites, pressure.  Yet without pressure we could not balance a bicycle well.  We have to apply tension to the bike chain or the wheels won’t roll.  We have to allow for downhills and uphills in our riding—which requires adjusting pressure and speed.  There are many variables that the brain and the inner-ear and the eyes and the legs and the lungs have to navigate simultaneously.  It is like a dance.  But we need pressure and tension and torque even before we know what pressure and tension and torque are.

In our “one anothers” of the New Testament we need balance, but not a na├»ve balance that doesn’t expect bumps and irregularities.  We need a wise balance that anticipates pressure; that even catches pressure, using it to propel us further and farther in our mission.

Our text for today is very much a balancing act.  Although the word “balance” is not present, but there is a lot of pressure.  A lot of tension.  A lot of torsion.  But Paul is urging the church not to shy away from the pressure, but to expect it, to catch it, even allow it to energize them in their application of Christian doctrine (chapters 1-11) into their Christian lives (chapters 12-16).  For our consideration, we are looking at the fourth most frequently repeated “one another”—“live in harmony with one another” (Gr. froneo).  It is a mind word.  It calls for discipline of our attitudes—not when everything is hunky-dory, but when everything is pushing and pulling on us with fury.  How will we give thought toward one another when the road before us demands a steep climb?  Will we give gracious consideration toward the well-being of one another ahead of our own self-interests?  How do we agree with one another in principle when we disagree with what the other is saying in particular? 

If there ever were a time we need to learn how to have and apply the mind of Christ toward one another, it is now!  I have never seen a more splintered church than the American church right now.  But can we stay ahead of this pressure, catching it, channeling it into forward progress in our mission?  I think this is the challenge of our day.  I believe we can keep our balance.  I believe we can stay upright by moving forward.  I believe we can move forward by staying upright.  But this climb is going to be steep.

One word of clarity before we jump into our text: living in harmony is NOT the mutual commitment to avoid pressure; to avoid talking about serious and potentially controversial matters … to stick our heads in the sand and wait out the storm … to ignore conflict.  That would be a balance killer.  Living in harmony with one another is a very deliberate, very arduous decision to have and apply the mind of Christ with one another.  Not “Agree with me” but “Let’s agree with Christ.”  The temptation is to focus on the side-show.  The temptation is to turn our eyes to the trouble instead of keep our eyes on the Lord.  The temptation is to allow our minds to react to the pressure instead of respond to the pressure by faith.  This is how I see it, whatever makes the gospel of Jesus Christ advance better, faster, smoother, wider, further, farther—that’s what I want.  When we all have that same mind, then we will all move forward (and stay upright).

I love how Paul said it, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Don’t bother me with your poets and politicians.  Don’t distract me with your Main Street Restoration Campaign.  Don’t call me for your Miss Universe Pageant—with or without Donald Trump’s involvement.  “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  For all the church to have that razor-focused mindset, that … THAT(!) … would result in harmony.  Not a counterfeit harmony where we are merely tuned to one another or to one of the trending human opinions, but a true harmony with one another tuned to the unique Christ—his word, work, person, plan.  That is harmony—balance.

I.          Love Put in Motion (vv. 9-14)

9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

How do we stay upright?  By moving forward.  How do we move forward?  By staying upright.  Love can’t stand while still.  Love must have motion.  Love must hold tension.  Love must keep balance.  In a rapid succession of instructions (plural participles that behave as almost imperatives), Paul seeks to apply the great doctrine of chapters 1-11 to the Christian life beginning in chapter 12.  Thirteen admonitions call for love to be put into motion.  The context is clearly the church—the audience is Christian.  This is not to be expected out in the world, but taken unto the world by the church in balance.

The introductory statement stands alone—the rest colors in the lines.  “Let love be genuine.”  Non-hypocritical.  Not pretended.  Authentic, even under pressure.   Because of great doctrine, not in spite of it, love must be genuinely applied to all our relationships in the church.  Indirectly, I knew of some seminary students who lived in the rough part of town because they were broke from paying school fees.  But being in the rough part of town there are fewer filters on the sins of the community; less space between houses, less insulation between rooms.  So they knew that a neighbor husband was beating his wife.  It was because of the doctrine they were learning that compelled them to action.  They intervened.  They knocked on the door, interrupting the fight, and called the bully-husband to a calmer conversation in the street so that the wife could find safety.  It was because of their Bible knowledge that they got involved.  And when it push came to shove, literally, it was their Bible knowledge that wrestled that punk to the ground while the cops were on the way.  They did not judge this man; they just gave the wife a chance for safety.

Love gets and gives a bloody lip sometimes—because it gets involved.  Don’t hear me wrong—I’m not saying that the Bible teaches vigilante justice.  I’m saying that love that is not in motion is not genuine.  Too often, we try to make Christianity neat and clean and scrub all of the discomfort away, but love gets involved and sometimes that involvement is messy.  So be it.  I would rather have a messy love that is applied to real life than an antiseptic love that sits on the shelf, as long as it is faith that initiates it (anything less than faith as initiator just hurts rather than helps).

Abhor what is evil.”  Hate it.  Give evil no quarter.  Yes, evil exists.  Genuine love must hate evil.  Hatred is not unilaterally forbidden; it is a necessary part of love to hate that which undermines love.  We are not to hate people, but evil … even to the evil that we ourselves give safe harbor.  No—you will not hear this on CNN.  You will not hear this out of Mr. Olsteen’s mouth.  There are many who will misunderstand this aspect of love, but love, if it is genuine, will passionately hate sin, the elevation of sin, the repackaging of sin, and the invention and institutionalization of sin—even if it means calling a wife-beater outside to settle this like men.  This is the side of love that needs more press.  I hate whatever put Jesus on the cross—whether it is in my own heart, in my own congregation, in my own community, in my own world.  Does that make me unloving?  No!  It makes me consistent; balanced.  I can’t preach it but then conveniently forget it when the pressure is on.  

Hold fast to what is good.”  Cling to it with both hands.  Grip it with great energy as with glue or cement.  As much passion as propels me to abhor what is evil, propels me to hold fast to what is good.  Adam and Eve softened to evil and relaxed their grip on the good.  But in Christ we double down in exactly the opposite direction.   “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.  The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still.  His kingdom is forever.”  Love will release its grip on things and even family ties in order hold fast to truth and Christ’s eternal kingdom.  Does that sound radical?  It should sound normal!  We hear so much about the radicalization of people toward jihad, toward assassinations, toward attacking cultural symbols in some ideological gesture.  But the radicalization of true Christianity pushes people into sacrificial acts of service, into costly gestures of love, into undiluted commitment to biblical goodness.  There is nothing similar to Christianity anywhere in the universe; especially seen when the pressure’s on.  We don’t blockade trade-vessels like Green Peace.  We don’t blackmail politicians like Amnesty International.  We don’t manipulate the stock market to ice an enemy’s bank account or declare a boycott on a brand name because they run tests on animals.  We don’t beat our opponents bloody at a parade because they publicly disagree with us.  Other groups, organizations and even some governments engage in such activities, on which I will not comment, but love picks up the basin and the towel and washes feet—even the feet of a Judas.  Love proclaims that God has a better way—a way to forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus.  Love doesn’t pick a fight; love settles it.  Love intervenes as faith dictates—not to protect self, but to protect the weak even at the expense of self. 

Love one another with brotherly affection.”  The family of God is often closer than blood family.  We are to show a family-level love (Gr. filostorge) for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  This is another aspect of our “normal” in the church—or it should be.  “Outdo one another in showing honor.”  If there is any competition in our churches—and Paul is using sarcasm to include this competitive word—then let that competitive spirit propel us to improve in showing one another honor.  Our churches are competitive about numbers and baptisms and annual budgets and sound systems and youth programs and professional musicians on Sundays—so much so that it is almost nauseating to go to Christian conferences in America.   So many families chase after churches that “win” in those categories, but is there a robust effort to show honor to one another?  I’m all for big churches—I would like for our church to grow some as well—but may our churches be marked first and foremost by a generous love.  True leaders in the church universal should be those who lead the way in showing honor to one another.

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”  Paul seems to leave no room for an idle form of spirituality.  Balance is key.  “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”  Trouble is part of the landscape for the Christian.  It is not an indication that God is distant or upset with you or done with you—no, he is refining you for a future reason.  Keep moving forward by staying upright.  Keep staying upright by moving forward.

Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”  Paul has harped on collecting money for the church in Jerusalem that were suffering greatly for their faith; being kicked out of the temple system, losing their jobs, being imprisoned—many were starving.  Even though they were culturally biased against Gentiles, many of them, and perpetuated that prejudice from their pulpits—as it were—Paul is ever looking for ways to show them love, seeking for avenues to show love to the strangers as well.  We speak of hospitality as though it were a potluck meal after church, but it was not that in the slightest.  Hospitality is literally a love for the stranger; the exile.  Christians who were pressed out of their homes because of their faith or Christians who became itinerate evangelists and missionaries had no place to go.  The roads were unsafe and the inns were unsavory.  Paul is urging the church in Rome—who had a forced expulsion of Jews and Christians by Emperor Claudius recently—to hunt down ways to harbor the hunted down Christians.  The same sort of hunting that Paul engaged in before his conversion, that displaced many people, has now been redeemed.  He hunts the hunted in order to show them love.  Can you see the balance of love?  Not just inside the local church, but outside … looking for ways to build bridges for ministry to one another.

Paul makes a switch in grammar, which marks the end of this first section.  In verses 14 Paul moves to the command form.  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  The Pharisees follow a strict code of retaliation; as do most religions and governments and tribes and gangs.  But Jesus, and Paul, preaches an upside-down gospel.  We do not wish our enemies ill; we pronounce blessing even while they are spitting venomous curses.  For they themselves are not our true enemies; sin, death, and the grave are our enemies … Satan is our enemy.  They are in the power of Satan and we desire for their release; for their transfer from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son. 

But keep in mind that these enemies vomiting curses are inside the church.  This is a Christian application.  These are church people, but not that all church people are born again Christians.

II.         Love Kept in Balance (vv. 15-16)

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”  This is excellent advice that covers all of our interpersonal skills.  Christians were, in the first four centuries, a despised class.  They were marginalized.  They were non-entities, at best, and targets of hate, at worst.  There was a stigma to associating with Christians that kept many reputation-conscious people away.  Nevertheless, being marginalized doesn’t mean unhappy.  Some of the most culturally despised people I’ve ever met were the quickest to rejoice; and the quickest to lament.  Love doesn’t fix someone else’s emotional state; it joins them.

Live in harmony with one another.”  Like I said in the introduction, this pivots upon the mind word—froneo.  Have the same mind as one another is the idea, but it is not passive so we cannot rightly translate it, “Be in agreement with one another” or “Be considerate toward one another.”  The instruction is to endeavor to share a common attitude with each other.  It is not one group trying to pull people onto its “side.”  It is a collective value to find and apply the mind of Christ irrespective of the individual’s starting place.  It is our destination point that harmonizes us; not our origination point.  We are applying our minds toward Christ while being aware of one another.  Have you ever heard the phrase, “He is so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good”?  Well, in light of this verse, that is patently false.  When we are indeed heavenly minded, we will be the most earthly good.  The reason we are not good on earth is because we are not heavenly minded enough.  This is where harmony and balance rush in; when we individually and collectively set our minds to things above.  It doesn’t happen by accident; it is a spiritual discipline.  It takes spine.

Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.  Never be wise in your own sight.”  Our principle word is used three times here—froneo—have the same mind.  Put it all together and it can sound like this: “Have the same mind with one another.  Do not have a mind for lofty things, but being willing to associate with the outcasts, you all must find a way not to have a mind for wisdom that is built on self.”  Solomon said that same idea back in Proverbs 3:5-7, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.  Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.”  Self-made wisdom is a contradiction in terms.  It may seem right in our own eyes, but the end proves to be both fatal and foolish.  We do not have wisdom in ourselves.  Only God is wise.  All wisdom derives from him alone.

III.        Love Held in Tension (vv. 17-21)

17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
19 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."
20 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."
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Verses 17-21 form our third and last section—Love Held in Tension.  Tension is not always bad!  We need tension to circulate our blood, to flex our muscles; trees need tension to siphon water from the soil into the leaves for photosynthesis … machines need tension to perform as they were designed.  The bicycle needs tension to pedal uphill.  And love needs tension to overcome evil.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.”  That is in no way saying that evil doesn’t exist or that evil doesn’t cause tremendous problems.  Evil is serious, but the solution to evil does not come from the realm of evil.  Only good overcomes evil and sometimes goodness straps on a sword and heads into battle against evil.  Our Prince of Peace is also our Warrior God.  What Paul is teaching is that no amount of retribution can achieve peace.  Drop the rope.  Refuse to play that game.  What is required is a plan; a premeditated strategy to “do what is honorable in the sight of all.” 

If possible, so far as it depends upon you, leave peaceably with all.”  Remember this is in the church!  Notice the two very large caveats—“if” and “so far as”—indicating that peace is not always possible.  Your part, however big or small, in the relationship or in the conflict is to seek peace.  But own your part.  Deal with your trigger-points.  Resolve with your own frustrations.  Confess and repent your sins, if applicable.  Extend grace.  But you can’t confess and repent for their parts or their sins; they have to do that part.  If we try to compensate for their parts or their sins, then we are stepping with both feet into co-dependency and fighting the very peace we claim we are attempting to build.  You can and must forgive, but forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation.   Reconciliation is a two-way street.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it up to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”  But we celebrate avengers.  They are our blockbuster heroes.  Love in motion … in balance … under tension, however, leaves space for wrath.  We do not pick up the judge’s gavel.  We do not wear the judge’s robe.  We do not climb the judge’s podium.  And we certainly do not pronounce the judge’s verdict.  God is the judge and he does not shirk his duties.  It is his to settle the score and to balance the columns.  Love leaves him room.

Our place, however, in this scenario is kindness.  Don’t get me wrong—kindness can still call the cops, but while we wait for the cops to arrive and for the judge to render a verdict we can decide to show kindness even to those who wish us ill.  “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”  This does not say acquit him.  This does not say what you did to me doesn’t matter.  This does not say surrender to their whims without resistance.  No, it says … while we are waiting for God to settle the issue … we continue to show the kindnesses of food and water even to the very ones who are suing us and seizing our possessions.  Why?  Because the kindnesses keep the avenue for reconciliation open.  Jesus gave kindness to all—to some that kindness softened their heart, to others that kindness hardened the heart.  It is another way to say that all judgment has been deferred to the court and the timing of God.  It is not a manipulation tactic or a reverse psychology or some disguised guilt trip; it is just continuing to show love in ways we have always shown love.  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Living in harmony, love in motion, balance even under pressure—these are our new normal.  This is where we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).