Romans 12:9-21

July 6, 2014 The 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

live in peace with everyone

Roy W. Howard

Early last week I was in Rome listening to our guide describe how Saint Peter was crucified by the Emperor Nero, along with other Christians. Tradition has it that Peter requested to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to be crucified in the manner of Jesus. Nero never imagined the massive basilica that rises above St. Peter’s square today attracting thousands of wandering tourists and faithful seekers every day. No, for the powerful Nero, Peter and the Christians scattered around the city were a lousy lot; refusing to worship the gods of Rome and threatening the empire by their resistance.

But not only Peter; Saint Paul came Rome in the year 60 AD to help the fledging congregation to whom he had written his influential pastoral letter from afar. He was both Jewish and a Roman citizen but that didn’t prevent him from being held under house arrest by the Roman regime for two years. During that time Paul provided pastoral leadership and encouragement to the Christians under seize. Finally, in the mid-60s, Nero had Saint Paul beheaded. The powerful hand of Rome had now executed two leaders of the movement that ironically would rise to shape a whole civilization.

Walking among the crowds of tourists from all over the world, slowly moving through St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, it was good for me to remember that the Christians in Rome were under assault for their way of life and especially for their resistance to the gods of the State. In his pastoral letter, Saint Paul urges them to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

These instructions were not abstract religious sentiments fit for Hallmark. The ones rejoicing were few while the ones weeping were many. The persecutors were real and dangerous. Yet, Paul summons these Christians to a way of life that must have puzzled their non-Christian neighbors and perhaps attracted them. To the State, the oddness of these followers of Jesus was threatening to the established order.

Paul says to those early Christians navigating the relations between church and state, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Do you sense what I’m saying about the witness of Christians who are living counter to the common cultural practices, and to the State that is threatened by their witness? What lesson is here for us on this Fourth of July weekend? What might we learn about Christian practices from our ancestors in Rome?

A few days before our visit to Rome, we visited Assisi the home city of St. Francis in the beautiful Umbrian countryside.We happened to be there on June 28th, the anniversary of the beginning of World War I – the Great War – The War to end all War. Walking down the slopping hill to the original site of St. Francis’ little church, I thought of the irony of these events. Francis give up a way of life among the privileged to serve the poor, the outcasts, the sick and disabled. He built a way of life that is now surprisingly being renewed under the Pope who took his name for his own. He taught a way of life after the manner of Jesus that still lifts our spirits and draws us to it. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Paul said it; Francis lived it.

In Assisi, I also recalled that WWI was supported by the leading Christian theologians and church leaders of the day. My colleague, Ken Kovacs, pastor of Catonsville Presbyterian Church, wrote on his blog : “In many ways, World War I was, and remains, a scathing indictment of Christianity. Or, better said, an indictment of large portions of the Church, on both sides of the conflict, with both clergy and laity who thought they were being faithful, fighting to save “Christian civilization,” and slaughtering millions to do so, all in the name of God.” We also remember sadly the number of German Christians during WWII who supported the extermination of the Jewish people. The day before we arrived in Assisi we visited a beautiful memorial and cemetery for the 400,000 Americans who died in Italy during WWII.

During the earlier American Civil War, Christian preachers from North and the South, proclaimed to have God on their side as they blessed their parishioners and sent them off to kill their neighbors in numbers that stagger the mind, 644,000 people dead. Upon the altar of the nation their lives were sacrificed in the name of God.

As we continue to debate the relation between Church and State in this country, I think history is a cautionary tale for Christians who have ears to hear and discern the way of life that Saint Paul urged upon his flock in Rome. We have to maintain the integrity of our gospel calling while honoring all that is good in our country.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Amen.