Scripture Readings: Proverbs 25:21-22, Romans 12:1-2, 14-21
An open church requires open minds. Generally, we think this means being inquiring or tolerant, and both are required for an open church. But the New Testament calls us to a much more fundamental "opening" of our minds. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God." (Rom. 12:2)
This means at least three things. First, we must acknowledge that evil is a power that possesses people. Second, we must accept the New Testament witness that only the love of God can defeat the power of evil. Third, we must live the faith that allows God’s love to manifest its power through us.
The early American McGuffy Reader began, "In Adam’s fall, we sinned all." This rhyme tells us that evil is Adam’s fault, and Eve’s fault for tempting him, and our fault, too, for as the children of Adam and Eve we are the victims of original sin. This is bad theology!
The New Testament portrays the struggle of God, in Jesus the Christ, against the power of evil, led by Satan. The cosmic battle between good and evil is personified on a stage where the evils of the Jewish temple and the Roman Empire are represented by a chief priest and by Pontius Pilate. Yet, Christ’s victory over evil is not the defeat of a Jewish priest or a Roman ruler, but a triumph over what letters attributed to Paul call "powers" and "principalities." (See Rom. 8:38, Eph. 3:10, Col. 2:15)
The victory of Christ is NOT over evil persons, but over the power of evil that acts through persons and their institutions.
For centuries, Christians have closed their minds to this truth. Blindly, Christians have denied Christ’s victory over evil, and so have "made room" in their minds for the power of evil to manifest itself by justifying violence against evil persons to preserve all that is good and holy.
Today, we continue to ignore the New Testament warnings about the power of evil that possesses persons, religious institutions, and governing systems. We do not want to admit that the road to hell may be paved with OUR good intentions.
In worship, however, we confess that we know we do not understand the evil that grips our world and threatens our lives. So, listen to what the New Testament is trying to tell us about the power of God that overcomes the power of evil through love — through men and women who respond to evil with the power of God’s love.
A few verses after Paul urges the Christians in Rome not to be conformed to the world, he says: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep . . .. Repay no one evil for evil . . .." (Rom. 12:14-19)
Then Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22: "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." (Rom. 12:20-21) This image of burning coals simply means our enemy will be shamed, if we respond to hate and injustice with love and justice.
Paul summarizes the Christian strategy for building a "new world order" with the familiar but often ignored teaching: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom. 12:21)
Can we open our minds? Can we hear these words and apply them to our world? Paul's very next statement in Romans is: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities." (Rom. 13:1) Paul is not challenging the state's authority to compel taxes and use violence to protect the public good. Yet, it is no accident of history that most Christians in the first three centuries refused to serve in the Roman army.
Anyone who reads the New Testament will quickly learn that following the way of Jesus Christ means embracing nonviolence rather than violence.
Yet, after Emperor Constantine was converted in the fourth century, the church had the support of the state and not surprisingly justified the state's violence. The just war doctrine was developed by the church in an attempt to limit the violence of war, to protect civilians, and to pressure governments to resolve conflicts without violence or with a minimum of violence.
We misunderstand the just war doctrine, if we think that it simply justifies national self-defense. The present war on Iraq, for instance, fails to meet the stringent requirements for a just war, because it was not "the last resort."
The church may not have to be pacifist to be Christian, but Christian people have to open their minds to God in Christ to be the church. We do not have to know how to succeed in loving our enemies in order to respond to the clear call of the New Testament. The good news of the gospel is that God's love will be with us, and in us, when we reach out to the hearts and minds of our enemies.
"Love your enemies," Jesus teaches, in Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27. In the history of the church this teaching has often been restricted to personal ethics and considered irrelevant for social and political matters.
Yet, consider how South Africa overcame apartheid. Consider the largely nonviolent way that the Soviet Union was dismantled. Consider the post World War II development of international human rights law, which is creating greater opportunities for the nonviolent resolution of conflicts.
Were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela simply wrong in applying the teachings of the New Testament to the evil they faced? Or, were they prophets, who call us to open our minds to the truth that only good defeats evil?
Almost every time we worship, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We must open our minds to what we are praying! "Thy will be done."
Is it God’s will that we be comforted in our fear and misery? No. God’s will is peace and justice for all peoples! But how is that to be? We pray, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive others." We have to forgive others, if we are to have any hope that they will forgive us.
We also pray, "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." In the Greek New Testament this last phrase literally means deliver us from "the evil one," and this is the translation in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. (Mt. 6:13) The New Testament personifies evil, because this is the worldview of the first century.
Today we are uncomfortable with that pre-scientific view. Yet, when we pray to be delivered from evil, we must NOT be asking God to destroy the evildoers who threaten us.
In the Lord’s prayer we pray to be delivered from evil, so we will not be possessed by the evil that takes over our minds and our hearts, whenever we do evil in order to do good.
Hear the good news! If we embrace the call to love our enemies, our world will be more loving. If we pray for those who curse us, our minds will be cleansed of curses. If we feed our enemy, who is hungry, and give water to our enemy, who is thirsty, we will find peace and our world will be saved.