First Baptist Richmond, September 3, 2023
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In a book called unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons conclude that “Christianity has an image problem.”[i] They came to that conclusion after spending three years talking to young, unchurched Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 and asking them what they thought about Christianity. What those young people thought is that Christians are hypocritical, too political, too focused on getting converts, too sheltered, too judgmental, and antihomosexual. One outsider put it this way: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”[ii] Now obviously that description doesn’t fit the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, but people out there don’t know that.
And so, a few years ago I asked our deacons to give some thought to how we might change people’s perceptions and they spent the better part of one of their regular meetings brainstorming solutions and suggesting strategies. I believe we have seen some of the fruit of that exercise in the way this church is perceived. I was approached by a woman last week who confessed that she was an Episcopalian, but also that she watches our worship service on television every week. “I love it!” she gushed. “Your congregation is so inclusive!” But for every person who tunes in and watches, for everyone who finds the courage to actually walk through the doors, there are thousands more who walk on by, who say, “You couldn’t get me in that place if you tried; that place is full of Christians.”
How did that happen? When did the word Christian become so offensive to young people? Kinnaman and Lyons suggest that some of it started back in the eighties, when Christians began to get involved in politics, believing they could sway the vote through sheer numbers and political power (remember the Moral Majority?). But I believe the problem goes back further than that. I believe it goes back to last week’s reading from Romans 12, where Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world,” because I believe the Christians young people have trouble with are those who have been conformed to this world. Look at that list again: hypocritical, too political, too concerned with getting converts, too sheltered, too judgmental, and antihomosexual. Does that sound to you like people who have been transformed by the renewing of their minds, or people whose lives have been shaped by all the fears, prejudices, and suspicions of this world?
In the Book of Acts we learn that it was in Antioch of Syria that the believers were first called Christians.[iii] That was Paul’s home church. That’s where he and Barnabas were when they were sent out as missionaries. But in Antioch the word Christian was used in a derogatory way. It meant “little Christ,” and I can almost hear someone saying, “Oh, look! Here comes one of those ‘little Christs,’ one of those ‘Christians!’” Apparently they called them that because they behaved like Christ, because they were, literally, Christlike. But between that time and the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans some Christians had stopped behaving in a Christlike way. They were being conformed to this world, so that Paul had to bring it up in his letter. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
And I don’t think he only wanted them to discern it, I think he wanted them to do it. I think he wants us to do it. If we did, I can’t imagine that we would have an image problem. I can’t imagine anyone saying, “Those Christians! All they do is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. It’s driving me crazy!” So, what keeps us from doing that? Conformity. We look at the way the world does things and think we should do them that way too. We find ourselves driven by the love of success and the fear of failure. “Think again,” Paul says. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” And in today’s reading from Romans 12 he gives us a pretty good idea of what that would look like.
Beginning with verse 9 he writes: “Let love be genuine.” And that’s so important. Have you ever had an experience of love that wasn’t genuine? That’s the worst. I don’t know if it applies but I remember going into the Kentucky Baptist Convention building when I was a seminary student and being greeted by someone who was so “nice,” so syrupy sweet, that when I came out later I felt like I needed a bath. Genuine love is not like that. It’s not a matter of being nice. It’s a matter of laying down your life for others even if, personally, you can’t stand them.[iv]
“Hate what is evil,” Paul writes, and I need to point out that he doesn’t say hate who is evil, but only what, and there are some evil things in this world. Frederick Buechner says he used to think evil was relative until one day, standing at a newsstand in Manhattan, he looked down at the front page of the New York Post and saw a picture of a victim of child abuse. The picture was so graphic that Buechner remembers thinking, “That. That is what absolute evil looks like.” “Hate that,” Paul says.
“But hold fast to what is good,” and that reminds me of the Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi, which means, literally, “to let go.” “Yes,” Paul might say. “Let go of all those hateful and horrible things people have said about you or done to you through the years, but hold fast to what is good. Don’t let it go. It will sustain you in the darkest times.” And then he turns his attention to the church:
“Love one another with mutual affection,” he writes, and unlike that other kind of love, the kind that requires laying down our lives for each other, this one is simply about liking each other, about looking forward to the fellowship of Sunday school classes and Wednesday night suppers. The word in Greek is philadelphia, which as you probably know, means not only brotherly, but also sisterly, love.
“Outdo one another in showing honor,” Paul writes, which makes me think that we could look around for ways to honor each other. One of the ways we could do that is by believing only the best about our fellow church members and if we have anything to say, saying only the best. Try to find that one thing in another person that you can praise, and then praise that.
“Do not lag in zeal,” Paul writes, “be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” To me that means that we serve the Lord in an eager, enthusiastic way, maybe even when we don’t feel like it. Instead of showing up to volunteer as if we had been dragged out of our beds, we show up smiling, ready to serve (“like those wonderful young people at Chick Fil-A”).
“Rejoice in hope,” Paul writes, “be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer,” and if you’ve ever been really sick you know what he’s talking about. You’ve got to hold on to the hope that you can get better. It’s often what brings you though those times of intense suffering, and the suffering is what inspires those persevering prayers. “Please God,” you say through gritted teeth, “hear my prayer.” And God does, even when the answer is not what you hoped for.
“Contribute to the needs of the saints,” Paul writes; “extend hospitality to strangers,” which simply means that we see it as part of our Christian duty to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. We make sure they have enough to eat, and clothes to wear, and a place to sleep at night. It’s not always easy but extending to others the basic necessities of life makes our own lives richer and more rewarding.
“Bless those who persecute you,” Paul writes; “bless and do not curse them.” Oh boy! This is where you can really tell the difference between those Christians who have been conformed to this world and those who have been transformed by the renewing of their minds. Because the conformed Christian will curse his persecutors without a second thought, but the transformed Christian will think of Jesus, who said, even as he was dying on the cross, “Father forgive them.”
“Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Paul writes, “and weep with those who weep.” This may be a call for the kind of sensitivity that knows the difference, and it may create the kind of community where, when someone asks, “How are you, really?” the other person feels free to tell the truth, even if it means stopping to weep a while, together.
“Live in harmony with one another,” Paul writes; “do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” And all of that would go a long way toward harmony. Have you ever tried to get along with people who are haughty, who think they know everything, who say, “In my humble opinion” when it’s really not humble at all? Bring yourself down a notch, Paul might say, before someone does it for you. Associate with the lowly and learn from them that what you are, just as you are, is enough.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” Paul writes, “but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” Do you know that when someone does evil to you and you do the same to them, to get even with them, it doesn’t look good at all? “Well, he started it!” you say, after slinging mud at the person who slung mud at you, but in the end you’re both covered with mud. It isn’t attractive, and it isn’t noble.
“If it is possible,” Paul writes, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” and I love the nuance of that. Sometimes it isn’t possible to live peaceably with all. Sometimes other people make it impossible. But if it is possible, Paul writes, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. At the very least don’t start anything.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves,” he writes, “but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” All you need to know about that is that vengeance is not yours. I remember reading this verse when I was a teenager and writing my brother’s name in the margin of my Bible. I think I was telling myself that it wasn’t my job to get even with him for whatever he had done.
“No,” Paul writes, “‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’” That is, you will make them ashamed. And that sounded good to me. I remember bringing my brother a sandwich and a glass of milk just because I wanted to heap burning coals on his head. But what did I really do? I did something kind for him. And what did it inspire him to do? Something kind for me. Our feud was quickly forgotten. To this day I can’t remember why I wrote his name in my Bible.
And maybe that’s why Paul writes, finally, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
I’ve mentioned this before, but when the church I served in North Carolina began a ministry to the children of a nearby trailer park we had to decide what kind of ministry it would be. We could have chosen to root out all the sources of evil in that place—to chase down the drug dealers and the deadbeat dads, to confiscate handguns and round up child abusers. Instead we decided to put up a basketball hoop, sing songs about Jesus, tell stories from the Bible, serve cookies and Kool-Aid. Most of all we decided to love children who didn’t seem to have a lot of love in their lives. And two years after we started that ministry, two years of going out there Saturday after Saturday to do those things, I got a note in my mailbox with five words on it: “Adrian wants to be baptized.”
Adrian. The terror of the trailer park. The one person who had made our work most difficult during the previous two years. She was probably sixteen years old at the time. She would have been one of those young people David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons wrote about a decade later, who look at the way Christians behave in the world and decide they want no part of it.
But she did want a part of it.
Something about the way we lived out our faith in front of her made her think she wanted some of that for her own, and so she told one of our volunteers who put a note in my box. A few weeks later it was my privilege to do Adrian’s baptism. We stood there waist-deep in the water in the sanctuary of a Baptist church, and when it was time to dip her under the water I asked her to confess her faith. She looked around at that room full of Christians, smiling at her, nodding their heads, offering their encouragement. But she didn’t say she wanted to be a Christian. She said what new believers have been saying even before they were called Christians. She said, “Jesus is Lord.”
I haven’t heard from Adrian in years, but if Jesus is still her Lord I would hope that she hasn’t been conformed to this world (she never was before). I would hope that she has been transformed by the renewing of her mind so that she might discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect—and then do it in such a way that her life would show it, and others who looked at her life might say, “I want some of that. I don’t even know what that is, but whatever it is,
“I want some.”
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity…and why it matters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), p. 11.
[ii] Ibid., p. 26.
[iii] Acts 11:26
[iv] Frederick Buechner says that’s what it means to love your neighbor: “it means acting in their best interests even if, personally, you can’t stand them.”