Epiphany Three Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 21, 2007| Romans 12:16-21
When someone does you wrong you want to get even. You think that this is justice. You think that since he did you wrong you have the right to do him wrong and it won’t be wrong because he did you wrong first. He deserves what he has coming to him. He says something to hurt your reputation. You say something to hurt his reputation. And so it goes. Getting even is considered the right thing to do.
But the way that seems right to us is wrong. If someone does you wrong he deserves punishment. That’s perfectly true. But it is not up to you to mete it out. In the words immediately following our text the Apostle teaches us to submit to the authority of the government. The government is instituted by God to punish people who do us wrong. God is not saying that wrong should be excused. Rather He is teaching us that we don’t have the right to right the wrongs done against us. We have no right to take revenge. We have no right to get even. Listen to the Apostle. He speaks to us God’s words:
Repay no one evil for evil. . . Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
St. Paul is here echoing the words of our Lord Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
Justice does not arise from within us. Justice comes from God. When you are wronged you are to commit your cause to God. Listen to the inspired words of St. Peter:
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (1 Peter 2:21-25)
It appeared supremely unfair, did it not? The only One who never sinned was brutally sinned against and no one intervened to save Him. He never said an unkind word and He never did an unkind deed. When evil men lied about Him and cruelly mocked Him and abused the judicial system with cynical contempt for justice, He silently endured it. He issued no complaints, no threats, no recriminations. It appears terribly unfair, does it not? And God does nothing to stop it.
As a matter of fact, God took this most unfair of all atrocities and He turned it into the salvation of sinners. For when men were wickedly abusing the innocent Son of God, God was placing upon Him our sins and He was doing so in love. Men hated. God loved. God took human hatred and directed it for the purpose of divine love. The most treacherous act of injustice becomes the fulfillment of all justice. He bears our sins in His body. Now we can die to sin and live for righteousness. Jesus has borne our sin. He has given us His righteousness. He has spoken His almighty word. We are healed of the leprosy of sin. “Only speak a word.” That was the plea of the centurion to Jesus. Faith asks for the word. Faith receives the word. With the word is Jesus. With Jesus is forgiveness of sins freely given. With forgiveness of sins is true righteousness, true justice, and no need to secure any more.
That’s right. We don’t need to get even. We don’t need to obtain justice. We already have it. All sin of all sinners of all time was heaped upon Jesus’ innocent head and He fully bore it. In so doing He fulfilled divine demands for vengeance. He also fulfilled our need for justice. There can be no point in personal vengeance. Vengeance is mine says the Lord our God. If you want to see vengeance displayed, look at Christ’s suffering. See Him suffer, not only for your sins that you have committed against God and your neighbor, but also for the sins committed against you. When Jesus tells you to turn the other cheek and to bless those who curse you He is not telling you to do anything He hasn’t already done. And He is not telling you to ignore justice. He faced justice. You don’t need to establish what He has already established.
But does it work? I mean, really, it is possible to overcome evil with good? If that were true, why not simply destroy all our weapons, fire all the police, empty all the prisons, and send all the soldiers home? That is, if it is possible to overcome evil with good.
Here we must make a distinction that the Scriptures make quite clearly. There is the personal and there is the public. They are not the same. Our text teaches us that private revenge is forbidden. St. Paul writes, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” But public vengeance is not forbidden. It is commanded and done by the authority of God Himself. We read on in Romans 13:1-4,
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
The government has no mandate from God to turn the other cheek or to bless those who do wrong. It is required to do the very opposite: to punish those who do wrong. God tells us as individual Christians not to resist evil and not to take vengeance and to turn the other cheek. God doesn’t say this to the governments of this world. The government couldn’t keep order and protect us from violent criminals if it didn’t have the authority to use force – even deadly force, if necessary – against those who would rob us of our property or lives.
The government cannot overcome evil by refusing to punish the bad guys. Individual Christians can. And they do. St. Paul says in our text: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” When we behave as Christ behaved and refuse to repay evil with evil we are speaking more loudly than shouting at the top of our voice. Actions speak louder than words. The crucifixion of Jesus proves this. When Christians, whose sins are covered with the righteousness of Christ, behave as if they need no justice that they don’t already have and seek no vengeance but that which God in His own way and time will exact, they are living lives that reflect their confession of faith. The “coals of fire” that St. Paul mentions refer to the shame that people will feel when Christians refuse to respond to their evil in kind. If people won’t be shamed, let God worry about it. We have no need to fight battles for ourselves.
Contending for the truth of God is a noble and honorable thing to do. Contending for ourselves is both petty and unnecessary. In doctrinal debates in the church we see how much people love God’s name and how much they love their own. What begins as a contention for God’s truth so often descends into personal acrimony, accusations, charges, and demands for repentance. The apostle says in our text, “Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.”
It is impossible to contend for God’s truth when you care more about your own reputation than you do about God’s. The less you elevate yourself the better you’ll be able to focus on what it is that God says. The very heart of the Christian truth is that God forgives unworthy sinners graciously for Christ’s sake and that we receive this forgiveness without doing anything to deserve it but solely by trusting in Christ and His righteousness. Since this is the very center of God’s word, this should also be at the center of our lives. What is our posture as we receive God’s word of grace that gives us forgiveness and new life? It is the posture of humility. We don’t know so much that we are in any position to argue our own case. We haven’t lived so justly that we can demand justice from those who do us wrong. But we have an Advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ, the righteous. He pleads our case for us. He provides us with better justice than we could possibly obtain for ourselves. It will stand the test of time and endure into eternity.
We live under mercy. God provides it. As we give what we have received we show that we are children of God. Amen.