Don't pretend to be a Christian
Romans 12:9-21 9Do not just pretend to love others. Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another with brotherly love. Think of others as deserving more honor than yourselves. 11Do not be lagging behind in zeal, but be fervent in spirit, as you continue to serve the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope. Endure trials patiently. Persist in prayer. 13Share with the saints who are in need. Be quick to welcome strangers as guests.
14Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who are rejoicing; weep with those who are weeping. 16Have the same respect for one another. Do not be arrogant, but associate with the humble. Do not think too highly of yourselves.
17Do not pay anyone back evil for evil. Focus on those things that everyone considers noble. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, maintain peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20But: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. For by doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Have you ever had someone criticize your Christianity? They charge that you must not be a Christian because you don’t act or speak or dress or behave in a certain way.
Let me give you some examples. A few weeks ago, our two dogs attacked a raccoon that was in our cul de sac. Our neighbor charged us with not being Christian because the dogs were fighting a raccoon.
You’ve probably heard protestors charging that you cannot be a Christian if you are in favor of immigration laws.
I’ve heard parents gasp when they find out that students at WLS might cheat or use foul language or even be bullies. They are confused at how there could be this kind of behavior at a Christian school.
Personally, I’ve had parents from other schools feel it wasn’t very Christian that I kept our three eighth grade starters on the field at the end of the soccer championship game when we were winning 8-1.
What does it mean to be a Christian? In our Epistle lesson, the apostle Paul lays out some – definitely not all – of the marks of a true Christian. He lays out simple, straightforward advice. Basically, everything Paul lists can be summed up with the phrase, “Don’t pretend to be a Christian.” That’s exactly what he says in verse 9: “Do not just pretend to love others.”
Christianity is love. It is a love that is genuine. It is an agape love – a sacrificial type of love. This love is not a feeling. It is an action. God loved you by acting upon that love in sending His Son to die for you. Now you act upon that divine love in demonstrating love for others. You love others genuinely – without faking it.
You demonstrate your love for God and your love for others by hating what is evil. Abhor evil. Be repulsed by it. Teenagers, if your mom doesn’t like your music, there’s probably a good reason for it. Parents, help you children by listening to their music, watching their movies, reading through their social media. Help them get rid of the evil, because evil is from the devil.
The opposite is also true. Cling to what is good. Fill your life with the godly and divine. Make use of your Bible, Catechism, hymnal and prayers at home. What is good comes from God.
“Be devoted to one another with brotherly love. Think of others as deserving more honor than yourselves.” Those in Christ’s family should exhibit familial love towards one another. I tell my girls that their friends in grade school and high school will come and go. Instead, hang out with their sisters. That’s a bond that will – hopefully – last a lifetime. This kind of familial love goes for your brothers and sisters in Christ’s Church. Put your Christian brothers and sisters first. This way, you are honoring them above yourself.
“Do not be lagging behind in zeal, but be fervent in spirit, as you continue to serve the Lord.” Being fervent in spirit means to be literally boiling over with the Holy Spirit. Let the Spirit fill your life through Word and Sacrament. That spiritual fervor will flow out from you to others.
“Be joyful in hope.” Scriptural hope means confidence. Happiness is based on circumstances. Joy is based on Christ. You may not be happy with your circumstances, but you remain joyful in your confidence that Christ has something better planned for your eternal future. That means that neither suffering, nor affliction, nor pain can steal your joy.
“Endure trials patiently.” Either God will ease your affliction, or He will allow you the strength to deal with your affliction. He may also remove the affliction. Eventually, He will remove you from the affliction eternally.
“Persist in prayer.” Resist the devil by praying the Lord’s Prayer every day and using it as a pattern for your other prayers. Resist the devil by praying intercessory prayers for others.
“Share with the saints who are in need. Be quick to welcome strangers as guests. … Rejoice with those who are rejoicing; weep with those who are weeping. Have the same respect for one another. Do not be arrogant, but associate with the humble. Do not think too highly of yourselves.” Share with God’s people who are in need by making meals for them, donating to Epiphany’s food pantry, giving gift cards, donating hats, coats, gloves, blankets, etc. Demonstrate your Christian hospitality not just in physical gifts, but also being a physical presence with hugs, tears, and laughter.
Those are the kinds of things that we would expect Christians to be doing for others. They are fairly straightforward suggestions on how to live and act like a Christian. But, in the next few verses, Paul goes even farther into what God expects of us. The previous verses were advice on how Christians can use their spiritual gifts publicly and privately among believers. Now, Paul includes advice on how to treat others in society. This includes those who neither understand nor appreciate Christianity.
None of what Paul mentions here are possible for unregenerate people in their natural, sinful state. These are decidedly Christian virtues. These are not things we do to gain God’s favor. Rather, they are the results of God’s favor being show through Christ being in us.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse. … Do not pay anyone back evil for evil. Focus on those things that everyone considers noble. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, maintain peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. But: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. For by doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Another Christian virtue is to “not pay anyone back evil for evil.” This seems to fly in the face of the Old Testament justice principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24). That Old Testament principle was defining civic justice – the justice a court would hand out. St. Paul describes something differing. It is not “justice.” It is godly conduct. It is allowing room for God’s justice. God alone occupies the only seat on the Supreme Court of heaven. He wears the robe and refuses to share the gavel.
We overcome evil when we refuse to play its game. Don’t join in the confrontations on social media. Don’t slander a teacher or parent or student or co-worker. Never, ever fire off a text or an email or a tweet or anything else in anger. Take your hands off the keyboard. Shut your mouth. Bite your tongue. And pray.
If there must be hostilities, bickering, insults, let it be from them to us and not the other way around. “As far as it is possible, maintain peace with everyone.” Peace may not always be possible, but Christians should never intentionally cause hostility. Do not allow someone else’s wickedness to defeat our goodness. Instead, our kindness should overcome their malice. That’s what it means to “heap burning coals on his head.” By returning their attacks with godly love, you are leading them to the burning pain of remorse and repentance.
These are Christian virtues that St. Paul lays out for us. Practice these virtues as an expression of your Christianity.
But still, people are going to charge you with being unchristian. Explain yourself calmly and peacefully. I apologize to my neighbor and keep my dogs inside when she’s outside. When it comes to a policy like immigration, a government is neither Christian nor unchristian. I explain to parents that a school like WLS has 180 sinners in it, with sinful teachers and sinful pastors. I told the girls before the championship game that win or lose, the eighth graders were going to finish their last game on the field and not on the bench.
Are we going to get everything right in these Christian virtues? No. But that exactly what it means to be a Christian! It doesn’t mean that we are perfect. Being a Christian means that we are forgiven!
We don’t come to church because we are holy. We come to church because we are unholy and need Christ’s holiness to cover over our sin. We don’t profess to be Christians because we are so great. We profess to be Christians because our Savior, Jesus Christ is so great. Just don’t pretend to be a Christian. Be sincere in your virtues, in your repentance over your lack of virtues, and in your forgiveness from Christ for your failing virtues.
That’s what it means to be a Christian!
People also accused Jesus with not having Christian virtues. And He was the Christ! They didn’t like how He ate with sinners or forgave tax collectors or talked with prostitutes. They gave Jesus a hard time because His disciples picked grain on the Sabbath or because Jesus decided to heal on the Sabbath.
And yet, how did Jesus react to all those charges? He peacefully kept on eating with sinners and forgiving tax collectors and talking with prostitutes. He kept on teaching His disciples that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.
Jesus, the first and original Christian, overcame evil with good. He came and lived a holy life of obedience, kindness, and goodness unlike the world had ever seen. He died at the hands of evil men to redeem them from their sins. He answered hate with love. He answered sin with righteousness. He came face-to-face with pure evil and conquered it with good.
Christ heaped the fiery coals of remorse and repentance on us that led us to the purifying fires of His forgiveness. Christ did not take vengeance upon us, but rather let God’s vengeance fall upon Him. Christ associated with humble sinners by becoming humble Himself in Mary’s womb and the bloody cross. When He was persecuted and slandered on the cross, He blessed and forgave the world by shedding His blood on the world’s behalf.
What St. Paul lays out for us in these verses is difficult. We will falter. We will fail. We will be charged with being unchristian. But, don’t become frustrated with your futility. Rather, your struggles to produce these Christian virtues are marked by joy, for those struggles always lead back to Christ, who is our joy. Your struggles to love, bless, and overcome evil with good force you to embrace ever tighter the grace that saves you. By seeing your sin more clearly in your failures – especially when others point them out to you – you are led by faith to treasure more highly the waters that have washed you, the Word that forgives you, and the Supper that feeds you.
Christians are not called upon to make everyone happy or to make everything right in the world. We are called upon to follow Christ’s example and model Christ’s words. When we fail, we follow Christ to the cross in repentance. When we succeed, we follow Christ to the cross to give Him the glory.
You can’t pretend to be a Christian. Be a Christian by following Christ. Amen.