Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 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. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘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.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12.9-21
I’ve just started reading Tolkien again, for the umpteenth time in my life (seriously – I can’t remember how many times I’ve read The Lord of the Rings, but it is 'many', as in ‘more than I have fingers to count’). The trigger was a rebroadcast of the Peter Jackson films on some cable station the other night; seeing the Rohirrim charging into the armies of Mordor just got me thinking it was time to revisit Tolkien’s fantastic world.
This time, I’m starting with The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s history of Middle-Earth from the dawning of its creation to the end of the Third Age (The Lord of the Rings era, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the Middle-Earth timeline). The story begins with the creation of the world through the song of Iluvatar and his children, the Ainur, but even at the beginning, something went wrong. One of the singers, Melkor, desired more power and the dominion of his own vision of creation, so he sang in ways that weren’t harmonizing with the other Valar. This pattern of betrayal and contention continued for ages upon ages in this wonderful tale: Melkor, also known as Morgoth, chose the path of greed and malice and thus was Middle-Earth stained by evil and sin.
Those aren’t the words Tolkien uses, mind you: I don’t think the word “sin” occurs even once in this first part of The Silmarillion, and if it does occur in the rest of the Tolkien library, it does not occur often. But Tolkien was a theologian nevertheless: his mythology bears the tragedy and glory of free will and our bondage to sin better than any writer of the 20th century.
I bring this up because of the reading from Romans for tonight. As we were working on this text in our pastor’s group study yesterday afternoon, a local pastor said, “I didn’t listen to this kind of stuff when my mother said it: why would I listen when Paul says it?” Standing by itself, this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans bends the back of every sinner in the joint with the weight of heavy expectations and missed opportunities. Notice that in these verses the word “until” does not appear once. There’s no end in sight to this list of demands, and so Paul’s words take on the full power of the Law to push and demand and accuse. Let’s face it: we will all lag in zeal, we will rarely bless those who persecute us, and there will always be a small part of us that wants most desperately to repay evil with evil.
There’s no “until” in this passage because what Paul describes is not a program for self-improvement: this is the pattern of life for which God created us in the beginning. But, like Melkor in The Silmarillion, we insist on calling the tune and create discord where there is supposed to be harmony. It’s no good insisting that we try to work our way back to the original melody, either: for every moment where we do heed the call of God to holy living, there are a thousand moments where we deny the call, sing our own tune and bring the whole thing into discord all over again.
There is, however, reason for hope. The other reason the word “until” doesn’t appear in this passage from Romans is this: there is no “until” left for God’s children. We who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever already have everything God has to give. Our choices are ours to make, and the consequences are ours to bear, but the first and most important choice has already been made by God: you are God’s child and can never be separated from God, even by your own decisions to live in discord with the world around you.
In a recent article at the Christian Century website, a woman wrote about surviving a terrible car accident. An onlooker said to her, “God must have plans for you, because you all survived this accident.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that not everyone survives accidents – and not every accident is a genuine accident. People make poor decisions, like running stop signs, speeding, driving drunk, and sometimes those poor decisions bear terrible consequences, but those decisions are our own, not the hand of God squashing us flat because we’ve served our purpose in this world. Here is the mystifying nature of the grace of God: grace forgives poor decisions, missed opportunities, denial and fear, and sets us free with the distinct possibility that we will likely do it all over again. But, as we are set free, the teachings of Jesus and his followers, like Paul, remind us that there is indeed something better for which we were made. “Overcome evil with good”? Maybe not today – but I’ve been set free for tomorrow, and that is all that matters.