Let’s start with Paul’s list. Paul loves lists; there are plenty of them in the letters, even those thought to be from other authors.
After making a general statement, or setting the bar as high as he could, Paul then gets specific. The general statement, which is also specific in a way, is “let love be genuine. “Don’t fake it”, he says. “Don’t go halfheartedly into this loving thing. Make it real, make it sincere, put your whole self into it. Love genuinely. Got it?”
“Now,” says Paul, “let’s get specific”: “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (12:9). He divides our responsibilities into inside and outside, and this is an inside kind of statement. One of the problems we have being Christian in the world today is a tendency to do inside work outside and to do outside work on the inside. Let me explain what I mean.
Paul is establishing rules of behavior for the community of faith. This is how we are trying to be; this is who we are trying to be. He describes life within the community in dynamic, powerful ways. We are connected; we are accountable; we are invested in one another’s lives. This difficult work of hating evil and holding fast to good is an inside job. This isn’t a call to go and change the world; this is a call to clean our own house. We are called to not let the world creep in around the edges of our thinking. We are called to root it out, to stand against it, to call one another to a higher standard. We are to be in the business of transforming lives.
Now, Paul is quick to point out, the methodology for this change is always love. Our tools are respect, and honor, and patience, and prayer, not judgment, and punishment, and vengeance. But, again, we put our whole selves into this process. We pour ourselves out for the community, for those within the community who are struggling to learn how to live and to love as Christ calls us to love. And we never give up. Here is where that counting thing needs to be remembered: “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me? “More than you can count”, says Jesus. Paul says it like this: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord” (12:11).
(As an aside, that last phrase could be read another way. Translation from the original Greek is a difficult process, partly because writers didn’t use punctuation or spacing when they wrote [paper was a precious resource]. They also used abbreviations on occasion. The word in question is “krs,” which is here interpreted to be “kurios” or Lord, but might have been “kairos” or time. Paul might have been saying - don’t wait, seize the opportunities that arise, “serve the time.” Either way, serve the Lord or seize the opportunities would fit in this context, so why not take it to mean both! Get to work serving the Lord as we work in the lives of those within the community who need our attention.)
But lest we think our work is all inwardly focused, according to Paul, he quickly moves us out. First, we are called to pay attention to the threshold. In fact, it might be argued that the real work of the church doesn’t take place inside, or even outside, but on the threshold. The life of the church is found in how the guest is welcomed and included. The spirit of the church is felt by the strangers who find themselves in need or simply in proximity to the church and are caught up in the generous hospitality that draws them in.
Now, having opened the door, Paul runs out with enthusiasm and opportunity, dragging us along in his wake. From verse fourteen on, we are now living in the world around us. Notice there is no crusading spirit for living in the world. There is only service and love and honor and respect—the same tools we took up on the inside, but we use them with even more tenderness. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep . . . associate with the lowly . . .” (12:15-16), and then the whole vengeance being God’s providence thing.
What is behind this idea from Paul is that we are going to get hurt. That’s the part we struggle with. I’d be willing to do a whole lot more mission stuff if it didn’t cost me so much, right? I’d be more willing to share faith, to trust my neighbor, to sacrifice for those who need if I didn’t get taken advantage of, if I didn’t get the rug pulled out from under me, if I knew everything was going to work out to my advantage, or at least to cause me minimal damage. But that has never been the promise. Safety was never high on Jesus’ list of concerns. Why else would Paul be telling us how to respond if he was assuring us that things never went wrong?
No one said this stuff was going to be easy—only that it is worth it. Living in harmony, even with those who don’t want to live in harmony with us, is worth the effort it takes. Loving is worth the effort and the rejection we receive. Hope is worth the effort, even when despair seems so much more logical.
Finally, we come to the coals. We might wish Paul hadn’t said that bit about the burning coals. It seems to lead to more malicious glee than it ought. “Killing them with kindness” is still killing them. But maybe what he was really saying was that the cold pleasure we take in getting revenge is nothing compared to the warm joy of serving or healing or helping. So, go ahead, heap some coals. It’ll do us all some good!
Here we turn to Matthew. And the only thing we can say is that Jesus is living out Paul’s entire list. And then he carefully invites us to do the same. What love could be more genuine than a love that surrenders all, a love that endures suffering for another? Jesus doesn’t make a list because he is the list. And as such, he becomes our model and our hope. No, we can’t sacrifice our lives on a cross for the salvation of the world. But we can live each day in humble surrender to the need of the other, seeking to bring justice to a world that is broken and peace to a world tearing itself apart with divisions and hatred that rise up all around us with frightening regularity.
Like Peter, however, we too often wish for an easier faith, a pain-free, risk-free discipleship. “God forbid it, Lord!” Jesus’ response to this outburst reminds us that when we seek such a path, we are in opposition to the work of Jesus in the world. The “Satan” in Hebrew means adversary, opposition. Some have come to calling it prosecuting attorney, those who bring a different case to the court. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that those who preach an easy grace, or a comfortable faith, are taking the role of the Satan in diminishing the power of the supreme, genuine act of love that Jesus and, through him, all followers seek to live out? Get behind me, Satan. Get in my path, follow my steps, do as I do. Stop opposing and start following!
Do not lag in zeal, Paul writes. Hold on until the end. Jesus says, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom” (16:28). Whoops, did Jesus get it wrong? Some have argued that this statement comes from Mark’s Gospel, and there the statement is, “some will not die before they see the Kingdom.” And that could be argued that seeing what Christ has done and is doing in the world is something more accessible and therefore possible. But here the statement is clearly about the return of Christ. Was Jesus wrong? Was this a belief of the church at the time of Matthew’s writing and was put in Jesus’ mouth? Or is there some other way to interpret these words that we’re missing? It’s not clear how important such a statement is to our faith today. One way to hear these words is to embrace the promise that God is in control, and we need not worry, even though the opposite seems more likely to our eyes. This is affirmation of God’s sovereignty, even though we don’t grasp the depths of it. In this series, it seems this is another case where God’s how is our why. We don’t need to know the details, just to live with the truth and the promise. We just need to live Because God.