Do good people go to heaven?
Jesus told the good people of his day that the sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of them.
What’s the point of doing good then?
We are surely a transactional people. We want something for something.
Of course, we are sort of slanted towards the negative. We have formulas for this. One oops wipes out a thousandattaboys, or other such, perhaps more colorful comparisons.
The western world is a count and measure society.
We like to count our money, our savings, our vehicles, and once upon a time—we counted our S&H Green Stamps.
And…we like to count our good deeds.
Occasionally, we even count our blessings.
We often measure our worth by what we count.
Paul is writing from Corinth to Rome, but his message seems to be aimed a little farther west to a nation that would only start to emerge 1700 years later.
We are a people who didn’t grow up with the law that God have Israel. Yes, we read the Old Testament, memorized some Bible stories and the 23rd Psalm, and have said that the 10 Commandments should be the basis of our law or at least hanging on the walls of the courthouse—though we really didn’t give much thought to how we would enforce thou shalt not covet or crimes committed in the heart; but we never lived under the law.
We have always lived in a time when we could call upon the name of the Lord. We could always know Jesus. We didn’t ever try to live by the law that God gave Moses.
But it seems that we want to. We especially like the eye for an eye part, though we don’t understand that such a law was a tempered mercy.
Without the law, if you poked out my brother’s eye, then I might just cut off your head. Then your brother would kill three of my children. Then…
The Hatfields and McCoy’s did not invent the concept of the continual feud.
Italians are not the authors of vendetta.
Raphael Patai in his book, The Arab Mind, describes an encounter between two men. It goes something like this.
They both come to a well in the desert in search of water for themselves and their conveyance. One man pulls out a dagger and without any announcement slices the throat of the other man.
As his victim falls to the ground, the other man says, that was for my great, great, great, great grandfather.
The way of the world is to repay evil with evil. Vengeance is world currency.
Paul has just finished a discussion on being a living sacrifice—living a life set apart for God. He challenges his readers to respond to God’s grace by being holy and pleasing to God. Such a response to an undeserved gift is our reasonable act of worship.
Then he writes of reforming our mind into what is essentially the mind of Christ.
Then he tells us to use the gifts that God has given us.
He says take your newly formed mind and go live your new thoughts out faithfully, and oh by the way, God has equipped you with special gifts so that you will be successful in this new walk.
And his readers are surely thinking, this could work. This will be great. We truly can be a new creation!
Then Paul reminds them that there is evil in the world. Though equipped for success, this will be no cake walk.
The old thinking patterns tell them to respond to evil with evil, or at least with modified vengeance.
Living out new patterns with faith gets tough when you have to deal with evil. Such encounters take more than mental acumen.
It seems that when Paul writes a long letter, he gets to a point where he just has to start talking about love. We would mark that point at about the 12th or 13th chapters today.
We recall a discussion in a letter to the church from which he wrote the present letter to Rome.
Love is patient, kind, without envy, free of boasting, not proud, not self-seeking, not easily angered, not an accountant of wrongs.
Paul would add, among other things that love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Paul embarks upon a similar course with his Roman readers. It seems as if he were writing this part to be fit onto a Power Point slide. Some of these bullets are antithetical, some are stand alone nuggets.
- Let love be genuine—let love be love.
- Hate what is evil. We sometimes don’t care much for the word hate. It sounds like it ought to be dirty word. It is something terrible when directed at anything that God pronounced as good, especially those made in his image. But to detest evil with a vengeance is preventative. Evil: Don’t mess with it.
- The flipside of this is to hold fast to what is good. Don’t take it for granted. Cherish it.
- Love one another with mutual affection. Those who are in Christ have a special love for each other. We should strive for the same connection that those who became the very close friends of Jesus enjoyed. We can speak the truth to one another.
- Serve the Lord with zeal and a passionate spirit.”You have been saved from a meaningless life. You are a people of purpose. You are experiencing God’s love first hand!” Yeah, OK, whatever… Not! Get excited about the good news that has opened the door into real life—life in relationship with Jesus!
- Rejoice in hope. We are a people not permitted despair. No experience in life can compare to the glory for which we are predestined.
- Be patient in suffering. We are made for more than our present circumstance.
- Persevere in prayer. Now that we are listening, God has more to say to us. Think to James, the half-brother of Jesus, when you think about prayer. James doesn’t get much space in the Bible—one book, and a tough one to live by at that. But James was the head of the Christian church in Jerusalem and was known as Old Camel Knees. This was not a hereditary condition. It was from not hours or days but years on his knees in prayer. Persevere in prayer.
- Contribute to the needs of the saints. This was probably a tough line for Paul to pen. Paul had some pride in the fact that he was a tent-maker. He made his own way. Even when he was imprisoned and the church at Philippi sent him an offering, he told them thanks, but I really didn’t need it, but thanks. Not all needs are monetary. Hospitality, fellowship, teaching, and other ways to equip the saints are surely within the scope of this charge.
- Extend hospitality to strangers. Consider the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why did God destroy them? There was surely wickedness there, but they had not cornered that market. Among the evils that prevailed was the lack of hospitality. Long before God gave the law to Moses, he required hospitality for strangers. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that sometimes we entertain angels unaware. Jesus told us whatever we do for the least of these my brothers, we do for him. Genuine love reaches out to the stranger.
- Bless those who persecute you. This is tough stuff. Genuine love tells us to bring happiness to those bent on stealing ours.
- Do not curse them. This is not the only antithetical pairing in this section, but surely the most distinct. You can’t get fresh and salt water from the same source. We are talking about wholeness, completeness. We have a word for wholeness. We call it integrity. The Germans have one that talks of wholeness beyond the whole—beyond the sum of the parts. The word is Gestalt. How can you have more than the sum of the parts? With genuine love. You can’t bless and curse at the same time, but when you can bless without the desire to curse those who persecute you; there is fullness not otherwise attainable by ordinary means. This is not easy but we are not without example. It is to love humanity while dying painfully on a cross and to know only the love.
- Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. This is more than empathy.
- Live in harmony with one another. This is more than tolerance.
- Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Earlier, Paul put it this way. We must not consider ourselves more highly than we ought.
- Do not claim to be wiser than you are. Some have the gift of wisdom. They are to use it for the good of the body of Christ. Some don’t have it. Paul says don’t fake it. Don’t covet a gift that you don’t have.
- These last few bullets about rejoicing and weeping and living in harmony and not being arrogant or distant and associating with those in low places is about one thing: Fellowship—true Christian fellowship. We get the term from the Greek word Koinonia. This concept is about more than reaching out to those on the fringes. It is about bringing them into the family. In genuine Christian fellowship, there is no such thing as the least of these my brothers—at least not for long.
Then Paul gets down to this business of dealing with evil. He says do not repay evil for evil. He says, stop and think before responding to evil. He says that our considered response should be more noble than that of the world.
He continues, that if you can—this is surely a qualifying statement—if you can, live in harmony with everyone. If at all possible, live in peace with all. Why qualify this? Is this not a noble goal for all? We all have been given a different measure of faith. We all have been given different gifts. We all have some shared and some different life experiences enroute to our predestination. We won’t all have peace with everyone along the way.
But none of us are entitled to vengeance or righteous anger. God alone can judge.
Instead we are charged to treat our enemies in a very specific way.
- If they are hungry, feed them.
- If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
These are not instructions for helping the average Joe on the street. This is how we are to treat those who would hurt us if they could.
And Paul has asked us to do something that we cannot do. Our hearts won’t respond this way. We need some sort of justice or pay back or accounting. We just can’t do this.
We can’t do this without genuine love.
We can’t do this with a superficial sort of love, which should be an oxymoron.
Paul is challenging us to live beyond our human nature. He is challenging us to live in our divine nature. He is challenging us to live as if we have arrived at our destination of being the image and likeness of Christ.
Paul concludes saying that we must not be overcome by evil. But instead of fighting fire with fire, we respond with love.
This good versus evil conflict is not a cosmic battle. That battle was settled before it began. God reigns. This is a personal battle in the human heart.
Our battle is not in our flesh and blood heart, though that organ surely pumps faster when we are at war. This is spiritual warfare.
The amateur battlefield commander matches strength against strength. He hopes for the best. The experienced commander brings strength against weakness. The goal is not to fight an evenly matched battle. Only victory is acceptable. The commander must pick his objectives and overwhelm his enemy at those points.
Neither are we to match evil for evil in the battlefield of our hearts and minds. We are called to mass superior forces and overcome evil with love, with good.
The good we do does not earn points with God, but the relationship with God brings out the good.
We are living our lives for God, with a newly patterned mind, with the measure of faith and the specific gifts God has given us has equipped us to live in genuine love. We are equipped to overcome evil with love and the good that flows out from such love.
In this battle that we fight inside ourselves from time to time, we are to overwhelm the enemy. We are to use the superior force of love. We will overcome evil with good.
If we can manage to do good for our enemies, how much more will we do for each other?
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.