Homily for Proper 22, Year A
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 12:9-21
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
-- Romans 12:21
In today’s epistle, the Apostle reiterates some of the most important teachings that we find in the Gospel. He admonishes his audience to be genuine in love, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in honour. Be ardent, zealous, hopeful, patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, and contribute to the needs of the saints. And finally, do not repay evil with evil, but overcome evil with good. Is it not true that many, if not all of these Christian virtues are difficult to observe and maintain? How many of us are truly able to turn the other cheek, or offer hospitality to one who has offended us? Are any of these virtues actually possible? How many of us actually live with the belief that good will indeed overcome evil?
If we have learned anything over the past several weeks of journeying with Paul, I hope that it is this, that these things are not possible without Christ. Indeed, if we seek these virtues under our own power we shall never attain to them. If these virtues are at all possible, it is our Lord and God working through us in Jesus Christ -- not me, but Christ in me. This is why the Apostle commands us to persevere in prayer. Prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. In prayer we bring before God the pains and sorrows of this weary world, and in prayer we lay before God our own brokenness and our sinfulness. What is more, in prayer we receive great peace. In prayer God enfolds us in love. In prayer, when all about us comes crashing down and all seems lost, God enfolds us in his loving arms and keeps us and reminds us that all shall indeed be well. In prayer, God reminds us not to be overcome by the world but to meet the world in its suffering.
Indeed, it was in suffering world to which our Lord Jesus Christ stretched out his hands on the cross, and it was this same suffering world that he redeemed in his Resurrection. Even on the road to the cross, even in Gethsemane, even on Golgotha – Jesus Christ was not overcome by evil, but overcame evil with good, for on the third day, as we all know, he rose from the dead, reconciling all things to God.
Yes, it is difficult for us to live with Christian virtue, to live in love and charity with our neighbour, and to love those who persecute us. But look to our Lord on the Cross and remember this, it is not me but Christ in me. It is not you, but Christ in you. Friends, if we rely on our own power to overcome evil with good, it shall never be done. But if we rely on Christ, who transforms us and transforms the world, all things are possible. It is not simply a matter of “what would Jesus do?” but “what has Jesus done.” He has trampled down the power of sin and death. He has overcome evil with what is good. And in him we have died to our old selves in order that we might be alive to God.
This is the truth to which Paul has spoken throughout the letter to the Romans, and this is the truth into which we are called to live. If we live into this truth we shall indeed be transformed and those Christian virtues that seem so difficult for each of us will become a way of life.
A man came to Jesus and asked him to heal his child who was severely afflicted. “Just believe,” Jesus told him. What was the man’s response? Was it not the response that might come from the lips of any of us – words of hope and yet words of doubt? “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” This is where most of us stand, is it not, with a desire to believe, a desire to live the Christian life, but with a fear that it is all an illusion? Yet, in Jesus’ presence, the man was encouraged and his prayer was granted.
Persevere in prayer. This is perhaps the most important encouragement in today’s passage from Romans. It is, of course, a vow that each of us have made in our baptisms: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And what is our answer? “I will with God’s help.” Paul knows that we cannot do it on our own and thus in our Baptism we make our promise, which is actually a plea for help.
Persevere in prayer. How shall we do this? And is persevering in prayer a “work” toward our salvation, the kind of thing that Paul cautions against? I do not think so. For prayer, although often described as a work (and to be sure, prayer does take effort and discipline), is actually a way of being. It is a relationship rather than a task. Relationships take time and effort, but they are primarily about simply being together. So it is with prayer. Thus, if we believe that prayer is not so much a task but a relationship, then we believe that prayer is simply about being with God.
Now, how do we set about being with God, which is, I believe the primary task of prayer? First, I think that we must set aside a regular time to be with God, everyday. A relationship that does not have intention and commitment is really not a relationship at all. Set aside some time, even just a little bit. Think of how much joy it brings to you and a spouse, a friend or child, to have a regular bit of time together, even if it is just for a short while. Take the time.
Next, be intentional about how you spend the time. Any relationship is built upon shared experience and mutual conversation. What might time with God look like and what shape will our conversation take? Traditionally, our shared experience as a Christian people is the Holy Scripture. The Bible is our story. Our conversation is our reflection on this story, our grappling with it, our questioning of it, our praying it. There are many ways of prayer, but as Anglicans we have a particular gift, the gift of the Daily Office. The Daily Office is a daily cycle of daily prayer and reading in which we hear and pray the word of God day-by-day as a way of being with God and talking with God. If we hope to become a people with a passionate spirituality, then we must listen to God in our Holy Scripture and converse with God in prayer. There can be no substitute. We hear people say that the Bible does not have meaning for them, but have they chosen to take the time to read it faithfully in the context of prayer?
To this end, I issue you a challenge. I am calling this challenge “The Gospel of Mark Challenge.” I am encouraging, even challenging you, to take fifteen minutes every day to pray the Daily Office and read a little bit of Mark’s Gospel from beginning to end. The Gospel of St. Mark has sixteen chapters. This means that by reading half a chapter a day, you can read it through in about a month. But read it through as part of a little service that you do at a set time of the day, a time of your choosing. Many of you will own a Book of Alternative Services or Book of Common Prayer. Morning and Evening Prayer can be found in both these books. You can do a fuller or abbreviated service, depending on how you feel. You can do Morning or Evening Prayer; it is your choice. Each service makes provision for readings from Scripture. You don’t have to read a lot, just half a chapter of Mark (that’s a couple of paragraphs). Make the space in your life for a relationship with God, and be intentional about how you will use the time.
Finally, I offer two other thoughts. These thoughts are intended to help you keep at it. First, if you miss a day, that’s okay. No need to double-up on your reading or prayers. Just pick up where you left off. There is no pressure to meet any deadline. The only imperative is that we start today, not tomorrow. Tomorrow never comes. Secondly, let’s read together shall we? I’ll make the commitment to read along beside you in my daily prayer. Furthermore, I’m making the commitment to be available to you to help you in your reading: Drop me an email, leave me a voicemail message. I will be reflecting regularly on my website about interesting and challenging bits of the text, and attempting to reflect on questions that emerge. I invite you to journey with me.
As I said earlier, prayer is not so much about doing. It is about being – being with God and being together as a Christian people. If we persevere in prayer we shall find God waiting patiently for us. And we shall find a God who helps us in our weakness and comforts us in our sorrow. We shall find a God who will be virtuous when we cannot be virtuous, who forgives when we cannot forgive, who does all those things that Paul commands even when we cannot. Yet, we shall also find that his virtues will become our virtues and yes, come to discover that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Text Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed by any means, either in whole or part, without the express, written permission of the author.