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Burning Coals

Romans 12v20-21

26th July 2019

We've been reading these exhortations to live at peace with our fellow men and women, from the 12th chapter of Paul's letter to the church in Rome:

Romans 12v17-19
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay" says the Lord.

This week we'll consider the last two ideas from this chapter. Firstly, in contrast to "getting our own back", Paul says:

Romans 12v20
On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Many words have been spent trying to work out exactly what Paul meant by that, and I don't think I have the definitive explanation of these words, but I have got somewhere towards it. I think Paul means If you try to fight fire with fire, things will get worse, so don't do that. If you do nothing, things won't get better, so don't just give up and walk away. But if you show kindness, it may lead to reconciliation.

If we are kind to those who hurt us, it will have some sort of effect. Apart from anything else, they'll be rather surprised. If somebody came to your house and smashed your windows yesterday, and you went round to his house and gave him a box of chocolates, he would be a bit surprised. In your situation, that might not be exactly the best thing to do, but perhaps there's something you could do that would get some kind of reaction.

It's not easy to be generous and kind to people who hurt you, and it can feel a bit weird, but it is at least a genuine attempt to fix the problem.

The other person can react to your kindness any way they choose. Some, perhaps, will just be encouraged to behave even more badly towards you, or even towards others. Some will see you as a willing victim, easy to persecute and exploit. But some will think, "Hang on a minute. This guy's got some understanding I haven't got. This person manages to love me despite what I've done to him. Maybe I should be a bit more like that."

I think burning coals on a person's head is most of all a symbol of discomfort. I'm sure it is uncomfortable to have burning coals on your head. I think Paul is saying, if you give food and drink (or anything else) to your enemy, you will at least make him think. And maybe he'll think, "There's a better way to live than the way I've been living". Maybe your kindness will lead him to repentance. Maybe it won't, but it's the one thing you can do that might help him. maybe he'll see that love is better than hatred, resentment, anger or prejudice.

And finally, in this chapter and this part of his teaching, Paul says:

Romans 12v21
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

What a fine principle! What a magnificent way to sum up Paul's approach to ethics!

In our country, in our society, in our world, if you spend too much time watching the news or surfing the net, you may well feel like you are being overcome by evil. No, you're not! Christ said, "I will build my church and the gates of hell with not prevail against it" Matthew 16v18). We will never be overcome by evil.

We can be irritated by evil, hurt by evil, depressed by evil, but we'll never be overcome by evil - unless we choose to be. But if there is a way to be overcome by evil, it's to join in. The way evil does us the most harm is that it tempts us to do evil too.

Don't be overcome by evil. Choose to do what is right, what is kind, what is generous, what is forgiving, what is loving, what is patient, to everybody, including those who treat you badly.

There is nonetheless, a time to get out of a toxic environment. If a person continues to mistreat you, get out!

Even on the day when you're really hurt, don't retaliate. Just love the other person, and you will overcome evil with good. This is what a healthy church looks like. For a healthy church there is no such thing as revenge. There is no such thing as getting your own back. There is no such thing praying harm over anybody, ever. A healthy church is all about love, including love for those who don't love us. Then we'll change the world for Jesus.