In the I AM

August 25, 2008

When I read Romans 12:9-21, I think: this is the best of it, this is
what marks and makes a good Christian. Love truly and even more
generously than the next guy. Seek out goodness and turn your back on
evil, be untiring in service to God, be hopeful and steadfast in the
face of disappointment, be compassionate and humble. Universal and
timeless, these instructions are the real deal. I even think: this is
what people are talking about when they say that the New Testament is
about love and forgiveness (by contrast with the Old's tally-keeping
and vengeance). That is until I get to verse 19, where Paul says we are
to extend this generosity to people who would do us harm. "Leave room
for the wrath of God.” By doing good to those who would hurt you, Paul
says, you "heap burning coals on their heads." Hmmm.

The
notion that the God of the Old Testament is a God of Wrath and the God
of the New is Love is a tired cliché, misplaced and misleading (not to
mention theologically problematic for Christians whose faith dictates
that both tell of the One God). The Old Testament contains mercy
abounding, forgiveness all out of proportion and love without limits.
The New Testament tells of justice that requires accountability, hope
that evil won't go unpunished and stern admonition to take the harder
road. Both testaments counsel balance born of wisdom. They advise an
honest, earnest quest to do what is right in the eyes of God tempered
by the humility of knowing that we're not going to get it perfect. Both
know how crucial accountability is to true justice and that we all need
mercy like water in the desert.

I
hear in those hard, final words of Paul's, echoes of the psalmists'
prayers that God do something! about the people who prosper
undeservedly, who cheat, hurt and terrorize. The psalmists don't say
that they took matters into their own hands and made their victimizers
into victims. While they wish that God would wreak a little vengeance,
they don't presume to be the executors of such justice.

We can
hope for justice because God Is. We can extend gracious hospitality to
the stranger, compassion to the suffering and friendship no matter what
because the God who declared, "I Am" partners with ordinary human
beings to do extraordinary things. Moses was full of doubt, but God
said I Am. The grammar of this God is action in the present tense,
be-ing, then and evermore. Humans have the privilege and responsibility
to act and be in concert with God.

Jesus, the incarnation of
"I Am," told his disciples that he would have to suffer and die. And
they would too. "For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." I don't think
that he was talking only about physical martyrdom, but rather about
acting and be-ing, day in and day out, in the One who Is. This, Jesus
says, is life, and the whole world's profit doesn't hold a candle to
it.