Radical Practices: Resistance – Transforming, Not Conforming – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Romans 12:1-2, 9-21

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

We continue our lenten sermon series on radical practices in our faithfulness to Jesus’ call.  This evening I will speak on the radical practice of resistance.  Christianity has always been a resistance movement.  When the world loves you, beware.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ turns everything upside down.

First, a disclaimer about what I’m not going to talk about.  The word “resistance” is now prominent in public dialogue on both sides of the Atlantic with reference to our own national government.  In our own country, whether you participate in Move On, or are sending postcards to Congress, or are marching, or are boycotting or lobbying, you will know the word “resistance.”  And I dare say, no matter your vote this past November, you would probably find compunction to, in some way, actively resist various policies of our national government.  I’m not going to talk about those practices.  Rather, I’ll speak about the habits of the heart which arise from our life-long conversion to Christ.  Saint Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”[i]  In the absence this transformation, our resistance has every possibility of becoming the shadow side of what we are resisting, the danger of our becoming another version of the very thing we decry or detest.

When Saint Paul writes about not being conformed to this world, the world he inherited from the generation in which Jesus lived was deeply conflicted. There was a tremendous cost to discipleship. Saint Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’”[ii]  There was no sense of “Christendom.”  To the contrary, the world was in crisis and a catastrophe on a scale never before seen was imminent.  The government of Palestine had been usurped.  The Roman empire had colonized Palestine in 63 bce, and, as was their practice, Rome appointed local leaders to serve their own purposes.  Herod the Great, then his three sons, were the appointed Jewish sovereigns and Roman puppets.  The reign of the Herods was both enabled and compromised by the resistance movements within Judaism:

  • The Zealots resisted the deification of the Roman Emperor, whose title was “the Savior of the World.”[iii] For decades the Zealots’ protests against the Roman rule were irritating at best and incendiary at worst.
  • The Pharisees were fundamentalists, but they resisted taking up arms or, for that matter, resisted taking much notice of the Roman forces. They reluctantly gave Caesar his taxes, but harnessed their energies onto adherence to Jewish law and tradition.
  • The Sadducees were a minority in number but held the majority in wealth. They resisted change.  Pax Romana: they made peace with Rome.
  • The Essenes were countercultural, resisting both the religious and secular practices of their day. The Essenes were Jewish monastics, living out in the desert and awaiting the apocalypse, the end of the world, which they believed imminent.
  • The poor, the resident aliens, and the diseased resisted everything that conspired against them. Which was everything.

These various Jewish groups also resisted and mistrusted each other.

We find today so many parallels to the world of Jesus and, in the next generation, the world of Saint Paul.  Saint Paul writes to the church at Rome about “not being conformed to this world.”  He’s literally speaking about resisting the compromising civil and religious priorities and powers that deform the practices and authority of Jesus.  And so for us.  How do we practice what Jesus says: to live in the world but not of the world?[iv]What must we resist?

For one, we must resist the temptation of thinking that we will always be agreed with, understood, treated well, and respected. Jesus had enemies, and he presumed his followers would have enemies, whether enemies who blockade or lobby against what you believe to be right, or enemies in terms of silencing your voice, obstructing your efforts, or even eliminating your life.Jesus addresses this in the Beatitudes: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’”[v] Jesus’ saying, “love your enemies…” is a very tall order, certainly impossible without the power of God’s Spirit whom Jesus promises us.[vi] Loving your enemies is a potentially-vast project.

Where and how to love when you may find so many and so much in opposition to your sense of what is right?  Saint Paul rises to the challenge with, I find, a practical piece of advice.  It’s at least a way to begin. He writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”[vii] Cursed people do not change for the better, nor do we, their cursers.  Pray for your enemies.  Pray for those who are enemies of the cross of Christ.”[viii]  Pray that they be filled with God’s light, and life, and love.  Pray that they be blessed with God’s wisdom, with God’s provision, with God’s strength, with God’s hope for the future.  Pray for their protection – protection from physical harm; protection from what Saint Paul calls “the assaults of the enemy.”[ix] Resist cursing.  Pray blessing, not cursing, on those with whom you differ.  Cursed people do not get better.  Pray blessing.

Secondly, resist the notion that experiencing peace is elusive or impossible until all is peaceful around you.  Resist parlaying your peace into other people’s hands.  Jesus, then Saint Paul, lived in very unpeaceful worlds where opposition, even the threat of violence, was an unavoidable reality.  As Jesus anticipates his crucifixion, he makes this most bold promise about peace, of all things.  Jesus says to his followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you [peace] as the world gives.” The world gives peace solely on external standards.  When the arms have been laid down, when the strike has been resolved, when the politicians have reached an accord, when someone’s illness has been healed, when someone’s addiction has been intervened upon, then you can know peace.  These “external standards” of peace are not bad.  Quite to the contrary, they teem with goodness.  However Jesus is not speaking about these external standards of peace, but rather the internal realities of peace, peace from the inside out.  In very troubling, unpeaceful times, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[x]

Where you find yourself worrying, or overwhelmed, or powerless in the face of hostile power, take Jesus at his word.  He leaves us with his gift of peace.  Make your fears your offering to God.  Resist the delusion you must wait until all is well around you for you to know peace within your own heart.  Jesus promises us peace, something which Saint Paul discovered was paradoxically true as he faced his own impending death. He called it “the peace which surpasses understanding.”[xi]

The great theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, prayed for both peace and joy in unpeaceful and troubling times:

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace…”[xii]

Take Jesus at his word.  Be a peace receiver, and you cannot help but be a peace maker.

Thirdly, resist despair by embracing the gift of joy.  Joy is also a paradox.  Joy, as it is described in the New Testament, is always something that comes out of life’s trials and suffering.  Saint James, one of Jesus’ apostles and a martyr, begins his letter saying, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy….”[xiii]

There is a direct relationship between the depth of suffering and the height of joy.  It’s not a de jure principle.  It’s not like first you get suffering, and then you get joy.  Rather it’s simply de facto: this is simply be the way it is.  There is something about our suffering in life – what we would not have chosen but cannot avoid – that opens the door for transformation in our own soul.  The Psalmist writes, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”[xiv]  There is something about facing the dark night that allows us to see the dawning of joy.  Resist despair.  Make your suffering an offering to God.  In my own experience, this may not be the end to  your suffering – probably not – but it will be the beginning of your joy, joy amidst suffering.  Jesus, near the end of his life, makes this promise to us: “You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.”[xv]

  • Resist cursing your enemies. Bless, do not curse.
  • Resist internalizing the discord and chaos that surrounds you. Receive Jesus’ peace.
  • Resist despair. Embrace the gift of joy.  You’ll be surprised by joy, wonderfully surprised.

I’ve named three resistances to the powers of oppression and darkness that surround us in life.  I could name many more resistances.  If I don’t have your number, if I haven’t named the resistances you need to not just survive but thrive in life, take note.  Note where you are vulnerable – you and those whom you love – and identify the resistance you need. I suggest you share your list with someone you trust, someone who says their prayers, and then make your own needs the basis for your prayer for God’s intervention and God’s power.  God will provide.

Quoting Saint Paul, I pray for you, “that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which [Jesus] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”[xvi]

[i] Romans 12:2.

[ii] Romans 8:35-36, Saint Paul quoting Psalm 44:22.

[iii]John Dominic Crossan in God and Empire, p. 28.

[iv] John 17:14-19.

[v] Matthew 5:43-47: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

[vi] Acts 1:8.

[vii] Romans 12:14.

[viii] “Enemies of the cross of Christ” is Saint Paul’s comment in Philippians 3:18.

[ix] Saint Paul (Ephesians 6:11-12) writes, “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

[x] John 14:27.

[xi] Philippians 4:7.

[xii] Reinhold Niebuhr(1892-1971),  theologian, ethicist, commentator on politics and public affairs, and long-time professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York, writes:

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that you will make all things right,
if I surrender to your will;
so that I may be reasonably happy
in this life,
and supremely happy
with You forever in the next.”

[xiii] See James 1:1-12.

[xiv] Psalm 30:6.

[xv] John 16:20.

[xvi] Ephesians 1:17-19.

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  1. Pam on March 23, 2017 at 21:33

    It does seem these are tough times, and I find I need all the help I can get. I need to be encouraged in my hope. I need to be bolstered in my faith. I need to remember that God holds all things in his hands. I need to be reminded that the darkness can never overcome the light. Your sermon did all these things for me. Thank you.

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