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Reading today’s passage, I was reminded of the story of the disciple John which makes up part of the earliest tradition of the church. Near the end of his life, John needed help in getting to church. Each week people would bring him up to the front of the church and ask him to give them a message. Each week his message was the same. “Little children, love one another.”
Or, to put it another way, “Let love be genuine.” To put it even more simply, “The love genuine.” This is the wording of the original. There’s not even a command here, more like a statement. The love unfeigned, undisguised, and sincere. It’s the same word that we derive hypocritical from. The love unhypocritical. The word was used to describe masks that actors would wear. How much do we know about wearing metaphorical masks? The love without mask. What does this mean?
We’re in the part of Romans now in which Paul is talking about what a grace-shaped life looks like for the follower of Christ. What a mercy-shaped life looks like as we go through our days. Last week we looked at being living sacrifices. My life is not my own. We talked about praying this prayer daily “My life is not my own, Lord, it is yours.” We talked about this as the good and fitting and proper response to God’s mercy to us in Jesus and through the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. We shared bread and were reminded that we, who are many in our diversity, are one body in Christ. Belonging to Christ, we are one body, and individually we are members one of another. In other words, we belong to one another. Part of this reality is mutuality. Serving is mutual. Encouraging teaching is mutual, and I have been so encouraged by you through the years in this faith family at Blythwood. A dear sister lent/gave me a book a few years ago called “One Anothering” – what a great title. Listen to this from the preface – “Who will help the fearful… and rejected… Who will be willing to help carry the load of the other? Who will give directions to the troubled? Who will give hope when hope is gone? God is calling His people to do that! He calls those who confess His name to be ‘one-anothering’ people.” This teaching/encouraging was never meant to just go one way (and if you ever give me a book, make sure you let me know if you want it back).
We’re in the paraenesis section of Romans, and Paul is talking about the family of God. This whole section then bookended by this – “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” (9b) Then “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (21)
We’re in the “What does this mean in our lives?” part of Romans. I know that we often like to take the Bible and ask, “How does this apply to my life?” I think the better question is, what does it mean to apply my life to this? That is, if it’s even right to talk about my life as mine, given what we looked at last week about being living sacrifices. Perhaps it’s best to put the question like this – “How does life in Christ apply itself to these truths?”
As we said last week, everything we’re reading here is based on what has come before in Paul’s letter. What has come before is mercy. What has come before is grace – God’s undeserved favour toward humanity. What has come before is God’s love for us, from which nothing can separate us. This is serious stuff. We’re looking at what it means to take the Christ-following life seriously. The Christ-following life is more than an interest. It’s more than simply an activity which we are called to juggle along with all our other activities. On Christmas Day, we talked about Jesus as the Word, as Light and as Life. We speak of Jesus as the light by which we are enabled to see everything.
“Love one another,” said John. “The love genuine,” wrote Paul. Agape love – love that is deep and profound and unfailing and transcendent of circumstance and seeks nothing but the good of the beloved. If we consider John being supported at the front of a church while he gives his one-sentence sermon, we might consider Paul pacing around a room while a scribe struggles to keep up. He’s excited. What a question! “What does genuine love look like?” Paul strides back and forth and maybe stops each time one of these truths comes to him. “Love one another with mutual affection!” “Outdo one another in showing honour!” “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. Oh, and extend hospitality to strangers.” “This is good!” This is who we are called to be. Someone has said this about Paul’s words here: “All this is simply a statement of what the love is like for one who follows Jesus, who gives oneself daily to Jesus, and who has a renewed mind…. This is the way a faithful follower of Jesus enacts her or his trust and loyalty. If you claim to follow Jesus, and your life is not like this, you need to undergo some serious self-examination.”
We want to take this seriously. We long for connection because connection is what God made us for. Connection with God. Connection with one another. Why wouldn’t we take this seriously? Life lived as life is meant to be lived. “Love one another with mutual affection.” (10) Paul is using family language here. Philadelphia. The love of brothers and sisters when we are at our best. The mutual affection of parents and children when we are at our best. “Outdo one another in showing honour.” Paul is not talking about competing here like we’re in some sort of sibling rivalry in the church when it comes to showing honour toward one another. We might better say here, “take the lead in showing honour” or “be out in front in showing honour.” This in a world where the message is often “I’ll give you the respect you deserve” or “Respect me, and I’ll respect you.” Take the lead in honouring one another. “Do not lag in zeal.” Encourage one another. What are we putting into one another’s hearts? “Be ardent in Spirit.” We have the living fire of the Holy Spirit in us. Serve the Lord. All of this being written in the 2nd person plural – “you all.” Paul is calling for individual responses within a communal awareness and within communal activity.
Rejoice in hope. Rejoice together. Let us remind one another of the hope which is ours – God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, a new heaven and a new earth, sorrow and mourning fleeing away. Be patient in suffering. Be patient with one another in suffering, and that may mean saying something like, “I don’t know what to do or say, but I’ll sit in silence with you.” Persevere in prayer together. How are we doing with that?
Paul is pointedly talking about the community of faith here (although he’s about to cast a wider vision). Contribute to the needs of the saints. Things get very concrete here. If anyone is in need, share what you have with them. Our sharing in the body and blood of Jesus that we celebrated last week is not simply a celebration but is meant to be worked out in our lives together. Extend hospitality to strangers. Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you. Create hospitable space and invite others in. Accept invitations to enter into hospitable space because this is one of the ways in which transformation happens. Have a coffee or tea and tell me how you’re doing. Sit around tables and eat together. Have lunch after church. Let these invitations extend beyond the church in a world where the concept of hospitality is very often left to the hospitality industry.
Let’s make this happen!
Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them. Again Paul is extending his thinking out here beyond the family of God. I suppose we can be persecuted from within the church, but surely that is a sign of things having gone terribly wrong! God save us from inner-church persecution. Bless them not just with prayers but with actions if we can. Take the lead in reaching out.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Live empathetically with one another – sharing joys and sorrows. There’s no regarding sorrow and thinking “better them than me” in this life. When I hear this verse or ones like it, I’m always transported back to Cochabamba, Bolivia and the Baptist Centre in which we stayed. In the dining room, there was a wall hanging with this picture and Galatians 6:2 – “Share one another’s burdens, for in so doing you fulfill the law of Christ.” On the other side, rejoicing with those who rejoice is not always easy. In our pride, we can envy and even begrudge success. John Chrysostom said this in a sermon, “… many weep with them that weep, but still do not rejoice with them that rejoice, but are in tears when others rejoice: now this comes from grudging and envy. The good deed then of rejoicing when our brother (or sister) rejoices is no small one.” You know I’m always preaching to myself too.
As a musician, I like this one – “Live in harmony with one another.” Every Sunday before we play, Nora, Osmany and I tune our instruments (we get the piano tuned, too but not every week). We want things to be harmonious and not discordant. Discord is an audible indication that something is not right. Live in harmony with one another. This does not mean everybody thinks the same thing or holds the same opinion on everything. Paul is not calling for uniformity of thought but uniformity of heart. Someone has said that this verse is not about thinking the same things as one another, as thinking the same things toward one another, we who belong to Christ and to one another. It’s about a shared commitment and a shared Spirit, an awareness of our otherness, and a sensitivity to what is different.
“Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Do not let differences make us think that we are better than. We heard last week not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. A mindset of superiority is poison to any community or society, for that matter. Do not let us think that education, socio-economic status, talent, intelligence, spiritual achievement make us better than. Do not let us think to ourselves, “I have all the answers.” Such a mindset inevitably leads to seeking or presuming advantage over others. We are called to share, rather, humble faithfulness and gratitude to the Christ who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
This is the God to whom we belong. This is the God in whom we belong to one another dear family. He is our peace, and there’s a kind of hinge verse in the middle here which encapsulated the essence of Paul’s words. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This peace is rooted and grounded in the one who is our Peace. We finish a lot of services here saying, “Go now in the peace of Christ.” Paul recognizes, and we recognize, that relational peace is not depended on ourselves. Part of life that is always necessary to discern for each of us is what is up to God, what is up to us, and what is up to other people. Live peaceably with all, as far as it depends on us, even our enemies. Wrath. Vengeance. Judgement. They’re up to God. This in a world where the prevailing opinion is generally “Destroy your enemies.” It’s certainly not “Do good for them.” Of course, we have to consider how cycles of vengeance work themselves out between people and people groups. Look at the long-term damage that is done. Look at how often no end seems to be in sight between people caught in a cycle of violence and vengeance. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” were the radical words of Jesus. This is not just about a feeling or a sentiment. Reducing love to warm feelings or affections here would seem strange, even for the follower of Christ. Love is meant to be borne out in actions. Blessing is meant to be borne out in more than words. “No,” writes Paul, “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.” Now I have to say here there was a time in my life when I read this and said, “Yessssss – burning coals! Bring it on, mine enemies!” This is not to fuel some private thirst for revenge. No one is sure exactly what Paul means, and some have interpreted these words to mean acts of kindness that bring about repentance on the enemy’s part. Others have pointed to burning coals as symbols of the judgement, which is God’s. Either way, it’s something good and from God. Either way, the truth here is that God reached out to us, made the way for us, opened the door for us while we were enemies of God.
It’s not easy, and Paul uses the language of overcoming or conquering in the final verse. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. In this struggle, we are lifted up and carried along by God’s grace and mercy. Let love be genuine. Paul hasn’t exhausted how this might be made visible in our life together. How wonderful it is to see love without mask in a community of faith, and we see it week by week. May God continue to make us a family that is ever more taking on the family resemblance in our attitudes and our actions, and may this be true for all of us.