September 3, 2017

Christian Love Must Be Genuine

Passage: Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
Service Type:

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 honour.

A police officer pulled a driver aside and asked for his license and registration. "What's wrong, officer," the driver asked. "I didn't go through any red lights, and I certainly wasn't speeding."
"No, you weren't," said the officer, "but I saw you waving your fist as you swerved around the lady driving in the left lane, and I further observed you shouting at the driver of the SUV who cut you off, and how you pounded your steering wheel when the traffic came to a stop near the bridge."
"Is that a crime, officer?"
"No, but when I saw the ‘Jesus loves you and so do I’ bumper sticker on the car, I figured this car had to be stolen."

1. “Let love be genuine,” wrote the Apostle Paul as he probes the subject of how to live as a Christian in the world. The word translated genuine also means without hypocrisy or without dissimulation. The root of the word was a word that described what actors did who wore masks on stage. Love in not a mask to be worn. Love needs to be genuine.

I borrowed the title for this sermon—Christian love must be genuine—from a translation of this text by New Testament scholar Richard Longenecker in his commentary on Romans. What he is trying to capture with the words “Christian love” is the significance of the way the Apostle Paul and the New Testament writers us the Greek word “αγαπη” (love). The noun “αγαπη” (love) does not appear in any extant Greek writing—that is Greek texts we have from the same period of history in which the Newt Testament was written. In extant Greek writings there were three other words used that we translate with the one English word love: “φιλια” which denotes friendship, “ερωσ” which has to do principally with sexual love, and “στοργη” which has to do with love among family members.”

The word “αγαπη” appears twenty times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and about 120 times in the New Testament, 75 of which are found in Paul’s letters. Clearly the New Testament writers have taken over this Greek noun for love to speak of a very particular love. Additionally in this verse (Romans 9:12) the Apostle Paul uses the definite article (the) with the noun (love)—“the love.” Paul appears to be making the point that what he is talking about here is God’s love expressed in and through the life of a Christian.

So when Paul writes “the love” this expression connotes a distinctive Christian flavour as being principally in mind. First the love that God the Father and Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord have for us; as Paul had written earlier in this letter, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) and also declaring that nothing “was able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39). And second, the love that Christians are to have in response to God and to Christ Jesus, are to have for one another, and are to express to those who have never claimed to be “Christ followers.” (Romans 12:9-21) Hence the translation, “Christian love” (η αγαπη) must be genuine.”

I think it also evident in the apostolic witness that for believers this love, this αγαπη, lifts and orders all other loves. Paul is not saying that the love of friendship, the love of sexual intimacy, or the love of family was unimportant. But this love of God in Christ Jesus, God’s self-forgetful self-giving on the cross for our sakes, takes first place for the believer and becomes the basis for ordering all these other loves.

The love of God for us is this love that believers are to live out in the world. As Paul probes the implication of this love ethic for believers he begins with relationship with other believers, then with respect to relationships in the world where believers often face opposition and even persecution. It is important to keep in mind that this love arises because of relationship with God. The Christian’s focus must always be on the personal relationship with God that God himself has brought about through the person and work of Christ Jesus and the ministry of God’s Spirit; the love we are to live flows from the relationship God has established between Christ and his people.

2. So what does genuine Christian love—love “without hypocrisy”—look like in practise? “Christian love must be genuine.” What follows in the text are a series of independent participles that functions as a kind of explication of this love. As the Apostle thinks about Christ’s love for us he reflects on how this love works out in relationship with other believers, i.e. within the church. Paul is urging that Christians in their thinking, lifestyle, and actions, must always:
1. hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
2. love one another with mutual affection;
3. outdo one another in showing honour.
4. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
5. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
6. Contribute to the needs of the saints;
7. extend hospitality to strangers.

Some may wonder, is love still genuine if I’m not “feeling the love.” When Jesus rebuked Peter and called him Satan or “adversary” was Jesus “feeling the love?” That is, was Jesus’ love for Peter somehow diminished in that moment? Our Lord rebuked Peter because of Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ announcement about what would happen to him in Jerusalem. At that moment Peter’s attitude was to deflect Jesus from such a course of action. And yet Jesus’ love for Peter—and us—propels him to the cross.

As you read these admonitions that show us the shape of love perhaps you have also noticed that they have more to do with the actions taken by a believer than they do with the emotions a believer feels as she takes such action. Perhaps the second admonition—love one another with mutual affection—addresses some aspect of our emotional state. The root of the word translated love here is the Greek word φιλια that speaks of friendship and we know from life, as did Paul, friendship needs to be cultivated. The point he also makes for believers is that the affection is to be mutual. This kind of love is known only as we take action to be friends with one another.

Paul believes that the love of God for us in Christ Jesus is characterized by friendships of mutual affection. We as Christians are to live this way towards one another. I love to hear the conversation at the fellowship time that follows our worship service. It is a delight to see people connect with one another, catch up on how things are going, make plans to do things together. In the midst of all that “mutual affection” it is important to make new connections; to keep an eye out for someone we haven’t met yet and take the opportunity to greet new people.

We all know that it is easier to connect with some people than others. Among the twelve disciples Peter, James and John seem to have a closer friendship with Jesus that the others. Yet Jesus certainly gives himself to all of them; even at the last supper Jesus is still trying to win Judas. I underline the mutual word here in our text. It takes two for “mutual affection “to work, does it not? Yes it is important to be on the look out to make connections with the newcomer. At the same time when I am a newcomer somewhere I need to try to make connection as well. That being said, it is good if the longer-time church member makes it as easy as possible for the newcomer to connect.

Keep in mind that the Apostle presumes a community of people caring for one another, taking interest in how the other person is doing. As we do that it seems to me that the emotional side of affection grows. As it grows caring for each other emerges from the heart as the natural thing to do. I want also to be clear in saying that no one individual is able to take on the burdens of all those around them—save for Jesus, of course. I do point out that a community where affection is shown helps us in bearing those things that are ours. It is not that I expect people to solve my problems—but I am sustained in meeting together with them, supported by the affection of others.

Now all these admonitions are worthy of reflection and probing. I note that they are not independent of one another but are like a web are woven together under the title of Christ’s love and thus belong together. Think of the admonition “persevere in prayer;” this has the sense of “be faithful in prayer.” The affection of another to remember me in their prayers in a great blessing. The experience of being supported in prayer is one that many know first-hand as they faced an illness or surgery.

I also invite you to think about how this love for one another blesses the world. Yes, the first part of this reflection is on how believers are to act out this love towards one another. It is in the church that such love is to be incubated. But we are not to create a Christian ghetto. We are never to conclude that this love is only for when we are with other believers and the rest of the people around us we can treat any way we like. The love we learn here is taken into the world because we are in the world. If this love is genuine then the person we are here is the person we are when we go out into the world. The love we exercise here within the fellowship of the church spills over into the world as we go.

3. The Apostle then turns his attention to describe what this love looks like beyond the confines of the community of believers. Recall something we have noted before that chronologically speaking, Paul’s letters appear before the written gospels. It is also evident that the sayings of Jesus were circulating, orally for sure, and likely in some written form and that Paul has access to them. In this section where Paul talks of genuine love for the world (Romans 9:14-21) there are places where Paul is paraphrasing “sayings of Jesus”.

Paul writes, for example, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Matthew records that Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Paul writes, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” Again in Matthew Jesus said, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” And again Paul’s admonition, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” is an effective summary of what Jesus said regarding retaliation and love for enemies. (Matthew 5:38-48)

I want to make a brief note with you regarding this notoriously difficulty passage where Paul says that in giving food and drink to enemies who are hungry or thirsty “you will heap burning coals on their heads.” How are we to understand this? It seems counter the love of Christ we are to show the enemy to believe that in such action we are really harming them more than they know and that we are to take comfort that we are secretly sending them to some extra hot section of some deep-fryer.

Paul is citing a euphemism found in the Proverbs (Proverbs 25:21-22) here and I believe that we no longer possess the context that gives us the sense of the euphemism. This happens all the time in the course of history. Perhaps you have heard it said of a cold day that “it’s cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.” This cold weather euphemism comes from the days of sailing ships when war ships carried iron cannons. Cannon balls were stacked near the cannons on a metal plate called a, “Monkey.” If this plate was made of iron, the iron canon balls would quickly rust and stick to it. It was discovers that if the monkeys were made with brass, the cannon balls did not stick. The problem is that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the cannon balls would roll off the monkey. Thus, it was quite literally, “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey!”

Back to our text and heaping burning coals on the head. I am not sure of the context for this euphemism but Augustine, the fourth century bishop, understood this euphemism as a picture of remorse, the response of love potentially fostering remorse in the enemy, which is consistent with the rest of what the love of Christ calls us to do.

4. The love of Christ turn the believer to the world, a world that our Lord will not abandon. The logic of the gospel is that such love is for the world. Instinctively we know that churches and faith communities make positive contribution to cultural, spiritual, and social well-being in their communities. But there is a growing body of research that measures the contributions in quantitative monetary terms. The Halo project is one of these research initiatives which shows that, for every dollar in a religious congregation's annual budget, a city gets an estimated $4.77 worth of common good services. This is known as the Halo Effect. According to their Halo Calculator the Halo effect of churches and faith communities in Markham is almost $390 Million. Christian love must be genuine. Amen.