August 28, 2011

Let Love Be Genuine

Passage: Romans 12:9

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

In October of 2009 Reuters carried a news story of a Palestinian zoo in Gaza where two white donkeys dyed with black stripes delighted children who had never seen a zebra in the flesh.  The zoo owners, unable to afford the cost of a real zebra, striped the donkeys using masking tape and hair dye.  The son of the owner said, “The children don’t know so they call them zebras and they are happy to see something new”.

I am not unsympathetic to the Zoo owner`s plight.  When my children were young the occasion of buying clothing in light of budgetary realities brought manufacturer’s labels into sharp relief.  I was tempted to come up with great fables so as to explain why that Nike symbol on that shoe indicated inferiority. You know how we want to soften the harsher realities of life for our children. (I love that line in the Rankin Family’s song the Mull River Shuffle—``some (stories) were born of true detail and some were purely fictional``—my stories to soften the blow for my children were entirely fictional).  I found it was much better to find a way help them embrace reality; in this case of financial limitation. “Son, here is the money we have—with this brand you might get one shoe, with this brand over here you can have a shoe for each foot.”

How important is it that we are genuine with our children—we say we love them.  “Let love be genuine”, writes the Apostle Paul.  Here Paul is talking about the Christian life.  Here he elucidates what he means by presenting your bodies a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God (12:1).  Paul is talking about living in this world as Christ’s people; about being “transformed by the renewing of you minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Here Paul points us to the will of God for living in the world.

1. Romans chapter 12 deals with the application of Paul's gospel to life. In the earlier chapters of the book Paul has expounded the riches of the gospel: how God makes sinful people right with himself, why all humankind needs to be made right with God, the manner in which the gospel quickens faith in people and binds them to Christ, and so on.

Then beginning in chapter twelve he tells his readers how this gospel is to be lived in their day-to-day affairs. It is never enough that the gospel be understood and believed; it must always be lived. In fact, we understand and believe the gospel in order that we might live it. Truth has to be done. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock”, said Jesus; it was with this illustration that Jesus concluded his sermon on the mount.

“Let love be genuine” and all the participles that follow (i.e., hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; outdo  one another in showing honour, etc); these expand the idea of genuine love and explicate what it means to live the gospel; to do the gospel.

2. In the first part of chapter 12 Paul puts forward the ground, the motivation for our doing anything at all. (We explored this in last week’s sermon).  The ground for our doing is the mercy of God. The motivation for our doing is gratitude for this mercy. Our awareness of God's astounding mercy certainly sobers us and frequently silences us; but it never immobilizes us. On the contrary, says the apostle, our awareness of God's mercy moves us to offer our bodies (meaning ourselves) to God as a living sacrifice.

In the middle part of this chapter Paul speaks of our Christian service to the church. You see, before you and I are qualified to serve the world—the subject of the latter part of the chapter—we must serve the church. Of course! Surely our fellow-Christians have first claim upon us. After all, it is our fellow-Christians who nurture us and encourage us and sustain us. They have to have first claim upon us, since we don't hesitate to look to them for whatever we need whenever we need it. Furthermore, if we are unable to serve our fellow-Christians in the church (where we share a common Lord, common faith, common hope) how shall we fare in the wider world (which is meaner, tougher, more resistant, and utterly unforgiving)? The first sphere of our service is always the church.

It is important to note that Paul anticipates a collision between the Christian and the world; he said this is precisely the world to which the Christian must not conform.  The world is humanity turned against God.  Yet the Christian is not to withdraw from the world for this is the world which God so loved that he bled to death for it.  Christians are committed to the world. We are not to try to live in a religious ghetto which shuts out the big, bad world. At the same time, the very world which we are to live in and struggle for is a world to which we are not to conform.

3.  “Let love be genuine.”  In these words Paul, I believe, is transitioning from his focus on the Christian’s service to the church (vs 3-8) to the Christian’s service to the world (vs. 14-21).  The genuineness of love isn’t just for our service to the church; it has a larger horizon.  It certainly begins here but expands beyond.

What does it mean for our love to be genuine?  The King James Bible renders this text, “Let your love be without dissimulation”; to dissimulate is to hide under a false appearance. “Love must be sincere”, is how the New International Bible translates.  Don’t fake love. Don’t use your love as guise for personal gain.  Do you find this a tall order?  Some folks are easier to love than others—but Paul does not make that a measure for the requirement that our love be genuine.  In reality faked loved is no love at all; it is a contradiction of terms.  Love offered as a vehicle to get what we want undoes our love; it has an unsavoury odour.

“Let love be genuine” isn’t the sentiment of greeting cards.  When I have occasion to buy a greeting card I wonder sometimes if the superhuman described in the sentiment of many of the cards really exists; don’t misunderstand, I love my mother, but as I read some mother’s day cards I am left wondering was someone’s mother really all of this?  “Let love be genuine” is much more down to earth, gritty; Paul implies it is something that can actually be lived in the real world.

In our gospel lesson (Matthew 16:24-25) Jesus said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  You may ask how this saying of Jesus relates to love being genuine; love is the very character of what Jesus calls his disciples to live in this saying.  Love’s actions are for the sake of the other—“those who lose their life for my sake find it”. Love is self-forgetful and self-giving.  Jesus gave himself completely for our sakes even to the point of death on the cross—this is genuine love.

Genuine love is to be for the other person; to know another person entirely for their own sake, for no other reason than they bear the image of God and are worthy of knowing.  Love never seeks to know another person for the sake of using the person; this is to “thingify” a person and not to know the person at all.  Few things cause us to bristle more readily than being manipulated; to seek to master another person is to seek to enslave them.

There are many kinds of knowing.  One is scientific knowing.  This kind of knowing arises as a subject investigates an object; someone higher in the order of being investigates something lower.  This kind of knowledge is acquired for the sake of mastering the object studied.  Knowing another person is not this kind of knowing.  I can tell you all kinds of facts about my wife—height, hair and eye colour, shoe size, etc—but this is not the same as knowing her.  To know another person arises through intimacy with a person.  To know my wife is not to acquire information about her but rather to be changed myself by her.

To “know pain” or “know hunger” is not to possess nutritional or neurological information; it is to be so intimately acquainted with pain or hunger as to have been rendered forever different.  To know a person is to be intimately acquainted with them such that we have been rendered different.  To know Jesus is to be profoundly altered by Jesus through having encountered him as Person.  It isn’t principally to acquire facts about his life; it is personal engagement with him in life.

In coming to know another person we surrender all attempts at control and expose ourselves defencelessly to someone else.  Vulnerability yields personal knowledge.  This makes us nervous because we have experiences of our openness to another person being trampled upon; our vulnerability have been taken advantage of by another.  It is no wonder there is so much loneliness in the world; our isolation is often self-isolation borne of trampling the vulnerability of others or for self-protection from re-injuring deep wounds.

With respect to our knowing God, according to the gospel we know God to the extent that our encounter with him has profoundly altered us.  But the gospel also says that God knows us.  Then what change have we effected in him as he encounters us?  Have we affected him at all?  To say the least we had broken his heart; we have had him delay the day of condemnation and protracted the day of grace, (Hosea) Consider this: God knows us so very thoroughly not because he is an extraordinary investigator but because he is utterly defenceless before us (the cross).  God comes to us in Jesus completely self-giving and open to us—our response is to put him on the cross.  Is it any wonder that Paul teaches us to pray that we might comprehend the height and depth and length and breadth of the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ? God’s self-giving at the cross is where we see God’s love for us most profoundly in action; and the genuineness of God’s love changes everything.

When I reflect on my life through the prism of the cross and consider my attempts to let love be genuine I can see that my love of others is often clouded with self-interest.  How can I possibly be self-giving like my saviour?  I am comforted and freed by the knowledge that his commands for my life are covered promises—that is to say that the things he calls from me he enables in me by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As a minister of the gospel, for example, I take Paul’s instruction to Timothy as pattern for Christian ministry; “to do the work of an evangelist” is part of that responsibility.  Thus, I want everyone who hears my preaching to believe in Jesus Christ; nothing greater can occur in a person’s life than to believe in him.  What is very easy to confuse, though, is wanting hearers to experience faith for their sake and wanting this because I want the church I serve to grow for my sake; so I can feel successful in my ministry.  (Too many preachers have become manipulative in their speech for this very reason.)

Another thing I have found is the manifold blessings of the truth that in giving my life for his sake I find it.  In the course of endeavouring to let love be genuine I have been blessed with many wonderful friends; generosity from others that is overwhelming in goodness.  Such largess from others easily beguiles the heart in that we begin to expect something in return for our friendship.  At the same time to reject someone’s love of us simply because it is reciprocal is to descend into a competition over who initiated.  After all we love Jesus because he first loved us; our love for him is our reciprocation of his love, a love the scripture commends.

The truth is that we can know each other only to the extent we give ourselves to one another, are open to each other. If we are to let our love be genuine it implies an openness to receive the love of another.  It is a great blessing to another to engage them in conversation and ask them about themselves; at the same time when that is reciprocated our own openness to speak of ourselves deepens the friendship.

Still, it is easy to befriend those most like ourselves.  I think it a good habit for believers to always have an eye to another not like us.  Couples, for example, could make it a habit to include singles in the guest list.  Include people whose age and/or infirmity prevents them from social life in the orb of those you call or visit.  “Look to the needs of others”, as the apostle wrote.

4. A few moments ago I indicated that what follows Paul’s admonition to “let love be genuine” is an expansion of that idea—at least 12:9-13, and I think to the end of the chapter. There is much wisdom here on understanding how to live the gospel; how to offer a genuine love in the affairs of life; each participle worthy of probing and reflection.

For example, Paul writes “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good”.  A good exercise is to explore what makes you bristle and compare that to the things that made Jesus bristle.  I love this admonition to “outdo one another in showing honour”; for those with a competitive streak this is a competition commended by scripture.  Imagine the church where we outdid each other in commending the gifts and service offered by the other.  Everyone would feel cherished.

Paul also speaks of the Christian’s service to the world as he writes (v.14) “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  I want offer one last reflection on understanding Paul’s citation of Proverbs 25:21-22: “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.” Paul cited this in the context of telling the Christian “never avenge yourselves” because vengeance belongs to God.

What does it mean “you will heap burning coals on their heads” by feeding the hungry enemy of giving then drink (you will note it does not say to trust the enemy)?  Some have read this to mean that in doing so we up the ante, so to speak, of God’s vengeance on them.  By doing thus we are assured that God is really going to let them have it.  There is no scriptural warrant for such a reading of this text; the reason we leave vengeance to God is because of our corrupt understanding of vengeance.

Right after citing this text Paul says to “overcome evil with good.”  It is here that we look for understanding.  The burning coals are the fires of remorse; when we refuse to escalate conflict it often dissipates this in the other person.

Let us ever pray that our Saviour would enable our love to be genuine: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen