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.
In conversations with a number of Christians these days, I have discovered something perplexing among many of my brothers and sisters in Christ – fear, discouragement, anxiety, suspicion, pessimism, and pettiness have combined into a toxic cocktail that is lethal to all, and especially troubling for people of Christian faith, considering Jesus’ claim that he came in order that we might have life, and have it to the full.
Yes, there is a lot of evil out there in the world, I get that. Of even more concern, there rests within each of us the potential for great evil, as well. Dwelling too much on that will make you fearful and pessimistic, but that’s not what God wants. The simple truth is that such a sour, isolated, negative existence is not part of God’s desire for us, and in today’s Scripture reading, we are given a recipe for the life God desires and intends for each of us. May we pray.
In today’s text, Paul has just finished challenging the Christians at Rome to see themselves as the body of Christ, and to live like it. He wants them to see themselves not as individuals who are looking out for their own self-interests, but as valuable members of the whole body of Christ. Whatever else or whoever else we are – our most important and fundamental identity is as members of the body of Christ.
Think about that for a moment – you are one valuable member of the body of Christ. Jesus really values you! And as members of his body, we are Christ’s continuing physical presence in the world, meaning that when people look at us, interact with us, or listen to us, it should be as if they are looking at, interacting with, or listening to Christ himself. Easier said than done!
Last week, after making a hospital visit, I went to Home Depot to pick up a new air filter for my HVAC unit at home. Unable to find them, I asked an employee where they were, and he said, “Right this way, Pastor.” I walked through the store thinking, “How does he know I’m a pastor?” When I got in the car and fastened my seatbelt, I got my answer – my clergy badge from the hospital was still clipped to my shirt! I had forgotten to take it off when I left the hospital, and wandered around Home Depot with it dangling from my shirt pocket.
The whole episode did get me wondering, however – how would anyone know that we are Christians?
In today’s text, the apostle Paul gives us a compelling answer. After he tells the Christians at Rome that they are members of the very body of Christ, he gives basic instruction. For Christians, for those who follow Jesus, for those who are part of the body of Christ, Paul simply says, “Let love be genuine.” “Love without any hypocrisy.” Love authentically. Love without false motive or pretense. Love in a way that isn’t looking out for your own interest; love sacrificially, abundantly, generously, freely. Love without thinking, “What’s in this for me?” Let love be genuine.
The fact that Paul tells us to let love be genuine indicates that it must be possible for love to be ingenuine. In fact, the phrase “Bless their heart” was invented for this very purpose. Somewhere we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that it’s ok to say all sorts of mean, nasty, negative things about someone as long as we follow it up with “Bless their heart.” That is but one example of ingenuine love. Certainly, you can think of more.
We quickly realize that the command to let love be genuine isn’t going to be as easy as it sounds.
No doubt you’ve heard this mantra of professional musicians: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! In the same way, the way to grow in genuine love is to practice, practice, practice! Once he has told the Christians at Rome to let love be genuine, he offers some specific practices for them, and us, to adopt, in order to grow in that love. The best way to become more loving, the best way to let love be genuine, is to engage in the practices of genuine love.
He says, “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.”
Paul says, “This is what love looks like! Practice these things, and you’ll find your life enlarged in the love which is befitting members of the body of the Christ. These are the essential ingredients in a life of genuine love.” I’ve got the message loud and clear, I’m just not entirely sure how to actually do that.
Of course, it should seem obvious: our example and the source of genuine love is Jesus. Paul’s words to bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse in verse 14 sound a lot like what Jesus says in Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” or what he says in Luke 6:28: “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who revile you” or even what he prayed for his executioners as he hung upon the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).
If you read on from today’s text in Romans 12, you’ll find allusions to other sayings of Jesus peppered throughout chapter 13, and Jesus’ love for others at the cross is stressed in Romans 15:1-3. Throughout this great theological treatise we know today as the book of Romans, Paul is hinting that to love genuinely is to love as Jesus loved.
Really? But I don’t want to. Mark Twain said it wasn’t the parts of the Bible he didn’t understand that concerned him, it was the parts he did understand that gave him the most trouble. We understand plenty of the Bible, which means we also understand that the Bible frequently asks us to do things we’d rather not do and tells us things we’d rather not know.
The Scripture lesson for today often goes where I wish it would not and asks me to do things I don’t really want to do. It speaks of not repaying evil for evil, of living in harmony with one another and even doing good to one’s enemies. Does God realize how impractical his teachings are sometimes? I mean, I’m a Christian and all, but come on. I sometimes wish the Bible said something other than what it does – being a Christian would be a lot easier if it only involved that solitary relationship with God and did not involve an engagement with the world and its needs and its evils or involvement with others in all their imperfections.
Paul doesn’t just say, “Love others more;” he says, “Let love be genuine.” In other words, love people as fully and richly and completely as Christ loves us.
And how does Christ love us? Jesus said, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). You are a friend, I am a friend of God through Christ Jesus! Isn’t that cool? These days, we don’t use the language of friendship with Christ nearly as much as we should. We certainly don’t use the word “friendship” to describe salvation that is made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but it is theologically significant that Jesus chooses to call us friends, particularly in light of our conversation on genuine love.
Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
Friendship was such a key relationship in the ancient world – the very glue binding persons to one another and to a community – that true friends would sacrifice their lives for one another and for the common good. What is so remarkable is that Jesus is actually living out this ideal. New Testament scholar Gail O’Day notes, “What Jesus teaches, he is already living. Jesus’ entire life, death, and resurrection is an act of friendship.”
Growing up, our parents told us to choose our friends carefully. They knew full well that some so-called “friends” are actually petty manipulators. They are not honest with us, they flatter us in order to further their own ends, their interest is in using us, or using our stuff. A so-called friend who is more interested in taking than giving is no friend at all.
This is how we know Jesus is our true friend. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Mennonite pastor and theologian Myron Augsburger tells the story of a man who asked him, “Tell me, what difference does it make in my life that Jesus Christ died on a cross two thousand years ago?” Augsburger said, “Do you have friends? Suppose one of your friends gets in trouble – what do you do?”
“You hang in with him.”
“Suppose it gets really rough, really severe. When can you cop out?”
He looked at the pastor in amazement and said, “If he’s your friend, you can’t cop out.”
“And God came to us in Jesus as our friend, and we’re in trouble and He hung in. Our trouble got really difficult and severe, and yet Jesus hung in. Because he is our friend, he couldn’t cop out, and he hung in even unto death.”
Jesus chooses to call us his friends. He came to overcome evil not by exercising superior power, but as a friend who expresses his superior quality of love and grace and mercy to the death, revealing the very nature of authentic friendship and genuine love. God the Father expresses his reigning attribute in love and grace, God the Son in Jesus calls us friend and demonstrates the extent of genuine love and authentic friendship. Does it not follow that God the Holy Spirit working in the lives of God’s friends – we, who are the very members of the body of Christ – would do the same in us and through us? That He would use us to express the qualities of God’s love and mercy and grace, that our approach in life is to be a people of love and people of mercy, a people of forgiveness and a people who give ourselves in service and friendship to others?
Friends, God in Christ redeems us by making us his friends, and we accept our own redemption and salvation by accepting God’s gift of friendship. Then, we participate in our own ongoing redemption by offering authentic friendship and genuine love to the world in Christ’s name. In so doing, the world around us is transformed and redeemed.
In this text, Paul lets us know that there is no room for an empty commitment, hollow pleasantries, fake friendship, or something which is pleasant to your face and then puts a knife in your back while saying, “Bless your heart.” Genuine love jumps in with both feet, it holds nothing back. Love is evil’s true opposite and its only cure. The path for overcoming evil lies along the road of love. He reminds the church that there are ethical implications to the Christian faith and they result in practical application in how we live daily.
As Christians, as members of the body of Christ, as followers of Jesus, as friends of God, there is a call upon our lives. We are not called to a life of dominance over others. We are not called to seek power or prestige or preference over other people. We are not called to intimidate or manipulate or use others for our own ends. Such behavior is antithetical to what it means to be a Christian.
No, being a member of the body of Christ, being a friend of God, means that we behave like it. Paul reminds us that we are called to lives of genuine love, where our lives are open to others and we share with them, where our lives are a gift to others as we extend to them the grace-filled gift of authentic friendship.
Authentic friendship is about giving, not getting. Authentic friendship goes hand-in-hand with the genuine love to which we are called in today’s text. All love is built on friendship. God’s love for us, our love for each other, even the best and truest expressions of romantic love are rooted in friendship. I can’t tell you how excited Ashley and I for October 8 to get here, because on that day, you’re all going to get to watch two best friends give their lives to each other in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. In the same Spirit of this generous God, we give ourselves to each other.
Marriage is but a reflection of God’s love; it is a window into the nature of genuine love and authentic friendship – the fullness of which should be the goal in all of our relationships. God calls us to give ourselves freely and completely precisely because God is a giver, and when we give as God gives, we discover something of the spiritual.
As the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, said in his homily at the royal wedding back in April: “A spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.”
To that I add: in authentic friendship, we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life. As members of the body of Christ, we join with Jesus who came that all may have life, have it eternally, have it abundantly, have it fully.
Friends, we overcome evil when we celebrate the reality of God’s friendship with us, and then live like it – allowing God’s grace and genuine love to flow through us, making our lives a gift to others, bringing the whole creation into full and abundant life. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
God, we thank you that you have called us friends. Help us as we offer your gift of authentic friendship and genuine love to others in your name. Fill our lives with your true and intended purpose as we find our center beyond ourselves. Thank you for your gift of abundant life which is already ours. Now, help us to claim that life, and to live like we mean it. Pour your Holy Spirit upon us, and make our lives a gift to others. Amen.