I wonder how many of us have worked with teenagers—whether parenting our own children, teaching school, or even driving a bus? As you are probably aware, they can be a bit of a handful when kept together in a confined space for a long period of time. In many ways, high school is like a science experiment in which we mix combustible chemicals and wait for the inevitable explosion. That’s why I was impressed when I read a story about high school church retreat in which all the campers agreed on a covenant by which to abide for the entire weekend. The teens were asked to give suggestions for behavioral guidelines they should stick to. Among those suggested were “Don’t talk when others are talking,” “respect the leaders,” and “participate fully.” These teenagers knew that if their retreat was going to be a success, they were going to have to get along and that would require them to abide by some mutually agreed on principles. So at the end of the session, each teen came up and signed their name to the poster board on which these were written.
The apostle Paul understood the importance of mutuality and covenantal binding principles. This week, I’ve decided to continue on in the book of Romans, last week we looked at Romans 12:1-8, this week we will continue on in chapter 12, looking at verses 9-21. Here Paul is giving some instructions to the church at Rome for how they are to behave towards one another and toward their community. In essence, he writes all these things down and asks the church at Rome to sign their name in agreement.
Paul felt this was important, because just like a group of high-schoolers, the church at Rome was made up of a bunch of different people. Most were Gentile, some were probably Jews, and there was a diverse range of people in the church, from lowly slaves to the very wealthy.
If you remember from last Sunday, Paul begins the chapter by telling these people how they are supposed to live as followers of Christ. Rather than being conformed to the culture, they were to be transformed by the renewal that was taking place within them—all a result of their new relationship as followers of Christ.
Moving on from there, he emphasizes the importance of each person to the church. Comparing the church to a human body, Paul wrote that every member is a body part and every part is integral to the body being healthy and vibrant. Every person has a part to play and every part is important. No one should think of themselves as more important than the other. And since every part matters and every part is important, followers of Christ are to care for the sick and hurting among their church just as if their own body was hurting. If I had to simplify I would say verses 1-8 are about what the church should look like. Moving on to verses 9-21, I think Paul is stating here what the church should be like.
If you look at the heading printed over this section of scripture in your Bible, it might say something like “Marks of a True Christian” or “Rules of the Christian Life.” It might also say something simple like “love.” Some commentators compare this section of scripture to the famous section of scripture, 1 Corinthians 13, commonly referred to as the “Love chapter.”
But I think that simply referring to it as “Love” or “what love is about” sells it short. We need to pay attention to the context here. Not only is Paul writing to a church, but he has just finished telling that church what their church is to look like and how they are to function. I think that Paul is now continuing on in regards to that point and instructing them how they are to be as the church. So, I think that when Paul is talking about Love here, and describing how it should be, he is laying out what how he thinks church members should behave toward one another.
“Let your love for one another be genuine,” I think he is saying. And:
Genuine love is about detesting wrong, hanging onto what is good.
Genuine love is about being affectionate toward each other in brotherly love.
Genuine love is about putting other before yourselves
Genuine love is about being hard-working
Genuine love is about being passionate
Genuine love is about serving
Genuine love is about rejoicing in hope
Genuine love is about hanging on in the tough times
Genuine love is about continuing in prayer
Genuine love is about financially supporting the church
Genuine love is about being open and welcoming.
Genuine love, Paul says, is what is required. Genuine love is what is going to make the church thrive.
This sounds all well and good. Like the love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13, it’s something we enjoy hearing yet probably have a tougher time putting into practice. But, what does Genuine love look like in actuality? Unfortunately we don’t have a time machine to go back and see how the church at Rome put into practice the things that Paul was telling them. So we have to figure it out for ourselves what putting this genuine love into practice actually entails.
What does it mean for a church to “detest what is wrong?” or “cling to what is good?” Often in America, churches tend to often mix these two things up. When I was up at Brighton Market Day, a man came up to our table and mentioned he was looking for a new church. He said he had two big issues he really cared about, “abortion and homosexuality.” He wanted to know where our church stood on these two issues. Unfortunately, I don’t think Bill gave him the answer he wanted to hear. It seems like this man was more interested in hating those he disagreed with then looking for the good in people. Too often, the churches that shout the loudest get heard and what happens is that people stay away from all churches because they don’t want to go to a place where hate is clung to and good is detested.
Yet there are things churches should speak out against; so many churches have sort of been lulled to sleep by boring, repetitive messages of “God loves you.” Not that this isn’t true, but sometimes genuine love requires us to detest and speak out against the evil that is in this world. Evil such as the actions of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Evil such as the callousness and cruelty being showed toward the loss of a young man’s life and his grieving community in Missouri. Evil such as the violence and destruction of life continually perpetuated upon innocent people in the Middle East—no matter the perpetrator. And evil such as the heartlessness and carelessness towards children coming to our country to escape violence and poverty. Such things are evil—there is no other way to put it—especially when Paul says that genuine love is about being open and welcoming to people different from us. Yes, there is evil and wrong happening in this world today and Paul’s admonition to pursue genuine love requires us to speak out against it out of love for the victims of that evil and wrong.
But genuine love lived out in the church doesn’t have to be all about bad news. I’m not sure how many of you stay up to watch The Tonight Show—and honestly, I don’t stay up either—I record it and watch the next day. But recently, because the real news has been so sad lately, host Jimmy Fallon was able to get real TV news anchors from across the country to read fake news stories we wish were true. One fake news story was about President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner taking a hot air balloon ride together and discussing their favorite colors while sharing big hugs. Another fake story reported on how Russian leader Vladimir Putin was done being “evil” and is now writing a children’s book. And another story highlighted a new iPhone app that helped people deal with divorce, but due to all the successful marriages out there, it wasn’t being utilized. So while there are times the church needs to show its love by speaking out against that which is wrong, there are also times when we need to celebrate the good in our world—good things that really happen!
I could go on, looking at in depth each one of these aspects of the genuine love Paul seeks to be practiced by the church. But for the sake of time I will not. We all know how important these things are; loving each other, putting the other before ourselves, serving God, hanging on in tough times, continuing in prayer, and son on and so forth. But like most things in life, they are easier said than done. Probably most of us have been a part of a church in the past where it was all talk and no action. My clergy friends sometimes like to joke, “church would be a lot easier without all of the people!” The joke is obvious of course—there would be no church without all the people! If only we could solve that people problem!!!
Thankfully, that’s where the genuine love part comes in. We’re all human after all, and I think Paul knew that more than anyone. And fortunately, the apostle Paul has given us a poster board of sorts of principles to live by as a church. By demonstrating genuine love toward one another—putting into practice these things Paul details—we ‘ll be able to look past each other’s flaws and warts and instead see friends and loved ones. This is what it means to be church!