What’s real love like?

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a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on September 3, 2017

by Fr. Nathan R. Hale

Passage: Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 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. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9–21, ESV)

What is real love like? We talk a lot about love in our culture.

You say you love football and Taylor Swift, and that’s true in a way. I say I love fish tacos, comic books and coffee. We all say we love these things, but in our Epistle passage today from Romans, Paul is talking about people not things.

We love people in different ways too. You love your favorite author or singer or actor. You love your dentist in a different way. You love your in-laws in a different way than you love your kids. All these are different kinds of love between people, with different expressions in different contexts and it can be tricky to know where the common ground is…what makes the love real across the board?

Paul realizes that within the church too there are varied relationships and unique contexts and even in the church there is a danger of love only being talked about and never put into practice. Paul knows that as forgetful human beings in fallen world we have to be reminded of what really love looks like in practice across different kinds of relationships. He knows it’s easy to just go through the motions, but Paul doesn’t want the Christian community to settle for anything less than the real thing.

In the New Living Translation, Romans 12:9 reads,

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.” (Romans 12:9, NLT)

For love to be genuine we must have a genuine desire for what is right. We are to

Abhor what is evil…[and] hold fast to what is good.” (Romans 12:9, ESV)

If our desires are not in-line with God’s desires, our perception and expression of love will be warped. If we are not actively rejecting, for instance, selfishness, hatred, division, and so on, we tend to be at the very least passively allowing those things to cultivate in our hearts. I think these things are rooted in pride and fear. Pride often manifests because we are afraid on some level of being thought less of, of being mistreated, of not get what we think we deserve or are entitled to.

This kind of fear is the enemy of love.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18a, ESV)

You see John and Paul agree: if we actively hold fast to what is good, to genuine love, we stoke a fire that drives out darkness. What Paul is doing is reminding us how to do this. How to hold fast to what is good, and so drive out pride and fear to receive and share love instead.

I want you to notice four themes or markers of genuine love in today’s Epistle passage.

First, genuine love is affectionate. In church circles, we’ve sometimes heard it said that we don’t have like each other, we just have love each other. Paul doesn’t let us off that easy. He says,

Love one another with brotherly affection.” (Romans 12:10a, ESV)

At its core, love is above all a persistent, active, and ongoing commitment to the well-being, health, and flourishing of someone else. It is more than warm fuzzies or physical attraction or emotional compatibility. But St. Paul says love is expressed in brotherly affection. True love is more than affection, but in the fullest sense it also includes a kind of deep affection that characterizes families, especially within the Body of Christ.

So, genuine love is affectionate. Second, genuine love is self-sacrificial. That is, genuine love is expressed by being willing to give of yourself for the sake of others.

The second half of Romans 12:10 says,

“Outdo one another in showing honor”

When you honor someone, you are demonstrating verbally, visibly and sometimes publicly that they are worthy of your service[1]. We give honorary awards to people to draw attention to accomplishments, for example. In the context of this passage, I don’t think Paul would be content with mere lip-service, though.  I think he really wants us to show honor. That is, we are to actively treat people as being worthy of our service…which means actually serving them.

That’s why he says in verse 13 that we are to

Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Romans 12:13, ESV)

This is giving of what we have, both in terms of material possessions and—I think—emotional resources. The idea of hospitality is to think of people before they arrive. You show hospitality when you’ve already prepared a room and cooked a meal for your guests before they even get there. You take time out of your day, energy and resources to make sure they are comfortable. You sacrifice some things you could have kept for yourself, for the sake of others.

This self-sacrificial nature of true love requires humility. So, we read,

Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” (Romans 12:16, ESV)

Genuine love is affectionate, and it is self-sacrificial, and the third marker is genuine love is expressed in solidarity.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.” (Romans 12:15–16a, ESV)

Genuine love is delighted when others are delighted. You celebrate with and for others, which only increases the joy for all.

Real love is present in the tough times too. Real love shares the burden of pain and tragedy.

I think of a tragedy like the devastation left behind by Hurricane Harvey, and loss of life, property, and place for so many. Many of us find ourselves with nothing we can do except to weep with our hurting brothers and sisters. For Paul weeping in solidarity is never useless, even though it’s never an instant fix. It reminds us we are not alone, we are loved and cared for, we are one in Christ, and because of that there is hope.

Finally, genuine love releases judgement to God. This can be especially tough, because it strikes right at the heart of that pride and fear. To be clear, when I speak of judgement I’m not talking about discerning between what is right and what is wrong and clearly taking a stand for what is right. The kind of judgement in view here is judging what punishment—spiritual, emotional, physical—someone else deserves. This is what we do when we choose to retaliate, and this is pride because only God is judge in this life. And we often take this on ourselves out of fear of being hurt or losing what we perceive to be ours. But we read in these Holy Scriptures,

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19–21, ESV)

How is all this possible when, in fact, we don’t all live together in a commune and not all of us have known each for years and years? How is this possible when sometimes, we just don’t get along with everyone in the church? How is this possible when it our emotional and physical reserves seem limited, and the assault of our enemies (spiritual, emotional, or physical) seem endless?

When the disciples realized the depth of their own need, they asked Jesus who could be saved. Jesus replied,

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”” (Matthew 19:26, ESV)

We can have faith that God can do this.

It would seem impossible to us, if we didn’t know better, that God can bring life from death. Can we really blame Peter, who in today’s Gospel passage rebukes Jesus for saying that he would have to die for the sins of the world, but would then be raised from the dead on our behalf? It seems like nonsense, if we’re thinking in a worldly sense. But when we limit what God can do in our minds, we inhibit the work of God in our lives. Jesus gives Peter a counter-rebuke:

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”” (Matthew 16:23, ESV)

Isn’t this how we are to approach living in a community of genuine love? If we go all the way back to the beginning of Chapter 12, we see how Paul sets up his argument:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers [and sisters], by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….” (Romans 12:1–2, ESV)

Stop thinking you can’t really love people the way the Bible calls you to because of your own limitations! Whatever the obstacles, they can be overcome by the mercies of God.

You see, the love Paul is talking about isn’t something we achieve or manufacture. For Christians, it is something that already exists in you in the Holy Spirit. We receive it as a grace—a gift—as the Holy Spirit transforms us to be more like Jesus.

This kind of love, manifested in a local church gathered in worship and mission around Jesus Christ, is impossible to replicate elsewhere. It’s not that pieces or parts of genuine love are entirely absent out in the world, but for genuine love to manifest in its fullness, a community must be pursuing the mind of Christ together. This kind of community can offer a credible alternative to the brokenness of the world, and this kind of community is the strongest witness we have to the present reality of the Risen Christ.

I see a lot of this kind of love here at DMAC. I’ve see it in how so many of you come alongside one another in times of crisis and need; how you’ve come alongside me and my family in those times. I see it in your compassion for the elderly in our neighborhood when we deliver bread, in your commitment to support missions efforts with Bryan and Nadenia on the Hopi reservation. I see it in how you join in service to our homeless neighbors every Wednesday. I see it in how you are cooperating to pull of a pretty big change for our church as we switch our Sunday schedule. So, I want to encourage you: let’s continue to grow in this. Let’s continue to place God’s vision revealed in the Bible for his people at the forefront of our thoughts and let ourselves be changed by that. And if God’s vision seems impossible, let’s remember that with God all things are possible.

The best way to get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do his work is to simply open up space in your mind, in your heart, and—this is key—in your schedule to receive God’s revelation of his heart, and his love in Jesus. Spend some serious time with passages like this one. Ask God to help you express genuine love, the kind of love that is affectionate, that is self-sacrificial, that is expressed in solidarity, that releases judgement. This is the kind of love he has shown you. Pray he will help you express that kind of love in the Body of Christ and in the world. I know he will. Amen.

[1] http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/love-one-another-with-brotherly-affection