Isaiah 49:8-13, Romans 12:9-21
August 28, 2011
Last week, we looked at the first part of Romans 12. That day we concentrated on the first few verses, “I appeal to you therefore, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” We said then that our acts of physical worship, even the way we live our lives, is our spiritual worship. Those were some new and amazing things for Paul, of all people, to have written!
We also talked about love. We recalled the passage from Hosea 6, where God says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) We said that the way we love God has everything to do with worship. We also read the passage from Micah 6. “What does the Lord require of you? But to seek justice, and love mercy (or kindness) and to walk humbly with your God.” In both of those passages, Micah and Hosea, we found that it’s not just how we love God that’s important, but how we love and treat others.
Paul then brought it all together. He connected the love of God to the love of others, and he equated all that to our spiritual worship. He echoed the thoughts of Jesus, who said, “How can you love God who you can’t see, when you do not love your brother who you can see.” He would agree with Jesus when he said, “So, if you’re bringing your gift to God, and you get right up to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you. Stop. Leave your gift right there and go and be reconciled.” Jesus was saying that it’s inconsistent for us to be at odds with each other, and then come and worship God. The two are tied together! I believe that’s so important to God! And, my friends, I believe God grieves for the broken relationships he sees between people.
Think about that. Did you ever know someone who was not speaking to someone in their family? I’ve heard this too many times! Someone says, “Yeah, I have a brother but we haven’t spoken in years.” And too often in our modern world, they say, “I don’t talk to my brother any more because I can’t respect his political views.” (That’s one of the reasons I don’t do politics any more! It’s so divisive!) But let me ask you this. When you hear something like that, do you feel a sort of anguish? Do you feel pain deep inside for this person who has distanced themselves from someone in their own family! I know I’ve felt that! And I believe God feels that, too. None of us is perfect, and God wants to share in our lives, anyway. But even as he does, he must also feel a real anguish for broken relationships.
Robert Schuller was fond of saying something, and maybe you’ve heard this. He said that the cross represents connections. The vertical beam represents our relationship with God, and the horizontal beam represents our relationship with each other. And they meet at the center. They meet at Jesus. And look what it cost for Jesus to heal our broken relationships with God! We too need to be in the business of healing brokenness. We need to heal brokenness in people’s lives. And we need to heal brokenness in relationships.
So then we have our passage for today. And here Paul is talking about “genuine love.” And he gets real “practical,” as Paul often does. He starts giving us a series of injunctions – instructions, if you will – on how to “put love into practice.” At first he says things we would expect to hear. And these are good things! “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” “Love one another with brotherly affection.” “Never flag in zeal. Be aglow with the spirit. Serve the Lord.” “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” “Contribute to the needs of the saints. Practice hospitality.”
Those are good things! And they are about love. And notice, they are choices! We need to choose to do these things. In fact, Paul puts these things in the imperative mood. (Remember that?) That means they are, as Webster’s defines the imperative, “orders or requests urging the reader to act.” He’s telling us to do something. So, it’s “Hate.” “Hold fast.” “Love.” “Never flag.” “Serve.” “Rejoice.” He’s saying do, or rather, “choose to do” these things. He’s not saying, “Oh I hope you feel brotherly love for one another.” I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Love is not a feeling! It is a choice. Yes, love has wonderful feelings associated with it! But love is a way of treating others! And unless we really get that, this next part won’t make sense.
Because he goes on. “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.” And we’re thinking “Wait a minute! Go back to that first one.” “Bless those who persecute you?” “Are you kidding?! Even Jesus only said, ‘Pray for those who persecute you.’”
Let’s remember that one and come back to it. Lets’ deal with the “easy ones” for a moment. And notice, these are all still in the imperative. He’s saying “Do these things.” And we could spend all morning on each one of them. They are all part of “putting love into practice.” They are all ways of treating others. Look at the first two. “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.” There’s a sense of empathy there, “empathy” meaning recognizing, and to some extent, sharing the feelings of others. Some people are natural at that! We can all choose to do it!
He goes on. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.” They all go together, don’t they? But are they you? Think about it. There’s no room for prejudice, greed, condescension, or short temperedness there, is there?
Then in this last section he gets back to that earlier one, the one about blessing those who persecute us. Look what he says. “Repay no one evil for evil.” You often hear me say that at the end of the service. It’s part of the charge I give as you go. It’s about going our and living what we’ve been talking about during worship. Paul takes that though even further. “Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (Maybe I need to add that line to my charge!) “Take thought.” That’s a very important phrase. It means that we are to choose even our thoughts. Do we ever think about that?
All of us have to deal with all kinds of thoughts. And there are often thoughts in our heads that are “emotion based.” If someone wrongs us, our thought is to get back at them. We’re mad! And our thought is to do the same to them. Paul says we are to “give thought to,” that is, to choose other thoughts, thoughts about things that are noble in the sight of all. He would later tell the Corinthians, “We take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” (10:5) Part of putting love into practice is choosing to control our thinking! And when someone has wronged us, that’s not easy, is it! Because those emotions are strong!
He goes on, “Live peaceably with all.” That’s in the imperative, too! He’s saying, choose to live peaceably. In other words, “even if people are not living peaceably with us.” Wow! That’s hard! But just think about it. If we do that, if we do as the old song says and “let peace begin with me,” how will that affect our lives? Will our lives not be more peaceful? Will we not then have the peace the world so desperately wants? And how would it be different if instead of that we harbored grudges and criticism, and if we planned revenge for wrongs done to us?
So Paul says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.” Instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him drink.” Do we ever feel like those things? Of course not! Actually we’re more likely to feel like the next part of this. “For in doing so you will heap burning coals upon his head.” I believe that statement was given with a little “tongue in cheek.” Paul didn’t mean that we are to try to make people feel those burning coals! That would go against this whole passage, which has been about choosing peace, and acting civilly. This is all about overcoming the vengeful, reactive, emotional thoughts that everybody has from time to time. In fact, he sums up all these practical injunctions with his closing verse. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
That’s the first mention of something outside influencing us. The other injunctions were about choosing ways of being and acting. Now he’s saying don’t let this thing, this evil, overcome you. In Genesis, God warns Cain to change his thoughts, “because,” he says, “evil is ‘crouching at your door.’” (Genesis 4:7) That’s a great description, isn’t it? But Cain wouldn’t listen. He let his ill feelings toward his brother grow uncontrolled. And you know the end of that story! You know the murder and the misery it caused!
Paul ends this with antithesis of that thought. (And now he’s back in the imperative.) “Do not let evil overcome you, but overcome evil with good.” Choose to make the good, the noble, the peaceable, the blessing, the rejoicing – all of that – your way of life. “Do that,” he says, “because that is love.” And love is indeed something we practice, or it simply won’t be. And when we practice love, we will feel ourselves going outside the norms and outside of our “comfort zones.” We will feel ourselves doing things we wouldn’t ordinarily do. And if we don’t practice love, think about what will happen.
As we close, I would exhort you to take some time and read this chapter again. And “take thought” about all this. Practice putting love into practice. It’s not easy! But it’s what God wants for his people. Because he wants the very best for us! Paul, the great persecutor of the Church, finally got this! I hope it’s something we all get!
Eternal God, you sent your son to show us love in action. We know what he did was not easy. Love is not easy for us, either. Help us to have the strength to love others – those who are close to us, and even those who treat us poorly. Help us to be the light of your love in our world. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.