What Is Genuine Love (Romans 12:9-21)
Sermon for May 24, 2020
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Dear New Cut Church and friends,
The Scripture reading today is Romans 12:9-21. In these verses, the Word of God explains genuine love and Christian faithfulness. The Word of God reads in Romans 12:9-21,
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
What is love? Love is something often talked about. But how might someone answer the question, what is love? One popular song, titled “What Is Love?” starts out with the question, “What is love?” but never actually answers the question. In fact, in several instances in the lyrics, the question, “What is love?” is followed only by a series of “Whoas” and “oh ohs.” While the beat is catchy and fun, the question, “What is love?” never seems to be really answered. Or in the movie, Princess Bride, the speech on marriage refers to marriage as a dream within a dream and says true love will follow you forever. While the movie and speech is goofy and fun, love remains this vague and fleeting idea. So, what is love?
Paul starts out in Romans 12:9 by writing, “Love must be sincere.” This verse starts a new section in Romans 12 after the section on the spiritual gifts. “Love must be sincere” can be treated as the heading of the section with rest of the section unpacking what sincere love actually is. The commentator Douglas Moo writes,
The opening words are not explicitly linked to anything in the previous context, and there is no verb in the Greek. Paul says simply “sincere love.” These words are the heading for what follows, as Paul proceeds in a series of participial clauses to explain just what sincere love really is.
So, that is how you can see this section of Romans 12. Think of it with the heading “Sincere Love” followed by an explanation of what sincere love really is.
Paul continues in v. 9, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Sincere love is often times conflated with passion. In this misconception of love, the picture is usually of two people romantically interested in one another with emotions flying off the handle. A typical romantic comedy film today will show this picture of love. In the romantic comedy, the intense passions will eventually explode into conflict. Then the typical romantic comedy movie ends with things working out in the end. But sincere love is not a roller coaster of emotions. Rather, Paul when unpacking what sincere love is starts out by writing, “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”
So, sincere love, in having a standard of good and evil, is not unbridled passion. When we consider a standard of good and evil with sincere love, then love is not an alliance either. Now, there can be a good alliance, but I am using the word alliance negatively. Think of the T.V. show that premiered in 2000, Survivor. The goal in this T.V. show is to be the last one standing in a survival situation and people get voted off in the process. Alliances form, not for the promotion of good, but for self-preservation, survival, and winning. The thinking goes like this: “If we come together, we can overpower anyone else and win.” Similar alliances can happen in workplaces or even in churches. The problem with this kind of alliance is that it is for the purpose of self-preservation without regard to good and evil. This kind of alliance says, “Let’s come together for the purpose of individual self-preservation, and pursue this preservation, no matter how much we inflict hurt to others.”
Sincere love clings to what is good and abhors what is evil. The bond of love is sincere and true when it is united with what is good. Take marriage for example. In a marriage, sincere love means clinging to what is good. This means having Christ at the center of the marriage. If two come together in marriage, but then in that bond of marriage, seek and destroy anything different from them, that isn’t sincere love.
Sincere love isn’t being partners in crime. Sincere love in a marriage is when two are committed to the good of one another, but also together committed to the good of others as well. A spouse may have times of weakness, and it is important to stick with a spouse in weakness. But there ought not to be in that faithfulness to a marriage a condoning of evil, supporting of evil, or joining in evil. That isn’t sincere love. Sincere love is when people are bound together truly for the good of one another and the good of others as well. That’s a good alliance.
One married couple I know has Psalm 34:3 on their wedding rings as a reminder of the focus of their marriage. Psalm 34:3 reads, “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.” This is a reminder to them of the purpose of their joining. They are joined to magnify the Lord together! Sincere love is not a joining of unbridled passion. Sincere love is not a joining that discards the purpose of good. Sincere love is a joining that clings to what is good and abhors what is evil.
Now, Paul is writing in this verse most specifically to the church. We are aiming for sincere love in the church. The church is not an alliance in which we come together to watch out for one each other at the expense of others. Rather, in our love for one another, we want to work together to magnify God’s name, promote the good of one another, help each other to walk with God, and in our joining together, seek the good of other people too. And I don’t mean good in the modern relativistic sense. I mean good the way that God defines good. I mean helping each other and others to walk with the true and living God. When together we help each other to magnify God’s name and seek the good of other people, that is a good alliance. That is sincere love.
Sincere love also means respect. Verse 10 says, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” This idea of honor and respect also carries with it the concept of value. When love is sincere, we treat one another as valuable. This is applicable for all Christian relationships. We are not to honor only those in certain positions. In our church relationships, we are to show honor and respect to everyone.
What might this respect look like? How you show respect to another person can be culturally conditioned. But it starts with something like a meaningful greeting. When someone is important, we make sure to acknowledge them. But it can go beyond a greeting as well. If we only do a minimal greeting, we aren’t taking interest in someone and showing that they are important to us. To respect someone is to intentionally show that they matter to you.
This honoring of one another in the church is also reciprocal. It doesn’t flow one way. For example, not only should a student respect their teacher, but their teacher should respect the student as well. This doesn’t usurp the teaching role. The teacher remains the teacher. But the teacher respects the student by putting effort into teaching, dealing kindly with a student, and not seeking to be harsh or to embarrass. And a student should have an attitude of learning and graciousness with his or her teacher.
Question 65 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is forbidden in the fifth commandment?” The answer is “The fifth commandment forbiddeth the neglecting of, or doing anything against, the honor and duty which belongeth to everyone in their several places and relations.” It’s not that honor belongs to some and not others. Honor belongs to everyone in their several places and relations. It’s not one way. Followers should respect leaders and leaders should respect followers; teachers, students; and students, teachers; and so on.
I like to think of respect like a military salute. When an enlisted person approaches an officer, he recognizes the officer’s authority and importance. In a gesture of respect, the enlisted person renders a salute. But it doesn’t stop there. Then the officer renders a salute back to the enlisted person. There is mutual respect both ways. For love to be sincere in a church, there needs to be a culture of reciprocal respect. All people need to be treated like they matter and are important. Love is not sincere when people are ignored, belittled, insulted, treated with contempt, or treated as if they don’t matter.
Now, no one has arrived when it comes to sincere love or showing honor to others. So, I am going to set forth a challenge. Work at contributing to a culture of honor and respect at New Cut. Find ways to meaningfully show honor to one another. Find ways to show honor towards others in the community and other churches.
Now, New Cut has expressed interest in growing as a church. How does sincere love and respect relate to this growth? Let me start with this: there is such a thing as over-commitment to the growth and success of an organization. As an illustration, an employee may have so much passion for the success of his company, that he does immoral things to help the company succeed. Or a team member may become extremely abrasive and disrespectful of other team members and say it is because he just really cares about the outcome of the company, which may be true. What is backwards is that these organizations, I believe, actually suffer loss from their over commitment to what they view as success. The company cultures become too unpleasant, resulting in people not functioning well or just leaving.
When it comes to the growth of a church, make sure to not lose sight of sincere love and respect in the church. It can be so easy to fall into pressuring people to work harder in a way that is disrespectful to them, or to place blame in ways that is unfair and devalues people. Remember, far more important than growing bigger is being a church. Don’t stop being a church to grow bigger. Focus on the Lord. Show sincere Christian love and respect to one another. Next, we’ll look at how hospitality is a picture of sincere love.
Verse 13 says to “practice hospitality.” Hospitality can be defined as kindness towards strangers. When we think of hospitality, we frequently think of having someone over for a meal, or providing a place to sleep. However, hospitality is more broad than having someone over for a meal. Hospitality, as kindness towards strangers, can take many forms. What is significant about hospitality, is that there is not something to gain directly in return. It’s not like being kind to your best friend because you enjoy what you get out of the relationship.
Practicing hospitality is a way of practicing sincere love. When this section of Romans starts out with the heading “sincere love,” it could also be translated as “genuine love,” or “love without hypocrisy.” Genuine love without hypocrisy means without pretense. It means that love is giving without a pretense of getting something back. It’s not calculating. When hospitality is given to a stranger who doesn’t have a way to give a lot back, that is sincere love. The idea here with hospitality, is showing kindness towards people who are not in your closest relationships. Of course, you should show kindness in your closest relationships. But kindness towards strangers or people who you are less close with is a picture of hospitality and sincere love. So, sincere love as hospitality proves itself to be sincere love because the giver does not have so much to get back in the giving. Now, love is shown to be sincere even more when it comes to dealing with someone who persecutes you.
Verse 14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Showing kindness when persecuted and mistreated by another shows sincere love. The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:44-46 helps to understand:
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his son to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Here Jesus points out that showing love towards someone who already loves you is not a great test of sincere love. The average person maintains love in their existing loving relationships. But to show love when mistreated and persecuted: that is a picture of sincere love.
This call to bless when persecuted is a call to give sincere love even when sincere love is not given by someone else. When we in our relationships have a posture of “I’ll only give as much love as I get” or “I’ll only give love if I receive,” it creates a snowball effect. We as humans have a tendency to overestimate how much love we are giving and underestimate how much we are receiving. This along with a desire to keep the love as even as possible, will turn relationships loveless. Instead, we need to be determined to give sincere love. We need to not just love when it is beneficial to us, but even when we are mistreated. As an encouragement here to you who know Jesus Christ, think about how abundant God’s love is towards you. You did nothing to merit that love. Quite the opposite, you alienated yourself from God with sin. But God showed his love nonetheless by sending his only Son into the world, and his only Son died for you. That is abundant love. The love that God shows us is far from keeping it even. God’s love is abundant. As those who have received this abundant love, you should by God’s grace show abundant love to others.
When mistreated, it can be tempting to respond in kind. But that is not the Christian way of sincere love. Verse 17 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” I remember when I was in Navy Boot Camp, a firefighter instructor was teaching us a very important concept for fighting fires on a flight deck. He said that there are not only hoses on the flight deck for fighting fires, but also hoses for refueling aircraft. Then he said that in the intensity of fighting a fire, it is essential to make sure you grab the correct hose! Certainly, if you come to a fire with a fuel hose, you won’t get the results you’re looking for. But isn’t that how we often respond to evil? We come to the fire with a fuel hose. We try and get even. We return a slight with a slight. But that goes nowhere good.
With sincere love, as v. 21 points out, instead of being overcome by evil, we are to overcome evil with good. How do we do that? Since this is the most difficult way to show sincere love, Paul gives more guidance here beyond the short commands from earlier in this section. Continuing in v. 17, Paul writes, “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” This can sound backwards to a Christian. You might think, “Wait, I thought I am supposed to only please God, regardless of how upset people are with me, or disapprove of me. I thought I am not supposed to be a people-pleaser.” True, you are supposed to make pleasing God your priority and not be a people-pleaser. But when it comes to making peace with others, maybe Christians can be too dug-in. Of course, Christians should not be morally neutral and should care deeply about right and wrong. But, in an effort to make peace, while not compromising what is right and wrong, Christians should seek to do what others perceive as right and respectful towards them. “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” So, how do you do what is right in the eyes of everyone? Say that someone is upset with you. You could always start by asking, “What do you see as the right thing for me to do in this situation?” When that attitude of deference is given, conflict can be de-escalated, and many in response to that deference will offer a solution that does not compromise your sense of right and wrong and walk with God.
Of course, people don’t always respond to acts of peace. Hence v. 18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” You need to take responsibility to initiate peace. When it comes to peacemaking, you need to be responsible for your side of making peace. You can’t force another person to be at peace. But the emphasis here is to take responsibility yourself for being peaceful, then leave room for God to work. The concept of boundaries is emerging here. Within your boundaries, you are responsible for being peaceful with someone else, but you can’t make someone else peaceful. Now, while you have a boundary here to operate in, there is also a boundary that you are not to cross. That is the boundary of revenge.
Verse 19 says, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. Think of it like this. You are going on a walk in the woods and come across a fence with a sign that says “No Trespassing.” Don’t go beyond that boundary. Don’t go on that property. It doesn’t belong to you. When it comes to revenge at any level, don’t go on that property. It belongs to God, not to you. It is God’s place to repay, or to decide not to repay. It’s not your place. Don’t trespass onto that territory that belongs to God. If you’re tempted to seek revenge at any level, try imagining that property sign that says no trespassing, and don’t cross that boundary.
While the place of personal vengeance is not for you, peacemaking and kindness is. Hence v. 20 says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” An act of kindness towards an enemy is counter-intuitive to sinful human nature. But when an act of kindness is done, it is a clear example of sincere love. Search for a real need of that person. It may take work and thought to see that need. Then kindly meet that need, whatever it is. If this kindness is hard, remember God’s kindness towards you. God showed kindness in salvation towards you despite your sin against God.
With sincere love, be bound together by what is good. Promote good among each other, magnify God’s name, and together seek the good of others. Show honor and respect to one another. Show kindness towards strangers. Show kindness towards people not in your closest relationships. Don’t try to keep the score even in love, but give freely. And even when you are mistreated, give sincere love. Remember that God loved you when you did not love God.
Grace and peace,