Genuine Christians | Proper 17

Romans 12:9-21

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic–be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you– bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. (CEB)

Genuine Christians

When I was in Middle School, back in the late ‘80s, New Kids On the Block was on the radio, and Jams shorts were the choice of clothing for all the cool kids, both girls and boys. For those of you who don’t remember them, Jams are surfer-style shorts with colorful and flowery Hawaiian patterns. They’ve been around since the 1960s, but they were all the rage for a few years in the mid to late ‘80s.

Oh, there were knockoff Jams, too, but everyone knew if you had the genuine Jams or not. Fake Jams were not cool. Wearing knockoffs of the real thing meant you were just a poser, who was trying to look cool, but you clearly didn’t have the genuine Jams that actually made you look cool.

Alas! I have to admit that I was a poser. My mom bought me fake Jams. Real Jams were too expensive. Paying that much for shorts was “ridiculous,” if I recall her wording correctly. She clearly didn’t realize this was an investment in my Middle School social life which stayed rather stagnant, I’m sure, because I lacked genuine Jams. So, I did my best to act like I was “Hanging Tough,” as New Kids On the Block sang, while wearing my knockoff shorts into social ignominy.

In this text from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he offers some direction about love that is genuine. Paul’s words here actually look similar to his famous description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (CEB).

Paul’s description in Romans differs somewhat in that he talks about the things that make Christians and the Christian Church different, even distinctive, from the broader culture in which we live. “Genuine love hates evil and clings to good,” is another way to translate verse 9 from Greek.

That word used for genuine in this text means without hypocrisy. Did you know that the word hypocrite comes from Greek, and it’s the word that was used for stage actors? It wasn’t an insult back then, it’s simply what they were called. Actors were hypocrites because they pretended to be something other than their true selves. They weren’t being genuine. They were posing as someone or something else, kind of like me with my knockoff Jams shorts. Genuine love—love that is without hypocrisy—is the thing that distinguishes us as Christians. Paul’s definition is expansive, and it’s not easy for any Christian to conform one’s life to it, let alone accept it on even a theoretical level. Yet, if we want to be the church as we ought, then we can’t ignore or gloss over what Paul tells us about genuine love.

It might help us to consider, for a moment, what the church is. Our English word, church, has a complicated and uncertain origin. The best possibility is that church is related to similar-sounding words in other languages (including Greek, Latin, Scotch, and Welsh) that all have the meaning, circle. Our word church doesn’t seem to be related at all to the Greek word found in the Bible, which is ʾεκκλησία (ecclesia). That word means a gathering of people, assembly, or congregation, and it’s a compound word that means summoned out of.

Are you still with me? I know, I’m a total nerd (which might have had more of an influence on my Middle School popularity than my lack of genuine Jams shorts). So, what we call the church is a group of people that has been called out of the world to be a different kind of community from the world. For Paul, the church’s distinctive characteristic is that we love God, and we love every person, even our enemies.

Paul bases all of this on our worship of God. In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, “So then, I urge you, sisters and brothers, through the compassion of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship” (my translation). Worship is so much more than this public event we’re doing right now in this sanctuary. Yet, for some reason, we’ve created a dichotomy that separates worship on Sunday mornings from our every-day actions. For Christians, our worship of God does not end when we leave this room or this building. The entirety of our life is worship. Everything we think, do, and say, says something about us as a people who worship God. A tree, after all, is known by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20).

There’s a symbolic reason why acolytes typically carry the light from our worship candles out of the sanctuary after the benediction. The symbolism is that we are taking our worship out into the world. Our worship of God becomes our actions out there. The way we treat other people, how well we love and honor others, is our worship of God. Our actions toward others reflect either the hypocrisy or genuineness of our love for God and each other.

By describing genuine love, Paul essentially defines what the church’s relationship should be with everyone. The church might be an alternative community called out of the world, but we still relate to the world and its people. So, how do we live as an alternative community and how do we relate to the world? Paul tells us exactly how we can accomplish these things. The answer is genuine love. Love without hypocrisy or pretending.

If we wanted to, we could set up Paul’s words here as a church covenant and agree that this is how we’re going to deal with people. Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this? What if we really loved each other as a family? What if we loved each other so much that we all tried to outdo each other in showing honor? Who among us would earn their varsity letter in Honorableness? What if we gave each other the benefit of the doubt before drawing conclusions? What if we could still honor each other while holding vastly different opinions? What if I could wear my fake Jams and still be accepted as one of the cool kids? Showing honor to others comes from love that is without pretending. The thing is, if we don’t love each other as family and honor each other, then we can’t serve the Lord. Indeed, we aren’t serving the Lord because our actions toward each other are part of our worship.

What about enthusiasm and being on fire as we serve the Lord? Do we get excited about how the love we can offer to others can make the world a better place? Are we so enthusiastic in our service to God that people pause and say, Dang. You’re kind of zealous there, aren’t you? People can see that kind of enthusiasm, and it’s contagious!

What about rejoicing in the hope we have in Jesus Christ? Do we do that? Are we happy to call ourselves a Christian? When trouble comes around, as it inevitably does, do we stand firm in our faith or fall away? Is our love of God genuine or is it contingent on things going well for us? Do we pray as we ought, seeking that connection with God, those small moments of worship?

Right now, I’m in the middle of a little experiment. My phone has alarms set for 9:00, noon, 3:00, 6:00, and 9 p.m. I’m trying to stop what I’m doing so I can pray at those hours. That’s in addition to my morning prayers when I wake up, and my meal-time prayers, and my nightly prayers when I go to bed. Most of the time, my prayer at those hours is simply a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes I pray for my family, or the Barnabas Ministry student I have, or a congregation member. Devoting ourselves to prayer is one of the ways we show our love of God to be genuine and without pretending. I invite you to try something like my prayer experiment, or find another way to devote yourself to prayer.

I’m sure that most of us give a portion of our finances and time to our church and other needs, but have we considered that our motivation for what we contribute to the church stems from our love for God? And, how we offer hospitality to others is important. Showing hospitality is more than an act of kindness or welcome. It can also mean seeking justice for others. Offering hospitality in the sense of charity offers people crumbs from our table. But hospitality in the sense of working for justice on behalf of others offers people a place at the table.

Then, somewhat reminiscent of the Beatitudes of Jesus, Paul reminds us of love’s reach. His instruction is not easy to hear, and it’s not easy to do. Nevertheless, these are the marks of Christian people. These are the characteristics of genuine love, love that doesn’t pretend: “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status.” [In other words, go hang out with the kid wearing fake Jams because that’s all his mother could afford] “Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” (Romans 12:16-18 CEB).

Paul continues by quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 when he tells us to feed our enemies when they’re hungry and give them something to drink when they’re thirsty. Although we would like it to be otherwise with our enemies, Paul is not literally telling us to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies. Too often, we come awfully close to that kind of interpretation and application. That’s what the world would have us do. In this case, the burning coals are the remorse of our enemies for their past mistreatment of us as we lovingly meet their needs. That remorse is the seed of repentance that can lead to their salvation.

The only appropriate way for Christians to act toward other people is with genuine love. None of us can fake our way out of it. None of us can raise valid exceptions that Paul, himself, wouldn’t shoot down. If we genuinely love God, our only option is genuine love. We don’t overcome evil with evil. We overcome evil with good. The way Christians defeat evil, injustice, oppression, and every other enemy we face is by loving it to death.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


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