For what seems like a long time now we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans. We’ve encountered some difficult ideas, some parts which relied on our understanding of Jewish thinking and history – and now today we come to a passage which we can understand! No long sentences; no convoluted arguments – just a list of the ways in which love must first permeate the Christian community, and then seep out to those who are not so friendly.
Paul lists his instructions like a volley of bullets – bang, bang, bang – and that makes them a bit difficult to take on board. For that reason I thought today we might have a slightly different way of looking at things.
We all know that 12 red roses is a symbol of love – so here goes! The first verse says,
1. “Love must be sincere” (verse 9a)
The word Paul uses that is translated as ‘sincere’ means ‘without hypocrisy’. The ‘hypokritēs’ was an actor in a play. He was playing a part; making his audience believe that what he was doing and saying was real.
Of course there is such a thing as pretence-love, but that is not the kind of love which must permeate a Christian community. Our kind of love must never be hypocritical.
So here is our first red rose representing ‘Sincerity’.
When love is genuine and sincere it will be seen in various actions:
2. “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (verse 9b)
Love is sometimes thought of in terms of being a blind sentiment, but in fact it is very discerning. If you really love someone then you will dislike anything which is incompatible with their welfare. Sincere love will produce a loathing of all that could hurt the one you love, and a wish for them to enjoy all that is good for them. Love and hate are strong feelings but they indicate the level of discerning care we should have for the wellbeing of our fellow Christians.
(Add 2nd rose – ‘Discernment’)
3. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (verse 10a).
This phrase describes the natural ties of affection which should exist in any family – the love of a parent for a child; the feelings brothers and sisters have for each other. The ties of love within a family should be replicated in the warm affection uniting members of God’s family, whether they are actual blood relations or not.
(Add 3rd rose representing ‘Affection’)
4. “Honour one another above yourselves” (verse 10b)
Last week Colin mentioned this same idea. He said it was not right to get on one’s high horse and take the attitude of ‘I’m the Rector’… or ‘I’m the headmistress’… or whatever…
Instead we should recognise the importance of every other person, and accord to each the highest possible honour. Each of us has talents and abilities – Nobody is so outstandingly brilliant that they can do everything better than everyone else – and no-one can do nothing. Every single person is to be honoured, respected and appreciated in the Church family.
(Add 4th rose – ‘Honour’)
5. “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord” (verse 11)
Some commentators feel this phrase is linked to the previous one – If others are more capable and deserving than we are, then that could give us the excuse to do nothing much… because someone would do the job much better than me. However, if love truly rules in our church family, all the practical commitments we have towards both God and our fellow believers should ensure that our enthusiasm for the task will never flag. Have you noticed – there is always something else to do? This is a prod to keep on keeping on – with enthusiasm, and with the help of others!
(Add 5th rose – ‘Enthusiasm’)
6. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (verse 12)
But of course, sometimes things are hard going. Then we have to look forward in hope – be patient – pray about things.
(Add 6th rose – ‘Patience’)
7. “Share with God’s people who are in need” (verse 13a)
The word ‘share’ can either mean to share in people’s needs and sufferings, or to share out our resources with them. We have a social responsibility to all people, but especially towards other believers. One of the expressions of the early Church in Jerusalem was that its members “had everything in common” (Acts 2:44). This was a voluntary sharing – a means of making sure that everyone had the essentials to live on.
In the main we are so fortunate here, but we only have to watch the news or read a paper to know that there are Christians in other parts of the world who really need our loving generosity.
(Add 7th rose – ‘Generosity’)
8. “Practise hospitality” (verse13b)
In Paul’s day hospitality was especially important – there were few places to stay, and those that existed were somewhat unsavoury and unsafe. To welcome a traveller, a stranger, into your home was an expression of love that Paul had good reason to be grateful for. It may perhaps be different today, but there are many who would appreciate the sharing of a meal.
(Add 8th rose – ‘Hospitality’)
9. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (verse 14)
This anticipates the last verses (verses 17-21) of the passage in that Paul is beginning to think of the love that believers should show to those outside their own community. ‘Blessing’ and ‘cursing’ are opposites -wishing people good or ill. To bless those who persecute is quite a challenge. It’s hard enough not to wish all those difficult folk just a bit of punishment for their awkwardness, and they are not really our persecutors… But to retaliate is not to show true Christian love. (Add 9th rose – ‘Good will’)
10. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (verse 15)
Identifying with others in their joys and in their sorrows is a Christian’s privilege and responsibility. This aspect of love comes across in our sympathy, whether people are glad or sad.
(Add 10th rose – ‘Sympathy’)
11. “Live in harmony with one another” (verse 16a)
This literally means ‘mind the same things’. Those who share the same concerns and beliefs will be able to live and work together without falling out.
(Add 11th rose – ‘Harmony’)
12. “Do not be proud, but willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (verse 16b)
To be a snob and so to be concerned with the status and class of others is a very divisive and thoroughly unloving kind of pride. Although here it talks of people of low position, actually this can work in both directions – some look down on others, while others will have nothing to do with those they perceive to be in higher positions. Jesus fraternized with all, and we are called to do the same – we are all human beings and all equally important in God’s eyes.
(Add 12th rose – ‘Humility’)
So – there is our bunch of ‘Love’. I’m sorry it doesn’t smell nice!
The final verses seem to be covered by two things: ‘No retaliation’ and ‘No revenge’.
I found this way of summing up today’s verses, which I’d like to read to you:
“Transformation begins when an individual takes his (or her) place in the ‘family’ of Christ. His own stock goes down. His opinion of others goes up. And individual gifts are pooled for the good of the whole Christian community. We put ourselves at God’s disposal, and we don’t pull out when the going gets hard. Old attitudes change – not only towards fellow Christians but towards the outside world. Instead of giving tit-for-tat when we are wronged we treat the enemy as if he were our best friend, and we leave God to do the judging”.