Grace Presbyterian Church
August 27, 2017, Pentecost 11A
What It Looks Like
What does love look like?
It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men.
This is what love looks like.
This quote is attributed to Saint Augustine, one of the great ancestors of the church, who lived from 354-430. If nothing else it demonstrates that for a very long time, the Christian church has understood that any claim to live in the love of Christ will of necessity be visible, made known not in words but in deeds of compassion directed both at one another in the body of Christ and to any who suffer, whether “Christian” or not. Christlike love doesn’t get to be selective.
This reading from Paul’s writing to the Romans, continuing Paul’s encouragement to his Roman readers and hearers, moves even more directly in this direction, showing to his listeners “what it looks like” to live in the love of God that redeems the human body and renews the human mind. In many ways the most similar passage to this in Paul’s output is no less than the famous “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, which captures Paul at his most poetic and even ecstatic as he unfolds the beauties of love. The present passage passes over similar ground; the principal difference is that in Romans, Paul narrows his focus to how this divine love looks specifically when it is lived out in the body of Christ.
Unfortunately, most biblical translations don’t quite capture this powerful description because of a Greek grammatical choice. Certain verb forms in Koine Greek can be ambiguous when a verb is omitted implied rather than made explicit. The beginning of verse 9 is such an example; were you to read it in a word-for-word translation it would simply say “love without pretense.” Most translations, NRSV included, assume an imperative verb: “Let love be genuine.” However, a reading as an indicative verb – “love is without pretense” – captures in some ways what Paul is encouraging on his hearers in a way more consistent with his ongoing teaching that all of the life they live in Christ, their very redemption as living offerings and transformation by the renewing of their minds, is itself dependent on the same love of God. Like that redemption and that transformation, this “love without pretense” is itself a gift of God, “not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” to borrow from the letter to the Ephesians.
With this in mind, the series of maxims that follows becomes more clearly a description of the love of God lived out in the body of Christ, and “what it looks like.”
Before that chorus of the characteristics of love, Paul amplifies his initial statement. His language in doing so is strong: “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” The word really is that strong; other possible translations include such vivid words or phrases as “abhor” or “utterly detest.” More than just “dislike” is at work here; the rejection of evil really is an active and emphatic and visceral thing, much as “holding fast” to the good implies an active and vigorous dynamic rather than merely passively “being good.” And this, Paul teaches, is characteristic of genuine, unpretentious, un-hypocritical love.
What follows from here (not just in chapter 12, but continuing into chapter 13 as well) not only reflects Paul’s description of living in love, but also shows one of those two poles of such un-hypocritical love: hating evil and holding fast to what is good. Altogether, these maxims remind us that living in love, far from being a quiet and passive private emotion, is active and vigorous, something that can only be done “out loud.”
Paul isn’t making it easy here, presumably because he knows from experience. Remember, this is a man who has seen the inside of a few prison cells in his career, and in at least a few cases it was because that prison cell was the only way to keep him from being harmed by those opponents of his mission who aimed to shut him up once and for all. He had, in short, known persecution. He had faced what any sane person would call evil, and he had faced it from his own people, because he had chosen to follow this call God had thrust upon him back on that road to Damascus.
So, alongside fairly easy instructions such as “do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord,” or “contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers,” or “rejoice with those who rejoice,” there are the more challenging traits of living in the body. “Weep with those who weep” isn’t necessarily hard, but it is hard. “Live in harmony with one another” gets challenging at times. Sometimes we can get caught wanting to “claim to be wiser than you are,” even realizing we’ve already been warned against that earlier in the chapter.
But then things get really hard. There are those that prompt the accusation that the preacher has “done quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.”
Take this statement: “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.“ Sounds challenging enough as it is, but it’s still our tendency to weaken it, to reduce it to a “don’t make trouble” instruction that we can keep quietly and without anybody noticing. Trouble is, that’s not what it is to live transformed by that renewing of our minds. Like these other instructions, it’s not passive. It requires active doing.
Maybe it’s captured best by Clarence Jordan, preacher and founder of Koinonia Farm, established as a deliberately interracial farm and community in south Georgia at peak Jim Crow. Jordan’s unique contribution to biblical instruction was the “Cotton Patch Gospel,” (maybe you’ve seen the musical based on it?) a combination of scholarly translation of most of the New Testament with a striking re-contextualization; what if these events had happened and these letters had been written in the American South of his time? The “Cotton Patch” translation of this verse captures vividly the active sense of Paul’s instruction, perhaps because Jordan himself had experienced it vividly in his own life at Koinonia: “If it’s possible – that is, from your side – WAGE PEACE WITH ALL MANKIND.” (That last phrase, by the way, really is in all caps.)
WAGE PEACE. Not a passive, unobtrusive thing at all, living transformed by the renewing of our minds. It’s active. It gets in the way. It interferes with the established interests. It does not resign itself to the “peace” of a racially and economically stratified and walled-off nation or society. It doesn’t acquiesce to the powerful oppressing and exploiting the powerless. And that’s hard.
And it only gets worse from here. “Bless those who persecute you”? “Do not repay anyone evil for evil”? “…never avenge yourselves”? “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them drink”?
And then the capper: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Seriously, God, how could you let Paul write anything so crazy as that? Here we go again with the active, “out loud” stuff. It’s one thing to talk like that in the safety and comfort of our own sanctuary; it’s quite another to do so when someone is glowering at you and brandishing a semiautomatic weapon. And yet this isn’t a passive life we’re called to live in the body of Christ; we live in this love among ourselves, yes, but we also welcome the sojourner and extend that good even to those who hate us.
Seriously, this kind of thing makes a preacher reconsider his or her vocation.
Mind you, this set of instruction isn’t through yet; it continues through chapter 13. But mercy, it’s challenging enough just going this far. And it reminds us just how far that transformation has yet to go in each of us or in all of us. And yet this is what we are submitting to, this is the call we are accepting in our lives, if we claim to be any part of the body of Christ.
To love actively; to be committed to Christ and to one another; to be always ready to reach out to those most in need and to defend those most persecuted; to be active in naming and calling out and utterly detesting and abhorring and hating evil, even when it rears its head right next to us, and yet to feed the hungry enemy; this is what it looks like when we truly submit ourselves as living offerings, and are transformed by the renewing of our minds instead of being conformed to the world.
And man, oh, man, is it hard. It’s hard to believe. It’s hard even to imagine. And it’s certainly hard to trust.
Nevertheless, Thanks be to God, anyway. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #409, God Is Here!; #306, Blest Be the Tie That Binds; #727, Will You Let Me Be Your Servant; #541, God Be With You Till We Meet Again
(Note: image credit here.)