Let Love Be Genuine

Exodus 3:1-15 | Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45b | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:1-28

Jeremy Richards

We recently finished up a series on Philippians a few weeks ago. During that series, one of the themes that came out the strongest was the idea that Salvation isn’t a one-time event but a journey, one we take together. While we explored that idea quite a bit, it remained fairly abstract. There were metaphors about boats and shores and waves. The Trinity, of course, made an appearance, as well. But there weren’t as many tangible instructions about how we live out a life of salvation.

Which is kind of odd because Paul, the author of Philippians, is known to make long lists in his letters – lists of things you should do and lists of things you shouldn’t do, but in Philippians he didn’t really give us one of those lists. But here, in another one of Paul’s letters, he gives us the list, and it’s a good one. In Romans 12, Paul articulates what a life characterized by Salvation, a life drawn into the life of God, looks like. He says (in the NRSV):

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

There’s so much in here! You probably zoned out for a minute or two as I read it, didn’t you? It’s hard – impossible! – to dig into it all in one sermon. I think the place to start, though, is where Paul starts in this passage: “Let love be genuine.” This is what makes the whole rest of the list possible. You can’t do the other stuff, if you don’t have genuine love.

We often know what we should do. Since we were kids we’ve had rules, do’s and don’ts, that tell us how to behave in society. Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t hit. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Be kind. Share.

As adults, we continue (hopefully!) to abide by similar rules in our homes and workplaces. As a church, we believe that we should add standing up for justice to that list. We are called not only to behave properly in interpersonal relationships, but also to confront systems and ideologies that marginalize and oppress people.

But I think starting with the task – be it fighting overwhelming systems of injustice, or just resisting the urge to flip someone off on the freeway – is maybe the wrong place to start. It’s hard to do the right thing just for the sake of doing the right thing. It’s hard to follow all the rules – the dos and don’ts.

It’s just hard to stay motivated. Most of us, if not all of us, are busier than we’d like to be, we feel stretched thin from work and family responsibilities and social obligations, so we see the ways we could be better, maybe go the extra mile – maybe we shouldn’t have snapped at our family member, maybe we should have shown up for that town hall meeting or that protest – but we’re just too tired.

We often know, in our heads, what we should do, but our hearts aren’t always in it.

That’s why Paul starts with love, and more specifically genuine love. Don’t fake love. Really love. Really love God and really love people.

This week we learned that the Church in America has a ways to go when it comes to genuine love. In the midst of the Hurricane Harvey, the largest church in Houston, with a capacity for nearly 17,000 people, initially refused to take in evacuees, but eventually opened its doors after an onslaught of internet backlash.

Then, once again in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, a group of Christian leaders gathered in Nashville, not to address Hurricane Harvey or how to build bridges between a country and a Church that continues to be polarized, but to further cause division. They met in Nashville to draft a document clarifying their belief that LGBTQ lifestyles are contrary to the will of God, and to say that churches like ours, who fully welcome, affirm, and celebrate our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks “constitute an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” These pastors claim it’s out of “love” that they made this statement, but that isn’t genuine love.

Let’s remind ourselves what love is, from another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

The Church in America needs genuine love.    

If we don’t love God and people, but only try to do what’s right out of obligation or a sense of duty we’ll end up burnt out. But if we are filled with love, our sense of obligation will be replaced by a genuine desire to treat people well, to help when we can, to confront evil for the sake of the good. We’ll be so busy holding on to what is good, that we won’t have to think twice about hating what is evil – that’s just the natural response.

And instead of losing steam, we won’t, in the words of Paul in v. 11, “lag in zeal,” but we will “be ardent in Spirit” as we “serve the Lord.”

If we have a genuine love for people, a love that can really only come from God, who first loved us, who is love, then we will “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.”

We will “contribute to the needs of the saints” and “extend hospitality to the stranger.”

We will “Bless those who persecute us” and won’t curse them.

We will “Rejoice with those who rejoice” because we love them and we will “weep with those who weep” because we love them.

We will, to the best of our ability, “Live in harmony with one another” and “if it is possible, live peaceably with all.”

We won’t “be haughty,” but will “associate with the lowly.”

We won’t “claim to be wiser than we are,” because we won’t feel the need to appear superior to anyone else, because we’ll love them.

We won’t “repay evil for evil.”

We won’t “avenge ourselves,” but will trust God to take care of that, since God is the only one who is just, the only one who is without sin.

We will find ourselves feeding our enemies and giving them water, because while we hate the evil they do we will see them for what they are: children of God. Broken, but still children of God. We will not dehumanize them, even if they dehumanize us and others, but will seek out the image of God in them. And in so doing we will not be overcome by the evil that has come to characterize the lives of some, but will overcome the evil in them and in ourselves by the goodness of God, which is the grace of God, which has been poured out on us, who while we were still sinners, Christ died for.

That’s some list, huh? And without love we can’t accomplish all of it. More specifically, without the love of Christ in us we can’t accomplish all of it. We need supernatural love – love that never runs dry, love that transforms us as if flows through us. We need a genuine love.

This past week, in a seemingly everyday interaction, I was confronted by my own need for a more genuine love. I went to New Seasons, and on the way in and out I passed two different people asking for money. I acted busy and walked right past them. Then I walked to a little market nearby, and there was another person sitting outside with a sign, asking for money. Despite my best efforts, I made eye contact with him, but I quickly looked away and proceeded into the store. On the way out, I had to walk past him again, and once again, I avoided making eye contact, but as I walked away, I heard him say, “Have a good day.”

And I felt this crushing in my chest. I had viewed this person not as a child of God, but as an inconvenience to be ignored. I, the pastor of this church, someone who preaches all the time about how we need to uphold the dignity of all people, did everything I could to ignore the humanity of this person. I’m reminded of what Alison said a few months ago about how we can make all kind of grand gestures to show people how accepting and inclusive we are, but if we can’t love the people right next to us we’re hypocrites.

I may be able to say all the right things up here (just kidding, we all know I don’t say all the right things, but maybe, sometimes, a say a couple of the right things), but Paul tells us at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” I walked away feeling like a resounding gong.

Knowing what to say and living a life of love are two different things, and this week I was confronted with my own need to grow my capacity for love, the need for Christ to grow my capacity for love.

Just to be clear, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t give him money. I didn’t have any cash, and most of us can’t afford to give money to every person who asks us. The problem was my attitude. I didn’t have genuine love for this person. I saw him as a nuisance, an interruption. I couldn’t give him money, but I could have given him a smile. I could have said hello. I could have, at the very least, acknowledged him.

One person in our congregation who’s love inspires me is Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn has called or texted me multiple times because her heart breaks when she sees people suffering. When she sees a houseless family or when she finds out that a friend of hers needs help, her first reaction, I think, is to call me, because she understands that we, as a church, should be helping people.

I think Kaitlyn, and many of you, are far ahead of me when it comes to having a genuine love – the kind of love that Paul tells the Romans about. Increasingly, since I got here, people have told me in one-on-one conversations, that they feel like we need to be out in our community doing ministry.

Earlier this week, Kim and I sat down and dreamed of different ways we could serve our community. One that really stood out to me was exploring if there’s a way for us to minister to kids at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center not far from here. Another was helping provide breakfasts to local elementary schools who’ve had their free breakfast program taken away due to lack of funds. There’s a growing desire in our church to put our faith into action, to put our love into action.

I feel it bubbling under the surface of our church. I feel genuine love growing in us, pushing against the walls of our church, seeking an exit point where it can break out and flow into the streets of Portland. Where it can bring the love of God, the same love that spoke to Moses out of a burning bush thousands of years ago, to the broken and hurting in our city. A love that isn’t just a feeling, but is the very presence of God, who is love – the God who said to Moses, “I will be with you,” the God who says to us, “I will be with you,” and, indeed, “I am with you.”

Will you please pray with me.

“Lord Jesus, give us a genuine love. Amen.”