Devotion delivered at Covenant East Classis, March 2016
9Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.
(Romans 12:9-10, NKJV)
Brothers, will you please turn with me in your Bibles to the Apostle Paul’s Epistle written to the Romans, the twelfth chapter, where I would like to look with you at verses 9-10. As many of you know, Monday night we talked together about the relationship that exists specifically between a pastor and a consistory. A very helpful discussion ensued where we spoke of our relationships to the church, to our spouses, and even the relationships of our spouses with the consistory, and in some respects the church. Though the discussion was not necessarily just about our relationships, I could not help but keep thinking of Paul’s words here. They apply to all of our relationships with one another. It is important to cultivate those relationships in the context of Biblical love as Paul describes it here and elsewhere in his letters to the churches.
I think that it is safe to say that if someone were to just observe the workings of our culture here in the United States, it would be very reasonable for them to walk away holding to the assumption that our culture is obsessed, or at least very concerned, with the whole idea of love. Our music groups and singers from every genre continually sing of it. I think just in my own lifetime I could easily rattle off a very lengthy list of examples. Foreigner wanted to know what love is. Tina Turner wanted to know what love had to do, had to do with it. Randy Travis boldly claimed that his love was deeper than a holler, stronger than the rivers, higher than the pine trees growing tall up on the hill. I could go on, and you would discover among other things my questionable taste in music. Our movies and our television programs continually portray a notion of love. Our literature speaks of love in very lofty terms. We even have a day, February 14th, Valentines Day, set aside to celebrate love.
Of course, in all of these examples we see pretty quickly that Paul is speaking of something else entirely here. All of these examples deal with a romantic concept of love, but the Apostle Paul is telling us here about the love that all Christians truly ought to be expressing towards one another. It is a much loftier love. It is a love that is carried forward by the very Spirit of God working in us and through us. It is the highest form of love for fallen human beings like us to consider. The love that Paul is pointing us to here is the love that is but a manifestation of our love to God Himself. You remember Jesus, in Matthew 22, telling us the first and great commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind. The second commandment is like unto the first, that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. On these two commandments, Jesus said, hang all of the Law and the prophets. This is a summary of the Law! So, as Paul begins now in Romans 12 to speak about just some of the virtues that ought to be present in the Christian life, he starts where he usually does: he starts with love.
The wonderful thing here-is that he does not leave us guessing about love, does he? He tells us exactly what true love, that is, what Christian love is, and what it is not. His goal is to move us towards exactly this kind of love being present in our lives, to embrace this kind of love, and to keep us on our guard against settling for something significantly less. If you are looking at these two little verses and wondering to yourself how this could be a comprehensive picture of love, I would point out that everything that Paul has described in this twelfth chapter, presupposes this very love! That in and of itself tells us just how critical it truly is that we get this right in the context of the Church of Jesus Christ!
Look at how he begins here to further expound upon this in verse nine: Let love be without hypocrisy. This is truly a very short sentence that is loaded with meaning! In just five simple words, Paul tells us much about the nature of this love that ought to be flowing forth from Christians. Let’s consider it both positively and negatively here. Both what is being implied that love does, and what love in fact does not do. Love ought to be sincere. It ought not be faked, or forced, or even coerced from us. It must not consist of empty words. It must be genuine. We are to understand that this love is that which flows from humility, which Paul has already stated. I’ll come back to that in just a moment.
But first, look at that word hypocrisy. That word hypocrisy is a very familiar word to us. The word hypocrite literally means “play-actor.” And of course, you know what a play-actor is. It means pretending to be someone or something that you are not, as an actor does upon the stage. He pretends to be somebody else. He is not that person, but simply pretending to be that person. He is knowingly playing a role. Though the meaning here is much bigger than just this, Paul is affirming that genuine love is not something that you pretend to have. Love is not putting on a mask. Do you know what that looks like? I can give you some examples.
Hypocritical love abounds in the world and the church alike! It can be witnessed in the many different and devastating forms of Gossip. We are familiar with Gossip. Someone opens up to you about some of the difficulties that they are having, some of the struggles that are weighing them down in this life, and you feign concern and compassion, nodding, smiling sympathetically, affirming your understanding of their particular trial. Yet inwardly you despise them for their weakness, and you simply cannot wait to tell someone else about what you have just heard- saying in the dark, and in secrecy, what you know should not be uttered in the light. You point out the sins of others to everyone except the person who is struggling under the weight of that sin. Gossip. It is wicked. It hurts the people of God. Paul says it is not a part of the kind of love that ought to work to restrain our wagging tongues. It manifests itself when we speak in lofty, very Christian sounding buzz words and terms about things like praying for one another, sympathizing with one another, crying with one another, knowing that we have no desire or any real plans to actually do so. Hypocritical love is seen even when we speak often of our deep and abiding love for God and His Church, while inwardly we refuse to let go of our petty differences and grudges with one another. It rears its ugly head every time two or more get together to discuss what so and so was wearing, saying, or just fill in the blank. Gossip, slander, angry outbursts, or even secret outbursts that we bury deep and think that we are able to hide from everyone else- all of them speak to this kind of hypocritical love.
Paul wants for the Church of Jesus Christ to know that these things ought not be! All of these sins, and more like them, are all antithetical to the kind of genuine love that Paul says, ought to be manifested in the true people of God! And brothers I think that we would do well to think and meditate on this truth. We are living in a day when the church of Jesus Christ all too often is content with superficial niceties. Flash a plastic smile, nod approvingly at things that really do not interest you at all, secretly cling to the differences between you and others and your right to be offended. Just fake it and know that deep down you are so much better off than most, so much more righteous than most. Paul wants you to know this morning that superficial niceness, putting on a smile and faking it while in your heart you remain indifferent, is not at all consistent with the kind of love that is found in the true Church of Jesus Christ. You and I are being called here to a real, tangible, active, and genuine love for one another! Do you love like this? Do you desire to be loved like this? Without hypocrisy.
It always breaks my heart to see the way in which well-meaning Christians can fall into biting and devouring one another. We so easily justify our irritation with one another. We stand up to fight anytime our puny “kingdoms of one” come into what we perceive to be danger. We cling to our right to be offended by anyone and everyone and everything. We actually foolishly think that by clinging to our grudges that we are being pious. But what we need to see this morning, is that all of those things are evil! Gossip, anger, hate, slander, keeping long records of wrongs committed against the most high majesty of myself! They are all sin, and they are not found in the Apostle Paul’s description of the first great fruit of the Christian life!
Yet we do these things don’t we? We recognize these sins in our own lives. Why? Well, once again beloved it’s because we have bought the lie that the Christian life is all about me and mine! We readily exchange those pronouns like “we” and “us,” for better sounding ones like “I” “me,” and “mine”! Paul is calling us on it here. He is calling us back to the understanding of the Gospel that changes our quest for self! Do you understand? Look, one of the wonderful things about the Gospel is that it does not pull punches when it describes us apart from the wonderful grace of God in Jesus Christ! It doesn’t avoid the discussion of what I am and what you are as fallen human beings. And we wince when we hear it. We are desperately wicked. We are sinners standing in the dire need of God’s grace! We are usurpers of God’s throne. We want nothing in this flesh as much as we want to rule our own little empires of dirt!
The Gospel does not avoid that fact. It places it on a billboard! It’s there upon the cross! It says to us that Jesus Christ had to come to this earth. He had to put on this flesh with all of its infirmities, sin excepted. He had to live a lifetime of suffering, which culminated upon the cross where He actually at one point cried out in a tormented lament, My God, My God why have You forsaken Me! And the very reason that all of that transpired was because you and I have a sin problem that needed to be dealt with! A problem that we ourselves are incapable of dealing with. God’s justice demanded it! So Jesus Christ left the glory that was His with the Father and He came to suffer and to die in order to deal with it! That is the Gospel! Pain and suffering and desperation and painful laments happened because we have sinned, we do sin, and we still sin after being redeemed! We gossip, we hate, we are far too easily displeased with one another! We hold onto grudges because we think it is our right! And Paul says, “Please, brothers and sisters in Christ, consider the Gospel and love as those who have known the love of God! The Love of a God who does not hold grudges against our innumerable offenses if we have been covered in the perfect righteousness of the Son!”
I think one of the things that so easily leads us away from the love that ought to be our reality in light of the Gospel is that we think that as long as there are those who are worse than us that God will see that we are really not all that bad! That is antithetical to the Gospel! If you are not that bad, then Jesus Christ died in vain! Too often in the Church we become those who are experts at seeing sin in everyone else and complete amateurs when it comes to seeing it in our own hearts. That always leads us away from love and headlong towards wickedness. But Paul says, this love (that is, unhypocritical love, genuine fruit-of-the-Spirit love) abhors evil and clings to the good! Paul has already very clearly said that for those who are having their minds renewed through the Word by the power of the Spirit, we know the good. We know the perfect will of God and, knowing it, we love. We love because He first loved us, at our most unlovable! Remember that the next time you hear gossip. Or the next time you are tempted to despise your brother or sister in Jesus Christ for whatever petty offense they have committed against you!
Abhor what is evil and cling to what is good. And he doesn’t stop there. He says be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another. You are not allowed to love in theory as a Christian. Paul is not here speaking of love as if it were a gift that only some possessed and exercised within the church. It is the fruit of the Gospel. Seeing God’s justice poured out on another for our sin changes us! It makes lovers of self into lovers of others: others who, just like them, do not deserve the grace of God in Jesus Christ! We ought to be affectionate with one another-not in a superficial way, but really and truly concerned for one another. It ought to be our joy to help one another!
Love is active! Be kindly affectionate with one another! It really needs no exposition does it? We ought to care. We ought to delight in sharing one another’s burdens and joys. We ought not to be so concerned about our fences and the protection of our stuff. We ought not to be so protective of our privacy. We ought not to strive for our own honor, but rejoice when honor is given to those we love. We should know when to speak the truth in love and when to keep our mouths shut tight. As those who have tasted the wonder of God’s grace, we really should not have a problem getting over ourselves.
Can you imagine a church like that? Paul could. In fact he says, “Look, this is what the church should be. This is what the Gospel points us towards.” It always breaks my heart to see and speak with those who have found in the church more hurt than they even found in the world. They found people who were quick to speak of their disgust for the way that they dressed, for the company that they kept, for the behavior of their children, or even more disgusting, for the color of their skin. They came to the church looking for relief but they found more hurt. They found more hypocritical love then genuine love. Shame on us if that is what we really think that the church of Jesus Christ is really all about.
I can say that nothing encourages me more as a pastor then when I go to visit someone who is sick or struggling or lonely and find that I was not the first one there! I am always touched to see signs of others visits and cards of encouragement. Signs that there are those for whom loving comes easy. I loved that at a recent funeral in our congregation I saw many who were very busy that day drop what they were doing to hug the grieving. To grieve with the grieving. To comfort those whose reality in that moment was sadness. You see, beloved, that is what points to a church that I want to be a part of. That is what points to a church that brings glory to God. Because, quite frankly, that is what points to a church that is being inhabited by Christians.
I want to challenge all of us this morning to think on this. What is more important for us as Christians than one another? It is not this building. It is not our history. It is not your current pastor or a pastor sometime in the glorious past. It’s not our programs. It’s certainly not our traditions. None of those things will last forever. The body of Jesus Christ, the people sitting around you this morning who are clinging to Jesus Christ with all that they have by faith, that is eternal! That is God’s gift to you in this life! It is the people and their love for one another being legitimately present in our body. Not superficially, not forced, not fake. But really and truly present. You see, beloved, that is what points to our actually having a thorough understanding of the Gospel. It means far more to me than the books that you have read. Far more than the time that you have put in. Far more than the legacy that you feel that you have left. Will you love without hypocrisy? Your answer to that will tell you far more about your understanding of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ than anything else. What fruit are you content to have define the church? If it’s less than this love, then according to Paul it is not enough! Amen? Let’s pray!
Rev. Steve Altman
Box 1. It always breaks my heart to see well-meaning Christians fall into biting and devouring one another. We so easily justify our irritation with one another. We cling to our right to be offended by anyone and everyone and everything.
Box 2. As a Christian, you are not allowed to only love “in theory.”