It seems everywhere we look, listen, or read these days there is news about how divided we are. The country is divided. Christians are divided. Families are divided – some by force at the border. In my work with youth and young adults I think a lot about generational divides, especially in churches. But I don’t have to even tell you this stuff, right? I’m certain that you know of many ways you our society and families and churches are divided. You may have painful memories of family dinners gone bad. You may be estranged from the people you love. I also know that at times like these, we like to remember the instances of the country coming together – usually these happen around wartime, right? While these current divisions may feel stark or deeper than before, at least to some people in this country, many other people, people of color in particular, have felt them for, well forever. It seems our unity has been an illusion. For Christians, then, who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love God with all that we are, and for United Methodists, we have to ask the question: how are we to love when in our society and in our pews we are divided? More importantly, what does love really look like so that we don’t default into “why can’t everyone just get along” which prevents both true love and true justice. Let me also offer a warning – I’m not going to solve all these challenges this morning. What I am going to do is take you to a Scripture I have been turning to as I seek to understand how to respond.
Paul might be a strange person to turn to for a sermon on love in a time of division. You may be wondering why I would choose him, and maybe why especially choose Romans, given the great harm caused by certain interpretations of the first chapter of this letter. Many people have thrown Paul out. Stick to the gospels. Jesus is way better than Paul. Truthfully, Paul would agree, he’s a big fan of Jesus and is always clear in his letters that he is only a servant of Jesus.
Paul is also an expert in division, and so a perfect person to turn to in the Scriptures at this time in our country and in our denomination. He worked with communities of new Christians who were deeply divided. They no longer fit in their wider communities and they were not all of one mind within the smaller Christian communities. Each of his letters is a little different speaking directly to the church and society to which its directed. He knew them, their problems and their successes. All except this one. Romans is written to people Paul didn’t know. This letter is one people often look to for evidence of Paul’s theology, because it’s not as situationally responsive as his other letters. The fact that this part of Romans that we read a few minutes ago is in here means that he knows division happens. It’s inescapable. People are going to be mean and make mistakes and communities will not be unified in love forever and ever amen. Not on this side of Heaven, anyway. Not before the New Creation is fully here. Because Sin is on this side of heaven. It is in the reality of Sin’s presence and in the muck of real life with real people who have been hurt and who hurt others that we are called to do God’s kin-dom building work. It’s not going to be easy. How could it be when it began with the execution of Christ on the cross? Yet this is our call, and since you’re here, I’m going to assume you want to find away to answer that call and keep answering it even though it’s difficult.
This chapter of Romans is much more well known for its first verse than for the part we read this morning. The second verse in chapter 12 is this: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” He then goes on to talk about how the Body of Christ is made up of many different members with many different gifts. We who are many are one body in Christ, he says.[i] And then we come to the part of the letter we have as our text this morning, which begins with “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” and says “do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” at the end. We know that for Paul love is connected with goodness. And we know that Paul is calling the Christians in Rome to practice love as a way to embody good-ness and overcome evil.
Bear in mind that the ability to love genuinely and practice good-ness comes from this transformed mind. Our way of thinking, our perspective, has to be transformed. Not conformed to this world (of click bait, likes, fake news, sensationalism), but transformed into a justice-seeking, love-enacting, kin-dom building, Christ-like mind. Importantly, this transformation, is in the passive voice – it not something we can do but something that is done to us by the Spirit of God. I think it is also helpful to remember that Paul often understood that his words, through his letters, could change people. By saying Be transformed and not conformed, he believed that it would happen for his listeners. Imagine if we thought of our words as that powerful. Imagine if when we said “Bless you” we believe someone is blessed. Imagine if when we said “Damn you” it actually happened. We would learn to be more careful with what we say, I think.
Paul is careful with his words because he knows they are powerful and I think they offer us something powerful for living out our Christian lives right now. Our section of Scripture this morning begins telling us that love must actually be love. In this section, Paul uses two Greek words that we translate as love (for the Greek nerds in the congregation – it’s agape and phileo).[ii] One is for deep and true love, we often think of this love as the kind of love God has for us and we are called to have for God and our neighbors. The other is for the love between siblings who cherish one another – this kind of love we want between us in our church. Our translation this morning says “in mutual affection.” We cannot fake this love. If we are to be one body of different members and different gifts, we must actually love one another.
Second, comes this connection between love and good. A community working together as the unified Body of Christ looks likes good. As Jesus reminds us in Luke and Mark, only God is good. What we are looking for in our churches, and in the church universal is a moral love that pushes us toward God, the goodness that is God.[iii] The kind of church we need to be is the church that is always pushing us and forming us to be good in this world, to embody God’s own good-ness. This good-ness looks like the one who created this world in all its diversity and beauty and sent Christ into the world to bring hope and healing to those who were oppressed and a new way of thinking to those who embraced religious certitude.
Third, Paul helps us figure out what this looks like practically speaking (Paul is so good at the practical!). “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord”(v. 11). For years research has shown that our young people, youth (teenagers) and young adults are uninterested in being a part of churches who lack spirit. Young people have the gift of passion that older adults seem to have forgotten. Or have had beaten out of us by the hardships of life. But why be a part of a community where people would just as rather be somewhere else? Our God was so passionate about us, broken and beautiful human creation, that God came to be with us and be one of us. Jesus entered into the joys and difficulties of humanity. He confronted disease, Sin, bigotry, and religious intolerance. He found good friends and partners in mission. Are we passionate about him? Are our spirits set ablaze when we learn about him, commune together at his table, worship, serve in his name? It seems to me that Paul is helping us figure out how to remain passionate for God and compassionate with our siblings in Christ. He says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (v 12). Life is going to be hard. Paul doesn’t say that Christians avoid suffering – in fact he says the opposite. Being a Christ-follower means suffering will happen. He doesn’t tell us to seek it out or that suffering is good, instead he says in a world where Sin is still a reality, living for the one who died on the cross means that life will include suffering.
Next Paul writes about how to be in relationship with one another. He implores the Roman Christians to participate in life together. He writes, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” This is about deeply loving and caring for one another. If the first set of Paul’s exhortations are about acts of worship and our spiritual lives being passionate, this part is about being compassionate. Paul tells us to be empathetic. One thing we know is that we cannot be empathetic without listening deeply to another. We must know the needs of the saints before we can help fulfill them. We cannot be truly welcoming of strangers unless we know them. We cannot bless those who persecute us if we haven’t listened to them enough to know what kind of blessing they need – a blessing that will push them toward God’s goodness and away from persecuting others in the community. We cannot rejoice and weep together if we don’t know what is making our siblings’ hearts leap and break. We cannot live in harmony if we are not honest about what threatens that harmony.
Then we get to it. What happens when things in the community get bad? When we can’t do the harmony thing. When we can’t have compassion. What happens when the body is at odds with itself – when the gifts aren’t working together and our functioning is messed up? When the divisions are deep?
Paul writes, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.” 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.” Here Paul shows his knowledge of Scripture – quoting from Deuteronomy and Proverbs. In the end here Paul takes us back to love. We are not to judge, we are to love. God is the one who judges, we don’t have to worry about that. We are the ones who are called to love and not to judge. Love, in the end, overcomes evil. It is stronger. It is steadfast, it is what conquers sin and death on the cross after all. What could possibly be more powerful?
If we want transformation toward the kin-dom of God it isn’t going to happen through vengeance and repaying evil for evil. It’s going to happen through love and through embodying God’s amazing good-ness. Love looks like empathy, compassion, and peace. Not without discord but in the face of discord. It is much easier to dismiss people. Or pay them back for their hatred and evil. But that just leaves the evil there, festering in our communities. Overcome evil with God’s goodness. Let the love of God shape you and shape others through you into being good in a world that desperately needs it. And let’s be clear, lest you leave here thinking I’m saying you should just let people walk all over you or something. This kind of love is not passive. This is active, transforming, overcoming love. This is not ignoring divisions or evil, it is overcoming evil and transforming divisions into unity in Christ. This is revolutionary love. May we all embody this love in our interactions in this community, in our families, and in our daily goings on outside of this building. Let your love be genuine. Feel God shaping you into being more good in your own daily living. Let your love of others guide others to good.