Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2011
“Genuine Love: Instructions Connected to Our Life Together in Christ” (Romans 12:9-21)
In 1927, a writer by the name of Max Ehrmann wrote a poem called “Desiderata.” “Desiderata” means “the things desired.” You may have heard of this poem. It begins like this: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.” And the poem goes on like that. And on. And on. For example: “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. . . . Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. . . . Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. . . . You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. . . . Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be. . . . Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
Well, then around 1970, there was a recording of this “Desiderata” that got a lot of airplay. But more than a few people found this poem to be so preachy and pedantic that they got sick of it. So someone wrote a parody of “Desiderata” called “Deteriorata.” It starts like this: “Go placidly amidst the noise and waste, and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof. Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep. Rotate your tires. . . . Wherever possible, put people on hold. . . .”
You get the idea. If all you’re going to do is give people a series of generic instructions about how they should live their lives, just a long string of good advice–well, don’t be surprised if people tune you out and even satirize what you’re saying.
So is that what we’re getting in today’s Epistle reading from Romans 12? Just a bunch of generic good advice? A series of disconnected short instructions, not much better than Desiderata? I mean, listen, you can hear the parallels. Romans 12: “Let love be genuine.” Desiderata: “Do not feign affection.” Romans 12: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Desiderata: “As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.” What’s the difference between these two?
The difference is that St. Paul’s instructions in Romans 12 are not disconnected, but rather connected, intimately connected to what has gone before in this epistle. In other words, the Christian’s life of love is genuine love, the real deal, because it is love connected to our life together in Christ. It is that connection that makes all the difference. Otherwise, yes, Romans 12 would be no better than Desiderata. But with that connection, there is a world of difference. And so our theme this morning: “Genuine Love: Instructions Connected to Our Life Together in Christ.”
Let’s nail down that difference. Desiderata says: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.” The Bible says: You are a child of the God who created the universe. The “universe” did not create you, God did. Desiderata says: “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be.” The Bible says: No, God is not whatever you conceive him to be. You do not create God in your own image, whatever you want him to be. No, there is only one true God, the God who reveals himself to us in his Word–God with a name, the Lord, the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not some generic “higher power,” distant, detached, or disconnected. No way!
Here’s the deal. God has come down to us in human flesh, in the person of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Very specific, very real, very down to earth.
You see, we can come up with all the good advice we want, but if we don’t do it, if we don’t live it, if we lack the power to do what we ought–that is sin, and it is a killer. And just doling out disconnected bits of wisdom isn’t going to save us, it isn’t going to help us. You think “Be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be”–you think that’s going to help you? Well, that ain’t gonna happen!
And so Christ came, to rescue us from this predicament, our lack of power, our deadly disconnect from God. Christ came to make the peace with God that we so sorely lacked. Christ Jesus made that peace in his own body, taking our sins upon himself, dying for our sins on the cross. By his taking our sin and our guilt in our place, taking it away, now God pronounces us righteous, not guilty, justified. Our sins are forgiven, peace with God is made, death no longer holds the power over us.
Christ’s resurrection signals a new life for us, new and different and everlasting. This is life in the Spirit, the Spirit given to us in Holy Baptism. Now there’s a new power source at work in our life, something we didn’t have before. God joins us, connects us, to himself in our baptism. And he joins us to one another, too, in his family, the church. We all have this in common, you see, this vital, living connection that joins us to our Lord and to one another. That is a huge difference!
And so this is the context in which Paul writes in Romans 12. The instructions here are not disconnected, disjointed pieces of advice. No, these are living, vital, Spirit-empowered encouragements that Paul is giving us here. Now I’m going to focus on just a few of them.
First, “Let love be genuine.” Genuine love is the real deal. It is not phony or “surfacy” love. It is the love that we have first learned from God, who loves us at the point of our need, and who loves with an everlasting love. And so our love for others likewise is genuine, love that gets down with our brothers and sisters at the point of their need. It is committed love. We are committed to one another in this church. We don’t give up on our brothers or turn our back on them or stay away. Rather, we stay connected in this congregation.
Second, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” A church is not an assortment of isolated individuals who happen to show up in the same building for an hour every now and then. No, we are members of God’s family 24/7, 365 days a year. God has knit us together as a family. Our life together does not stop when we leave this building.
Next, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” My friends, what are some ways we can we do good to one another, and show honor to one another, here in this church? How can we build one another up? By our words and actions, we can be an encouragement to the man or woman or child who is down. We all get so beat down by life. Let’s lift one another up.
“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” There are hurting people in this congregation–hurting financially, hurting emotionally, hurting physically. But do we know our brother’s needs? How can we care for people if we don’t know what their needs are? This takes some time and interaction and openness, to know one another better. Do you know your fellow members here at St. Matthew’s? How can we help one another? There are lonely people in our church. Let us seek to show hospitality, opening up our homes to invite those folks you maybe don’t know so well over for supper, for instance. Let us seek to show generosity. Maybe there’s a family that is struggling financially. Can we help them? Let us to seek to show mercy. How can we care for that family dealing with illness? Dear brothers and sisters, I thank God that you dear Christians are doing these things. Now let us grow in this kind of love, with God’s help. And let us encourage one other to keep on loving and caring for one another, in genuine love and brotherly affection.
Look, this kind of love doesn’t stay floating on the surface in mere generalities. Oh, the instructions may be stated in the general, such as “Love one another with brotherly affection,” or “Contribute to the needs of the saints.” But then to actually do these things–that will always take specific form. And so genuine love will be love put into action. That is what I am asking you to do this week. Think about how you can put your love into action, and then . . . do it! The Spirit will give you the guidance and the power you need. You’re a Christian, after all, connected to Christ Jesus your Savior, a child of your Father in heaven.
Like St. Paul, I can feel free to give you these instructions, not because he or I are so superior and we’ve got it all together and we always follow through with our good intentions. No, far from it. Paul and I and you–we all are sinners, and we will continue to fall short of our admirable goals. The good news for that, though, is that there is free and full forgiveness for you in the blood of Christ. And the good Lord will pick you up, time and time again, when you fall, and he will get you going again on the right path. And so I do feel free to give you these instructions, because you are free! Free from guilt and condemnation. Free to live as God’s beloved child, holy and full of hope.
Beloved, rejoice in that hope, the blessed hope of everlasting life that you have in Christ. When you have this hope, which you do, it is so much easier to love. The eternity question has already been settled. Death has been conquered. You know where you’re headed. You’re free to risk a little more–in fact, a lot more. Love is risky, after all. You’re putting yourself out there for someone else. That may be costly. But that’s the only kind of genuine love there is.
Genuine love is, at its source, rooted in God’s love for us in Christ our Savior. God’s love is costly, specific, committed love that meets us at the point of our need. God’s love for us connects us to him, and it connects us to one another. Genuine love. Let’s keep it real. And connected. And specific. God will help you to do just that this week.
So go placidly amid the noise and haste. Rotate your tires if you must. But most of all, of all the things to be desired, let’s all stay connected in Christ!