Prove It With Devotion

Prove It With Devotion

The Second Sunday After the Epiphany

Zechariah 8:1-8, 20-23, Psalm 118, Romans 12:6-16, St. Mark 1:1-11

Prove It With Devotion

A friend of mine who had a long career in television and radio was taping a radio spot for a jewelry store.  Valentine’s Day was looming.  John looked over the copy the ad agency sent him and he frowned.

He sat down and banged out his own version and shot it over to the agency.  The account executive there had to admit it was better than the one his creative department had cranked out.  He sent it to the jewelry store owner for approval.  The owner loved it more than his sainted mother.

And the next thing you knew, as John’s dulcet tones came rippling through the airwaves, men all over town began fishing out their credit cards and racing toward O’Limerick’s Fine Jewelry.

“You can say it with flowers,” John told those highly motivated Valentine’s Day shoppers, “or you can prove it with diamonds.”

Those guys were rolling because, well, their wives might’ve heard it too.

It was a dandy piece of marketing . . . but I doubt St. Paul would have approved.

“Let love be without hypocrisy,” we read this morning in Romans 12.  Here’s another translation: “Let love be genuine.”  And one more: “Let love be without dissimulation.”  And just one more: “Love must be sincere.”

In our culture, that word “love” usually refers to the mushy kind.  And in our culture, romantic love demands expensive dinners out, chocolates, flowers and . . . well, you can prove it with diamonds.

There’s nothing wrong with romance.  Right there in our Holy Scriptures, the Song of Songs drips with it.  But go back and read Song again and now you’ll note that the love you find there admires and adores the other without a hint of manipulation.

Keep the candy.  Forget the diamonds.  Prove it with true devotion.

Even so, when St. Paul and the other biblical authors use the word “love” they’re generally referring to something decidedly unmushy.  In fact, it’s deliberate and hard-edged, a decision and not a feeling.  Jesus Christ didn’t succumb to emotion on His cross; He succumbed to death . . . for us.

Loving in this way is an idea detached from liking.  God never tells us to like anyone, only love them.  He doesn’t expect us to like our enemies.  But He commands us to love even them.

The apostle spells out the qualities necessary to that task, including endurance.  We need no endurance to bear with those we like . . . but those we love?  Oh, brother.

Many have heard in this passage echoes of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.  So it is that, following Jesus, St. Paul liberates us from the fanciful notion of liking everyone.  And, following Jesus, the apostle imposes on us the burden of loving everyone – even our enemies.

To love them is to act in their best interest.  We should be evangelizing those extremist Muslims who have vowed to kill us even as we defend ourselves vigorously against them.

In the Army, when a superior passes by, a soldier salutes.  But exactly to whom or to what is he snapping one off?  You’ve probably heard the expression, “Salute the uniform, not the man.”  In the same way, when a police officer pulls you over, you probably show his uniform an exaggerated deference.

We’re divorcing that individual’s personality from his station.  In much the same way, our Lord and His apostle instruct us to treat a sister or brother in Christ as just that, loving all regardless of their loveability.

Why?  Because love fulfills God’s law.  With St. John, St. Paul is the very apostle of love.  If it weren’t so tragic it would be almost amusing that those who have not the Holy Spirit within them recoil from Paul as though he had wrapped his tail around his pitchfork.

We saw last week that the playwright George Bernard Shaw complained that Paul has turned the simple, loving cause of Jesus into a “monstrous imposition,” a religion that corrupts the minds of those who, unlike him, lack the intelligence to see it for the sham it is.

In fact, hell is overpopulated with people of high IQ.  Love is the express train to heaven.  But what is love?

Some smart Greeks did see the potential for confusion.  They chiseled multiple words for everything we gather up under that one, “love.”  The boy-girl kind of love – the Song of Songs kind — is eros.

Two others show up in our epistle lesson today: philadelphia – literally “brotherly love” – and agape – the love word most common in the Christian context; it describes God’s radical commitment to us and the commitment God wants from us.

This last word is the one in verse 9, that love that should be without hypocrisy.  “Hypocrisy” comes from the Greek hupokrisis, the word for the actor’s art.  The actor wears a pretense, he deceives us into thinking he is someone he is not.

We began last week to explore the apostle’s argument as he launches into the practical application of all that theology he threw at us in the first 11 chapters of his letter to the Romans.  He is writing to people he does not know in a city he has not visited.

But he knows this much: The members of the Roman church are a mixed bag of gentiles and Jews, people who have been divided by differences not only of race but of culture.

As we saw, St. Paul begins by instructing them in their relationship with God – “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God . . .” So doing, they will be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” and capable of discerning the will of God.

A new mind will be required.  The old Jewish and gentile ways of thinking, the first governed by a law the Jews could never fulfill and which they corrupted to their own ends and the second steeped in the dissolute ways of the pagans, cannot be the way Christians think.

The apostle moves on to relations with one another.  He tells them to bury their differences six feet deep and employ their spiritual gifts for the good of the whole for they are “one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.”

The body cannot function properly if its individual members abandon their roles.  A failure of one impedes the operation of the whole.  Members trapped in their old ways of thinking and at enmity with their brothers and sisters undermine the working of the body.

Next, at the end of the chapter, he will proceed to their dealings with those outside the church: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

If God demands that we feed our enemies, surely He wants us to treat one another with respect, dignity and, yes, love.  It’s not about liking.

In our text for today St. Paul presents a catalogue of spiritual gifts.  It is by God’s grace – charis – that each believer has a gift – charisma – so that the church has many gifts – charismata – to form itself into a body fit for the Lord’s service.

If we acknowledge God as Giver of our gifts – including our faith in His grace – we will not think too highly of ourselves.  All that we have – those things we eat and drink and wear, to be sure, but our spiritual gifts as well – is ours because He has bestowed it upon us, miserable sinners.

The apostle produces gifts lists elsewhere, specifically  in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, but this one is different.  Here he mentions none of the supernatural gifts except prophecy – no speaking in tongues or interpreting them or miraculous healings.  The emphasis here is on the natural, practical gifts – serving, teaching, preaching, giving, showing mercy.

These bind the members of the church together as a family by equipping them to serve one another – and Paul uses terms associated with relationships within the family: “Be kindly affectionate toward one another with brotherly love . . .”  Next he says, “in honor giving preference to one another.”

How then shall we live?  If we give ourselves to God, He will renew our minds.  Our renewed minds will cause us to render an honest appraisal of ourselves.  If each of us bears the humble mind of Christ, we will be like-minded – and we will see Christ in one another.

And we will give preference to one another as befits those who are closer than a biological family, who are one body.

Be “patient in tribulation.”  Yet we have suffered no tribulation on the order of what those early Christians endured.  This world hates our Lord, and so it will hate us.  That hatred appears to be rising in our culture, but by any honest appraisal our life is remarkably easy.  They haven’t begun throwing Christians to the lions just yet.

Must we suffer persecution to excite in us a spirit of unity?  Will we wait until an enemy with a knife in his teeth pounces to start watching each other’s backs?

Well, all this Christian unity sounds just ducky.  But I’ve got a problem.  O.K., theologically speaking, Christ might be present in that other person . . . but so is that other person.  And she didn’t turn into Mother Teresa when she came to saving faith.

I heard about a lion who lived in a jungle in Africa.  He was on the prowl one day when he came upon a clearing.  In this clearing a couple of missionaries were telling a group of natives about Jesus Christ – how He died for their sins and how they could have eternal life if they placed their trust in His saving sacrifice.

Listening, the lion believed and he was saved.  Later that day, he was out on the prowl, and hungry, when he spied a native walking alone down a trail.  The lion’s first thought was “lunch.”  His second was “Thou shalt not kill.”

He pondered for a moment and then he put his paws together and prayed, “Lord, for this meal I am about to receive I am thankful.”

The moral of the story is that when we become Christians our personalities are not magically transformed from sinner to saint, from unloveable to loveable.  Loving others in the church can be more challenging than loving others outside the church.

Then I think of Cass and Steve.  Several years ago, they joined the church Marjorie and I were attending.  They came at the same time – and that was all they had in common.  If it’s the truth you must have, Cass was just flat obstreperous.  And whatever that word means, it sounds like something nasty.

Cass boiled over with opinions, mostly prickly ones, and she gave them away as freely as balloons at a birthday party.  She was 57, never married.

A year after Cass joined the church, she learned she had cancer.  Soon she was unable to work.  She had always worked . . . but she was always broke, never more so than now.  Her closet was jam-packed — four red suits, three black suits, four navy suits . . .   She had one drawer for winter socks, another for summer socks, another for sports socks.

Despite an excess of just about everything, despite her illness, despite her poverty, she refused to part with anything.  She continued to pay rent on a storage unit that contained all the stuff that wouldn’t fit in her overstuffed house.  Did she think she could take it with her?

Living off the generosity of others, even after it became obvious she would not recover, she clung to all her stuff, refusing to sell off some of it to pull in some cash to meet her needs.

She had four or five long-term friends despite the strain she had put on their faithfulness over the years by repeatedly manipulating them to wheedle money or favors from them.

They said, well, Cass was outgoing and loyal.  She was generous with her time and always actively involved in church work.  On the rare occasions she had money, she was liberal with that as well.

So they aided her in her affliction and our church formed teams to help as well.  For eight months, members cleaned her house, bought her groceries, washed her clothes, provided her meals and gave her rides to doctor’s appointments.

Along the way, they moved her to another house that was better suited to her in her illness.

Steve, who was a partner in an advertising agency, served on one of these teams.  As Cass’ strength ebbed, members would sometimes stop by individually and sit by her bed, reading psalms and praying for her.  Once, near the end, when the hospice chaplain visited, he said he had never seen such an outpouring of love.

He asked Cass why people loved her so that they would spill out so much time and effort and care on her.  She simply shook her head; she didn’t know.

Steve began reading books on how to help people die.  He was the most faithful of all in stopping by to read to her and to pray with her and for her.

At her memorial service he broke down.  Steve said when he first met Cass in the new members class he really didn’t like her.  Through his tears, he said, truth to tell, on the day she died he still didn’t like her.  But he had learned to love her.

Steve would tell you he learned a lot about himself over those months.  If he could tell you.  A couple of years after Cass died, he learned he had cancer, and before long he, too, was gone.

But what he would tell you, if he could tell you, is that loving with the love of Christ isn’t merely about loving the loveable.  Any child, any fool, any pagan can do that. That is too small a thing for our Lord.  If Christ loved only the loveable, well, we’d all have a reunion in hell.

Steve put gifts he only now discovered he possessed at the service of his Lord by putting them at the service of his sister, a fellow member of the body of Christ. He gave with liberality, he showed mercy with cheerfulness.  He loved her.  Loving her, he built up the body of Christ, the church.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice,” we read this morning, “and weep with those who weep.”  Rejoicing is easy.  Steve wept with one who wept, and he reaped a blessing.  Maybe that blessing came to him because, while Cass was present in that other person, so was Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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Posted on: January 15, 2017Ed Fowler