Monday, September 4, 2017

Church Write-Up: Love and Romans 12:9-21

I visited two churches today: a Presbyterian Church (USA), and a Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Both interacted with roughly the same texts: the Old Testament reading was different, but the New Testament and Gospel readings were the same.  I learned when I preached at a PCUSA church a while back that pastors have a selection of verses from which they can choose.

One of the texts with which the churches interacted was Romans 12:9-21:

9 Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.
10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another;
11 Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord;
12 Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer;
13 Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
14 Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.
15 Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
16 Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.
17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.  (KJV)

The first preacher was presenting Romans 12:9-21 as a Christian response to current evils, particularly racism.  The second preacher touched on more points.  He talked about expanding our range of love through hospitality, praying for our enemies so we can get God’s perspective on them (i.e., Christ died for them), how a lot of our love is selfish in that we love people who love us back, and the importance of gaining the continuing motivation to love through the Holy Spirit.  The children’s part of the service was about how we should not add to the darkness through retaliation, and how we can make our enemies into our friends through love.

Both preachers interacted with the first part of v 9: “Let love be without dissimulation.”  The first preacher said that the passage does not say “make love genuine,” but “let love be genuine.”  He did not explain what he meant.  Perhaps he meant that Christians have the Holy Spirit inside of them, which leads them towards genuine love, and all they have to do is let that out.  Looking at my BibleWorks, there appears to be a difference of opinion on how to translate Ἡ.  BNT and BGT see it as an article, going with love.  BYZ treats it as a subjunctive, which would be consistent with “let love be genuine.”  I did a search on that subjunctive form, though, and, when it is used for eimi, there is an iota under the eta, which is not the case in Romans 12:9.

The other preacher said that the verse means that our love should not be hypocritical: we should sincerely love rather than pretending to do so.

Here are some thoughts:

A.  I have heard some Christians say that agape love does not mean that we have to like a person or feel good about him or her.  Rather, it means that we need to be concerned about his or her well-being.  In our text, there appears to be some ambivalence about where emotions fit in.  On the one hand, there seems to be an indication that believers are supposed to feel good about their fellow believers, for v 10a states: “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love…”  Emotions are not enough, for actions are also a significant part of the equation: distribute to the necessity of the saints, be hospitable, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, etc.  But positive emotions are still a part of the equation.  On the other hand, our text does present a picture of believers struggling to love certain people, showing outward acts of love towards others even as they leave vengeance to God.  Why would they desire God’s vengeance for such people, if they felt good about them?  And yet, are they truly allowed to desire vengeance for such people?  V 14 exhorts them to bless, not curse, their persecutors.

A possible way to harmonize this apparent tension is to say that believers, if possible, should pursue peace with others—-shalom, a relationship in which both parties feel good about one another.  If that fails—-if the person who hurt is not repentant when confronted—-then the person who was hurt should leave vengeance to God.  That was essentially the message that I got out of a book that I recently read: Forgiveness and Justice, by Bryan Maier.

B.  Can sincerity be commanded?  Is it truly wrong to pretend to love: to do the outward acts of love, without really feeling it?  What is so wrong with that?  If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it.  Yet, I have to admit: it is phony to be all lovey-dovey with someone while not feeling it.  Part of the solution may be the recognition that I should treat people with respect: I should regard them as people with needs, strengths, weaknesses, and fears, like me, even if I do not like them.  Maybe that will encourage me to treat them with respect and dignity (assuming that I see them, which I hope I don’t).

C.  In the children’s part of the service, the leader was saying that, if a kid pushes them, they should not push the kid back.  That only adds to the darkness.  Does it?  I would probably run from conflict so as to avoid assault charges, but I can understand those who choose to fight back.  Essentially, they are saying: “I am a person of dignity, and you are not going to push me around, without consequences.”  There is a place for ending feuds and letting bygones be bygones, but should there be no consequences for hurting and bullying others?  Would not bullies respect those who fight back?

D.  I am currently reading a book by Puritan pastor William Gurnall, which I will be reviewing tomorrow.  I do not want to steal my thunder for tomorrow’s review, but one point that Gurnall makes is that conflict between Christians results in Christians not supporting each other.  Satan likes that, according to Gurnall, because believers are more vulnerable when they are alone.  I am a bit jaded, though.  After dealing with Christians who dislike me, and whom I dislike, I am skeptical of ever arriving at some Shangra-la in which I support Christians, and they support me (not materially, but spiritually and emotionally—-and I am not making a blanket statement about all Christians I know).  Still, I think that Gurnall makes good points.  And, while I do stink at love in many respects, I cannot say that I am a total failure at it.  I try to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep—-in the sense that I show concern, not in the sense that I feel what they are experiencing as deeply as them.

E.  I saw a fine example of Christian love at the first service that I attended.  There is one person who is a regular attender, and I think that he is partially blind.  He does not have e-mail, but one of the congregants shares her e-mail address with him.  That warms my heart.  That is a good example of believers providing support for one another.

F.  As I said, the first preacher was relating Romans 12:9-21 to the question of how Christians should respond to racists.  He humbly and meekly said that he wishes that he could take the Nazi protesters to Auschwitz, or the KKK people to the slave camps in the South, and then they would see the negative consequences of their ideology.  I am skeptical that this would work.  At the same time, I read so many social media posts that try to take a bold stand for justice, and they are usually snarky.  There is not a whole lot of love and tenderness in them.  Granted, they are saying what they are saying out of love for the oppressed, and that is admirable and even necessary.  I also doubt that God desires for us to eliminate every negative comment from our language.  Still, can there be some place for speaking the truth with love?

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