A New Way of Being
What is love? Writers and musicians, poets and philosophers, theologians and artists have tried for millennia to describe and define that simple four letter word – love. The ancient Greeks had eight different words for love, depending on the type of love being described.
There was Eros, or sexual passion. That is the word from which we get our word “erotic.”
There was Philia, or deep friendship. The city name Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, is based on that word.
There was Ludus, or playful love. Flirtatious and playful, but not committed. This is the love seen in those who have started getting to know one another.
There was Storge, the familiar love found in healthy families.
There was Pragma, or longstanding, enduring love. In this kind of love, sexual attraction takes a back seat to personal qualities and shared goals, to making it work. We don’t think about this kind of love as much today, but in ancient cultures that featured a lot of arranged marriages, it was a very common concept. The love between those who did not necessarily choose one another but learned to love one another.
There was Philautia, or love of the self.
There was Mania, or obsessive love.
And there was Agape, or unconditional love. Love offered even when love isn’t reciprocated.
That’s a lot of different conceptions of love, isn’t it? Today, we might consider some of those, especially mania, to not really be love, at best a perversion of love.
In a “Kids Say The Darndest Things” kind of interview, someone asked a bunch of kids, “What is love?” They really showed a lot of insight. Listen to their answers. Love is …
When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.
When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.
Love is when someone hurts you, and you get so mad, but you don’t yell at them because you know it would hurt their feelings.
Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is okay.
Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.
Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.
Love is when Mommy sees Daddy smelly and sweaty and still says he is handsomer than Robert Redford.
Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.
You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.[i]
What is love? It kind of depends on the situation, doesn’t it? And yet love is supposed to be the primary marker of our life in Christ as followers of Christ. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35), and “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40). Everything else we do as followers of Christ in some way comes under the heading, “Love God, love one another.” Turn with me to Romans 12:9-16.
Now remember, in the first few verses of Romans 12, Paul describes our response to the amazing grace and mercy of God. He says, “In light of all that God has willingly accomplished on the cross, in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Christ, this is how you respond.” And he says that we are to offer our bodies, our lives, our selves, as living sacrifices to God and that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And that’s a process, right? It doesn’t all happen at once. In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul says, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, (anyone here feel like their outer self is wasting away?) our inner self is being renewed day by day” (V. 16).
And that renewed mind begins with how I view myself, right? Paul says “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (12:3). That means we take a balanced view of our selves as deeply loved and loveable, individuals who have worth and meaning just because we’re alive, but also as individuals whose lives are marked by sin and failure and shortcoming and fault, and therefore we are deeply loved people in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. And when we take that truly humble view of ourselves, we are set free to serve God and love one another, even our enemies, as God loves us.
Look at Vv. 9-10. It looks like it says “Let love be genuine,” but in the Greek Paul wrote this in, there’s no verb, and there’s no imperative. It simply says “the love sincere” or “love un-hypocritical.” Sounds more like a heading, doesn’t it? Now it’s certainly appropriate to translate it as “Let love be genuine.” That’s obviously included in the meaning of a heading like “the love sincere.” But it also helps us understand that what Paul is doing here is describing that sincere love as it is lived out in the body of Christ, the church. These are practical, real-world ways to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and also real world ways to love those we might in some ways consider our enemies – those who seek to malign us, who speak against us.
Love in the body of Christ is sincere. The word sincere literally means “no play-acting.” Love without hypocrisy. The word hypocrisy, or hypocrite, originally comes from the theater, and it could have a positive or negative connotation. Positively, a good actress or actor could play any part assigned to them without losing their inner stability, their sense of who they really are. But used negatively, when someone is play-acting off the stage, pretending to be something they aren’t or do something they really aren’t they become deceivers. Chuck Swindoll said “If hypocrisy creeps in, love ceases to be love and becomes something grotesque – manipulation, quid pro quo (in other words, I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine), competition, pretense.” Sincere love, genuine love, isn’t manipulative or competitive, and it seeks to love the other, even if they are unable or unwilling to love you back in return. It is real, and it is true.
Love is also discerning. It doesn’t embrace evil, it embraces that which is ultimately and purely good in the eyes of God. It abhors, or shrinks away from, that which is evil. In other words, when it encounters evil, it refuses to participate. That doesn’t mean it hides or seeks to hurt the evildoer. It doesn’t mean there’s a list of people who are acceptable to come into church and those who aren’t, or who are acceptable to be friends with and who aren’t. Jesus was friends with all kinds of people the good religious people wouldn’t spend ANY time at all with. Lying, cheating tax collectors. Unclean, unwholesome prostitutes. Smelly, uneducated fishermen. Those who were sick, diseased, maimed, or handicapped in some way, those who were, or used to be, demon-possessed. But he also didn’t participate IN the prostitution or the fraud of the tax collectors. It probably looked like it to the good religious people though. Love isn’t just whatever we want it to be. It is mighty flowing river, and the two banks, the boundaries beyond which it cannot flow, are truth and the discernment of good and evil, right and wrong.
The one good way in which love CAN be competitive is in seeking to outdo one another in honoring and respecting others. Love doesn’t seek to make a name for itself, it seeks to make a name for the other person. As followers of Jesus, we are a people who are otherwise pretty incompatible who are eager to love one another.
Now, look at Vv. 11-13. If 1 Corinthians 13 is the most powerful and poetic and beautiful, complete description of love, Romans 12:9-16 is the most succinct. What it lacks in poetry it makes up for with punch. Short, clipped, but powerful statements. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says “Love never fails” (V. 8). Here, he says exactly the same thing. It is natural for us as human beings to ebb and flow. It is in our nature to become complacent over time. When you first started driving, you used your turn signal for every lane change. Now … not so much. If you’re married, when you first started dating your spouse you went above and beyond to dress attractively, to look your best, to be on your best behavior. How many of us guys ever had to fight to hold in a massive fart on a date? Right? We all did it. How many of you gals had to fight to hold in a massive fart on a date? Now, you let it fly don’t you? You probably help it out. Make it louder. Truthfully, in relationships, there was a time we worked overtime to look and act our best and make sure the person we loved knew we loved and cared about them, right? But over time, we lose that sometimes, don’t we? We stop “trying so hard.”
The same thing happens in our ability and desire to love one another in the church. We lose our passion. We lose our desire to serve each other. We start going through the motions. We lose our passion, our fire, for worship, we lose our passion for serving, and we lose our passion for loving and caring for one another. Passion leaks. That’s true of all of us.
This fire, this passion, isn’t just an emotional thing though. It’s the passion that keeps you going when you’re being ridiculed, made fun of. We will not stop meeting the needs of those in our midst who need help, whether it’s a ride, or a visit, or a contribution, or some kind of help around the house. Our love and our hospitality never fail, because love never fails. In fact, Paul tells us to “PURSUE hospitality.” Go out of your way to meet needs and be hospitable. We are a body full of needs, and yet we are eager to help the weakest in whatever ways we can.
Now look down at V. 14. Now we shift. We’re talking about our love for those outside the body of Christ. If love is one of the defining characteristics of a follower of Christ, then love for our enemies is a defining charactering of our love. Now, to be sure, not everyone outside the church is an enemy, right? But there are those who ridicule us. There are those who take stands against us. There are those who don’t like us simply because we follow Christ, simply because we’re a church. To be fair, as followers of Jesus we’ve given people plenty of reason not to like us. We have become more known for who and what we are against than who we are for. I keep taking us back to the model of Jesus and his love for people. Who did he spend his time with? How did he treat those the good religious people wanted to stone or be rid of? To those who have been beat up by the world, Jesus is a breath of fresh air, a cool drink of water on a hot day. His people, the body of Christ, must have the same sense about them.
People won’t always like us. We will and do take stands in our society that our culture doesn’t appreciate. But through it all, we love. And that means we return love for hatred. When our culture ridicules or despises us, we don’t get aggressive or defensive. We just keep on loving. Keep on serving. Keep on embracing good and refusing to participate in evil. To bless your persecutors is literally to seek God’s blessing on them in prayer. That’s hard. We live in a culture, even within the church, that says, “If they do it to me, it’s ok for me to do it back.” And right now, the church is doing that, and yelling and screaming and stomping its feet louder than anyone. It’s time to get back to following Jesus. That’s real, where the rubber meets the road stuff.
And it’s directly from the mouth of Jesus. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28). And Peter, talking about Jesus, says, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pt. 2:23). Again, be careful. Neither Jesus nor Peter nor Paul are saying this means you have to stay with an abusive spouse or an abusive parent or something like that. He’s talking to the church as a whole in relation to society as a whole. We are to pray for God’s blessing on those who ridicule and persecute us in small ways and in large ways. It is a love that sincerely hopes that the evil doer will be convicted of their sin just as we were, and repent and be transformed. We are a marginalized body repaying cursing with blessing.
Look at Vv. 15-16. Do you feel the rapid fire, direct nature of Paul’s description of love here? It isn’t poetic, but it packs a punch like a series of body blows. This is what real love, really is. Real love is sincere and discerning. Real love perseveres, it keeps going even when it gets hard. Real love is tough, it is willing to seek God’s blessing on even our enemies, just as God loved us when we were his enemies. And real love refuses to be jealous. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We tend to want to do the opposite. We rejoice at the weeping of others, especially our enemies, and we weep at the rejoicing of others. Why? Because we’re vindictive and jealous. When someone else has reason to celebrate, instead of being happy for them, we feel bad about ourselves. We’re like children saying “They got something we didn’t” or “Something good happened for them that didn’t happen for me.” Rather than celebrating the pain of others and mourning the victories of others, we join them, intimately, in their celebration or their grief. We meet them where they are.
Paul then summarizes his description of love in this way: “Live in harmony with one another.” Harmony doesn’t mean we all see every issue in the same way. It means that we have an ability to stick together even when we view things differently. But we don’t want to do that. When someone says something we disagree with, we blast them, or we go running to another church where the “real” Christians are. We have completely lost our ability to stay in relationship with a group of people mostly different than us for a long period of time. And that is exactly what we are called to in the body of Christ. We are called to live in harmony. In a harmony, the notes aren’t all the same. They’re all different, but they’re in sync.
Love is sincere and discerning. It keeps going even when it’s tough. It is willing to seek the best for those who seek the worst for us. It refuses to be jealous. And it leads to harmony. And that’s only possible if it is marked by real humility. “Associate with the lowly.” Associate with those who cannot help your career or your climb up the social ladder. Associate, not as a superior helper but as a friend, an equal, with those who can do nothing for you. Eat with them. Laugh with them. Cry with them. Do you hear that? Do you hear what Paul is saying? That’s real friendship.
Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, tells of two lawyers he knows who used to hate each other. They were partners in the same firm.
When one became a Christian, he asked me, “Now that I’m a Christian, what should I do?”
I said, “Why not ask him to forgive you and tell him you love him?”
“I could never do that!” he said, “because I don’t love him.”
That lawyer had put his finger squarely on one of the great challenges of the Christian life: On the one hand, everybody wants to be loved, but on the other hand, many people never experience it. That’s why we need to learn to love as Christ loves–unconditionally. We can’t manufacture that kind of love. It only comes from God; and it’s a love that draws people to Christ.
I prayed with that attorney. The next morning, he told his partner, “I’ve become a Christian, and I want to ask you to forgive me for all I’ve done to hurt you, and to tell you that I love you.”
The partner was so surprised and convicted that he, too, asked for forgiveness and said, “I would like to become a Christian. Would you tell me how?”
See what love can do?[ii]
We are a body of mostly incompatible people eager to love one another.
We are a body full of needs and eager to help the weakest.
We are a body maligned, and yet repaying cursing with blessing.
We are a body filled with people of different experiences united in humble harmony.
Let us pray.
[i] What Is Love – From a Kid’s Point of View, LightSinger
[ii] Bill Bright, founder and president, Campus Crusade for Christ. Men of Integrity, Vol. 1, no. 1.