Romans 12:9 “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”
These are very familiar words, but they come to us today in a peculiar setting, at the baptism of one of the members of our congregation. So we find ourselves needing to go in two parallel directions. Some visitors are in the church for the first time, and in our estimation one of their needs is to hear the Christian message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so to hear it that it will persuade them to become his followers. I want everyone to become true Christians. This message has evidently gripped and changed the life of our brother being baptized, as he himself will tell us shortly. Now what do these words of the apostle Paul in our text have to say to you about the nature of Christianity? Then, secondly, of course, we have to address Robert himself and those of you who have recently professed that you have become disciples of the Saviour. Some ministers at baptismal services choose a verse from Scripture that they judge would be peculiarly suitable to each of the persons being baptized, and they read those verses to them. It becomes, say the people being baptized, their ‘baptismal verse.’ You could construe my text in this way.
So, you understand don’t you, that this message has two targets, (i) to explain to the curious, the inquirer and the seeker what the heart of Christianity is with the hope that in understanding it people will respond to it by personal faith in the Lord Christ, and then also (ii) to exhort those who are Christ’s disciples always to be living a consistent loving Christian life. I’ll seek to fulfil both those aims from the context of this mighty chapter in the letter to the Romans and this ninth verse in particular.
- WHAT THE CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING OF LOVE IS.
There can be no doubt that love is the most crucial of all Christian graces. It has prime significance, and is all important in God’s assessment. I believe that that can be easily demonstrated to be true. For example, our Lord was constantly being challenged by his enemies with trick questions, but he answered them in quite a devastating way. There had been an occasion when a group of Sadducees – a religious organization centred on the Jerusalem temple and its worship – brought him what they thought to be a testing question, but our Lord had answered it with clarity and conviction. The crowds were very impressed, but then the Pharisees, another religious group who were the great rivals of the Sadducees, thought they could succeed where the others had failed. They tried to catch out Jesus with this question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” These Pharisees were experts in the traditions and laws of men. They’d added commandment after commandment to daily living. Their commandments affected every possible action a person could take, commands for getting up, for dressing and having breakfast, commands for going out walking to work, commands about greeting people as you walked down the road – simply everything was ruled by these traditions. In fact, they listed more than 300 rules and regulations. What would Jesus say? Would he give a quirky enigmatic reply like a famous footballer who answered a straightforward question by saying, “The seagulls follow the sardine boats”? Or maybe Jesus would indicate a certain bias towards some minor law and overlook key moral virtues? They were trying to bring him down to their level of religious debate; “Let’s have a discussion . . .” Some people love that approach to religion. Let’s read the account in Matthew chapter 22 of that famous incident; “Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’” (Matt. 22:34-40).
The greatest commandment is to love our Creator, love the God of providence who watches over and protects us throughout our lives, to love this God who has been the author of all the most wonderful, lasting and satisfying gifts we have ever had, our families and loved ones, our intelligence and sound minds, our length of life and so on. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Most of all, love the God who so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. His immeasurable love constrains us to love him in return. He did not send his Son into the world to condemn us – though we are worthy of his condemnation – but that forgiveness and reconciliation should be ours through what his Son has done. We are to love the God who did that. We are to love him for all his perfections and graces, for all his beauty and glory. How lovable the God who has done so much for us. Love your God!
However, we are not to love God alone. We are also to love all those whom he has made in his image and likeness. In fact we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Our neighbours are those we have dealings with day by day – those who in the providence of God we bump into in lectures, and outside the school waiting for the little children, our workmates and colleagues, our neighbours in the street, people we meet on a journey or on holiday, the person at the check-out till who momentarily becomes our neighbour, the person who comes to read the electric meter, the man driving the taxi, the stewardess on the plane, the Jehovah’s Witness who is ringing the doorbell. Somehow, somewhere, they have been brought into our orbit and they become our neighbours. The Lord says that we are to love them as we love ourselves.
Let me say something about Christians using mobile phones. Have you noticed the loveless way some people talking on a mobile phone behave? They will get to the head of a coffeeshop queue, briefly raise their heads from the device, mouth the word ‘cappuccino’ and then resume the conversation, all the time ignoring the waitress’s questions about size, chocolate, pastries and lid. When the coffee is thrust towards them they won’t say thank you, smile or apologise for the shabby way they’ve treated the lady, still ignoring
her for ages as she stands there waiting to be paid, and then they offer her a twenty pound note. Then they will take long minutes to take the change she’s returning to them, all the time engaged in a conversation on their cellphones before they slowly move away allowing someone else to be served. They are so absorbed in their own affairs that they are totally indifferent to the rest of the world.
It gets worse. These are the people who never return calls or reply to texts because they are so ‘busy.’ They give you the impression that you ought to be grateful for any communication from them. It gets worse, these are the people who break off real personal conversations with you in order to look down and read their text messages or even search for a fresh one. They can breezily ignore those who are near to them for the thrill of a brief contact with someone far away. It is all a new rudeness. It is terribly impolite, but most of all it is unloving. It is not loving your neighbour as yourself. It is a symptom that self and not the Saviour reigns in their lives. What am I displaying here? What Paul tells us to do in this text, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (v.9). Conduct like that is evil; I might be very exercised about global warming, but utterly insensitive about my neighbour.
You remember an incident in the life of Christ when he was teaching this truth and again a man trying to trick him, asked, “And who is my neighbour?” How impossible it all is, the man was suggesting, this teaching so airy-fairy, so impractical, so mystical and unreal, ‘loving your neighbour as yourself. Who is my neighbour?’ Immediately Jesus responded, showing him that there was nothing hopelessly idealistic about this ethical code at all. God has given it to us not that we debate it, and admire it and say patronizing things about it, and find excuses for not doing it, and going off and living as we please. No! The God who made this world, and knows the world of mankind, and has made us in his very image and likeness has given us these commandments to be scrupulously observed by all his creatures. This is a moral universe and these are the standards by which we incredible creatures will be judged.
So Jesus answered immediately this world-weary man who had asked the question, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ by telling him this parable; “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Lk. 10:30-37).
Who are you sitting with now? Who will you be walking home with? Who will you be meeting this afternoon and evening? Who will you be calling or texting? What are you doing this week? How do you respond to your teachers and lecturers? What about the people who sit around you in class? What people will you be meeting? And where are you going, and what are you doing this year, and next year, and for the rest of your life? There will be hundreds of people you will be meeting in all sorts of occasions, some briefly and some long term, some most intimately and others quite casually, and our Lord is exhorting us to love each one of them as we love ourselves. That is the obligation he is laying on us. You remember how he phrased it in the Sermon on the Mount. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). You don’t lie to them, don’t lose your temper with them, don’t put them down, don’t cheat them, don’t treat them with sarcasm and mockery, don’t hurt them or abuse them or take advantage of them. You make sure there is respect and tenderness and patience and forgiveness in all your dealings with them. That is how you would wish to be treated by others, and so you treat them in the same way. You love your neighbour as yourself.
I am saying that this imperative to love is not some recommended option; it is not a suggested fulfilling lifestyle; it is not a hopelessly impracticable ideal. This is how we must live. We are to treat everyone in this way, loving our neighbours as ourselves. I believe that we have to shine the great light of I Corinthians 13 on this word ‘love’. When many people hear the word ‘love’ they think of it in terms of infatuation or of sex. But Paul defines it very carefully in that famous chapter where he says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8). That is how every Christian has to live. There is no choice in the issue. The Creator who made the universe has stipulated carefully how we his creatures are to live our lives. The Christian serving with the army in Afghanistan is under a heavenly obligation to live in this way. “When you were in the army in Afghanistan did you love your neighbour as yourself?” That will be the question he’ll have to answer. The Christian actor, the Christian rugby player, the Christian politician, the Christian saxophonist, the Christian on Wall Street or working in the city of London, whatever our job, and whatever our hobbies, every Christian is always under a constraint to live like this. Our actions, our words, our thoughts and our feelings must all reflect this great command to love. Love is the most important of all graces.
But I go a step higher, that we are under obligation to love our enemies. What do you see later in this chapter? How does it end? “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv.19-21). It can be done. It has been done. It must be done. Remember when they hammered long nails through the hands and feet of our Lord that he prayed for them, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He did not snarl, “Just you wait until my Father gets you.” Others have treated their persecutors as they would desire to be treated. When Stephen was being stoned he cried to God that he would not lay this sin to their charge. A beloved daughter who was a nurse was killed by an IRA bomb in Ulster at a Remembrance Day service at the local cenotaph. Her remarkable father persistently offered forgiveness to those who had taken the life of his girl. Christians can do it. They can love their enemies. They can pardon those who are torturing them or were about to behead them. If you have the indwelling Spirit of Jesus Christ and have illimitable access to him t
hen you can forgive someone seventy times seven. You can turn the other cheek; you can go the second mile. You can love like that by the power of the God who is in you. You know that the Lord has forgiven you for far greater sins you have done than what has been done in hurting you. Love must be sincere in every Christian.
But I think we can go a step higher. The Lord Jesus Christ says that we are to love one another as he has loved us (Jn. 13:34). Again, this is not a sentimental thought. It is a definition of Christian love. You think of the long journey that Jesus Christ took, from the eternal glory that had always been his with God the Father and God the Spirit, and yet he came all this way from that glory that had been his down to this groaning earth, to be begotten in the womb of Mary. Our God was contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man. In him was the fulness of the godhead bodily. What he had done was to add to his divine eternal nature the nature of a true man, and in this nature he lived and suffered and bled and died to save us, because he loved us so much. God became the cosmic sacrifice of atonement. How he humbled himself to becoming such a servant. Once he had washed the feet of his disciples, but more, he even died the unspeakable death of the cross. It was love for such unlovely men and women as ourselves constrained him to do this. Though he had seen us at our worst he loved us and laid down his life for us. “Now,” he says, “you must love one another as I have loved you.” We serve one another, and support and help one another, and suffer weariness and the hostility of the world and ignorance of friends, and we do it all lovingly because that is how Jesus loved us. This is the greatest unutilized evangelistic weapon of the church. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another as I have loved you,” said the Lord Jesus. There can be no more profound impact made by the church on the watching world than such love being clearly evident in a gospel congregation. People can still think what they said in the first century, “See how they love one another.” Evangelistic success is not when we church members are so similar to the world that non-Christians feel at home in our midst – because we are just like them. I say it is not then that the gospel changes people. No. Rather it is when a love that is neither of the world nor in the world draws and impresses and persuades men and women to ask questions about what are they living for. They see by your love that the one and only God is living in the hearts of people they know. These ordinary people are their friends, and the only explanation for the way they don’t retaliate and they keep smiling is the Lord Jesus Christ. So they start to wonder if they too could live out such a life of love.
That is the something of the Christian understanding of love which is at the heart of our faith. That is what we want to see in all of you, not some emotional spasm, not a mere decision of our will but a life of sustained love as I have described. This love is taught in the Bible, exemplified in the life of Christ, poured out into the heart of every true disciple by the Spirit, sustained, nourished and nurtured by God. This is the primary grace, and it becomes the greatest evidence that a person is a true Christian. Listen to the apostle John presenting this vital test of whether a person is born of God or not; “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (I Jn. 4:7&8). This then is the definition of love as Christians understand it. This is the fruit of the life of God indwelling the souls of men. In that one being baptized today we have the right to search for such love – yes in a baby form – but with the desire to see it nurtured and growing, because everyone who loves in this way has been born of God.
- SUCH LOVE SHOULD BE GENUINE IN EVERY CHRISTIAN.
What dos our text say? “Love must be sincere” (v.9). There’s a lot of emphasis on this word ‘love’ in the world. There are all the songs about love, so called ‘feel-good’ movies are about love, and the soaps are about love, and even politicians will speak of love, but the Bible says, “You make sure it’s sincere love.” Paul’s concern is that it is real love in the Scriptural sense. No vice is more reprehensible than hypocrisy. No vice is more destructive of integrity, because it is the contradiction of truth. Jesus said to Judas, “Do you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” There was the diabolical contradiction of the supreme sign of love becoming the sign of betrayal. Yet hypocrisy about love is everywhere in our land. Men and women carry around with them the hurting memories of broken relationships. Broken hearts breed disillusionment. People say, “I won’t get married again. What’s the point?” Stephen Turner the Christian writer has a poem entitled, “Tonight we will fake love.” There is plenty of fake love about, girls left pregnant, expected to have an abortion, their men disappearing. For them the most important words in all the Bible are these four, “Love must be sincere.” People do not want lust; they do not want infatuation; they do not want to be fancied so that there is a temporary relationship; they want sincere love that will last a lifetime.
Let us go back to the Greek of this word ‘sincere.’ The Greek theatre had no sets, no scenery and no costumes. What it did have was masks. They were painted with such expressions that the audience could see the state of the emotions of the character. If he wore a mask with a face like Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” then you’d know that he was in bleak despair. If he wore a smile then you could tell he was a happy bunny, and so on. The actor walked around the stage, mask to his face communicating his heart’s condition to all the audience. This was commonplace in the world of the Mediterranean basin with its amphitheatres everywhere. There might well have been a mask that said ‘love!’ The actress who wears it is showing that she really loves another character because she has that ‘glazed-look-mask’ covering her face every time she talks to him. Paul is demanding that love be without the love mask, that in fact love is in the heart and life. You must not put on the Alfred Place mask of loving God and loving your fellow Christian when you walk through those doors on Sunday mornings. Then when you walk out into the world and meet your neighbours for the rest of the week you don’t put on your ‘loving my neighbour’ mask. If it’s a mask it is insincere; you are faking love. It has to be the real thing. Why is there any need of the fake? Knowing God is knowing ultimate reality. And so whatsoever things are cheap imitations, whatsoever things are superficial, whatsoever things are flashy, whatsoever things are counterfeit, whatsoever things are imitative, whatsoever things are fraudulent, whatsoever things are synthetic, whatsoever things are simulated, whatsoever things are a pretence, whatsoever things are deceptive, then mortify such things! Kill them! Show them no mercy. We want no imposture Christians.
The world is full of all that insincere stuff. Men and women are sick of it and when they come here that is their greatest suspicion about us, that we are just like all the rest. We just want crowds to come, and give us money, and be unthinking about what they hear. They are suspicious that if we are alone with a member of the opposite sex then we act just as
they’ve experienced, that we take advantage of the vulnerable. When we get friendly with a rich old widow in the congregation then it’s in order to get her to change her will. We hang around young people but it’s all for the wrong motives. We can claim that it’s all out of love, but they are watching us. They think that we’re the sort of people who make sure that we keep in with the influential people in the congregation, but that we walk all over the others. That is what the world suspects, and so they come here and they are looking and noticing how we behave. Do we love people sincerely? They are watching our actions. We are under examination, and that is not a bad thing. Let’s not take one visitor for granted. We talk about love, yes, but everybody talks about love, and says, “All you need is love,” but what about our lives? Is love sincere? Is it genuine love? Are we like the priest and the levite, religious men noticing the beaten up abandoned man lying in the road and not even slowing down as we pass by, or are we like the good Samaritan? Doesn’t the world have the right to ask that question if Christ asked it? The Christian gospel without genuine love at the centre is an emaciated gospel and a diluted gospel. It might draw a few people to make some kind of decision but how long is the decision going to impact their lives?
We are to hate what is evil and love what is good. Since I became a Christian God has taught me how to love and what to love, but he has also taught me what to hate. You say, “God teaches us not only to love, but to hate?” Absolutely. In fact you cannot love properly unless you hate properly. What do you hate? Let me read to you from the book of Proverbs chapter six and verses 16 through 19: “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” We can disdain all these things can’t we? Haughtiness, deceit, and violence towards innocent people. And what about “a heart that devises wicked schemes”? Don’t I get letters each day from men who want to give me a million pounds if only I will send them my bank account details? And what about men who stir up dissension in a congregation? Don’t you hate such sin? The Lord does. When Jesus saw his Father’s house turned into a money-making racket run by greedy thieves he hated it and made a whip and drover them out. When he saw the hypocrisy of the Pharisees he hated their false religion, the intolerable burdens heaped on the poor. Jesus clung to what is good and so must we. We have to hate our sins. We often sing to the Holy Spirit, “We hate the sin that made Thee mourn and drove Thee from our breast.” That is the Christian lifestyle. It is one of genuine love and holy hatred.
- WHERE THIS LOVE COMES FROM AND HOW IT GROWS.
Do you understand that it is not that because we love in this way that we are saved and are true Christians? No. Definitely not. It is rather that because we are saved that we love like this. The love of what is good, and the hatred of all that is tawdry and cruel and ugly and mean is the result of God working in our hearts. It is not the means of his coming to us. The Bible does not say, “If you can behave in this way then God will love you.” It says, “Because you need to change and love like this then God makes you a new creation because he loves you. God gives you a birth from heaven. God the Holy Spirit comes and indwells you.”
In other words we have to bring to God our awareness that we are not loving as we should be. We bring to God these old stony hearts of ours. We tell him this; “Lord it is my chief complaint that my love is weak and faint.” We grieve over the way we have hurt so many people in our lives. We recognize that the chief failure in our entire lives has been a failure to love. We failed our parents and we failed our children; we failed our husbands and we failed our wives; we failed our friends and we failed our neighbours. We failed them in this area of loving them with pure hearts, steadfastly and kindly, patiently and warmly. We were not there when they needed us.
Most of all God has been so patient with us. He has given us all the best things in life and we haven’t shown him any affection at all. We have carried on for years without him. We have ignored him and thought we could get through life on our own. Our lives have been a story of a failure to love, failing to love one another and failing to love God.
Then we take that guilt and shame to God and tell him all about it. We must confess it to God. We have to start there, and we have to ask him for strength to turn from all of that in repentance. We have to see that the only way we could ever be forgiven is in the Son of God coming from heaven to live that loving life which he lived, even loving us so much that he laid down his life for us. We have to go to God in Jesus’ name and tell him that our past and present needs to be forgiven, covered by Christ, and that as we face the future we can only do so through the strength he gives us to live in a new way, a God-honouring way, a neighbour-loving way. We tell God, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8). Then we say, “I have to live like that, every day for the rest of my life. Anything else is defiant compromise. Anything else is plain selfishness. Anything else is sin-justifying ego. Deliver me from that. Forgive me my sins and strengthen me by the Holy Spirit to live a new life of love. Don’t give up on me. Come into my life. It’s not much of a home for so glorious and holy a Guest, but it is bare and weak without you. Come into my life. Take away this cold stony heart and give me a heart that will love you and love sincerely other people. Give me a heart that hates all that is unkind and selfish and ugly. I want to cling to you. I need your everlasting arms to support me, your life in my soul, your mercy new every morning. I need a great baptism of love each day of my life. Give it to me. Please give it to me. I will die without that.”
I am saying that you must pray for new life from heaven, and you must do so with your own words. Make closure with the God of love today. He has never heard such prayers and then failed to answer them. Ask him now and go on asking in the hours and days ahead until you know that he has heard you and then join us in this great pilgrimage of the loving people of God.
1st March 2009 GEOFF THOMAS