What does love actually look like? How do we show our love, for God and for each other? It’s easier for us to see that (and a lack of love!) in other people, but this is an encouragement to think about putting our love into action.
It’s getting towards autumn now. You can tell, because the football has started again, not that it really went away, and the autumn TV schedules have started. So, I’m enjoying the new series of Doctor Who which started last week. There’s been the right number of explosions, running away, jokes, interesting questions about good and evil, hints about the overall story arc, and, why not?, a dinosaur in Victorian London! And, over the summer there’s also been the usual number of films where cities with significant landmarks get blown up, invaded, flattened by huge creatures, flooded and who knows what else. Of course, that’s being going on for years, with superhero films, James Bond, yes, Doctor Who, and a whole host of other heroes or their enemies laying waste to tourist destinations and major attractions. But, what films basically never show is what happens next. What happens after the final scene?
Well, this the passage from Romans is the bit after the explosions and excitement and the running and the hero or heroine defeating the villain and getting the girl or boy. This is the clearing up, sorting stuff out, working out what victory means and what, really, does happily-ever-after look like anyway?
Which might, you think, make less interesting. But, it’s not. It’s just a lot harder to film. This is the adventure of putting stuff back together, working out what’s changed, and what can change, the adventure of discovering what there can be, along with the sadness of discovering what no longer is.
Love must be sincere, Paul tells us. And, really, the rest of the passage is telling us what a sincere love looks like. But, the other passage that we heard read, the passage from Matthew, shows us what sincere love looks like. We heard the same passage from Luke a few weeks ago, but basically, this is Jesus telling his disciples what is going to happen, and why. He’s telling them that the victory that he is going to win, the victory over sin and death, isn’t going to look like an ordinary victory. But, it is going to be a victory. It’s not going to be the part three quarters of the way through the film where it looks like the hero or heroine has been defeated, but they somehow just survive, and go onto defeat the villain. The cross isn’t that. The cross is the first half of the victory, with the resurrection being the other part. The cross is part of showing us what sincere love looks like.
So, then, we’ve seen what sincere love looks like. We’ve seen that the victory has been won. We’re invited to be part of that victory. We’re invited to be part of God’s kingdom, to reflect God’s glory. To show God’s sincere love.
Show love by hating what is evil. Hate meaning to reject, to cast away, not to go near. And there is much evil in the world at the moment, much that is wrong, with many conflicts. And that needs rejecting. But, that’s a bit easier to do. Because, it doesn’t affect us directly, because it’s a long way away. Because, like in the films we can usually divide people in the heroes and the villains. That’s certainly what the news can encourage us to do, although really many conflicts are more complex than that.
But, what about the evil inside us? The desire to get our own way, whatever the cost. The desire to be treated differently, better, to how we treat others. The mistaken belief that we have privileges that others don’t have. The evil that we can always find excuses for. We need to hate that, reject that. And, instead, cling to what is good. To hold on tight to the loving things that we can do. To resist the temptation not to show sincere love. To seek to show God’s love when we can, as we can, to those to whom we can. To be devoted to one another in love.
In other words, to care about the other person, to care about how we treat them, to care about how our actions affect others. To think about our behaviour so that it doesn’t damage those around us. And not to think, ‘well I don’t mind, so neither will they’.
Then we come to one of the most misunderstood parts of this passage. ‘honour one another above yourselves’. I once heard a vicar say that this basically meant that we needed to be doormats. We needed to show God’s love by always giving and never receiving. He was wrong. He was wrong for a number of reasons. This encouragement to ‘honour one another above yourselves’ only works if we’re all trying to do it! Because if we all seek to keep to this, if we all honour one another above ourselves, then we too will receive the honour that we deserve, as a loved child of God. It’s an important correction for those of us who think that we should be treated with honour and respect, to remind us that we have exactly the same right to that as everyone else. But it can be a big stick to beat those of us who don’t believe that we should be treated with honour in the first place, who can see the importance of other people, but not ourselves.
So, then, what does it mean in practice? It means treating other people as we would like to be treated. It means giving people the honour of treating them with love, kindness, and respect. It means not finding excuses for why we don’t honour other people. ‘I was tired’ ‘It’s been a long day’ ‘I was cross anyway’ ‘They were just being stupid, silly, ignorant, were failing to understand’. Honour one another. Show sincere love by treating other people as we want to be treated. And treating ourselves as we would treat other people.
And then Paul goes on. ‘Be zealous’. ‘Keep your spiritual fervour’. Which is literally ‘be set on fire by the Spirit’. So, why they didn’t translate it as that, I’m not sure. Be set on fire by the Spirit. Burn brightly. Be warmth, and heat and light to those around you. Seek the Holy Spirit, ask for God’s help, to burn away the rubbish, to remove the things that stop us loving sincerely. The promise of God is that he loves us too much just to leave us to our own devices. That’s what Jesus shows us, That’s what the name of our church reminds us. Emmanuel, God with us. God with us, working in us. Giving us honour, showing us love. To serve God in our loving kindness, in the power of his Spirit.
To serve God by being joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. There’s whole sermons in each of those phrases. Being joyful because of the hope that we have in Christ, because of the love that he has shown us. And so being able to be patient in affliction because we know that this is not how things end, having the hope to be able to look forward to something better. And through all of that being able to talk to God, and to hear from God. To pray, knowing his love for us. Again, not things that we find easy to do on our own, things that we need God’s help with, and the encouragement of each other.
To serve God by sharing with those in need, with those who don’t have the things that we have, whether that’s a little or a lot. To serve God in our hospitality. That can be as much about opening our lives up to one another, as our homes. To welcome in those members of our church who we know less well, who aren’t our close friends, who we don’t like as much.
And then, because Paul is a realist and knows that this isn’t easy to grasp or to do, he basically repeats himself all over again! But, with the added twist that this applies to those people who we’ve got no reason to like. To our enemies, to those who are hurting and persecuting us. Not to act in ways which ensure that the cycle of hatred and hurt and revenge continues. And, says Paul, if you can’t yet bring yourself to do that to show God’s love, then do it because it will shame your enemy, because it will really irritate them, because it will embarrass them! A good example of that, is a few centuries after Paul wrote this letter, a Roman Emperor wrote of his embarrassment, his shame, that Christians weren’t just looking after their own widows and orphans, but the widows and orphans of non-believers as well. He saw that as a scandal and it’s certainly a good example of heaping coals on your enemies heads. And the same thing goes on today, with surveys showing how much more time and money Christians give to charities compared with the general population.
Now, one of the questions that celebrities sometimes get asked is ‘which actor would you like to be you in the film of your life?’ Hollywood probably isn’t going to be knocking at our door asking to tell the story of our life. But that doesn’t make it any less important or significant. Instead, we are playing ourselves in the films of our lives. It’s both a leading role and a supporting role. We’ll even get to play cameo parts in other people’s films. And like any decent film, there’s a story to tell, an adventure to be had.
But, what stories do we tell ourselves? And what stories do we tell each other? Because they shape our lives, shape how we act and what we do. Do we tell ourselves and others stories like: ‘I’m not good enough’ ‘I’m not worth it’ Or ‘I’m better than them’ ‘I can treat people like that because…’ Or do we tell ourselves stories like ‘I am one of God’s children’, I’m loved by God’, ’I am called to shine as a light in the world’? Because those are the stories that are true and that make a difference.
We are on the adventure of discovering that God’s love applies to us and changes us. It might not be glamorous, it might not mean that we get a blockbuster film made of our lives but, it will with God’s help be what changes lives, brings light to others and transforms our world. Amen.