Genuine Love

As some of our members prepare to confirm their baptismal vows on Sunday, Oct. 3, we’re spending some time looking at the three questions of baptism and confirmation:

Do you reject sin and evil?
Is Jesus your Lord and Savior?
And do you promise to live for him?

Last Sunday, we unpacked that first question about rejecting sin and evil, and here’s the Good News that Scripture declares: There’s no such thing as a lost cause, no such thing as a person unworthy of the time and effort it takes to rescue them through the message of the Gospel. There is always hope. There is always the possibility of resurrection. There is absolutely no sin that’s beyond God’s forgiveness.

That’s just what the Gospel is all about – a good news story about passing from death into life.

And in thanksgiving to the Lord our God for undeserved, forgiving grace that’s beyond measure, we turn away from the sin and reject the evil that got us into hot water to begin with and instead splash with joy in the cool waters of baptism, which assure that we don’t avoid sin and evil to earn God’s love.

We avoid sin and evil like the plague, because God loves us still – no matter what!

This morning, Paul’s letter to the Romans helps us understand what it means to claim Jesus as your Lord and Savior and to live your life for Christ. Listen for the Word of the Lord.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:1-21)

“Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior?”

It’s tempting to say “yes” and just leave it at that, believing that you’ve done what needs to be done to assure yourself a place in heaven when the roll is called up yonder.

You’ve been baptized; you’ve been confirmed.

You’ve “accepted” Jesus; you’ve been saved.

Mom and dad are happy; grandma and grandpa give you a card with some money in it, and the sheet-cake with your name iced in red frosting offers sweet congratulations.

You can check confirmation off your to-do list, breathe a sigh of relief that the hard work and heavy lifting are done, and move on to the next big thing.

All that sounds like good news – and in a sense it is, but let me be the bearer of even-better news. Confirming that you’ll live your life for Christ is when things really start to get lit. The Holy Spirit, who comes upon you in baptism, hears your promise to live for Christ and says “OK, let’s get ’er done.”

The Spirit then goes to work changing you – bit by bit, day by day, week after week, month after month, year after year, transforming, changing and refreshing you. The Spirit spends your entire lifetime re-wiring your heart and mind so you more and more think and act like Jesus.

No longer do you take your cues from a broken and fearful world but instead follow the lead of Jesus as the two of you together walk hand-in-hand, side-by-side into a whole new kind of living that’s dead to the ways of the world and alive in the fullness of the risen Christ!

That new way of living reveals itself in a couple of ways, and the first is how you see yourself.

The Spirit helps you discover your talents – the things that you’re good at doing. In this morning’s lesson, the apostle Paul basically says this:

“Look, everybody is good at something. You might not be a good cook, but others really know their way around a kitchen. You might not be a good preacher, but others are gifted communicators. You might not be good at music, but others are talented musicians. Be grateful for what you can do, and use your gifts and talents to their fullest.

But keep it real.

Don’t strut around thinking that preaching a great sermon is somehow more important than cooking a lamp chop to a perfect medium rare and serving it up with some gracious hospitality.

Don’t think that being a great athlete is better than being a great student, a great musician,
or simply a great friend.

In other words, see everyone around you at eye level. Be humble. Play your part in the body of Christ, but know that if it weren’t for everyone else also playing their parts, too, nothing would ever get done. If God has made you good at something, that’s great! Wonderful! Celebrate it! Be thankful! Admit that what you do is important and good.

But, leave it at that. Don’t ratchet up your ego so high that you’re always looking down on others who do what you might be tempted to think is less important than what you do.

It’s pretty simple advice, really, but I’m guessing most of us know full well that living this way is far from simple. Pride and judgment remain stubbornly basic and deadly sins that often blur the way we see others.

Say you’re in line at the supermarket, and the person checking out in front of you has a lot of groceries in her cart, which is fine. But then she pays for these groceries in bits and pieces, hauling out of her purse not one, not two, but eventually five different checkbooks. Your blood pressure starts to rise as she writes out five checks for different amounts.It’s taking forever, and waiting your turn feels like slow torture.

Your “worldly” instinct is to see the situation as yet another example of someone being rude and inconsiderate to the people behind her in the checkout aisle — people who obviously have better things to do, people whose time is way more valuable.

But then, suppose that after you finally check out yourself, you go out to the parking lot and notice this woman wheeling her bonanza of groceries to a van full of senior citizens. She hands each person in the van a checkbook and then a bag of groceries.

And that’s when you realize she was serving these good folks, shopping for them when they were a bit too frail to do it themselves. Knowing what you now know, you see the whole grocery-line fiasco in a different light, and your anger and impatience leave you
in red-faced embarrassment.

And then, suppose you learn something from this experience, such that the next time you’re in an interminably long line that takes forever for whatever the reason, you choose to consider all the possible reasons why things are taking so long.

Maybe the woman ahead of you is paying in three different ways because food stamps only cover certain items, whereas WIC checks cover other things, and still other items just have to be paid for with cash. On a limited income, she’s doing the best she can to bring home food for her kids after a long day of working two jobs.

When you are living your life for Christ, you see each person and his or her talent as utterly necessary, as wonderful, as a partner with whatever you are good at doing that advances God’s kingdom here on earth. You don’t downgrade someone else or her ability. Nor need you envy someone else’s ability over against whatever you contribute to life.

Instead, and in humility, you are grateful for what God has given to you and equally grateful for what God has given to others. And together, you see it all as being how God wants it to be, how the Holy Spirit gets things done, and if you are one of the people – not the only person and not the most important person through whom that Spirit works, how cool is that!

Ours is a competitive and cynical age.

When Paul says don’t be conformed to the patterns of the world, in this current cultural moment that means resisting a sense of competition, of one-upmanship, of designer envy foisted on us by advertisers.

It means we stop looking at other people’s Facebook posts and wondering why their lives seems so much more wonderful than ours, why so many other people are on vacation in exotic places and you’re stuck at home, why so many other people seem so much more successful
than you are, and so on.

Don’t conform to those competitive patterns, Paul urges. Be changed. Be renewed. Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought.

How we size up life has a great deal to do with how we act and react, and that, in turn, becomes the avenue by which we try to let virtues like humility, patience, gratitude, and love shine through.

Which brings us to core of Paul’s message: Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

That’s powerful stuff, because in the course of life, you sooner or later encounter truly difficult people – individuals who wound you, wrong you, betray you, threaten you, and you want to strike back. Justice, you think, demands that those wrongdoers both know what they’ve done to you and get punished for their evil deeds.

You have the right to strike back, the world says. You have the right to take some satisfaction in seeing the guilty get their just desserts.

But in explaining what a new life in Christ is all about, Paul takes a cue from the revolutionary ethics of Jesus and says NO to all that. Sincere love must set the tone, even when your hankering for a greater justice causes your blood to boil.

Forgiving love, not tit-for-tat justice, is what sets you and other believers apart from the rest of the world. Because that’s how you embody the gospel of our God in Christ, how you do your part as a beloved member of the kingdom of God. Jesus met the evil of this world head on, but he countered it not with balled-up fists and merciless judgment but with love and grace. Living in love and harmony with this world’s difficult and evil people is simply part of what it means to be caught up in the rhythms of the Gospel. That’s who you are as a Christian. That’s how you became a Christian.

Bad things happen.

That’s a sad reality of life in this world that seems unlikely to change. Even so, the Gospel calls us to absorb such evil, to show Christ to the world not just when doing that is relatively easy but to display the grace of Jesus precisely when some in our world would surely agree that we’d have every right to slap back.

Justice demands it, the world cries, but the Gospel demands something else.

You cannot walk around as a living example of God’s graciously unfair way of doing things only to then behave like someone so fixated on fairness that you can never let even the slightest slight roll off your back. As the old adage goes, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” sooner or later leaves everyone blind and toothless.

When you live your life in such vengeful, unforgiving, tit-for-tat ways, there’s little room left for mercy and forgiveness, scant space for grace and love. But when you vow to live your life for Christ, there’s plenty of room for mercy, forgiveness, grace and love to rule the day.

For that is what God’s good, pleasing and perfect will is for you, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit poured into your heart and mind in baptism.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee and N.T. Wright inform the message.

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