Love to Be Different (Romans 5-16)

Back in 1967, there was a song written that still remains popular among people of all ages. The Beatles wanted to write something that would speak to people of all nations.  So, John Lennon wrote the song, “All You Need is Love.”  And that song became very popular.  Probably (1) because it was the Beatles, and just about everything they wrote was popular. (2) Because it’s a very simple message.  And sometimes that’s exactly what we need.  “All we need is love.”

            Now, I’m not quite sure what the Beatles meant by love in that song, but I have a sneaking suspicion that what they meant was not quite the same thing that God intends when he tells us as Christians that all we need is love.  In Colossians 3, Paul tells us to add several different attributes to our lives, and then he says, “Above all these put on love.” (Colossians 3:14).  It’s the most important thing that we need in our lives.

            But God doesn’t just tell us that we need to love.  He also tells us what loves looks like, how love behaves.  There are several beautiful lengthy descriptions of love in the New Testament.  The most familiar, of course, would have to be I Corinthians, chapter 13.  But there’s also a beautiful description of love in Romans chapter 12.

            Romans 12, verses 9 through 21, is a description of what Christian love is and what it isn’t.  What love does and what it doesn’t do.  But Paul isn’t just interested in showing us what Christian love looks like.   Rather, his goal is to push us to actually live out that kind of love in our lives.

            Before we look at those verses, though, I want to take a step back to see what Paul said in verse 2 of this chapter.  In Romans 12:2, Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Romans 12:2).

            We are called by God to be different from the world around us, but not just in the sense that we usually think of being different.  We grew up being taught that if we don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t gamble and don’t dance, we have succeeded at being different from the world around us, even though we may have the very same values and the very same attitudes as everyone else.

            So exactly how should we be different?  Paul answers that question beginning with verse 9.  This is God telling us how we ought to be different from the world.  And over the course of 12 verses, the apostle Paul fires off a volley of short instructions with very little elaboration. They’re like little biblical bullets. One commentator, John Stott, calls these bullets, “staccato imperatives.”  Pow, pow, pow, pow! 

            And the common theme that connects all of these instructions is love.  To sum it up in one word, the way that those of us who are Christians ought to be different from the world around us is that we need to be guided by God’s love in all that we do. 

            Let’s take a look at this overview of the second half of the book of Romans, and then I’ll be back a closer look at Paul’s description of love.

            Show VIDEO (Romans, part 2)

            Let’s pick up in Romans 12, verse 9:

            “Let love be genuine.  Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.  Love one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

            “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.  Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

            “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21)

            In this passage, Paul answers the question, “What are some practical, everyday ways in which God expects us to exhibit love in our relationships?” Because love is not just a feeling; it’s an action, it’s a sacrificial action.  Love is how we become “living sacrifices”.  So, this passage tells us what we need to do to demonstrate love both in our relationship with other Christians and in our relationship with people who aren’t Christians.  So, let’s take a look at eight things that Paul tells us we need to be doing to show love.

1.         Love Should Be Genuine

            In verse 9, “Let love be genuine.” (Rom. 12:9).  Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.”  Our love needs to be sincere, it needs to be authentic.  Literally, the Greek here means “let love be without hypocrisy”.

            Now, of all the things that Paul have could started with in his description of love, why would he start with “Let love be without hypocrisy”?  And I think it’s because that gets at the very heart of why we do what we do.  We sometimes say, as I did a moment ago, that love is not an emotion, it’s an action.  Agape love isn’t so much about how I feel about you, but rather what I’m willing to do for you.

            And I do think that’s true, but it’s also true that love is more than just going through the right motions.  There are a lot of different reasons why we might do something good for someone else, and some of those are reasons other than love.  Paul alluded to this I Corinthians 13 when he said, “If I give away all I have…but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:3)

            Someone may ask, “If you don’t love other people, then why would you do those things for them?”  And I think the answer is that hypocrisy is always driven by the desire to have other people think highly of us.  For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.”  (Matthew 6:2).  There were a lot of people in Jesus’ day who were doing nice things for other people, but it wasn’t because of love; it was because they wanted people to think highly of them.

            So, before Paul can tell us what love does for others, he first needs to tell us to make sure that the motive for what we do truly is love, it truly is a concern for the well-being of others.  Because we can go through all the right motions and appear to be very loving, but not have a true love in our hearts.  And so, Paul says, “Don’t let your love be hypocritical, don’t put on an act.  Let your love be sincere.  “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.” 

2.         Love Puts Others First

            Competition in the church is not a pretty thing.  You’ve probably seen the ugliness of competition that causes division within the body of Christ, with some members trying to outdo others.  But there’s one verse in the New Testament that gives us permission to try and outdo everyone else.

          In verse 10, Paul says, “Love one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10).   Paul lays down the challenge to make it your ambition to do better than everyone else in showing honor.  That ought to give some incentive to those of you who like to win.  “Outdo one another in showing honor.”

            So, what’s honor?  It means to place a high value on something; to elevate a person’s status.  And that’s a difficult thing for most of us to do because what’s normal in this world is to put myself first, to stand up for my rights, to ask the question, “What’s going to benefit me the most?”  But Paul says that love puts others first. 

            In Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  What that means is that we are to set the needs of others above our own selfish interests. 

            Suppose, for example, that I’m a doctor, working in the emergency room of a hospital.  It’s my lunch hour, and I’m on my way out the door to get something to eat at a nearby restaurant.  An ambulance arrives just as I’m leaving, bringing in a street person who has overdosed on drugs. His life is in great danger. Without immediate attention, this man will die.

            Regardless of his previous sins, and without regard for my desire to eat, I give this man my full attention and provide medical assistance to him.  At this moment in time, he is “more important than” my agenda and my hunger.  That’s what love does.  Love prompts me to serve others, assigning my interests a lower priority than their needs.

            And that’s exactly what Jesus did.  He wasn’t concerned about what would benefit him the most.  Rather, he was willing to sacrifice everything in order to give us what we truly needed.

            Paul tells us that we need to be like Jesus.  God has called us to put others first, to outdo one another in showing honor.

3.         Love is Ready to Serve

            In verse 12, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Romans 12:11).  Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.”

            Have you ever noticed that, by nature, we are sometimes reluctant to do things for other people? We only want to help out when we’re in the mood. Someone needs our help and we may say, “Well, I’d like to, but I just don’t feel like doing anything right now.”  That’s not a characteristic of love because genuine love is ready to serve – it’s zealous, it’s eagerly to do what it can to help others.

            We read in the gospel of Mark that on one occasion Jesus went into a city after he had spent long hours throughout the day healing, preaching, teaching, and ministering to people in need. Then he went into the house to rest, but Mark tells us that “he couldn’t keep it a secret.” (Mark 7:24, NLT).

            In the next verse, it says that outside there was a woman who had a daughter who was afflicted with an evil spirit, and she had come to Jesus for help.  As tired as he may have been, Jesus didn’t stay in the house because there was someone outside who needed him, and Jesus felt compelled to respond, so he went outside to help her out.  That’s what love does.

            Genuine love is always ready to serve. It’s a love that doesn’t shut itself away behind locked doors, or build inaccessible barriers around it so that it can’t be reached, but it’s always eager to help out.

4.         Love is Generous and Hospitable

            Verse 13 says, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”(Romans 12:13).  Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.” 

            In the early church, you see a lot of Christians doing this.  In the book of Acts, you find Christians in Jerusalem selling their possessions to help other Christians in need.  In 2 Corinthians, you find churches sending money to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem.  The attitude throughout the church seemed to be, “If you need it and I have it, it’s yours.”

            In addition to that, hospitality was such an important quality in the early church, especially for preachers who traveled from city to city.  And hospitality used to be an important part of church life for many of us.  Perhaps you grew up in a church where members often invited others into their home.  Almost every Sunday was spent preparing a big meal and inviting members over or inviting visitors over.

            But somewhere along the line, we bought into this “normal” American view that my home is my castle and it is reserved exclusively for my own pleasure.  But God reminds that we don’t have a home.  It belongs to him and it’s to be used as a place of encouragement for others.

            True love is generous, true love is hospitable.  Paul’s instructions haven’t been all that easy up to this point, but they’re about to get even tougher.

5.         Love Speaks Well of its Enemies

            “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”  (Romans 12:14).  You may recall that Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 (Matt. 5:44).

            And this is a tough one, isn’t it?  I think that most of us would consider ourselves to have a certain level of spiritual maturity.  In other words, we have learned to control our actions.  When somebody treats us poorly, we can control ourselves and not take immediate retribution.  If somebody gossips about us, we don’t punch them out. And we may feel pretty good about our self-control.  But what do we say when we’re mistreated?

            What’s your response when you’re wronged in your family?  Or at work?  Or among your friends?  Or maybe even at church.   I would imagine that if you’re like me, your first inclination is to say something derogatory about the person who wronged you.  You may say it back to them, but more likely, you’ll say something about them to somebody else.  You’ll talk about how terrible they are.  How dare they treat you like that.

            Paul says not only that we shouldn’t curse those who persecute us, but instead we should bless them.  In response, say something good to that person.  Speak well of them to others.  You say, “Wait a minute, that’s not normal!”  And you’re right, but God didn’t call us to be normal.  He said we’re not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed.  And what God calls us to do sounds an awful lot like what Jesus did!  Remember his words on the cross?  “Father, forgive for they know not what they do.”

            I heard once about a man who worked with a fellow named Joe who was always putting him down, constantly saying bad things about this man.  Someone else who knew about this mistreatment spoke with this man and said, “How do you feel about Joe?”  The man said, “Oh, Joe’s a great worker.  He’s honest.  He’s energetic.”  The man said, “Wait a minute.  Are you aware of all the terrible stuff that Joe has been saying about you?”  He said, “Oh yes, I’m aware of it.  But you didn’t ask me how Joe felt about me, you asked how I felt about Joe.”

            Love always speaks well of our enemies.  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” 

6.         Love is Empathetic

            “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

            If someone else is happy, then love will rejoice along with them.  You may say, “Well, that’s easy enough.”  And most of the time it is.  But sometimes it can be tough because of jealousy.  If there’s something someone else has achieved that we think we ought to have, it can be difficult to say to that person, “I’m so glad for you.”  

            Remember in the parable of the prodigal son the older brother who wouldn’t go to the party?  He couldn’t bring himself to rejoice with his brother when he returned home.  He said, “This party ought to be in my honor!”  But love rejoices with those who rejoice and it weeps with those who weep.

            We sometimes apply this verse to our relationship with one another as Christians, and I do think that’s important.  But I don’t think that’s primarily what Paul had in mind here.  He put this instruction immediately after telling us to bless those who persecute us.  And so, I think he’s still talking about how we deal with people who are our enemies.  And that’s really tough. 

            Because what’s my natural reaction when something bad happens to somebody who has hurt me?  I rejoice!  Some guy comes flying by you at 90 miles an hour on the Interstate and nearly runs you off the road in the process.  Tell me — how do you feel when a few minutes later you see him on the side of the road with a flat tire?  Be honest, there’s a part of us that goes, “Yes!”  We like it when bad things happen to people who have done us wrong. 

            That’s the normal response.  But God didn’t call us to be normal; he called us to be loving.  Rejoice with our enemies when something good happens to them.  Send them a note and say you are glad to hear the good news.  If some tragedy comes into their life, don’t say, “It serves them right.”  Rather, go and weep with them.

            Love is empathetic, even with our enemies.

7.         Love Tries to Make Peace

            In verse 18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)

            I like what Milton Jones has written about this verse in his book “How to Love Someone You Can’t Stand”.  He says, “According to Paul, you must do more than win the war against evil.  You must also win the peace.  Winning a war and winning peace are not always synonymous….The battle is not over if peace has not been achieved….Just because the conflicts have ended does not mean that you have reached your objective.  The goal is to have you and your enemy getting along in a good relationship.”

            I think that’s a profound statement that we as Christians need to pay careful attention to.  In regard to someone we have a conflict with, our ultimate goal is to have a good relationship with them, to truly be at peace.  But notice that Paul put a stipulation on this instruction:

            Live peaceably with men, if it is possible.  Sometimes it’s not possible, although I will say this — if the conflict is with a brother or sister in Christ, it’s always possible when two Christians are both willing to submit themselves to God’s will.  But in dealing with someone in the world, we don’t have that luxury and sometimes it’s not possible.  But if we are not at peace with others, it should not be our fault. 

            We must do everything we can to be at peace with others because love always tries to make peace.

8.         Love Doesn’t Try to Get Even

            “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all…. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’   Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17,19-21)

            The urge to get somebody back for the way they’ve treated us is such a normal impulse.  It’s normal.  If somebody does you wrong, it’s natural for you want to do them wrong in return.  But once again, remember that God has not called us to be normal, he has called us to be like Jesus.

            Former Boston Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs used to hate going to Yankee Stadium because of one fan.  This guy had a box seat close to the field and when the Red Sox were in town, he would always torment Boggs by shouting obscenities and insults.

            One day before the game, as Boggs was warming up, this fan began his typical routine, yelling “Boggs, you stink” and variations on that theme. Boggs decided he’d had enough. He walked directly over to the man, and said, “Hey fella, are you the guy who’s always yelling at me?”  The man said, “Yeah, it’s me. What are you going to do about it?” 

            Wade took a new baseball out of his pocket, autographed it, tossed it to the man, and went back to the field.  Do you know what happened?  That man never yelled at Boggs again; in fact, he became one of his biggest fans. 

            Other athletes have been known to deal with antagonistic fans by returning obscenities, or spitting on them, or even, on occasion, punching them in the nose. Boggs dealt with his enemy by doing something good for him.

            It’s very likely that you will find yourself in a similar situation someday. For no apparent reason, somebody decides not to like you.  Maybe it’s something you did, maybe it’s something you didn’t do, maybe it’s something you can’t help — but suddenly you find yourself in hostile territory.  Our natural inclination is to get even, but God had called us to a higher standard.

            Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that?…If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.” (Matthew 5:46-47, NLT).

            Jesus says, “I want you to be different.  But if you only love the people that you’re close to, and you don’t do anything to help anybody else, how are you any different from the people out there in the world?  You’re just like them, but I’ve called you to be different.” 

            And when you begin to love those who don’t love you, and you love the unlovely, and you bless those who curse you, that’s when you begin to demonstrate a life that’s not normal, a life that can only be explained in terms of God living in you.

          And so Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Romans 12:2).  And the way you transform your life is to fill it with love — true love, sincere love.  And that love will lead you to do some things that are pretty strange, not “normal” by the world’s standards. 

            And so, we leave this morning with a choice.  We can either choose to live our lives just like everybody else in the world around us, or we can choose to be transformed into the image of God by doing some things that aren’t easy and in fact, sometimes downright painful.  Because loving others doesn’t always lead others to love you in return.  Just ask Jesus about that.  But it does lead us to be a people who reflect the love of God our Father, and draws people to him.

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