The New Testament, and the Bible as a whole, contains quite a bit of advice on how to treat people. Some of this is set down in moral codes which speak to particular situations and cultures, but are based on certain basic premises. When we try to work out what these might have to say to today, living as we do in very different situations and cultures, there can be some tension and disagreement about what is foundational and what is situational, reflecting a particular time and place, so needs more work to apply it to today. Some of it, though, really is foundational and guides us in the tone with which we are to approach other people. One of the reasons we are given these passages is because we get worn down and strained by our encounters with others. We don’t always find it easy to display the grace and love which makes for cohesive and harmonious living. Like a shed, we need weatherproofing from time to time to stop the rot from taking hold; we need the protective layer of grace renewing. Our forebears were no different.
Today’s Epistle reading (Romans 12:9-21) is one of these foundational passages and it sets the bar very high. It has a timeless appeal. Love needs to be genuine, literally unhypocritical. For Paul love is more about what we do than how we feel. We’ve tended to turn love into a feeling word, but for Paul it is more of a doing word. It is far more than a warm or even hot and passionate feeling towards someone. It is characterized in practical help and support. So when others annoy us, irritate us, we just don’t connect with them – and there are people whose personalities rub up against us so much that they take a lot of effort to get anywhere beyond icy feelings – how we behave can change how we feel or come to view them. Loving is not dependent on the warmth or attraction. This is one of the principles behind Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, where the aim is to change the mental state by finding activities which will jumpstart a more positive emotional state. Love being genuine is therefore an encouragement to desire this, to want to find a better way of being through behaving and the spin off is this will affect the way we feel.
There are people with whom it is hard to get beyond the way they present. I don’t mean their looks or image, I mean that they clearly carry open emotional wounds inside them and their own self identity and for whatever reason have become so used to protecting themselves from attack that they get their defence in early or normal social contact requires so much emotional energy for them that they crack under the strain. Get me on a good day and I will see this. Get me on a bad day and I might be less perceptive and behave accordingly. After all, I’ve got my own open wounds to deal with, as we all have. ‘Let love be genuine’ is a reminder that finding a better way of approaching and responding builds love, builds a community which is more healthy and supportive, creates a space that is a safer place for everyone to be.
It also means that we need to be a genuine community, one where the people are real and we all understand that we all have our fragile areas. No coat-hanger smiles! To quote another passage from Paul’s writings, we carry the treasure of Christ and his image that we bear in clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7), and clay pots are easily broken and damaged. The fantasy of our society, which tends to isolate people from one another, is that we can create fantasy communities. If we don’t like what someone does or says, we can unfriend them in electronic social arenas like Facebook and Twitter. If we don’t like seeing certain people we can shut them out. The scale and size of a modern city, like this one, is that it becomes very easy for different groups not to meet, they can become ghettoized, and it becomes impossible to interact with everyone. Churches are one of the few places left where there is a social mix which we might not chose or find in other places. That is actually why some people can’t cope with churches, they’ve lost that skill or have never had it developed. It is also why some want a church to be a cosy club for those who are like them. It doesn’t function well when that happens and people know within seconds when they walk in the door if that is really the case; they sense whether they will fit in or not. Is the love here genuine, as in truly open, or are there hidden, unspoken entry requirements? It’s a challenge for all churches – I’m not singling here out by any stretch. It’s where our calling and identity cuts across the assumptions of our society and we have to make ‘love’ into a doing word rather than a feeling word, to change and sustain the spiritual tone.
This is built on a fundamental understanding and the central plot for the Christian script. Christ came to redeem and to save. He came that we might have life, not death. He did not come to destroy and condemn. The aim behind all of the noble advice and qualities in that reading is to draw us into the love that pours itself out in creation and will not let us go. So it follows on. We are to hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, rejoice in hope, live in harmony with one another, not to repay evil with evil. We then have one of those comedy moments in the bible, we are encouraged to ‘leave room for the wrath of God’, in other words don’t get so caught up in retribution that there is nothing left for God to do! There is a level of hatred that consumes us as well as the other. It leaves no room for anything else and is a form of blindness; it loses all control. The note of caution and wry restraint here is to leave some room for the wrath of God!
We live in frightening times and a culture of fear is all around us. The terrorist threat level being raised is alarming and we need to know it, but there isn’t much we can do about it beyond being vigilant. Not everyone is a threat though, in fact most people aren’t. And the hatred towards us and anyone else is itself a sign that someone has lost touch with their humanity, they are consumed with hatred and we will not remove that with more of the same. Paul encourages us to live the way we want others to be. This is Archbishop Sentamu’s phrase “Be the change you want to see”. When the times are frightening and tense the need to live this foundational grace is all the more pressing. And the Archbishop of York has spent this past week in a vigil in York Minster praying on the hour for hope and peace in the world.
Learning to love through doing it and showing it in word and deed, not least in prayer, will change us and make us into the people who bear the image of Christ. This is no mere coat-hanger smile love, sugary and saccharin. This is love tempered in the fire of conflict and difficult encounter. When let loose this kind of love is extremely powerful and changes the world for the better. It is genuine. It is redemptive.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 31st August 2014