Monday, 22 August 2016

What Love Looks Like

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.
Romans 12:9-13

Paul will come on to how we live with outsiders to the Christian faith – and those of us who are mission-minded might be eager for him to do so – but he doesn’t rush there. He insists we hear first that central to our life in Christ is how we love one another in the body of Christ.

That’s where he begins this section – ‘love must be sincere’. What that love looks like is then unpacked in one long sentence.

Grammar aficionados might be interested to know that Paul uses participles where most English versions translate with commands. Here’s an approximation: ‘Love is genuine, hating the evil, clinging to the good, devoted to one another in love, outdoing one another in showing honour, not lacking in zeal, being fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, being patient in affliction, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practising hospitality.’ To be sure, Paul wants Christians to do those things, but they’re expressed in a way which describes a character to be cultivated not merely commands to be carried out.

As elsewhere in Romans 12, hearing what Paul says through the ears of those in first-century Rome brings home the radical implications of belonging to the new humanity God has brought together in Christ. To take just one example, in a culture where giving and receiving honour was a central driver, a master honouring a slave above himself would be a strong signal that a completely different set of values was at work in this community. The principle remains just as potent today. In a world where race, gender, age, wealth, and status often either bring privilege or deny access, Christians model a different way of living.

Not that it’s easy to do so! But Paul is gratifyingly realistic in his assumptions about what the Christian community will look like. Yes, we will find it difficult to outdo one another in showing honour; yes, suffering will come; yes, there will be needs to be met. But it will still be possible to serve the Lord, to rejoice, to be patient, and to persevere in prayer.

In doing so, we will display to each other – and perhaps to a watching world – that what God has begun to do in the church stands at the heart of his reconciling work which will one day be extended to all things.

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