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First Reading = 1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
We are still in our series about real relationships. Last week, Pastor Carol gave us a master class in forgiveness. This week we are looking at Christ-like love. The key idea is to pattern our relationships on the person of Jesus. This sounds nice, like saying we like moms and apple pies. But in reality, patterning our relationships on the love of Jesus is about as radical as it gets.
At last week’s annual meeting, I shared my best idea to move forward, to recommit to what made us great in the first place. Do you remember what it was? Relational…congregational…ministry. Be exceptional at relationships. And empower the church to be the primary doers of ministry where possible, with the support of staff.
So what does it look like to be exceptional at relationships? I present to you Romans 12, our main text today. Exceptional relationships are patterned on the person and love of Jesus Christ. So buckle your seat belts. Keep your arms inside the ride at all time. Place your tray tables in the upright and locked position. We’re about to hear about some REAL relationships.
In a normal sermon, I find 2-3 interesting words to study. I found TWENTY interesting words in this text. So ready or not, here we go!
Sermon Text = Romans 12:9-21
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “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.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Back four thousand years ago when I was in seminary, I was pretty offended by something my professor said. I was disappointed in my classmates for their responses. I was deeply moved by the Holy Spirit to address something that I saw as a problem with our collective spirit. And I was deeply grateful that my next seminary chapel preaching slot wasn’t for another three weeks, so I had time to prepare.
I spent hours and hours, days and days, trying to state my case as diplomatically as possible. I wanted the message to be heard, and I didn’t want a slip of the tongue or a bad turn of phrase to get in the way. I rarely get nervous before sermons, but this one had the butterflies churning. Calling out your professor and classmates in a sermon at the seminary chapel is a risky move! But I felt the Holy Spirit convicting me to say it. So I did.
I scheduled a time to speak with the professor to discuss what I had said. I shared with her the inciting incident that started my whole chain of thought. I shared with her directly what I was trying to articulate in the sermon. And I vividly remember her response. “Really? Oh, I didn’t get that out of your sermon at all!”
I had beat around the bush so much, I had practically dug a moat around it! But I apparently didn’t actually hit the bush itself. I was so diplomatic, so concerned with stating it in a way people could hear, that people didn’t actually hear my point!
Two of the interesting words in our text today are right at the start. Verse 9 says “let love be genuine.” As you have probably heard before, there are different words for love in Greek.
In this verse, the word for love is “agape.” That’s choosing to want the best for someone, and being willing to do something to make that happen. When Jesus says to love your enemies, it’s “agape.” You can choose to want the best for your enemies and be willing to help them even if you have negative feelings toward them. It’s choice and action, not feelings.
So what does it mean to let love be genuine? It means having our choices, our actions, our words in alignment. It means directly investing in good things for other people. Not beating around the bush until there’s a nice moat like my seminary sermon. Directly investing in good things for other people.
One of the ways I’m trying to let my love be more genuine this year is by moving my dial from way over here on the diplomatic side, and turning it a few clicks closer towards clarity and directness. I’m sure I’ll mess that up. I’m sure I’ll go too far sometimes. And I’m sure I won’t go far enough sometimes. That’s one of my journeys this year.
How can you be more genuine, more direct in loving others? How can you be more genuine, more direct in your choices and words and actions? How can you be more genuine, more direct in investing in good things for other people?
Saying you love your neighbors is nice. But do your choices and actions follow genuinely directly? Saying you love the people at church is nice. But do your choices and actions follow genuinely and directly? How can we all be more genuine, more direct, in loving others?
Those are just two out of the twenty interesting words in this passage. We’ll cover some more, but don’t worry – I’m not going to cover all twenty today. Or am I…?
Our text also talks about living in harmony with one another. Harmony, in music, is when multiple different notes combine to make a pleasing sound. It’s multiple different notes – not the same note. And it’s a pleasing combination, meaning you can’t just pick any random notes and have it be harmony. Whatever your root note is, you can only pick certain other notes and have it sound pleasing still.
On a piano, sometimes there are a bunch of notes played at the same time, and yet they can still sound in harmony. If you’ve ever seen hand bell music, holy goodness there are so many notes! And yet all of those notes, if carefully chosen and timed, can sound pleasing together.
Good music is made when each person brings what they have, their uniqueness, and thoughtfully combines it into the whole.
I usually record a demo of myself playing and singing a song when I first learn it, so I can remember how I played it. But some songs that sound great on the radio sound weak when I sing them with my acoustic guitar. If there’s a song that is driven by its huge bass line, or a song that finds its soul from the drums, my acoustic and my voice aren’t enough to carry it. To make good music, you have to thoughtfully combine these very different parts.
That’s harmony. Different notes, different parts, thoughtfully combined into something better and pleasing. It takes work to be in harmony. It takes work to be in sync with the group. And it takes work to make sure everyone isn’t just playing the same note. Let’s start the C# only choir! That would be boring.
So to live in harmony with one another, we have to carve out our unique niche in a way that also combines thoughtfully with our community to make something better and pleasing. If everyone just parrots the same note, it’s boring. If everyone picks their own tune and dials it up to 12, it’s noise instead of music. Harmony takes work to carve out a unique niche that also combines thoughtfully with the group to make something pleasing.
There are a bunch of very popular video games that allow people from all over the world to play against each other. The most popular ones won’t even let you start the game until at least 100 people are ready to go at the same time. And while it is technically possible to connect players from virtually anywhere on the earth at the same time, some of the game developers have blocked off different parts of the globe so they can’t play each other. Not because of technology. Not because of language barriers or laws. Because of cooperation. There are some games where players who know how to work together are so much better than a bunch of lone rangers that they have to prevent the lone rangers from even trying to go against the cooperative groups. All those lone rangers look muy tonto in the cooperative games. Harmony wins almost every time against the lone rangers.
Being intentional about harmony unlocks things that otherwise seem impossible. Our most perfect example of this is the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – the Trinity. God exists in perfect communion. God is God. Jesus is God. The Holy Spirit is God. Perfect harmony. That’s our model. We were made in the image of a God who was relational before we were even made. Harmony is part of the very nature of God.
So what’s your note? What’s your unique niche? And how can you play off those around you to be in harmony?
Finally – at least for today – I want to lift up verse 11: “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
Do you remember the show Downton Abbey? It followed the Crawley family, and the house and estate that was their title and dwelling. And it also made sure to lift up the stories of the servants and cooks and butlers in the house as well.
Some of the servants were very proud to be serving at Downton Abbey and serving the Crawley family. They worked hard to take care of tiny details so the family wouldn’t even notice if a problem had occurred.
And then there was Tom the chauffeur. Tom was an Irishman who thought the aristocracy was wrong, even though he was working for them. But his perspective changed when he fell in love with one of the Crawley daughters, married her, and eventually moved back to the Abbey as part of the family.
While he started as an outsider and indeed in opposition to the very nature of the Crawley family’s title and land, here’s what he said when he returned as an uneasy part of the family. “Every man or woman who marries into this house, every child born into it, has to put their gifts to the family’s disposal…It seems me…if we each do what we can do, then Downton has a real chance.”
Tom started with a passion for his goals and agendas and visions of the world. He eventually became part of the family, and he had a passion for that family. That’s the kind of spirit that verse 11 commends to all Christians. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
Zeal means doing what needs to be done for God. Ardent means being on fire – passionate about it! And the word for “serve” isn’t just do some things God wants. It’s like being Tom or one of the servants in the Abbey – placing all of your gifts in service to the broader purpose. Only we don’t serve a British aristocrat. We serve the Living God.
So if harmony is about being unique yet in thoughtful concert with other people, having zeal for the Lord means being in thoughtful concert with God’s plans over and above our own.
If we are to have real relationships, relationships based on the image of God, then God can’t be an afterthought. In fact, God can’t be just one little variable you consider. To serve the Lord with zeal and an ardent spirit means making God #1.
To be a follower of Jesus, he has to be #1. Jesus has to be the one deciding what’s important. Jesus has to be the one deciding, not us!
If we keep going with the harmony analogy, in music, someone has to pick the root note. Someone has to pick the chord or the scale that everyone else can then use to pick their spot. Someone has to say, “G-major! Now E-minor!” Someone has to pick the root note, and then everyone else can find their place for harmony.
This part of our text today says that Jesus is the one who picks the root note. We follow his music and try to stay in harmony with him, not the other way around. When Jesus moves to a new note, our harmony should follow. Jesus picks the root note. We try to harmonize with him.
Jesus is the one who knows how to have real relationships. If we follow his lead, we will find real relationships, too. If we demonstrate his love, we will find real relationships. If we, to use the words of verse 12, “rejoice in hope, [are] patient in suffering, [and] persevere in prayer,” we will find real relationships.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus is the very definition of real relationships. He is our model. He is our guide. He is our Lord.
Having real relationships like Jesus means being more genuine – more authentic and direct in our love. Real relationships require harmony – picking our spot in thoughtful cooperation with others to make something pleasing. And real relationships like Jesus require following where Jesus leads instead of asking Jesus to follow where we lead.
So how real are we willing to get? Amen.