I am convinced that I am at last becoming a grumpy old man. It is a fact that my two daughters have known for quite some time now. However, it has only come to my attention in the last few weeks. How do I know this, you ask? Why would I suddenly become conscious of my old man grumpiness? Simply this: Last week I wrote… a letter to the editor. Yes, yes, it’s true. I’m not proud of myself, but I have indeed partaken in the favorite pastime of disgruntled middle-aged white guys. I guess I have to take up golf now. The thing about my letter to the editor is this: I was so right. I know I was right. My logic was flawless, my argument sound, my vocabulary impeccable (which means it was not peccable, for those of you who are wondering), my purpose sincere. But the thing about writing a letter to the editor in the Internet Age is that it gives you the unfortunate opportunity to see in real time just how wrong people think you really are. Here are a few gems: “The writer is woefully misinformed.” Here’s another one: “Your letter bleeds denial.” And then there’s the ever-popular, “If you don’t like it, you can pack up your family and leave!” Friends, I’m here to tell you this evening that zero minds were changed the day I wrote my very sincere letter to the editor, which is too bad because I was, like, sooo right on this one.
My letter was so very sincere. And you know? Our world is full of very sincere people. This room is filled with very sincere people. This is a very sincere assembly. Our theology is sincere. Our business is sincere. The members of our leadership teams are sincere. But I’m kind of glad that our sincerity not all we have going for us. For as genuine and earnest as we may be, it will never be enough to carry out God’s mission in this world. Paul tells us in Romans 12.9 that above all it is our love that must be sincere: our love for God and our love for each other.
The situation going on among the little fledgling churches in Rome was not unlike the situation happening among our churches today. That’s probably because the more things change, the more they stay the same. It was the case that back in the days following the death and resurrection of Jesus when the gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire like wildfire, the Roman Emperor Claudius issued a decree expelling all Jews from the city of Rome. This included Jewish Christians as well. So, for a number of years the Christian church in Rome consisted of entirely Gentile Christians. Well, the Gentiles were getting pretty used to having things their own way in their churches in Rome. They got to pick the carpet color without much opposition. They got all the good parking spaces. And maybe most importantly of all, the church potlucks were always to their liking. Yes, the Gentile Christians were able to have things their way: theology, discipline, and worship. But several years later when a new emperor came rose to power after the death of Claudius, the Jews were invited to return to Rome. So, back came the Jewish Christians who had their own views on theology, discipline, and worship that caused no small amount of tension and bickering. It was like throwing together a group of orthodox Star Trek fans and with group of fundamentalist Star Wars fans. Relationships got very strained very quickly. The Jewish and Gentile Christians got grumpy. They got indignant. Both sides were so right in their beliefs. They both were so genuine in their traditions. Both were so sincere about their theology, discipline, and worship.
So in his letter to the church in Rome (for Paul there was always only ONE church, not many) Paul writes to these sincere believers, “Love must be sincere.” In other words, it is not enough just to be genuinely right. It is better to love genuinely. And Paul goes on to write about what this sincere love looks like. It looks like hating the things that are evil and horrible in this world and it also looks like clinging to all those things that are good. The word there translated “cling” is a strong word. It means to be glued to. Glue yourselves to what it good, friends! Hold on for dear life! It brings to mind for me the old Super Glue TV commercials where they show this construction worker in his blue collar shirt hanging from his yellow plastic construction hat that had been glued to the underside of an iron girder. He’s just dangling there, legs flailing, a couple stories off the ground, looking quite ridiculous and just a little panicked. I remember watching that commercial as a kid and thinking, “Why would they do that to that poor construction worker?” And to tell you the truth sometimes holding on to the good in our world does seem to be a bit like the picture of that construction worker holding on to his helmet for dear life. It’s a frightening thing sometimes to be a part of the church. It can be difficult and trying. And some of us, myself included, can feel a little panicky at times. But hold on. Grab the hands of the people next to you. Glue yourself to the good in the world around you. Glue yourself to the good within others. Glue yourself to the good within you. And most importantly of all, cling tightly to the goodness of God in Christ who alone gives you the strength to endure. For it is the love of God in Christ that enables us to do the challenging, gut-wrenching, feet-dangling work of the Spirit that Paul talks about next. “Be devoted to one another in love,” Paul writes. “Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Only love can do those things. Only God’s love can accomplish that—not sincerity of thought, good intentions, or even proper parliamentary procedure! It is only agape love that brings one person close to another in an honest effort to know and be known.
Genuine love requires presence. That is the soil of spiritual growth. Being near and present to one another—to those who are hurting, to those who are lost, to those who are different—is the commodity of Christian living. John 1.14 tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us…” The Word did not remain aloof and distant, preferring to send a check, or mail a nice Get Well Soon card, or write a strongly worded letter to the editor. No, the Son of God became flesh and dwelled among us. He got up close and personal with all that was wrong and broken in the world. The Son of God touched and healed and embraced. The Son of God lived among us, wretched though we are, and he hated what was evil in this world—the things that cause violence and hatred and hypocrisy and greed and sin in the hearts of people. But Jesus also clung to what was good—children full of wonder and trust, hearts opened in faith and mercy, lives turned over the abundant grace of the God of all life. And in the end Jesus gave his life for us all. Now that’s what I call sincere love, genuine agape. Likewise we are called and empowered with the very Spirit of God to share with those who are in need and to open up our lives to the presence of others, even strangers and strange people.
Sisters and brothers, we are the Lord’s people, called and empowered by the Lord’s Spirit, emboldened and motivated by the Lord’s example to carry on the mission on the Lord’s kingdom. May we find within the heart of our God the courage and grace to love each other sincerely, with genuine affection, not hesitating to give up even our very lives for the sake of the other. For that is our high calling. God is faithful. God will do it. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.