Romans 13:8-14 (NIV)
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.
How many of you have something like this? I probably saw my first magnifying glass watching something about Sherlock Holmes looking for clues. It is amazing what you can see. Of course, it can really help with reading, especially if like me, you are having a harder time seeing the fine print these days. I also know people who use something like this for sewing to see the detail work, or for their everyday reading. The first time I saw one of these was associated with Sherlock Holmes, but the first time I used one of these it probably was with some kids in the neighborhood to start a little fire.
How many of you have used one of these? [Hold up a water bottle.] It’s only been over the last 20 years or so that bottled water has become so popular. Of course, this is one of the few places in the country where you can drink the tap water. City water can be so full of chemicals. Water in other places can be full of minerals that make it taste funny, and yes, I know. Some people pay big bucks for bottled mineral water. However, one of the minerals in that water isn’t sulfur like it is in West Texas. There people either drink bottled water or highly filtered water.
However, the bottle that the water comes in can be used for a variety of things. We can reuse it for refilling with water or some other beverage. It can become a chew toy for a dog (for a very short time), or it can be used in at least one of the ways that I used that magnifying glass when I was a kid.
It is amazing how a magnifying glass or water bottle can focus the energy of the sun to the point where it can catch something on fire. But that’s what we are here to do too. We here to focus our attention, so that it is laser sharp on what it means to be Simply Church. We can get so diluted, so complicated, that we lose focus and we lose our capacity to do what we are supposed to be doing as church.
Simply Church: God’s Original Design for Our Life Together, is our seven week series looking at, focusing on, our role as individuals and as a church to join God in his mission to make all things new. But, it takes focus because it is so easy for us to become distracted by many things.
Are you familiar with the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke? The two ladies are hosting Jesus and his disciples. Martha is scurrying around making sure that everything is taken care of. She has grown resentful of her sister Mary who has joined the group and is listening at Jesus’ feet. This is the proper place for a disciple. A disciple would sit at the feet of their rabbi, their teacher. Martha sees this, and it is the last straw. She approaches Jesus commands him to tell Mary to help her. Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV) Often we are worried and distracted by many things, but Jesus wants us to focus on the one thing that matters.
Humans get distracted by the details, and we lose our focus on what is important. That is one of the primary reasons that Paul wrote the book of Romans. You might think that Paul wrote Romans to help us understand Jesus and what Jesus meant for us to do as his church as his disciples. That is true, but whenever you read Romans, or any other book of the Bible, you have to keep in mind what was going on in the community when it was written. What prompted Paul to write this letter to the Church at Rome? He had no direct relationship with this church. He had started many churches in the eastern Mediterranean, but he did not start the church in Rome. He had never even been to Rome. However, he did have friends in the church in Rome, and he heard that they had some issues. They were distracted by many things.
As I said, Paul did not start the church in Rome. It was started by other Jewish people who had become followers of Jesus. This was actually true for a number of churches such as the ones in Damascus, Antioch, and Cyprus, Jerusalem, of course. Over time, through the Holy Spirit, they started inviting Gentiles into their group. This was a risk because they distrusted and feared people who were not Jewish. They hated people they considered Gentiles, and yet they were brave and began to welcome people from any background. These people who they thought they hated, they grew to love deeply. So now, we had Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians loving and serving God together. The churches continued to grow. This all stopped quite suddenly.
When Claudius was Emperor, something happened in Rome that made him extremely angry with the Jewish people. It may have been that the Emperor thought that their population was getting too high in Rome. It may have been disputes between Jewish people and Christians that were disrupting the peace. In any case, Jewish people were expelled. You can imagine what a shock that would be for the Church in Rome. The leaders that had been there the longest were suddenly gone. The Gentile Christians had to step up and lead the church if it was going to survive.
Five years later, the Jewish people were allowed to return to Rome, and they found that a few things had changed in their church during that time. What?! You eating what? You’re not circumcising boys? What?! You don’t consider Saturday a holy day? You must be joking!
Then there were the Gentile Christians who initiated these changes. Don’t judge us. We’ve been doing very well without you, thank you very much. If you don’t like it, you can just leave.
Being aware of this mindset, you can detect the tension in the book, especially in the later chapters. Paul hears about this, and he knows that all of this is contrary to what he knew and taught, so he writes this letter. It is longer than any other of the New Testament letters. What he put in this letter is so important that it is the fifth most popular book in the New Testament just after the gospels. The purpose of this book is to help the people focus.
The first eleven chapters of Romans concentrate on how to focus on what God did through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The precision focus comes in Romans 5:8, “For God proved his own love for us in this period while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The area of focus was love. The same was true for Jesus. When we look at what Jesus has done for us, it is love. This is not some sort of superficial love where we simply say, “Oh, how nice. Thanks, Jesus.” This kind of love molds us and shapes the way we interact with each other and the world. Here is where the Early Roman Church had some issues.
What Paul did was illustrate to the Church in Rome the depth and scope of God’s love for us. Then he described how we are to order and arrange our lives in response to that love. Because, of course, this direction and advice is not just for the members of that church but for all Christians, including us. We are to arrange and … focus … our lives, not through a magnifying glass, but through a different lens that we will call “Holy Love.”
This Holy Love is the lens through which we are to view all life and the way we live it. At the most basic level, that is what we are called to do. These days so much of how love is portrayed is through hearts and flowers. It is sentimentalist and really self-centered.
There is the thing called love on tv and the movies. It often has more to do with lust. It might be a crush, something that is here today and gone tomorrow. We are talking about something deeper and stronger than that. There is love the feeling. It can be powerful. It can motivate us to do incredible things. It’s the doing that is important. Love is the willingness to do even when we don’t feel it. More than a feeling, it’s a mindset, a mindset toward God and toward others.
You might say, “But, Cherie, we talk about love all the time!” That’s right. It is our foundation. God proved his love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We talk about love so much because it is so easy to forget the nature of Holy Love.
We love God. In Scripture, we are directed to. Love God with what? … All your heart … all your soul, all your mind, and with all your strength. (W&S 3116) What does that even mean? Are these separate areas where we are supposed to concentrate on loving God? It means all of you, all the time. The repetition is reinforcement. Give it all you’ve got, all the time.
We need to love the Lord with all our being, but perhaps more specifically, we are to love the Lord with our ears. God speaks to us all the time. Are we listening? One, God speaks to us through the Bible, but he also speaks to us through other people. We have to be intentional about hearing God’s voice.
Jesus says in John 14, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” (vs. 23) This is how we love God.
Then there is the next part, to love others. Love the Lord Your God … Love your neighbor as yourself. What does that mean? Of course, we have the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke, but how does that look for us today? When we love others, what do we want for them? What if they are an acquaintance? What if they are someone we think is terrible? What do we want for them? Do we want good for them? Is our life organized in such a way that we demonstrate that we want good for that person by the way we act, especially the way we act with them?
Loving others, our neighbor, is an exercise in stopping and taking a deep breath. Then, we will stop and look at the person the way that God does. Then, we will arrange our lives to help good come to them.
Do you believe that you were created in the image of God? Do you believe that God figuratively holds you gently in the palm of his hand, this God that is described as Love. I think of a baby chick with its soft little feathers going *peep-peep* as you hold it in your hand, or a little kitten with its pointy ears, big eyes, and the purr that erupts as it snuggles in your hand. You are held in God’s hand, and through this embrace and the love shown through it, you are shown how to love in that sort of way.
We break from God, sin, miss the mark when we fail to trust God’s love and goodness for us. That is our natural tendency, the human condition. We continually have a decision to make.
Love is the foundation of our first calling, where we are to focus. It is to be our guide.
It’s not just a single decision. As individuals and as the church we have decisions to make, lots and lots of decisions. We are continually making decisions. The question that we have to ask is what is the decision that God would have us make? Each decision. Each day. We can get into the habit, the mindset of looking at our decisions through love. It’s like we put on our love glasses. We try to look at everything the way God looks at it, like looking at it through a magnifying glass.
When the leaders of this church have decisions to make, we do our very best to seek God’s will. We may express it in a variety of ways, but if I am sure of anything, it is that decisions are made through a love of God and a love of people.
Ask yourself this question when you make a decision. “What is love calling me to decide in this situation?” Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. Because when we try to do it on our own, our own intellect, our own strength, it leads to pain. Our pain, the other person’s pain …
As Rev Steve Brooks puts it this way, “When we are led by the Spirit of God, we are asking for something. And what we’re asking for is to be led into an abundant life, and that abundant life will always lead us into a deeper understanding of God’s love for us and more authentic expressions of love towards other people that God places in our path. ”
There are expressions of God’s Only Holy Love. These expressions always grab me when I’m reading the Bible, and they are usually followed by my commentary of “impossible.” These words are: Perfect, Greatest, and Greater things.
Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
Perfect?! Really, what can that mean because I keep making mistakes? When we talk about perfection in our culture, we mean something without flaw. Well, here’s a newsflash. I am not flawless, far from it. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that none of us are perfect in that sense.
The broader context of the passage that is pulled from is a vision where we love our enemies, to want good for our enemies, to want good for people that have hurt us. You are on the path to perfection. Part of that path is arranging our live so that we can really look at people who have hurt us and want good for them.
At its broadest level it goes way beyond the person who cut you off in traffic or failed to use their turn signal. I heard a story a couple of years ago where a man in Syria had been executed by ISIS. The method was brutal, and the family saw the video. Can you imagine? This was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s husband, someone’s father.
What would be a reasonable response? To demand vengeance, to want retribution. We might even call it justice. If it was carried out by a “legitimate” government power, that seems reasonable right? This is not what this family did. They publically on television explained that they forgave the people who did this terrible thing to a member of their family. They said that they prayed for the perpetrators’ good. This probably did not include success for ISIS’ goals. That’s a high bar, but it demonstrates to us that it can be done.
For right now, I’d settle for wanting good for that person who cut me off on the highway. Or, what about that person who hurt me so deeply so many years ago. I thought that I had forgiven them long ago, but it keeps popping up on me. One, have I truly forgiven them, and two, do I want good for them? That is what the Scriptures mean by being perfect.
The next word is “greatest.” Jesus says in John 14, “Greater love has no one then this. [The greatest kind of love is to lay one’s life down for your friends…]” Laying one’s life down is sacrifice. Love is expensive. Love can be painful. The good or benefit of sacrifice is not held in high regard in our culture. The American ideal is to be comfortable. Nowhere in the gospel does it instruct us to be comfortable.
The Word promises an abundant life not one without challenges. The gospel calls us to sacrifice, as we just heard from Jesus a couple of weeks ago, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served.” (Mark 10:43b-45a) Hebrews 12:2 tells us, “Let us … [fix] our eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfect or of our faith who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I heard a story of a pastor who lived in California. You may have heard of or experienced the extremely high rents they have there. He, his wife, and two children shared a very small apartment. That’s the way it is in California, so that was fine, better than fine. Life was good for this family. Then, one night his sister calls. Her husband has walked out on her and their four children. She was a stay at home mom. She has no money and no way to earn any in the present time. She has no place to live. She is totally destitute. What does he do?
Overnight, his family of four grows to a family of nine as they all stay in that two bedroom apartment. That is sacrificial love. They all lived together for 18 months until his sister was able to afford a place of her own. This is the kind of sacrificial love to which we are called.
The pastor shared with a group of his friends, and he started weeping. He said, “God is expanding the boundaries of my love. It hurts, but it’s good.”
How is God asking us to “expand the boundaries of our love?”
Then there are the words “greater things.”
Jesus says that we will do even greater things than he has done. (John 14:12) Anybody remember that? You can read that and think, Sure Jesus. You have taught us a lot of things. They sure make sense even if they are different than what we thought. But, this one Jesus, are you crazy?
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t raised anyone from the dead (like Lazarus or Taliatha (the synagogue leader’s daughter). I can’t touch people and have them immediately healed from their illnesses. Maybe I don’t have enough faith, but I really don’t think that I can do things that are greater than what Jesus did.
It could seem like he said these things to frustrate us, or even doubt his word, but no. He really means it. We talk about the church as the Body of Christ, one body with many members. When we look at what just the United Methodist denomination does in only the United States, it is amazing. David Cook regularly shares how many people we are able to help through UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, but let me share with you in just a few more areas. Just in the United States we have 52 hospitals. Think about how many people are healed there. We have 119 schools, most of which are colleges, who train people of all walks of life, including doctors and nurses. The church feeds more people in a few hours than Jesus did as recorded in the gospels. It’s not impossible, but we have to do it together. We have to do it with God’s help.
How does anyone respond to this kind of thing? How should someone respond to considering the possibility of making room for this kind of Holy Love?
Let’s go back to what we talked about earlier. Some people call it the Jesus Creed. What Jesus says are the two greatest commandments in the Law.
Love the Lord your God
With all your heart, with all your soul,
With all your mind,
And with all your strength.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
Only Holy Love
What would it be like if every time we pulled up to an intersection, we said this to ourselves? It would help us to focus. It would be a reminder that this is our primary calling and the very foundation of faithfully following Jesus. To submit to God’s will and do good for others, even if they cut us off in traffic.
What would happen if we did this eight or nine times a day as we stop at intersections in our daily travels? What if we stay at home that day? What if we say it to ourselves every time we go through a doorway? What would happen if we were intentional with this spiritual practice? Would things change [Point to your chest.] here?
At the end of the message today, we’re going to do something special, and we’re going to do it every week through the rest of the series. I’m titling it “Only Holy Love.” This phrase is to remind us to focus every decision we make as individual people and as part of the church through the lens of Only Holy Love. We will be able to have laser focus on loving God and loving people, sharing God’s love with all people. That is our life charge.
Are you trusting God’s Holy Love for you right here, right now? Is there some part of your life that you have secluded off and guarding that you are trying to hide from God. “If God knew this about me, God would not be able to love me?” Perhaps, God is giving you the chance to open that door a little bit, or a little bit more.
By the same token, who is God placing in your path that might be hard to love? Who does God desire you to want good for in the coming days.
Let’s say this all together.
Love the Lord your God
With all your heart, with all your soul,
With all your mind,
And with all your strength.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
Only Holy Love
Jesus said that we would go greater things. We just need to be focused on God’s Holy Love.