Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
3rd of September 2017
Earlier this week I found myself arguing with a stranger on social media about marriage. Now, I know that I should (a) spend less time on social media and (b) stop using it to discuss marriage with complete strangers, but that argument gave me the prompt for this sermon. What the other person said was along the lines of: ‘Haven’t you read the Bible? What has love ever had to do with marriage?’
In one way my arguing partner was right. The Bible describes a lot of marriages, but it very seldom talks about marriage as a relationship of love. This may explain why the couples whose weddings I help celebrate rarely choose Bible readings that talk about marriage for their services. They’re much more likely to choose readings about love, like the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. If you’ve been to many weddings in churches I suspect that you could join me in reciting it: ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude… ,’ but as I say every time I preach it, that reading was not written about married love. The Bible does not suggest that love is essential to marriage.
But for Christians love is essential to marriage, no matter what the Bible might say. That’s because for Christians love is at the heart of every relationship we have and everything we do. Love is at the heart of who we are, because we worship and try to imitate the God who is love.
The Apostle Paul can get a bit of a bad rap. Some of that might be because of things written in his name that we’re pretty sure Paul never said, like: ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.’ (1 Timothy 2.12) I think that’s a bit unfair. I don’t think anyone could hear the hymn to love in the first letter to the Corinthians, or today’s reading from the letter to the Romans, and not agree that Paul is a writer to be celebrated.
The passage begins: ‘Let love be genuine’. When I was taught to write essays I used to occasionally get into trouble because the first sentence of my paragraphs weren’t always topic sentences. Unlike me, Paul obeys the rules. ‘Let love be genuine’ is the topic sentence and everything that follows describes how we are to genuinely love: ‘hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.’ This is how the community in Rome and by extension every Christian who follows them is to live as Christians. Christ gave us the new commandment, to love one another as he loves us. Paul describes how to do that.
In the Greek what’s translated as ‘loving one another with mutual affection’ is philadelphia, brotherly love. Paul is telling the Romans to love each other as members of the same family. As God’s children all Christians are brothers and sisters to each other and we are to show that in the way we love. The love Paul describes is active; we aren’t to wait for occasions to come our way to act lovingly, instead we’re told not to lack in zeal and to be ardent in Spirit. We’re to go out and find ways of loving each other. And we’re to share what we have with the other members of the church. Last week we heard about members of the first church holding all things in common. Paul doesn’t tell the Romans to hold all things in common, but he does tell them to contribute to each other’s needs and to offer hospitality.
The first part of today’s reading is about how Christians are to love each other; the second part seems to describe how we are to love those who aren’t part of our community and even those who oppress us: ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ We’re living in an interesting time in the church’s life. For centuries in countries like Australia Christianity has been the unofficial state religion. (In England, of course, Christianity is the official state religion; the Church of England is the established church.) Until fairly recently Australian Christians could assume that most of the people around us agreed with us; that even if they didn’t attend church they were at least vaguely Christian. And so Christian festivals like Easter and Christmas are public holidays and parliaments start their day with the Lord’s Prayer. But that’s rapidly changing. We can’t assume any more that the people we interact with are even nominally Christian. They could be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist; but it’s just as likely that they’ll say that they have no religion at all.
Some Australians are antagonistic towards Christianity, but many are just indifferent. We’re no longer the majority, and our beliefs no longer have authority. We’re entering a very similar situation to that of the community to which Paul is writing this letter; we’re becoming an unimportant minority within a surrounding culture that thinks we’re a wee bit strange. And Paul tells us how to live in such a situation. We’re to ‘rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.’ When we’re criticised and ignored and abused we’re not to repay anyone evil for evil, but instead to take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Paul’s very clear about how we are to respond to persecution: ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ People should know when Christians are being persecuted by the good that we’re doing in response.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the centuries about what it means to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies. Some people, including apparently the Greek Fathers, thought it meant that God would increase the punishment of these evil-doers. But others, including Origen, Augustine, Pelagius and Jerome, thought it meant that our kindness would melt the hearts of our enemies and convert them, and that seems to make more sense in the context of the rest of this loving reading.
Can we do this? Can we show such genuine love that we overcome evil with good? It seems unlikely. We’re only human, and responding to evil with evil feels much more natural. But Paul’s not asking more of the Romans than Jesus commands of his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. And we need to remember the rest of Paul’s letter. Paul has been writing to the Romans about how we have become part of God’s family. With great love God in Christ died for us on the cross and with him we have been raised to new life in the Spirit. We live in Christ, Christ lives in us. This means, Paul says over and over, that we’re no longer slaves to sin. We can live lives pleasing to God. We can live lives of love. God has given us the ability to do so.
One of my all-time favourite Bible verses comes from the first letter of John: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ (1 John 4:16) I quote it constantly, and it was to my quoting that the ‘Biblical marriage is not about love’ person was objecting. They were wrong. Everything is about love. God is love; God so loved the world that God became human in Jesus and died for us; in response we’re commanded to love God, our neighbours, and one another; and that love is to be genuine. In today’s reading Paul describes what genuine love looks like. This is our calling; to love in imitation of the God who is love and who loves us. It’s not a bad vocation. And, as we say at the end of every service, it’s one we can live out in the name of Christ. Thanks be to the God who loves us. Amen.