(Romans 12:9-21) By Rev. Jacob Kanake — Last week we encountered Jesus when he was on vacation with his disciples. He was teaching them how to transform their faith. The transformed faith renews the mind and wills good for everyone. Unless one has faith that transforms and renews the mind, unconditional love (topic of today’s sermon) cannot be achieved; it is extremely hard to love without faith that transforms and renews the mind. A renewed mind can put unconditional love into action for the individual and for the family of God. Paul is willing to educate Christians on how to develop the mind of Christ in their lives and be Christ-like, to “be good, perfect and acceptable.” Unconditional love hates evil and loves doing good, and it wills good for everyone and cultivates a conducive environment where good can thrive. Unconditional love does not sugarcoat evil nor pretend terrible things do not happen, but unconditional love has its own way of overcoming the evil. Unconditional love is one aspect of love (Matthew 22:40).
What is love? Love is the powerful emotions that human beings experience toward God, themselves, other people and other things. It is hard to define love because different people experience and express love differently. Each tribe defines and express love differently. The Greeks defined love in diverse ways: There is love of God (Agape); the love among siblings (Storge); the love between long-married couples (Pragma); the love for self (Philautia); romantic love (Eros); the love (Philia) for other people; and unconditional love (Agape). Today’s world is influenced by the Greeks’ way of defining love. The ancient Greeks also cautioned that love was a mental illness, and anyone who overexpressed love was feared to be “lovesick.” The modern society also tends to believe love is a disease and expresses that “love is blind, love is stupidity,” meaning one should be careful in expressing love. Expressed well, love makes people brave and do bold things. When love is overexpressed, it can make people do stupid things. So, should we condition love to adhere to certain regulations so love can remain valid?
I preached on unconditional love before, and other preachers have preached on the same topic. So, why should I repeat it again? I think reminding ourselves of the topic of unconditional love during this time of racial hatred, Hurricane Harvey and divisive politics is appropriate. We continue to remind ourselves of unconditional love—Christian love, because love never lasts forever unless those who believe in it continue to understand how it works. Whereas un-Christian love seeks rewards, appreciation, payback—kickbacks, or bigger favors like a bank account owner expects interest from his bank or the stock market—Paul says Christian love does not.
Between 56 and 58 A.D., Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, made up of five households (16:5,10,11,14,15), on the dangers of not loving unconditionally. Paul had become aware of the factions in the church at Corinth in Greece. Paul wanted Roman Christians to be careful of divisions and love each other. Paul directed his message at individual Christians (Roman 1:17, God’s beloved in Rome). Like many American churches, the Roman Christians were from diverse origins (Jewish Christians, Gentiles and Africans). Paul was instructing them in faith, seeking their prayers and introducing Aquila and Priscilla, Christian missionaries who were visiting Rome. Paul is also aware most of the Jewish Christians at Rome were more concerned with Jewish nationalistic religion rather than being a global church. Paul’s interest is to promote unity in the body of Christ and not promote certain cultural practices (3:26, 29-30). Paul never denied his Jewish identity yet he knew Christ was for all people (1:16; 2:9-10, 3:1-2, 9-11; 11:25).
The message of Paul is appealing to us today as we live in a religious and political environment that can easily divide people by cultivating fear and impressing on people to fight for their identity. Some of the Roman Christians were jealous; others would openly be showing self-pride; the Jewish Christians thought they were better than the Gentile Christians. And the Africans, the Jews and the Gentiles despised each other for their political adherence. The Roman Christians misused their Christian freedom and they were unable to love or express love to one another. Much of their problem was lack of skills in dealing with the varied needs of a cosmopolitan life and congregation (Gentiles, Jews, and Africans). The congregation needed to learn a unique way of expressing their faith in love rather than bragging, thriving on hate and dividing into factions. In this reading Paul offers and explains ways to practice unconditional love:
Respectful love (9-12) is being able to stay in fellowship with others without bragging or being under the pretext of being superior to others. Many of us have tried to practice this Christian skill by cultivating inner awareness of who we are and how we should respond to others. The more we know about ourselves, we become aware of our weakness and avoid affecting others to hide our weakness. Being aware of ourselves helps us to like who we are and who we are in the process of becoming. This is the only way one can open to the needs of others easily and jump in to help others, remembering the help one received from others.
Caring love (13): Paul emphasizes that a true Christian is the one who cares for others. I have witnessed the many caring events we do here, including making sandwiches for the homeless and visiting those in hospitals, rehab or homes for the elderly. We have our cart full of donations every other week and we pray for the sick. I feel the Lord had enabled us to do that and we can do much more.
Sympathetic love (16): Sometimes sympathy is best understood when an individual explains his actions toward others. I have on a number of occasions prayed and walked with those in need of either moral, financial, spiritual or emotional support. Often, I try “to be with” people in their issues when they open and seek for my support. I have felt compassion toward those with problems and offered my support even without being asked. I join those who invite me to rejoice with them upon healing, reviving a marriage, successful graduation or successful business. Yesterday I received an email from a friend in Norway who has been in my prayers; he was struggling financially. He said, “I want to thank you for praying and encouraging me when I was financially unable to meet my needs. I want to report things have been going well and I am stable financially.” In cases like that it is easy to say, “Praise the Lord!” Being with those with problems and rejoicing with those who rejoice is part of Christian duty. I am aware most of us are sympathetic to others and we can continue to do more …
Uniting love (16): Paul encourages Christians to stay in peace with others where possible. This is the tricky part because a Christian can easily get killed if one practices this Christian skill without reasoning. Trying to be in peace “where possible” does not mean denying the disagreements and insisting that peace must prevail. I think it means being aware of the disagreement and trying to agree in affection, sometime enduring hardship. And when peace is not a solution to the problem, one ought to withdraw and acknowledge the failure and move on.
Engaging love (17-21) is expressing the love that does not hurt others and always wishing others good in their endeavors. Paul would love his enemy and wish them the good rather than the worst; he would feed the enemy and welcome him. If another human affects Paul, he would not seek revenge but leave it to the Lord. Most Christians have practiced this virtue with good outcomes. For me, this is not an easy virtue because I cannot control other people’s reactions. However, it is an easy virtue as far as I can control my own reactions to any situation. Being one to agitate for peace where possible makes one blameless by the witnesses; they can say that lack of peace was not your fault if the situation spirals out control. Paul insists that Christians are called to cultivate peace in their lives and in the lives of those around them. Furthermore, Paul is asking Christians (in public rallies? moral issues?) to watch out for onlookers; they can interpret their behavior and actions.
Apostle Paul expands Jesus’ teaching on unconditional love and affirms that a Christian believer must practice Christian love while in the fellowship of other believers and at an individual level. Any Christian fellowship or individual faith devoid of practical love is difficulty to “grow.” Although it is difficult, I submit that unconditional love ought to be practiced by all believers across every generation, and every race and human class and status.
Paul emphasized that unconditional love can heal and cure the individual, the family and the church divisions (4:15; 15:1-2, 7). Unconditional love can extend beyond personal lines and help believers feel like a part of each other and become each other’s keeper. The teaching of Paul is to love others unconditionally and without reservations (Galatians 5:6). The loving Christian can express human virtues based on affection, kindness and compassion. This is the pure love arising from individual’s state of being and blesses those encountered. Christian love is unconditional love toward God, self and other people or things. A Christian can balance personal happiness with others happiness and make both the receiver and the giver better. Amen.
A story of unconditional love
At 12 years old, I was helping my grandmother in her garden, weeding. My grandmother’s garden was next to Janet (not real name), her friend. At lunch, we ate together and both ladies shared their life stories. Janet almost always talked about her grandchild, whom I will call David (not his real name). Janet’s son had married twice. David was the son of the first wife; she divorced and left David in the care of the second wife. The second wife was not caring. Janet took in David and she said it was hard to care for David because of her age; Janet was older than my grandmother. Whenever David’s name was brought up at lunch time, I curiously listened without contributing or appearing like I was hearing, fearing to be told “Keep quiet! I am talking,” the often-African way of telling the children this is adult conversation.
I felt compelled by David’s story. I wanted to meet him and welcome him at our home. When Janet died, David’s story ended abruptly. I kept thinking about him and I met him after five years at his high festival. David had managed to graduate from middle school and went to a local high school. I asked if I could help him to get to a better school, he said his Dad was not good at paying school fees. I said I will talk to him. He agreed. I talked to his Dad and he agreed to transfer David to a school near my school. His Dad entrusted me with David’s school fees every semester.
When David agreed to stay at our home, I talked to my parents of David’s situation and they agreed for him to stay at our home. My Dad helped to get an extra bed for him. David was considered as one of us, receiving all the privileges of a biological child. David stayed with us for four years. Due to his background David was not an excellent farm hand and sometimes he would sneak out and leave me doing family chores. But there was no time he was punished or denied privileges.
He later became a Christian and a good youth leader. I recommended him to be appointed to lead young people to the world conference in the U.S. in the 1980s. David also studied in the U.S. and later joined politics. I hoped to keep the relationship but he chose a different path and agreed to end our relationship. He is still in politics.
During our time together, my faith did not let me discriminate against him or listen to what other people were saying to my parents. My parents were respectful of him and my Christian values. I did not welcome David into my life with the intention to impress anyone. I never told him the stories I heard from his grandmother, Janet. I knew he would feel embarrassed and perhaps refuse the help I was offering. This was an expression of unconditional love. I am glad my parents did not object to it. I never ever felt David owed me anything. Unconditional love does not count on being repaid; it is authentic love.
I have many other stories of love. I have given love and I never been tired of helping. When I offer unconditional love and I am let down or ignored I move on. I am never slothful; my desire to help boils over and is ever ready to help until the one receiving help again expresses distaste for it or ignores it. When I sense I am offering my help to a bad person, I do it out of submission to the Lord. I feel obligated to serve the Lord, not the mean-spirited person! I have high endurance when tested; I do not give up easily, lest it be God searching my heart during a storm. I become steadfast in prayer and continue to seek the hand of the Lord.
Many of us have expressed unconditional love to others in many ways. May we continue to practice our Christian faith by helping others irrespective of their race, political affiliations, class and status.