Romans 12.9: love without flinching

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November 13, 2012 by jmar198013

Let us have no imitation Christian love. Let us have a genuine break with evil and a real devotion to good. (Romans 12.9 J.B. Phillips)

Marva J. Dawn does the church a great service when she points out how terse Paul’s actual language is in Rom. 12.9a: hē agapē anypokritos. “The love–without hypocrisy.” Dawn recalls a moving story about a Chinese friend of hers to illustrate what love without hypocrisy looks like in action:

The Chinese train was terribly overcrowded. My friend Chi Ping realized that the sodden, drunken, bedraggled man was heading for his seat, and there was no escape. Chi Ping leaned as close to the window as he could.

He could not escape the stench either. The man reeked as though he had not had a bath in years. Chi Ping held himself tightly, not wanting to come even close to touching the man for fear of the lice his body must carry and out of disdain for his ghastly odor and appearance.

Nevertheless, as he pulled away, my friend was tormented by the fact that he should love this man, too … He began to pray that God would fill him with the Holy Spirit’s perfect love for this despicable creature, who had invaded his piety with a realistic need. No phony demonstration of love was possible; this object of God’s love was too overwhelmingly undesirable to charm a false show of acceptance. Any demonstration of care must be a supernatural power.
Over twenty years ago, I heard Chi Ping describe how, contrary to his very emotions and thought, he felt his arm being raised and, to his great surprise, found himself putting it around the man’s shoulders and drawing him close. The poor man wept as he received Chi Ping’s genuine expression of care. (Truly the Community: Romans 12 and how to be the Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992, 139-40)

Chi Ping’s love in this instance was unhypocritical because he didn’t flinch. He embraced this smelly bedraggled other when everything within him screamed, “back away!” He did so not out of some romantic notion that beyond the dirt and lice and stench there was the fundamental image of God; rather, he loved obediently, and seeing the image of God through the taint of a hard-lived life was the blessing he received.

The terseness of Paul’s words: hē agapē anypokritos, “the love–without hypocrisy,” might be translated for today’s hearers as, “love without flinching.”

It seems to me that loving an undesirable stranger as the fellow in Marva Dawn’s story did is one sort of test for love without flinching. But in Romans 12, Paul is more addressing how we Christians relate to one another in the church. I do not know that most of us would be able to muster the willingness Chi Ping displayed to let ourselves be used as vessels of the Spirit’s love toward scary-looking strangers if we do not first learn to love our fellow Christians, in their (and our) various forms of brokenness, without flinching. One of the blessings I have received from my studies in the Sermon on the Mount was figuring out that we Christians learn to love our enemies by loving each other well:

There is a deep measure of grace in the Sermon on the Mount. One way in which this may be seen is that Jesus did not jump right out of the gate telling us to be perfect and love our enemies. Rather, he begins by instructing us how to be reconciled to our brothers; how to be faithful to our marriage covenants and our partners; how to tell the truth to one another. He begins by teaching us how to love those who are in our immediate sphere of concern well. These practices of reconciliation, faithfulness, and truthfulness are habits that form us into the sort of people who are capable of loving our enemies.

(Full disclosure, I may or may not have gotten that nugget of wisdom from Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew).

I do not believe that the church will be able to come to terms with what it means to love our enemies until we learn to love one another without flinching. Peter wrote: “the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household” (1 Pet. 4.17 NLT). If judgment begins with us, then justice must begin in us as well. We learn from God that it is a just thing to love without partiality, strangers as if they were members of our household (Matt. 5.46-47). But if we cannot even love well those who share God’s household in common with us, what hope do we have of loving strangers well–especially nasty, disheveled strangers like the one encountered by Chi Ping? If we would learn to love enemies and strangers, we will first need to practice love for each other. Without flinching.

I find it appropriate that the very human Peter is the one to share with us that judgment begins with the household of God; I am sure he learned this from experience. For he himself once came under judgment for failing to love without hypocrisy. Paul recalls this incident in Galatians 2.11-14:

[W]hen Peter came to Antioch I had to oppose him publicly, for he was then plainly in the wrong. It happened like this. Until the arrival of some of James’ companions, he, Peter, was in the habit of eating his meals with the Gentiles. After they came, he withdrew and ate separately from the Gentiles—out of sheer fear of what the Jews might think. The other Jewish Christians carried out a similar piece of deception, and the force of their bad example was so great that even Barnabas was affected by it. But when I saw that this behaviour was a contradiction of the truth of the Gospel, I said to Peter so that everyone could hear, “If you, who are a Jew, do not live like a Jew but like a Gentile, why on earth do you try to make Gentiles live like Jews?” (J.B. Phillips)

By withdrawing table fellowship like he did, Peter was treating the Gentiles in God’s household with contempt. He allowed the fear, prejudice, and misguided piety of others to set his agenda for him. In short, Peter flinched. Paul’s retort is pretty sharp. Basically it goes, “Look, Peter–on your best day, your Jewishness is pretty shabby. And now you’re acting like–what?!–like these Gentiles aren’t Jewish enough to share your table?”

I say all that to say this. The Jew-Gentile issues in the early church wasn’t just a matter of racial prejudice. That was part of it, to be sure, but there were vast differences also in moral and ethical scruples, values, virtues, culture, and the like. More than the racial divide betwixt the two, there was a fair amount of deeply ingrained identity politics. Trying to sort through those differences in community was a task spearheaded by Paul, but it was by no means completed in his life-time. He knew that as these issues continued to be hammered out, what would sustain these diverse communities was “the love–without hypocrisy.” Love without flinching.

And within our churches today, we have deep moral, ethical, and spiritual issues that need to be hammered out in community. In matters as varied as the creation account and creation care, the roles of women in ministry, biblical hermeneutics, systematic theologies, competing theories of the atonement, what to do about our gay brothers and sisters, how best to help the needy, Christian participation in warfare, and even the trivialities of personal politics we have issues that are easily as divisive as the troubles faced by Jewish and Gentile Christians in the earliest days of the church. And still we have voices, like those who called Peter away from table with the Gentiles, who would rather play identity politics than simply be the church in all its messy glory. These voices, whether we see it or not, are calling us to regard brothers and sisters that Jesus died for as if they were smelly, scary-looking vagabonds, like the fellow Chi Ping met on the train. We need to hear Paul say to us, as he did to Peter, “You know, you really suck at this being a Christian business, and now you have the nerve to berate this person over here for not being Christian enough.” And then to salve the sting of this judgment, he could commend to us, as he did the Roman Christians, an alternative: “the love-without hypocrisy.” Love without flinching.




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