Do we really love our neighbour? Romans 12: 9-21

In a ‘Desert Island Discs’ programme, on BBC Radio 4: the ‘cast away’ said that he had found it difficult to choose the eight records allowed.
 
The problem was, that each piece of music that he would want to take with him, called to mind people that he loved: and each time that he played a record; his sense of the loss of some very special people, would increase.
 
In another radio programme, a music critic said that he admired the technical brilliance of Sibelius’ music: but, no matter how carefully he listened, he could not find any people in it.
 
He said that Sibelius’ music is full of nature; of mountains and waterfalls; of forests and rivers; of hills, valleys and great lakes - but no people.
 
He ended by saying that his own favourite music, reminded him of people he loved: and that, playing the music, brought them into clear focus for a while.
 
In ordinary human terms: the quality of our lives is, largely, determined by the number and quality of our relationships with others.
 
In Christian terms, the quality of our relationships with others: is largely determined by our willingness to love them, and to be of service to them.
 
Christians must go far beyond the man on the ‘Desert Island’, mourning the loss of special friends; and the music critic, with his needs: for both men were speaking about people they personally knew, and loved.
 
Christians must move into; and remain within; that area of understanding which states that everyone is important; because each is important to God; and is loved by him.
 
The great emphasis of Romans 12: 9-21, is upon people, and of enhanced relationships with them. Such relationships, says Paul, are raised above ordinary, human and social levels, when rooted in divine love.
 
The whole of the text is remarkable, in many ways: not least of which, is the fact that, in only 13 verses, containing just over 200 words; there are 28 imperatives ...
 
… love must be sincere… hate what is evil… be devoted to one another.... never be lacking in zeal.....share with God’s people.... bless those who persecute you… do not repay evil for evil .... and so on.
 
These 28 clauses are not so much commands; but more an expression of the practical outworking of the love that Jesus taught, and lived out; and which must be learned, and lived out by his followers.
 
At 1.Corinthians 13, in his famous chapter on agape love: Paul touches on various aspects of love’s quality.
 
He says that love is patient and kind.... that it does not envy or boast... it is trustful… hopeful… persevering... unfailing, and so on.
 
Now, in his other treatise on love, to the church at Rome, Paul touches on the practical expression of such love. He does this, through outlining some 'Rules of the Christian Life', which, when followed, help convert a spiritual concept, into the reality of daily experience.
 
The reality of the experience of divine love: does not just happen; nor does it come to us as a gift ... merited or even unmerited.
 
In scripture: agape love, is not taught as being a gift; but, rather, it is the product, or 'fruit' of a particular, and Christian, way of life. Therefore, it is not so much received to ourselves; as created within ourselves, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and by the way in which we live.
 
Such love must be both worked for, and worked at, if it is not only to be present in our lives; but also to flourish and to be effective.
 
That is, through the will of God in Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we must create and maintain, within the fabric of our lives, the context within which agape love may not only exist, but also find true expression.
 
If we, as individual Christians; and as a gathered 'body' of God's people; are to have divine love; fully at work within us, and through us: then we must be wholehearted; of a single mind, and intention; in all that we believe and do. This wholeheartedness must not only be for righteousness and truth, as revealed by God through Christ: but also against anything, and everything, that diminishes the integrity of Christ's Gospel of love and grace, in our lives.
 
With 28 imperatives, or 'Rules of the Christian Life', contained in the one text: it is tempting to choose half a dozen or so, and thus cover too much ground, or even confuse the issue.
 
It is safer to stick to one of them - the first one: ‘love must be sincere’.
 
Scripture teaches that love is the root, stem and branch, of God's gracious activity, in relation to mankind; the one great quality, which makes sense of all else in our lives, but - quite what does ‘sincerity’ mean to us?
 
Most major dictionaries have, as a prime definition, something like this: ‘Being in reality, as in appearance: having the real character, or nature, that is entirely true to the apparent and observable, character or nature’.
 
We take our word ‘sincere’ from the Latin word ‘sincerus’. Although Latin is now a so-called 'dead' language: in New Testament times, it was very much a living language; developing and changing, just as modern languages do.
 
As with other languages; Latin formed its words, not out of nowhere in particular, but from definite, established roots; which gave new, developing words their particular meaning.
 
The most likely, and accepted, roots from which the Latin word ‘sincerus’ grew; are two other words 'sine' and ‘cera’, - 'sine' = without, and 'cera’ = wax.  Love must be 'without wax’?  Where's the sense in that?
 
The Roman Empire, and the Latin language: had a powerful influence on Jewish culture, and thinking, in New Testament times - and on Paul himself.
 
The Christian Faith came into being at a time, and in a place, that was marked by a complexity of diverse religious faiths and practices; many of which were introduced into the area; by the Babylonians, Assyrians; Phoenicians; Greeks, Romans and others.
 
Common to all of these other faiths and practices: was the sale of images and statuettes, of false gods or goddesses.
 
The book of ‘Acts’, tells the story of rioting in the streets of Ephesus; where a silversmith, named Demetrius, accused Paul and his companions, of ruining the trade in images of the false goddess, Artemis (or Diana). (Acts 19: 23ff).
 
All over the ancient Middle East: craftsmen made and sold images of gods, goddesses, shrines and such-like things. They mostly made them by the casting process, and, where a cast was imperfect…
 
… the makers quite often took wax; coloured it to match the metal; and then filled in the holes, dents or other imperfections of the article for sale.
 
According to ancient sources: one of the street-cries in the cities of that day was ‘Sine cera' – ‘without wax’; as street traders, dealing in images and statuettes, claimed that their goods were perfect ...
 
... without dents or holes filled up, and covered over by polished wax, to make them look the genuine article. This, it is believed, is what Paul had in mind when he wrote that love must be sincere.
It must not only look the genuine article, but must actually be so; a part of that special and Christian love, that is an expression of God’s own nature, as revealed in Jesus our Lord.
 
Our love of God, creation and mankind; must be 'without wax'.
 
That first imperative, or 'Rule of the Christian Life', in Paul's text, and the twenty-seven others: all relate to people, and not to things.
We are not called to love religious systems and practices; nor called to defend established ways of doing things.  We are not commanded to love particular ideas; concepts and entrenched positions; or anything similar; but people – and, through loving them; demonstrate our love of God.
 
Our love must be, in reality, as in appearance; that is, the real character or nature of our love, must be entirely true to the apparent and observable, character or nature. It must be 'without wax’. 
 
In modern English, ‘neighbour’ has come to mean a person living next door, or near to us. In older forms of our language, the word ‘neighbour’ meant ‘fellow human being’.
 
And that is what Christ must have had in mind, when he taught that the love that he requires of us, must be expressed to all those with whom we come into contact; and not just those who suit us, and are liked by us.
 
St. Paul, in his 'Rules of Life:' especially at Romans 12, confirms that Christian love must be sincere – the real thing, without blemish.
 
In his earthly ministries, Jesus Christ was the supreme realist. Then, he never required anything, of anyone, that could not be brought into being, through obedience, love and care. And so it remains today.
 
Whenever their love is shown to be imperfect: with dents and holes in it, Christians must never be tempted to cover things up with the ‘wax' of plausible argument as to why it is imperfect; but, instead, recast that love..
 
…and recast it again, if necessary, until it becomes as perfect as can be: reflecting the nature of Christ himself, at work in, and through his people.      
                                                                                                                     Amen.