Labor of Love

Have you heard of a little play called Hamlet? There’s a character named Polonius who offers this string of advice as his son Laertes is about to leave on a trip. It’s all good advice; it just goes beyond the setting of wisdom to become comedy. Be friendly but not vulgar. Keep your tried and true friends close. Don’t get into fights, but if you find yourself in one, fight well. And so on. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulleth th’edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Etc. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene iii.)

Perhaps your own parents did this to you when you were leaving home—all their words of wisdom in one great rush. My brother-in-law and I just delivered my niece to her freshman year at college. There’s the temptation to try and equip her in five minutes with all the wisdom she will need to get through college: Keep track of your room key and your student ID, which is also your meal card. Don’t let people take advantage of you. Do your homework. Be nice to your roommate. Organize your things so you know how to find them. Show up to things on time. Make friends. Have a good time. Keep in touch.

And even as my brother-in-law and I drove back home across the state, we continued to hold my niece in this space of love. And we always will. And we may continue to offer lots of advice, which she may or may not take.

So here is the Apostle Paul dispensing a whole lot of good advice to the community of Christians in Rome. He’s trying to tell them in just a few verses how to be a good Christian. Or a good Jew who follows Jesus. Or, really, how to be a good person in general: I imagine Muslims, Buddhists, Bahai, Hindus, and many other people of faith would relate to most of this advice.

And on one level, this is all wisdom that we know. Love each other genuinely. Pray for each other, including your enemies. Mean it. Be humble. Here’s the one that jumped out at me: Do not claim to be wiser than you are. Ooh!

But recognizing good advice is different from being able to live into it in the moment. Yes, my niece needs to keep track of her room key and her student ID. And this advice comes from the voice of experience. We’ve all said, “Now, where did I put my wallet and my keys? Where are my glasses? Where’s my phone?” And we’ve ransacked the house looking for them. We’ve all been there. So sure, we can give that advice not to lose things, but we need that reminder from time to time as well.

Or we know we should eat more carrots and spinach and not so much ice cream. We know it. Do we do it? There’s the ice cream, and on a hot summer day, there’s nothing better.

So the invitation today is to take Paul’s words seriously and not just dismiss them as “yeah, yeah, yeah, we know: love each other, persevere, blah blah blah.” Because the more we can take these words as a spiritual discipline, both as individuals and as a church, the more we engage deeply with the labor of love of being a follower of Jesus. And the more we do that, the more life-giving this advice becomes, both for us and for the people around us.

Let’s consider the context of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

The church in Rome was likely founded through the Jewish synagogues there, possibly by the Apostle Peter, possibly by Jews who had been present in Jerusalem at Pentecost. These early Roman Christians began making “good trouble” (as John Lewis called it) in the name of “Chrestus,” which may be a version of “Christus,” or Christ. Emperor Claudius got annoyed by their “good trouble” and kicked them out of Rome in the year 49. After he died, a few years later, they returned to Rome and found that more Gentiles had joined the church. So this was a mix of congregants from Jewish and Gentile origins, and also from lower classes as well as nobility. You can imagine that they don’t all share a common worldview: some may have more education than others, and some may feel superior to others. And they’ve been through some stuff in the name of Jesus. So on some level they probably know a lot of these things that Paul is telling them. But they need to hear it again anyway.

Paul urges them in their diversity to be one body in Christ—to celebrate their differences not as problems but as strengths. You don’t want everyone to be the same and to think the same way. Earlier in chapter 12, he writes, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).

I mention all of this context as a way to frame this litany of advice that Paul gives them about how to be a good Christian. When he says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them,” he is writing from his own personal experience to people who have also personally experienced persecution. But maybe some of that persecution is coming from within their own congregation: some people giving other members a hard time for not being good enough.

So when they hear these words of Paul about how to be a good Christian, let’s hope they didn’t say, “Oh come on, Paul, we’ve got this all figured out!” No, this advice is still valid. We all need to hear it from time to time.

Some years ago, I was staying at my mom’s house, and she was farther along her journey with dementia than I realized, so we would have conversations multiple times, and even then, she struggled to remember what we had said. I would get mad at her for forgetting, as if this was something she could control if she just tried harder. Every Tuesday, when I was working here, she would call around 5:30 or so to ask when I was coming home. I never left here at 5:30. I stayed until the work was as done as I could get it for that day, and then I’d hop on my bike or take the bus over to her house. On this particular day, she called at the usual time. As usual, she offered to make dinner for me. As usual, I said no thanks, I’ll be here for a while, I’ve got things to eat. Very clear.

So of course, eventually I got to her house, and she had made a whole chicken dinner. It was all set out on the island in the kitchen, waiting for me. I had already eaten. We had already discussed dinner, and I had been really, really clear that I was not eating dinner with her.

“Live in harmony with one another,” says Paul. “Do not be haughty…; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

Did I listen to Paul? No. I was all invested in being right. Did I thank my mom for making dinner? No. I made her feel wrong and stupid for doing this nice and loving thing. And suddenly being “right” felt really mean. Because being right wasn’t being loving. I went to bed that night feeling very wrong.

Songwriter David Roth has a song where he asks, “Would you rather be happy or right?” Sometimes you can’t be both. I love to be right. But journeying with my sweet mom through her dementia was a challenge to me to love her just as she was—not the way she used to be, not the way I wanted her to be, but just as she was right then.

After she moved to a retirement community, I would go to visit her regularly. When I parked the car, I often sat there for a moment to remind myself to love her and accept her just as she was. And when I could actually do that, we had a nice time together. But when I got all wrapped up in being right, then I made her wrong. She wasn’t wrong. She just had a brain that couldn’t remember things anymore. I was wrong for not being loving.

This is the gift of grace that God offers to us. God loves us even when we choose ice cream over carrots, even when we feel compelled to make ourselves “right” and others “wrong,” even when we think we are wiser than we are. God reminds us that following Jesus is a labor of love—not a labor of being right.

Paul is addressing not one individual but a whole church. And the Church through the centuries has often been more interested in being “right” than being genuinely loving. It has been haughty. It has claimed to be wiser than it is. The Church has taken on the role of God in telling people that God hated them and they were going to hell. That is not the Church’s job. The Church’s job is there in what Paul says,

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve God.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says God.”
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. (Romans 12:9-21)

My mom always held a space of love for me, even when I was being snarky and “right.” What a hard lesson for me to learn. And now I get to hold a space of love for my niece as she ventures out to make her own mistakes and gain her own wisdom.

The grace of being engaged in this labor of love is that we get to keep circling back to Paul’s advice on how to be a good Christian. We get to keep making mistakes—as individuals, as church—and then trying to do better. We get to stop putting on airs, pretending to be wiser than we are, and just love each other authentically. May that be one piece of Paul’s advice that we come to excel at as followers of Jesus: to love each other with genuine affection, in all our diversity; to celebrate our differences; to be one body in Christ. Amen.


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