A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on August 28, 2011.
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:9-21; Deuteronomy 6:1-9
A lot of churches have signs that they put out in front of their property, on which they post the week’s sermon title or a “thought for the day.” As I was surfing the web this week, I ran across these church signs.
Lowndesville Baptist Church – “Turn or Burn.” Happy New Year.
Pilgrimage United Church of Christ has a sign that our Stewardship Committee might like to use as our theme this year: “You Give God the Credit. Now Give God the Cash.”
Victory Family Worship Center: “Dictate, Dominate, Devastate the World for God.”
Emerson Congregational United Church of Christ (two lines): Top line: “Possessed by Demons.” Bottom line: Visitors Welcome.
Church of the Cross (United Methodist Church) – “Don’t Let Worries Kill You, Let the Church Help.”
Finally, all summer long, a couple of churches in our area said, “You think it’s hot here?”
For better or for worse, these physical signs tell us something about these churches, and they give us a clue as to whether we would want to visit them. But in addition to physical signs, churches have spiritual signs also. They might not be as evident to the person driving down the street, but eventually, once you get to know a church or individual church members, their spiritual signs become easier to read. The question for us this morning is “What sign do people see when people look into our lives, or when they look at Farmville Baptist Church?” In other words: “What’s our church sign?”
Signs go back a long way, even to Old Testament times. In Deuteronomy 5, Moses reviews the Ten Commandments that God had given him with the Hebrew people. In Deuteronomy 6, our Old Testament Lesson this morning, we heard the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for “Hear.” “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The text continues, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema for the Jewish people was a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to the One God. The members of God’s chosen people would put little scrolls containing the Shema and put them into a small long case called mezuzah and attach them to the doorposts of their house. They would also put the scroll into a little leather pouch called tefillin and then bind it to either their arms or foreheads. This was done as a sign, as a reminder to others but mainly to themselves that they were to love God completely and order their lives according to the Ten Commandments.
Now fast forward fifteen hundred years. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is addressing the Church in Rome, to teach that members of the NEW Israel must order their lives according to the pattern of Jesus Christ, the final and complete fulfillment of the Shema and the Law. One of Paul’s main points was that Christians are to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice. This is your spiritual act of worship. As in the Shema, Paul reminds us that what we do with our heart, soul, and might reveals the extent of the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives. And in verses 9 to 21, Paul gives what seems to be a hodgepodge list of moral exhortations that would encourage his readers not just to post the law as a sign on their houses, not just to wear the law as a sign on their very heads, but to live the law of Christ as a sign in their lives.
For my sermon this morning, I want to propose three images, or more specifically, three hand signs that reflect Paul’s main thrust of this passage. It won’t cover all the ideas in these verses, but it might help us better to grasp what Paul is trying to teach us this morning about the signs of a healthy church.
The sign that this text suggests is the hand sign for “Love.” If I’m not mistaken, in the American sign language, this sign means “I Love You” because it is a combination of “I” and “L” and “U.” For Paul, a sign of a healthy church is one that it is marked by love. In verses 9-12, Paul uses FOUR different Greek words for “love” to make his point.
- In verse 9, Paul writes: “Love must be sincere,” using the word agape, which you might know to be the self-sacrificial kind of love exemplified by the love of Jesus Christ. Such love is sacrificial and sincere, and not two-faced and fake.
- The second word for love is found in verse 10, when Paul writes: “Be devoted,” philostorgos – which is the loving devotion of parents and children, and husbands and wives.
- The third word for love is found in the same verse, and it is: philadelphia – which is the love of brothers and sisters, not so much in the sense of siblings in one family, but in the sense that as humans, we are all sisters and brothers. As some of you may know, that’s why the city of Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love.
- The fourth word for love is found in verse 13: philoxenia – which literally means the love of strangers. And this word is most often translated as “hospitality.”
How wonderful it would be if people associate the name “Farmville Baptist Church” with “Oh yes, that’s a really loving church. You can tell that they are devoted each other. They honor each other above themselves, and they care for those they don’t know, they help the poor, they welcoming new folks and students into the community, they visit those who are sick and in prison.” Wouldn’t it be great when people see Farmvile Baptist, they see the love of God?
The second sign that this text suggests is the hand sign for “blessing.” It is a sign made with the thumb, the index and second finger extended with the third and fourth fingers closed. Many ministers hold their hands up like this when offering a Benediction, or perhaps you have seen the Pope give this sign of blessing to those visiting him. For Paul, a sign of a healthy church is one whose members bless instead of curse. Here, Paul teaches us to bless others in three ways.
- We bless others with our words. Verse 14 says: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” To “bless” others is to literally say “good words” to them, to praise them, to invoke God’s favor upon them. When people persecute or pursue us to harm us, we are to invoke God’s favor instead of evil upon them.
- We bless others by being in solidarity with them. Verse 15 says: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” As the Swedish proverb says: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.” When the Virginia Tech shootings took place on April 16, 2007, so many of us identified ourselves as Hokies in the days to come as a gesture of solidarity. Today, our hearts and prayers go out to those affected by hurricane Irene, and there are Virginia Baptists already mobilized to help in the recovery efforts. It also means that we cannot stand untroubled by our knowledge that there are children and adults who go to bed hungry here in Farmville. God calls us to be a blessing in how we respond to others.
- We bless others by living in harmony with one another. Verse 16 also says: Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” We are called to care about each other as we care about ourselves. The last thing a church needs is to be known as a group of people who constantly look down on others and fight among each other.
We live in a world filled with cursing, filled with people who rejoice when bad things befall us, filled with people who look down on others. In the midst of this world, Paul is saying that the church is to be a sign of blessing. Wouldn’t it be great when people come in contact with members of Farmville Baptist, they experience the blessing of God?
Now, can you guess what the third hand sign that this text suggests? Hint: it can be found in verse 18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” The third hand sign is the sign for “peace.” For Paul, a sign of a healthy church body is one whose members practice peace. Paul writes in verse 17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” But that is SO against the prevailing attitude of our culture. Our culture says, “If people hurt us, we have to hurt them back.” Perhaps you’ve been in city traffic and seen “road rage” at its most typical. Perhaps you’ve seen drivers so angry with a tailgater or a slow driver that they use an entirely different sort of hand sign….but we won’t go there.
AND that is not the way of the people of God. Paul continues: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’, says the Lord.” One reason we do not seek revenge for evil done is because even the world knows that vigilante rule is unacceptable. That is why we have police and law-enforcement agencies. Another reason we do not seek revenge is because ultimately God is the judge, and if there is any vengeance to be taken, God will do it. Christians are not here to even the score. But Paul continues by saying that it is not enough for Christians to refrain from revenge. Instead, Paul cites a teaching straight from Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.” Basically, this verse tells us to meet the needs of our enemies—that seems clear enough. This echoes what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Paul’s overwhelming exhortations to us to live in peace, and to act with mercy. Paul is not asking us to be doormats. Paul is realistic about the difficulty of all this. Perhaps that’s why Paul writes that “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceable with all.” Sometimes peace is just not possible. Feeding our enemies when they are hungry and giving them water when they are thirsty may never make them into our friends or overcome their evil intentions toward us; but it will certainly have a great effect on us. Somewhere I picked up this anonymous quote: “Who is stronger: he who says: “If you do not love me, I will hate you,” or “If you hate me, I will still continue to love you?”
One final word about the sign for peace. This hand sign is thought to have begun in Europe during World War II when a V for “victory” was painted on walls as a symbol of freedom from occupying forces. The sign was widely used by peace movements in the 1960s and 1970s as a symbol of victory for peace and truth. So this sign also reminds us that Jesus Christ has secured the ultimate victory over evil and death through His resurrection from the grave, and brought us peace with God. The church is a people who are living in the victory of the resurrection. The church knows how the story is going to end: God will ultimately defeat all evil. And death will be no more. We are called to live in this new reality through the victory that Christ has already secured. That is the only way that we might not be overcome by evil. It is only through Christ, the Prince of Peace that we may overcome evil with good. Wouldn’t it be great when people become a part of Farmville Baptist, they experience the peace and victory of God in their lives?
Love. Blessing. Peace. These are the signs that Paul calls us to show, if not with our hands, then through our lives. I started out this sermon talking about the funny signs that people post in front of their churches. While Farmville Baptist doesn’t have a church sign like that, we do in fact have a sign. That sign is you and me, in the way we live our lives. Here’s the assignment for us this week. Let’s find a way to show God’s sacrificial love, devotion and hospitality to our family, friends, co-workers and strangers. Let’s find a way to be a blessing by speaking an encouraging word, by sharing the joys and sorrows of others. Let’s find a way to live peaceably with all, even with our challenging siblings, roommates, co-workers, in-laws and out-laws! As you do so, you will love God with all your heart, soul and strength as you become a sign pointing to God’s love, blessing, and peace. Amen.
Leadership coach and church consultant at MichaelKCheuk.com. He is a Good Faith Media governing board member, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.