The Rule of Saint Paul, or, What’s Love Got to Do with It

I was chatting with a friend recently about dating, and specifically about why dating these days is so difficult. He brought up the point that our particular cultural moment’s great diversity in approaches, attitudes, and goals people have in relationships makes it difficult to know where we stand at any given time. While theoretically everyone is playing the same game, we are all playing with very different rule books — as though an Englishman, Irishman, Australian, Canadian, and American got together to play a game of ‘football’. Without a common rule book, no one knows whose move it is, how much or how little interest to show, or even if you and a person you’re dating have the same understanding of what and where the goal actually is. By comparison, as silly as the rules of Victorian courtship seem to us, at least they had the advantage that everyone was playing by the same rules.

This conversation came to mind as I was thinking about today’s Epistle reading. Last week, Paul urged the Christians in Rome to follow Christ’s way of humility, to have their hearts and minds transformed and see how their lives are deeply connected to the lives of their fellow Christians. Like different parts of a body, each has their own role to play to make that body whole and healthy. Today he continues this thought, by listing some of the ways this vision of our life together works out practically. He ends up producing a common rule book, so to speak, for life in the household of God. Or, in the context of life in the Roman Empire, we might call it a Constitution for the Citizens of God’s Kingdom:

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 honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 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…. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12.9-21)

This is what a people governed by the Gospel — by that faith which we defined as ‘showing up for God and for one another’ — looks like. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rule Paul lays out in Romans 12 and 13 is the part of Paul’s writings that most resembles the teachings of Jesus. It is a constitution grounded in Love, not as an abstract ideal or sentimental feeling, but as something real that plays out in actual human relationships. This is, in the words of Ben Witherington III, a “love that is genuine, with no playing of a part or pretending …. We are not to project an image and hide behind a mask that is not in accord with what is in our hearts.” This love is demanding.

The love to which we are called demands first of all that we name good as good and evil as evil. It’s easy to gloss over this without thinking about this entails, but this is difficult, and uncomfortable work — especially considering the extremely careful discernment the knowledge of good and evil requires of us. It takes great care, and even greater care if we are to do it with integrity and with the health of our communities in mind. It means less “calling people out” for evil as it does “calling them up” towards a better, more whole and healthful, more loving way of relating in the world.

Related to this, true love demands that we not only name good as good, but lift up and honour what is good. As much was we may hate what is evil, there is a seductive quality to it. It’s easy — especially after paying attention to the news — to wallow in the evils of the world and the disbelief, anger, and fear they inspire in us. As important as it is to be aware of what is happening in the world, for the sake of our hearts and souls it is even more important to choose to hold on to, lift up, and honour what is good in the world in the midst of all the darkness. As Mr. Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.” We need to look for the helpers, the people who work to make things better and dampen, rather than stoke, the flames. These are the people on whom we are called to focus our attention and whom we honour.

And, as we uphold what is honorable in the world, we must do likewise, zealously. There is so much work to be done. In whatever way is uniquely ours to do it, we must do it, for the health of our community and the life of the world.

On a different tack, but no less importantly, true love calls us to to rejoice with the joyful and weep with the weeping. Again this is something that is deceptively difficult. We don’t do much of this. Our culture would prefer that we stew in our envy when someone is rejoicing, as though joy were a scarce commodity. It’s so easy to begrudge a new mother’s smile thinking of our own childlessness, a friend’s golden Instagram life when we’re struggling to make ends meet, or an ex’s engagement while we’re still single. But good things are simply good and we do ourselves a disservice — not to mention, harm the shared-life of the community — when we can’t rejoice in them. The flip side of this same coin is that there is no place for Schadenfreude, joy at another’s misfortunes, in community.

Love also demands that we shed any pretensions of superiority, whether cultural, economic, or educational. Despite what the rules of our culture may tell us, there is no one who is more deserving of respect or ‘honour’ than anyone else. There is no room for elitism in love. Obsequious sucking up to one’s ‘betters’ is not love; nor is condescending charity towards the ‘needy’. Love demands more than this: genuine, authentic, human-to-human relationships.

And finally, love demands that we forgive, that we — like Joseph as we saw the other week — repent of our resentments and desire for revenge. Instead, we must do the hard bridge-building and peace-making work of reconciliation. We do not return evil with evil, for that only adds fuel to the fire. Rather, we overcome evil with goodness. As former American First Lady Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” Or, to quote the Civil Rights activist and author Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” To seek good ends through evil means is self-defeating. (Which is inconvenient, considering evil means are often so much more expedient.) Instead, as hard and devastatingly discouraging as it can be, we must rise to the challenge and insist on overcoming evil with goodness.

This isn’t a complicated rule, but it is a challenging one, and the common life it promotes is nothing short of revolutionary. This is far from the transactional world of Roman patron-client relationships, and far from the competitive, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses or FOMO worlds of contemporary Western capitalism. Instead, we have a vision of life together, the common life of the people of God.

It is a vision that is as radical and challenging today as it was two thousand years ago, and that no church or community has ever succeeded in living out. But it is a vision of genuine love. For Paul, and for all of us who desire to follow Jesus and take up the mantle of the name ‘Christian’, this must be our vision too.

What’s love got to do with it? Everything.

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