The flame of love – Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21

It was wonderful this week to spend time with other central city Baptist pastors – from Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney and Wellington, New Zealand – and to have the opportunity to preach at Collins Street last Sunday. Collins Street send greetings to us, and I gave them our greetings, and they especially wanted us to know that they are praying for us, and praying with us, as we navigate this difficult period in our relationship with the NSW/ACT Baptist Association.

But as we talked about what ministry looks like for city churches, and what our particular ministries have involved this year, and what it means to be Baptist, I realised I had fallen into error!

From time to time, I change the language on the slide that goes up at the end of the service and for some time it has said, “Go and be the church!” It is an expression I really like! It says that our Christian-ness, our ministering to one another doesn’t stop when we reach that door, but we go from here to love and care, to encourage, to serve, to pray all through the week!

But in Melbourne we were talking about the fact that, as Baptists, we believe that this gathered community – those of us who come together now to worship God – are the church. We become the church as we gather together. Does that make sense? The church is not a building or an institution, but this living, active, changing group of people. We go from here to be reflections of Christ, to be Christians, but we are the church when we gather together.

We owe this radical idea of church to the early Baptist reformers who looked at the state-based church with its elaborate hierarchy and emphasis on priests as the ones doing ministry and said we don’t believe that is what the Bible says. We believe, as I mentioned in Sunday to Sunday this week, “that God gathers disciples into a local congregation and calls them to be the church together, that each local congregation has Christ as its head and receives gifts from the Holy Spirit. Because of this each local congregation is complete in itself, and is called to be in a particular mission context, to so know its context that it can work and pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God in that place.”

And this is what Paul is saying to the Romans. (If you have a pen – and an actual Bible – cross out that heading that says ‘Marks of the True Christian’ as mine does, because these are the marks of the church. All the verbal forms in this passage are plural!) As a church we are to love genuinely, to hate evil and what evil does and cling to what is good. As a church we are to care for one other, to try to outdo one other in showing honour to each other. As a church

we are to stoke each other’s energy and enthusiasm, tending the fire in each other’s spirits, as we serve God together. And, when times are tough, as a church we rejoice in hope, we are patient in suffering, and we persevere in prayer. Yes, we do these things as individuals, but we also do them with each other and for each other as a church.

In The Message Bible “not lagging in zeal, being ardent in spirit” reads this way: “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fuelled and aflame.” Yes, we have an individual responsibility to keep the fire in our spirits going, but we also do this for each other for each other as we gather, as we care for one another, as we pray, as we serve.

There’s a story about minister who goes to visit a church member who had stopped coming to church regularly. It was a cold night, and the minister found this person at home alone, sitting in front of a blazing fire. They invited the minister in and showed him to a chair in front of the fire and, for the longest time, the minister said nothing. They just sat and watched the flames play around the burning logs.

And then the minister reached forward and took the fire tongs, and carefully picked up a burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone. Then sat back in the chair again, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet fascination.

That lone ember’s flame diminished. There was a momentary glow and then its fire went out. Soon it was cold and “dead as a doornail.”

Still the minister didn’t say anything. But just before getting ready to leave, the minister picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.

Then the minister got up, and as they were standing at the door, the church member broke the silence, “Thank you for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.”

We are the church. We have God’s fire in us, but we need each other to be kept ablaze.

That story of the ‘fiery sermon’ reminds me of a family joke about my mum. Years ago, when we were watching The Man From Snowy River (so this is years ago!) Clancy, I think it is, says to Jim Craig (the young Tom Burlinson), “A man can be hard to find in the mountains. You’re welcome by my fire anytime.” My mother thought we’d missed the significance of that line so explained it in detail. So, to this day, whenever she launches into an explanation (of anything) we’ll say, “Mum, tell us again, what does ’you’re welcome by my fire anytime,’ mean?”

But ‘you’re welcome by my fire anytime’ reminds me that love takes a particular shape in a particular context among a particular group of people.

For the early Baptists this meant being baptised as adults, as people making the decision to follow Jesus, and coming together in churches which governed themselves in church meetings. Not by a democracy – although Baptist church meetings look democratic – but by a theocracy because Baptist church meetings represent the priesthood of believers coming together to seek together the mind of Christ, who is the head of the church. And we do this – in local churches – not as a whole denomination – because of our missional purpose. It is our role, as a church, to always ask and to keep asking what must be said and done to make the gospel understandable and credible in this particular place where God has called us to serve.

For Paul in Romans, the missional purpose, what love looks like, is helping other Christians in practical ways. Paul can never separate love from money! And we can’t show genuine love while holding back our resources either!

And, for Paul, the purpose of the church, what love looks like, is offering hospitality to strangers. We know hospitality was vital in the ancient world – and yet was still dangerous. What does hospitality to strangers, saying to others ‘you’re welcome by my fire anytime’, look like in our context? Is it how we welcome visitors, help people explore faith or fully integrate new people into the life of our church? Is it how hospitable we are in our community centre? Is it care for refugees? Is it all these things and new things God is stirring up among us now?

Augustine of Hippo, wrote in his Confessions, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”

We are the church. We are to find the particular ways our particular community can show love.

Finally, they say, love changes, changes everything!

For Paul this means that love expands outwards from the church, to saints and to strangers, and even to include our enemies! Verse 14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” This teaching is almost identical to the words of Jesus (Luke 6:28, Matthew 5:44), “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

This is challenging – incredibly challenging – teaching but blessing our enemies does not mean ceasing to resist our enemies. We would not be the church if we were not living out what genuine love looks like in our context. Dr. Cornel West, of Princeton and Union Theological Seminary in the US has stated, “Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” We are to continue to share God’s love and justice in our words and actions.

But blessing our enemies does impact the way we go about resisting them. Verse 17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take through for what is noble in the sight of all.”

And then there’s this very curious verse – which, to be honest, nobody truly understands, “If you 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.” Some commentaries talk about ancient Egyptian penitential rites involving carrying hot coals on your heads, others say this is kindness – to share your coals, your heating and cooking source with others. Others say, and this is the reading I held till this week, that feeding and watering your enemies will heap shame on them, like burning coals, that might change their behaviour. “Kill them with kindness” as they say.

Nobody knows what this means, but I don’t believe it means we shame our enemies into submission. Killing them with kindness does not sound like genuine love. Somehow, we are to tread – like firewalkers perhaps – through these burning coals and find a way to resist oppression and becoming like our oppressors, find our way of truly witnessing to the life and love of Jesus. Jesus who went to death for advocating for the poor and marginalised, for telling the powerful that the love and favour of God, the value of human life, included all people, who prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and whose resurrection demonstrates that love is greater than hate and oppression and evil; that love will not be overcome by evil, but that love will overcome evil with good; that love does change everything..

There is a small town in Germany, Wunseidel, (Vun-zi-deh) where, for many years, neo-Nazis would come and hold commemorative marches because Rudolph Hess, Adolph Hitler’s deputy was buried there. In 2011, his body was exhumed, cremated and buried at sea, but the marches continued. The neo-Nazis would walk through the streets carrying flags and signs, often with the goal of provoking their opponents to frustration and even violence.

But in 2014 a group of organisers changed all this. They gathered sponsors and pledges for organisations that resist neo-Nazism and help people defect from the movement for every meter the neo-Nazis walked. They turned this neo-Nazi rally into a charity walkathon!

As the group marched, they encountered banners welcoming them to the ‘Nazis against Nazi’s’ walkathon, writing on the street telling them how much they’d raised so far and people setting up stands with water and bananas to “thank” and “encourage” them.

We are the church. We are to keep ourselves fuelled and aflame. We are to find our particular ways to ‘welcome others to our fire anytime’. We are to be prepared to walk across hot coals to resist our enemy and to help our enemy – to love all people.

We are the church – we have gathered here as the church and today we also gather next door – in our meeting – as the church – to continue to seek what must be said and done to proclaim the gospel in this place, how we can best work and pray for the coming Kingdom of God here.