Summary: Christian commitment is demonstrated when Christians sincerely love one another.
Love Within the Church
A college roommate of mine used to quote his grandmother's definition of love.
"Love," she had said, "is the feeling that you feel when you feel the feeling like you've never felt before."
Than definition expresses a common conception of love. Even the standard dictionary tells us that love is an emotion, a feeling.
That's certainly true, but if we think of love exclusively as an emotion, we'll misunderstand what's at the heart of the Biblical concept of love.
In fact, to understand what the Bible means when is calls us to love, we need a new way of thinking about love.
The early Christians seemed to realize this. Out of the several Greek words for love available to them, the writers of the New Testament chose a little-used word, agape, and made it their primary word to describe their understanding of love. They didn't so much give it new meaning as they revealed the meaning which was there potentially.
William Barclay defines agape in a way which seems particularly appropriate for this context of thoughtful commitment.
"Agape has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live. Agape has supremely to do with the will.
"It is in fact the power to love the unlovable, to love people whom we do not like. Christianity does not ask us to love our enemies and to love men at large in the same way as we love our nearest and dearest and those who are closest to us; that would be at one and the same time impossible and wrong. But it does demand that we should have at all times a certain attitude of the mind and a certain direction of the will towards all men, no matter who they are.
"Let a man be a saint or let a man be a sinner, God's only desire is for that man's highest good. Agape is the spirit which says: 'No matter what any man does to me...I will always seek nothing but his highest good." That is to say, Christian love, agape, is unconquerable benevolence, invincible good will."
Love in the New Testament is not measured by feelings but by action. The New Testament writers knew that anyone can talk about love, acting in love is another matter.
This is the kind of love Paul is talking about when he says, "Love must be sincere." The grammatical structure of that statement is interesting. It contains no verb; it says simply, "Sincere Love." It stands almost as a heading for what follows.
The remaining verses of the chapter describe the outworking of love toward those within the Christian community and toward those outside the community. Such love is to be "sincere," or literally "unhypocritical." There's to be no play-acting when it comes to expressing this love.
Christians are to "abhor" whatever is evil-whatever might spring from a failure to love. One translation suggests that they were to "regard evil with horror." (Goodspeed) At the same time, they were to "cling to what is good"-or whatever springs from love. The language is the same as that used to describe the marriage relationship. Montgomery incorporates this in her translation, "Wed yourselves to what is good."
Paul began this chapter with a call to thoughtful, transforming commitment; no such commitment would be possible without sincere love. As sincere love shapes our attitudes and actions, our life within the Christian community will be transformed.
SINCERE LOVE WITHIN THE COMMUNITY
IS MANIFESTED IN OUR SPIRITUAL FERVOR
As the words flow from Paul's pen (or at least from his mouth as he dictates to his secretary) he rapidly shifts from one topic to another. Rather than trying to follow him, I’m going to pull together what he says in a more topical manner.
At first glance, this verse is primarily concerned with love toward the God whose grace has placed us within the community of faith. This love is our response to God who rescued us from alienation, drew us to himself, and made us a part of his one new people. To use one of Paul's favorite terms, we are "in Christ;" we are in communion with Christ and in the community of Christ.
We respond to this blessing with a passionate devotion.
Negatively, we are to "never be lacking in zeal." A realist, Paul knew that the temptation to allow our ardor to wane is very real.
Perhaps Paul was already seeing Christians growing weary in the struggle against the entrenched immorality and error of their culture. Perhaps some has just allowed other concerns to crowd out the proper devotion they should have given to Christ.
In any case, Paul calls all Christians to counter the tendency to allow devotion to flag by "being aglow with the Spirit," as the RSV translates "keep your spiritual fervor." Ralph Earle suggests that Paul's idea involves allowing our human spirit to be set aglow by the Holy Spirit.