Click here for the video: Genuine
It can be hard anymore these days to know what is real. Back in the 1980’s, the market for artistic masterpieces was generating unprecedented profits and front-page headlines with works by famous painters selling for tens of millions of dollars to collectors. And it was around this time that an Englishman going by the name of John Drewe came to make millions off of fake works of art done with nothing more than common emulsion paint and KY jelly. It turns out that he didn’t have to work meticulously to replicate the physical condition of the painting. All he had to do was create fake provenances, the records of ownership and origin for any particular work of art. First, he ingratiated himself to the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, claiming to be a collector and donating two forgeries for the institute’s fundraising auction. Trading on that good will, Drewe got access to its archives and used them to gain letterhead and other correspondence that he then used to create his fake provenances. He did something similar at the Tate, making a sizable donation to support the cataloguing of their archives in order to gain access to their library. He also gained access to the National Art Library, where he doctored a catalogue, including photos of forged paintings that would later sell on the basis of their being included in that catalogue. Even when the paintings themselves were considered unimpressive at best, Drewe was able to move them because the provenances were considered flawless. It isn’t always easy to tell what’s authentic, what’s the genuine article, and what is not.
But it’s not just art. It seems like everyday there’s a story, or a picture, or a video, or a tweet that has to be fact checked, or de-bunked. Like works of art with a believable provenance, we often pass these forgeries along without taking the time to thoroughly authenticate them, because we believe them to be true, or we want them to be true, or in some cases, we need them to be true- even when they’re not. For the most part, however, we can verify whatever’s at stake by relying on the objective facts of the matter. If we’re open to hearing them. If we’re willing to take a closer look and allow for the possibility that we might not have all the information.
At the opening of this chapter in his letter to the Romans, Paul makes an appeal, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In other words, don’t get stuck doing, and thinking and being what the world around you tells you to do and think and be- change your life by changing your mind. Then a few verses down, where our reading this morning began, he goes on to describe just what that kind of changed life looks like.It starts with love that is genuine. Let’s follow that progression for a second. First he says, don’t be conformed to this world. Meaning don’t let yourself being taken captive by the way this world works. Don’t fall so easily into the patterns of everyone around you that you lose any sense of who you are outside of those patterns. Instead, he says, be transformed by the renewing of your mind. It makes me think of the ‘refresh’ button on a news, or social media website. The only reason you click that button is because you expect something new to be revealed to you when you do. When we refresh the page and get more information, we necessarily gain something from the experience. Likewise, when we renew our minds, we open ourselves to being changed. And the first mark, the first and defining characteristic of that transformation is this: genuine love.
Okay. Well, when it comes to art, and news, and pictures and even tweets- there are certain things you can do to make sure that what you’re looking at or reading is authentic. There are ways of telling whether something like that is the genuine article or not. You can’t just take someone’s word on it anymore. You check the source, or look at the evidence, or seek some kind of confirmation. But how do you any of those things when it comes to love? I mean there are people who try. There are countless songs about this question, like the old Shoop Shoop Song that advises, if you want to know if he you loves you so, it’s in his kiss. That’s where it is. But there’s also plenty of counter testimony to refute such wisdom. You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss. It turns out that when it comes to love, things are a little more complicated. So, it might be helpful to consider Paul’s appeal some more. Do not be conformed to this world. Maybe we could start by looking at what too often passes for love in the world. Because our goal is to resist being conformed to that.
What we see is that like everything else conformed to this world, love is made into a commodity. Meaning that love comes at a cost. It’s a transaction. You only get it, if you give it. Or give something for it. In this world, if a person wants someone to show them some love, they’re generally expected to do something to justify that love. “I’ll show you some love when you show me some respect,” we might say. Or, “when you show me you care, or that you’re listening, or that you’re willing to do what I want you to do.” The other way of saying this is when we start a sentence with the words, “if you really loved me, you would…” Fill in the blank. The kind of love that is conformed to this world is the kind that generally needs some form of outside incentive to show itself and has to be proven before it can be trusted.
The genuine love that Paul is talking about, on the other hand, the kind of love that we learn about by the renewing of our minds, the kind of love that is part and parcel of our transformation, does not depend on all those outside factors. As Eugene Peterson translates this verse in his Message paraphrase, “love from the center of who you are.” Or as Diana Prince, the Wonder Woman, tells Ares, the Greek god of war when he says that humanity doesn’t deserve saving, “it’s not about what they deserve, it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” The actual Greek word that gets translated here as ‘genuine’ more literally means ‘un-hypocritical.’ We all have our ideas about what makes someone a hypocrite, but back in the first century it was a very specific image rooted in the theatrical productions of that day. Back then, a handful of actors might play several different parts in a single play. So, to distinguish them for the audience the actors would wear a mask to show which character they were playing. Back then a hypocrite was an actor. In the same way the kind of love that is conformed to this world is often one that is made to play its part in order to get what it wants. It wears a mask, playing the part of love, while underneath is something far different, something far darker.
The provenance of a love that is genuine cannot be faked, it does not wear a mask or hide behind a wall. It hates, or refuses to participate in what is evil. That is, what is actively working against the very things God is trying to restore. Instead it holds fast to the goodness of what God has made, and what God is remaking every day. Genuine love isn’t concerned about what it gets in return, but outdoes itself for its own sake; for the sake of what it has to give. It is eager and passionate about being a part of what God is up to in the world. Joyfully expectant, patient through the pain, and persistent with God’s help in making sure everyone’s needs are met and strangers are welcomed no matter where they come from or the nature of their immigration status.
This what God is up to. God is up to the work of blessing. Even if it means blessing people we don’t think deserve it because we believe in this genuine love that has the power to transform enemies into friends. Always blessing. Never cursing. Blessing with an eye first and foremost to what others are going through and coming alongside them, in both their joy and their sorrow. Not just coming alongside the like-minded, the ones in our particular circle, or bubble, but coming alongside the people who are often treated as an afterthought; the ones who may not be able to do anything for you in return.
And just as this genuine love doesn’t depend on what it gets in return, it also doesn’t look for payback when it is wronged, when it is hurt. That isn’t how genuine love works. Because to repay evil for evil is to abandon the very good that love seeks. Vengeance may feel good in the moment. It’s like a drug in that way, offering a momentary high that cannot be sustained and only makes our injury worse. Enmity is a monster that feeds on itself. It is made larger and more powerful the more we conform ourselves to the tribal habits of this world, turning people into faceless, soulless others- enemies- in order to make it easier to destroy them. But when we recognize that they hunger and thirst for many of the same things for which we hunger and thirst, and meet them there, when we refuse to be conformed the this world of us and them, friend and foe, it is enmity itself that is destroyed. When we love from the center of who we are, meaning that we love from the image of God that is central to our very being, then evil cannot overcome us. Floodwaters cannot overcome us. Violence cannot overcome us. Poverty cannot overcome us. Racism, nationalism, and fear cannot overcome us. Neither can cancer overcome us, or bankruptcy, or a divorce, or all the other things that conspire to break our spirit and steal our hope. When we refuse to be conformed, but are transformed instead by renewing our minds and opening our hearts to the love of God that is central to who we are, then all that evil will be more than overcome, it will be overwhelmed by the unstoppable goodness that love. And it will change the way we think about see everything else there is to think about and see, forever.