For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.1
For many years that song was the way that this congregation responded when someone would come forward and stand here where I am this morning to join this community in membership. The song’s words “Blest be the tie that binds” are an affirmation of just how powerful our connection to one another can be when we take seriously Jesus’ call to love one another just as he loves us.
If you’re at all curious, the song was written by a pastor named John Fawcett, who served a poor congregation in Wainsgate, England in the middle of the 18th century. John had come to form deep and meaningful bonds with the motley crew from this town that one writer described as being as “poor as Job’s turkey.”2 So, understandably, John Fawcett was hard-pressed to provide for his family while serving that community.
Well, one day, a large church in London came asking for John to serve their congregation. It was a move that offered his family a chance at financial stability. So John agreed and was set to go. But on the day of their departure, seeing the deep sadness of those impoverished folk that he had come to love; the despondence of those who he had come to call friends, John is said to have turned to the crowd and pronounced from atop the wagon, “We’ve changed our minds! We are going to stay!” And he did. Serving alongside those people for 54 years. Sacrificing the shot at financial stability, for love of the poor folks of Wainsgate. Even establishing an education center for the community’s children out of his home.2 “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love!” he wrote.
To me, it is always awe-inspiring to consider what some people will do for the sake of those they call dear friends. I hope you can think of moments in your own life, when a friend has shown just how unconditional their love for you can be.
The Apostle Paul, whose writings make up a sizable portion of the New Testament, spent his years considering the impact that these sorts of loving relationships could have on Christian believers. Today, nearly two thousand years later, it’s easy for us to make the mistake of reading his letters as though they were dissertations designed to shape Christian theology for all time. But really, the letters of Paul were written to Christian communities who struggled with how to live together. Take a look, and you will see that behind all those theological treatises is a care and concern for building Christ-like relationships. Paul wanted to help people see how they could come to work out meaningful and loving relationships in Christ…which are the building blocks of the community we call “church.”
In the passage from Romans that we just heard read, Paul paints a picture of church at its best. And in verse 10 of his appeal, Paul says “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” and in the koine Greek with which his text was originally written, that statement uses variations of the Greek word phileo.
Now, I am to understand that you are all experts on phileo because you saw the Super Bowl commercial, right? Which highlighted the four primary words used in ancient Greek that get translated to our English word “love.” And in this sermon series, we are taking time to look at these four words, not because of the commercial, but because doing so gives us some means of teasing out and making distinctions about different types of love; especially, since love is such a primary focus of our faith.
Phileo is the Greek word that describes a sort of love that has an emotional connection that goes beyond acquaintances or casual friendships. It suggests relationships that our bound tightly together in enjoyment, appreciation, and deep care—hence the translation in this text as loving each other with mutual affection. In other translations, it says “Be good friends who love deeply” (MSG); “Love each other like the members of your family.” (CEB); “Have kindly affection one for another with brotherly love, in honor preferring one another;” (KJV).
We seem to understand that there is a sort of deepening of love between friends when we use a phrase like, “I love you like a brother/sister/sibling.” That is phileo, and it is an important type of love to the Christian community because it is a deep part of what it takes to embody the way of Jesus in the world. In fact, it’s the only way; We cannot learn to love, or forgive, or show compassion, like Jesus taught, unless we commit ourselves to the messiness of human relationships. And so my word of encouragement to you this day is to expand the circle of those you call friends and work towards deepening those relationships.
But there is something else that must be said here, because we usually lean towards forming friendships with those who are most like us (or at least appear most like us, outwardly). We are encouraged by what is modeled to us in our culture and through the metrics of social media to cluster in comfortable enclaves of sameness, and to avoid the discomfort of difference. This lie has been handed to the church to some extent as well, sell visions of church as a tribe of like-minded individuals defined by a static set of convictions and a uniformity of perspective. This concerns me. The perception that the church is a club for likeminded people who already have it all figured out creates a barrier to meaningful community and radical hospitality.
And after all, we tell ourselves that birds of a feather flock together. But birds flocking with cats, impossible, right!? It seems for Yasha the parakeet and Fozi the housecat.4 It seems a meaningful friendship for them.
Or how about Anjana the chimp with her tiger cubs Mitra and Shiva?5
Or the friendship I am most delighted in, that Bubbles the African elephant and Bella the black lab have formed?6
Yes, turns out, they have more to bond over than you thought they might at snap judgement, like a mutual love for water and general aquatic antics.
But I digress. This is perhaps an entirely too cute way of trying to get at something far more serious: don’t buy the lie that is handed to you by our culture which says you only stand a chance with those that think and feel and act and vote like you. Many are finding it easier to end relationships than to listen to a different point of view. What was once disagreement has become outright disdain. And it’s so easy for churches to become conformed to this view of the world; a world of us versus them, polarized extremes, fractured relationships, shouting matches, hatred spewed on social media. God forbid we ever become so puffed up with pride in the church that we forget to listen to brothers and sisters who do not agree with us.
Rachel Held Evans, was a theologian and writer who tragically died last year at the age of thirty-seven. She was full of love for the church and, out of that love, she challenged the church to deeper engagement. In one of her blog posts she wrote, “Let’s learn to argue better. I have no problem with Christians arguing with one another. Really. We’re brothers and sisters, for goodness sake! Of course we’re going to argue…But surely we can allow differences to exist without questioning one another’s commitment to the faith and without rooting for one another’s demise.”3
I hear the Apostle Paul’s words echoing in my head, “Do not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement…For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we—who are many—are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…”4 I get that this is not an easy time to belong to people who don’t already share all your opinions or take part in the same social enclaves. To be conformed is easy. It is comfortable. It is tempting. It is not faithful.
Living out phileo also means that we will belong to others—other perspectives, other backgrounds, other ideologies, and, yes, even other political parties. To form loving relationship with those that are different than us is to assemble the Body that Paul speaks of. And seeking to build abiding friendships like this is to the greater lie of an age that pushes isolation, division, fear, and anger.
The Apostle Paul seems to believe that the faithfulness of our living is determined by the quality of the relationships that we form. So what if we did what Paul says? What if we loved with mutual affection? What if the church was a place where we were so friended up in deep and abiding ways that we could tell our stories and be ourselves without fear of rejection or judgment? What if we were to invest in relationship in such a way that we were able to really rejoice with those who are rejoicing and truly weep with those who are weeping? Oh, how desperately the world needs those who want to build loving friendships!
Listen; belonging to this congregation is no spectator sport. It is in our core values here at Harvard Avenue Christian Church—when we say “Beloved,” we mean to say that we are ready to do the work of building relationships grounded in love—that in deep friendship, we find profound fulfillment, greater joy, stronger character.
And this is what gives me hope about the future of the church. Because the community called the church—with all its flaws, imperfections, limitations, and faults—can be a holy place of building deep and abiding relationships of mutual affection. It can be community that outdoes itself in honoring one another as the beautiful children of God that all people are.
I believe that this community here at Harvard Avenue has learned something about the goodness of phileo. And we’re still learning. We’re continuing to learn that we need one another. We are learning that the impulse to divide is a snare that leaves us all short of God’s vision. We are learning that genuine community does not require conformity. We are learning that the God whose grace and mercy brings us together is far more powerful than all that seeks to separate us. In other words, we are leaning that we belong to each other. For as siblings in Christ, we are bound together.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Oh Lord, may it be so in this place.
1John Fawcett. “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” 1782.
2 Dr. Michael Hawn. History of Hymns: “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” June 13, 2013. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-blest-be-the-tie-that-binds
7 Rachel Held Evans. “Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between.” JJuly 16, 2012. https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/liberal-conservative-christianity
8 Romans 12:3-5