About two years ago, British journalist James Bartholomew observed a trend in modern Western culture and coined a new English term to describe it. He called it “virtue signaling.”  Have you seen any virtue signaling lately? Are you a virtue signaler? Maybe you’re wondering: what is virtue signaling? Today, instead of telling you, I’m going to show you. The caption reads: “My tumblr [a social media site similar to Facebook or Twitter] post about feeding the homeless got 10,000 reblogs! It’s so very satisfying to be making a difference in people’s lives!” Yes, how good you are for telling the world you care about the homeless while ignoring the one you’re walking past. This is a blatant, obvious example. But virtue signaling is everywhere. When companies advertise their support for the environment or poverty or homelessness to convince you to buy their product – they are virtue signaling. When people wear wristbands proclaiming their awareness of cancer, plaster their bumpers with stickers decrying everything from inequality to bullying, or participate in something as silly and unhelpful as an “ice bucket challenge” – they are virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is a way to make yourself feel and look good without actually doing any good. We just celebrated the king of virtue signaling holidays: Valentine’s Day – how much easier is it to buy a box of chocolates or a dozen roses than it is to actually sit and listen or do the chores! Virtue signaling is a shallow excuse for not showing real care, compassion and love. We live in a world of empty expressions of love – so we need our Lord to tell us what genuine love looks like.
But before we do that, we have to make sure we are using the right definition and standard of love. We could easily take a stroll down the road of self-righteousness by comparing our love to the artificial, virtue signaling love of the world. But the world is not the standard of love; God is. And Paul tells us exactly what God demands: Love must be sincere. (Literally, without hypocrisy.) In other words, when God looks for love, he looks at our hearts. This genuine love must flow in two directions. First, Jesus says: love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30) Secondly: love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31) In both of these, Jesus’ standard is: be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48) God is not fooled if our “love” is no more than lip-service. God knows when our kindness is little more than a cover for a bitter, jealous, greedy heart. God knows if we do good things for others even though we’d rather not. God demands that we love him and love others with genuine, sincere, perfect love. Self-examination time. How do we stack up?
If we’re honest, we must confess that we have not loved as God demands – and even the best we can do is tainted by sin. The perfect Law of God reveals that if our salvation depends on our love, we are doomed. But here’s the good news: At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 3:5-8) When we were unlovable, wretched, rebellious enemies of God, he loved us. He didn’t just tell us about his love – he proved it by sending Jesus to live and die for us. If you want to see genuine love, look at Jesus. He didn’t just talk about helping those in need – he actually rebuked the proud, he comforted the hurting, he fed the hungry, gave sight to the blind and life to the dead. When his enemies showed their hatred by beating him and nailing him to a cross Jesus showed his love by praying: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34) And then, Jesus performed the greatest act of love in human history: he laid down his life to pay for the sins – of not just his friends, but his enemies. Through faith, our lovelessness is covered by his perfect life of love. That’s genuine love. That’s genuine love from our God whose very essence is love. (1 John 4:16)
Only when our faith is firmly fixed on God’s perfect, genuine love for us will we be ready for Paul’s answer to the question: what does genuine love look like in our own lives? Paul begins: hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Love hates? Yes. Our world says things like: a true friend will support you in anything you want to do. No. True love is discerning. A true friend will tell you when you’re doing something foolish or dangerous. Genuine love will go farther. Genuine love will tell you when you are doing something that threatens your eternal welfare. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Both Greek words here describe the love which naturally exists between parents and children, brothers and sisters. Genuine love goes further than family relationships, in fact, it transcends them, rises above them. While so much of the world’s virtue is marked by division: black or blue or white or brown lives matter more than others; genuine, Christ-like love shows the same tender, warm affection for brothers and sisters in faith as it does for blood relatives. Honor one another above yourselves. Virtue signaling is intended to make you look better than other people. Genuine, Christian love will fall over itself to give others the credit. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. It’s likely that many of the world’s virtue signalers actually do intend to do some real good. But sinful laziness prevents their good intentions from ever bearing fruit. The same can happen among believers. We say we will pray for someone, but forget. We volunteer to help, but other things come up. How do we overcome this? A more accurate translation is: be fervent in Spirit – the Greek word pictures a pot boiling over. In order for us to be able to love others, God must light a fire in our hearts. If we find our love growing cold, it’s because we’ve strayed from the fire of God’s love. If we want to glow with love for others, we must be warmed by the love and forgiveness God gives us first, in the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. This triplet applies primarily to the way we run our race through life. Our certainty of salvation in Jesus keeps us steadfast and joyful when we face the storms and trials of life. When trials come, we don’t lash out or grow irritable, we patiently endure. And, in all things, at all times, in all places, for all people – we pray; we turn over our problems and concerns to God. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Genuine love doesn’t wait to be asked for help and doesn’t expect to be repaid. Everything we have is God’s gift to us – and we should take special care to share what God has given us – especially with our fellow believers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Genuine love never wishes that something awful would happen to someone – even if they deserve it. Genuine love hopes and prays that God would bestow rich blessings on those who persecute us. Why? Because our role models are not the celebrities who stand on stage and spew their empty, hypocritical outrage – our role model is God and Jesus gave the perfect example of God’s love even for his enemies in Matthew: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. This is one of the greatest joys and challenges of being a pastor – your pastor. I get to share in your joys – the birth of a child, a baptism, a marriage, a new job, the peace of forgiveness; but when you lose a job, when the doctor’s report is not good, when death robs you of a loved one that becomes my burden as well. But I don’t have a monopoly, either. Rejoice and mourn together – that’s how we share one another’s burdens. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. There is no hierarchy in Christ’s church. No one is any better or holier than anyone else. There are no elites, no 99% and no 1%, there are only blood bought sinners. Let’s pause there. Genuine Christian love is sincere, discerning, and affectionate. It is enthusiastic and patient, generous and hospitable. It is marked by harmony and humility. And that’s just here, with our fellow believers.
But Paul is not done. Genuine love also looks out, to a world filled with enemies. Do not repay evil for evil. Do not take revenge. Do not be overcome by evil. Each of these phrases says the same thing in different words. Retaliation and revenge are not in the Christian vocabulary. And our sinful nature doesn’t like it. That’s not fair. That’s not the way the world works. When someone gets hurt, the perpetrator must pay. That’s why we have judges, juries and executioners – justice must be carried out. And while Paul is not forbidding using the courts and rule of law to achieve justice; he is forbidding seeking personal revenge. Because, while revenge and retribution are the way of the world – they are not the way of Jesus’ disciples.
The question is: why? Why shouldn’t I flip off the guy who cuts me off on the highway? Why shouldn’t I get even when someone rips me off or betrays my trust? Why shouldn’t I throw a temper tantrum when I don’t think I’m being treated fairly? Why shouldn’t I unleash on the waitress for messing up my order – it’s her fault, I have every right! No, you don’t. For two reasons. First, Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. Perhaps the most annoying part about virtue signalers is their arrogance; they think they know better than everyone. They know better than you how you should think, better than police officers and presidents who is a threat to our safety, better than judges who is guilty and innocent, better than elected representatives what is best for our country. For the Christian, revenge is an act of arrogance; it is nothing less than pretending to know better than God – to take his place as the Judge. God knows when you are wronged, and he will carry out fuller and firmer justice than you ever could. Either in this life – through his representatives (look forward to Romans 13) or in the next, through the eternal punishment of hell – God will right all wrongs. Of that, you can be certain.
Secondly, showing kindness instead of seeking revenge has the potential to bring about the best of all possible outcomes: if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head. Heaping coals on someone’s head is a good outcome? Yes. Burning coals are a picture of shame. Have you ever felt shame? That hot, sick feeling you get especially when someone is kinder, more patient, and more forgiving than you deserve? That’s the kind of heat genuine love pours on the head of enemies. Our goal in repaying evil with kindness is not just to make someone feel shame, but hopefully to lead them to repentance and faith and salvation – and that is, without a doubt, the best of all possible outcomes. With God as our example and strength, we can pay back kindness for evil – and that is how genuine love is not overcome by evil, but overcomes evil with good.
So, now, we have to ask: are you a virtue signaler…or do you demonstrate genuine love? That’s a hard question to answer, isn’t it? If I’m honest, I have to say: both. Sometimes my actions are genuinely loving – but other times I’m no better than the guy in the cartoon. Can you say the same thing? Do you know what that makes you – wanting to do and be genuinely loving but always struggling and often failing? That makes you a Christian. (see Romans 7) That struggle to love is what drives us daily to the cross – to wash our sins in the limitless flood of God’s love. We began with a cartoon, we will close with a story from the life of Paul Gerhardt, the author of our final hymn. In his last will and testament he reminded his only living son why he should show genuine love to all: “Do good to people, even if they cannot pay you back because…” and we would expect him to continue “…because God will repay you.” But, that’s not what Paul wrote. Rather, he continued “…because for what human beings cannot repay, the Creator of heaven and earth has already repaid long ago when he created you, when he gave you his only Son, and when he accepted and received you in holy baptism as his child and heir.” (quoted in Handling the Word of Truth) God’s love for you in Christ. That’s what genuine love looks like. Amen.