Sunday 7 September 2014
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23A
Many Christians in our age define the faith in the importance of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. Accept Jesus Christ and you will be saved. This is, of course, an important message. But I wonder if sometimes we focus on conversion to the exclusion of everything else. People might be led to believe that once you have accepted Jesus in your heart, or once you are baptized, there is nothing left to do as a Christian.
The message from Paul in the Letter to the Romans today, however, tackles head on the question of what we do once we have already accepted Jesus as lord. Specifically, how are we to live in light of the love that God has shown us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? How should our actions be different than before we were believers? How should they be different than before we knew Jesus?
Paul starts by telling us that we should pay off all of our debts and owe nothing to anyone. The idea is that if we have debts, in either money or favors, then we will be tied down, burdened, and fettered, and we won’t have the freedom to do the things we should as Christians. If we are beholden to other people, then our responsibilities to them may conflict with our responsibilities to God. It’s like the idea that a politician who takes tons of money from a special interest group may not be able to do what’s right for her constituents when the time comes.
Except, Paul says, there is one debt that you can never fully pay off: the debt of loving one another. Now, we don’t usually think of love as a debt that has to be repaid. But Paul is reminding us that the love God has shown us through the live, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is so immense, in fact it is immeasurable, infinite love. It is so great that we could never love God back the amount that God has loved us. And furthermore, the primary way that we are asked to love God is by loving our neighbors, by loving each other. And so it is that we can never fully pay back our debt of love to our neighbors, a debt that is not held by our neighbors themselves, but by God. Therefore, Paul says, loving your neighbor is the only debt that you should have.
And its not only the only debt that you should have, love is also the only law that you should have. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with laws and commandments, at least 613 of them, and in Paul’s time there were continual arguments about how to follow them, and which ones were more important, and when there might be exceptions to certain laws.
It’s not that much different for us. We Christians continue to have an awful lot of laws and rules. And we continue to debate which ones are more important than others, which should be followed at which times, and which have exceptions or should be ignored. What does it mean, for example, to keep the Sabbath? Is it on Sunday or Saturday? Should we really do no work? What about mowing the lawn or cooking dinner?
Or what about the other rules? Should Christians dance, or gamble, or drink, or smoke? How much money are we required to give to the church? Should we give money to beggars? What should we do for the hungry? Should we vote for Republicans or Democrats? Which sexual relationships are sanctioned and which are not? How should we treat members of other churches or of other religions? These are all serious questions for Christians in our modern world.
But Paul suggests that we don’t need a bunch of rules to cover every possible situation. We shouldn’t try to legislate our morality and keep score of who is behaving righteously and who is not. No, we don’t need a whole slew of rules: we only need one rule: love one another. That’s it. Just love one another. Paul says that every other rule and commandment flows out of that one simple rule. Love one another. If we truly love one another, and we live out our love for one another in every situation, then we will have surely fulfilled all of the other rules and commandments, because they all flow from love. They are all simply variations on the theme of loving God and loving one another. So stop arguing about the rules, stop taking notes and keeping score of who is following them, and simply love one another, and apply that love to every action that you take. If you do that, everything else will fall into place.
And don’t forget that the reason that we love our neighbor is not because they deserve it or have earned it. After all, we don’t deserve God’s love, we haven’t earned it, it isn’t our due. And yet, God loves us with an abundant, immeasurable love that we can scarcely imagine. That is the reason that we love one another: because God first loved us.
Let’s face it, a whole lot of our neighbors don’t deserve our love. Our enemies haven’t earned our love. But that is completely irrelevant in light of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Just because other people might hate us, it is not an excuse not to love them. It’s God’s love that we are responding to, not other people’s. And God asks that we return that love by passing it on, paying it forward, and loving all of the people in our world, whomever they might be and whatever they might have done.
And, Paul reminds us, don’t forget what time it is. The night is nearly over, the day is close at hand. Wake up! Salvation is closer now than when we were first believers.
Now, we might be tempted to discount this warning out of hand. Paul seems to be saying that we should be on our best behavior because Jesus is about to return, and we don’t want him to catch us while we’re misbehaving. But it’s been nearly 2000 years since Paul wrote those words, and the world still hasn’t come to an end, so why should we listen to Paul’s warnings. Hundreds of generations have gone by without Paul’s predictions coming true, it seems, so why should we trust him?
Well, that would be true, except that it’s not exactly what Paul is saying. He’s not just saying that it’s almost time for Jesus to return, so you’d better look busy, although he did probably believe that Jesus would return much sooner than now. Nevertheless, Paul is saying something more complicated and more pertinent than that.
He’s saying that we are at a point in time when the old age, what he calls the night, and the new age, which he calls day, are overlapping. We are still living in the night, but the day has already begun to break forth.
That is to say that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have started something in motion. The Kingdom of God is already dawning, already breaking into the world. And even though we have not yet reached that time when the Kingdom of God has fully taken control of everything, it has already begun to do so. And we have a choice to live either in the old age, the age of darkness, or to live in the new age, the age of light.
In the age of darkness, people can get away with all kinds of evil things. They can get away with not loving each other, because in the dark, everything is hidden. You can’t see the wrong things that people are doing.
But in the age of light, everything is exposed. You can’t get away with anything, because the light reveals all. All of our actions, whether good or bad, are open for everyone to see.
So it’s easy to see why most people choose to live in the darkness. It seems like a much easier path. But we are called to live in the light, to live as if the Kingdom of God were already in complete control, to put on the armor of light that will protect us from slipping back into the darkness, where anything goes.
Let us then live in the light, loving one another as if everyone could see our actions, as if we were representatives and emissaries of God’s Kingdom. Because that is in fact exactly what we are. People look at us to see how Christians behave. So let us live as Christians. And let the world know that we are Christians by the love that we show, not just for each other, but for the whole world.