Meherrin Presbyterian Church
September 7, 2014, Ordinary 23A
(Psalm 149) Romans 13:8-14
Living in Love
Paul’s letter to the Romans is, at the minimum, a challenging chunk of scripture from which to preach. Not that it isn’t worth the challenge, but its length – the longest of Paul’s letters to be included in the New Testament – means that with a writer and thinker like Paul, there’s going to be some convoluted structure involved, and topics you thought had been dropped chapters ago suddenly crop up again in unexpected places and take on wholly unexpected meaning and significance.
Something like that is what happens here in this last portion of chapter 13. It is a good idea to remember here that after a long stretch of wrestling with Jewish law and its inability to eliminate sin – indeed, its susceptibility to sin itself – and a seeming digression on the ultimate fate of Israel, Paul has finally turned to the practical application of all his discussion of sin and law and salvation. That was where we picked up two Sundays ago, beginning with chapter 12 and its remarkable two-verse introduction:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
We have followed that track the past two Sundays, as Paul spelled out for his Roman readers what it looks like when we live together as the Body of Christ, living sacrifices, transformed by our minds being renewed. Maybe you remember some of those characteristics; not thinking too much (or too little) of yourself, all of us bringing our particular gifts to bear in being the Body of Christ and using those gifts together with one another. Last week we picked up on how it looks when that Body relates to each other with the world watching (loving one another un-hypocritically, showing honor to one another, being ardent in spirit, rejoicing in hope and enduring suffering with patience, taking care of one another’s needs, showing hospitality to strangers) and how that body relates to the world itself (with a strong emphasis on not taking vengeance on those who do us wrong).
Now because I’m sticking with the lectionary for this trip through Romans I end up skipping the first portion of chapter 13. This passage, in which Paul discusses the proper comportment of believers towards the civil authority under which they lived – that is, the Roman Empire – is omitted from the lectionary, most likely because preachers don’t like to deal with it (don’t let any preacher tell you otherwise; as a lot we’re scared of it). There’s reason to be leery of these verses; they have been sorely abused and misused by tyrants to justify their tyranny and to intimidate believers in their midst to go along with it. Make no mistake: this interpretation is an abomination against scripture. I am obviously not preaching on that passage today, so you may count me among the cowards if you wish, but let me make this much clear; any interpretation of the first seven verses of chapter thirteen which runs counter to everything else Paul has said in Romans up to this point, especially what has come before in chapter twelve, is a flat out misreading, whether deliberate or not.
At any rate, by verse eight Paul has pivoted again and is about to drop a powerful three-verse conclusion on his readers and listeners. In this concluding point Paul pulls off not only a summation of the whole instructional passage he’s just written, he manages the neat trick of bringing back something that had been left behind many chapters ago, and actually doing so in a way that works! If you’ve ever had any kind of extended writing or teaching to do, you know that’s not easy.
I’m not going to ask you how much you remember from the sermon I preached the first time I was with you in this congregation. No, I really don’t expect you to remember, since I myself had to look it up. It was on July 6, and the reading was from Romans 7. In particular the scripture included the lament Paul poured forth about how even though he loved the law, his own flesh – his own sin-bound human nature – continued to live in sin and to be bound to sin, such that even the law itself was used to keep Paul mired in sin. The whole passage came to a head with the exclamation “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?”
What we have before us today, all these weeks and chapters later, is the moment when Paul finally returns to the law, and shows his readers and listeners what it looks like to fulfill the law – not merely in rote reading or checking off do’s and don’ts, but in fulfilling the law. And the key that unlocks that door, Paul says, is love.
It looks like a strange formation at first, as Paul begins by instructing the Romans to “owe no one anything.” This does seem odd until one sees that verse 7 has wrapped up that section on relating to government authorities with the instruction to pay those authorities what is due to them. From that statement about what Paul says we owe those in authority, it becomes natural to pivot from there back to what we owe each other, which sounds like it’s going to be “nothing.”
Paul isn’t through, though; the verse continues “owe no one anything, except to love one another,” which is one of those simple-sounding statements that only blows apart everything about the way we live.
How does that work? Now, of all times, Paul goes back to the law. His own history with the law, remember, was particularly colorful. “As to the law, a Pharisee … as to righteousness under the law, blameless” he told the Philippians. “Advanced in Judaism beyond many of my people of the same age … more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” he told the Galatians. Don’t forget that in chapter 12 he told the Romans “not to lag in zeal.” But Paul’s zeal led him to become “a persecutor of the church,” as he also told the Philippians, no doubt with much pain and grief at the memory.
Now, though, when he brings up the law, he does so in connection with love, because love is the way the law gets fulfilled.
The love of God for fallen, sinful humanity is why God would not allow that fallenness and sin to keep us from being restored.
The love of Jesus, expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, is what destroys death’s power over us, allowing us to be restored.
And the love of the Holy Spirit enables us to receive that love from God and in turn live in that love with and for one another.
Pastor and author Frederick Buechner puts it this way:
Wherever people love each other
And are true to each other
And take risks for each other,
God is with them and for them
And they are doing God’s will.
In this case Paul brings up four specific commandments of the Ten that form the core of old Hebrew law: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet” – and sums them up with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If that last sounds familiar, it’s because it is; Paul is going to no less a source than Jesus himself, apparently, as recorded in Matthew 22: it’s what Jesus calls the second great commandment, after loving God with heart, soul, and mind.
It makes sense, after all. The four commandments Paul quotes are involved with relationships, and Paul has been instructing the Romans on how the Body of Christ relates to one another and to the world. Now with the words we first heard from Jesus, Paul brings the law into fulfillment in love in a brilliant stroke: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
But in this stroke Paul does something else fascinating and challenging: he re-writes the definition of “neighbor” to include every possible relationship partner he has discussed already – both our fellow members of the Body of Christ and those living in the world outside of the Body of Christ are now swept up in the overriding word “neighbor.” Just as before, even Paul, zealous follower of the law, ended up in sin, now any follower of Christ – any member of the Body of Christ, living sacrifice, transformed by the renewing of his or her mind – fulfills the law living in love towards the “neighbor.”
Warning: loophole not found
You might recall one of the parables Jesus told, touched off by the question “Who is my neighbor?” In that case, the difficult parable Jesus told left the questioner with no choice to acknowledge a Samaritan as the neighbor of the man set upon by thieves – even if the questioner couldn’t bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” Now Paul has already instructed the Romans about blessing their enemies and not cursing them, and not taking vengeance on another, and Jesus’s parable makes it clear that hereditary enemies are still “neighbors.” For Paul’s Roman hearers and readers, “neighbor” could include both members of the Body of Christ and others not followers of Christ. A Roman citizen could suddenly find himself shifting uneasily as he considered the possibility that his slave was now to be thought of as his neighbor. An anti-Roman zealot might be chastened to realize that his neighbor was the centurion against whom he struggled. There were plenty of possibilities for such upsetting of the social order in these sweeping words from the apostle who himself had been transformed from enemy to neighbor, even if God had to slap him blind for a while to get him to understand.
So who is that uncomfortable neighbor for us? What are the barriers we build up against others that are swept aside in this commandment to love, in this call to be transformed by the renewing of our minds? Let’s face it, we modern Americans are pretty good at building walls between us. The walls might be border fences, or high-grown hedges with a brick wall hidden within, or simply miles separating us from any other habitation. The ones we keep out might be members of another race, another religious group, another Christian denomination, or (especially in contemporary USA) another political party. Or they might be in a whole other country.
Agnus Dei is a traditional text in Christian worship, dating back to very near the beginnings of the church itself. In 1956, for the dedication of the Basilica of the Annunciation in the city of Nazareth (yes, that Nazareth), a young Arab composer named Yusuf Khill was asked to create a tune for that traditional text to be used in that dedication service, the tune we sang earlier in the service. That request tied the Basilica to the community around it; not only Arabs, but also Palestinians and Israelis who had chosen to follow the way of Christ in a land already challenged by religious strife. Those Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Israeli Christians, fellow members of the whole worldwide unbounded Body of Christ; those are our neighbors too.
A Reformed Christian missionary by the name of Tom Colvin served for years in a fairly remote northern region of Ghana, ministering to those in a land where Christianity was also a minority religion. He found success in communicating to his listeners by setting the ideas he wanted to teach them to traditional tunes they already knew. The years of effort to learn the language, to become a part of the community of the Chereponi region, and to gain the trust of the citizens enabled Colvin to find a language and a tune, that we will sing at the end of the service, that taught a provocative lesson; that neighbors are a gift of God, not merely to live next to or to be friends with, but to serve – even to the point of being down on their knees washing each other’s feet, turning old worldly relationships upside down. These are our neighbors too.
For neighbors to love and serve, Thanks be to God.
Hymns: (all from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): Brethren, We Have Met To Worship (396), Holy Lamb of God (Ya hamalallah, 602), My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing?, 821), Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love (203)