A sermon on Romans 13:8
At the risk of appearing like a dad on Father’s day I feel the need to do something I usually would not recommend as a preaching tool – beginning with a joke, and more specifically a dad joke. It is in fact one of my repertoire of favourite jokes because it has a religious edge as well. And possibly for you it is only short so you won’t have to bear the pain long.
Have you heard about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac?
He used to lie awake at night and wonder whether there really was a dog!
Well on this day we gather because we too wonder about God and what it means to be in relationship with God. Maybe there are nights that you have lain awake, like me, and wondered whether there is a God - reaching out in the silence listening for some hint of a divine voice.
In that search for God’s presence and God’s teaching we come and on this day we read a letter written nearly 2000 years ago to a group of the first generation of Christians. This group of Christians lived at the heart of the Roman Empire, in the shadow of Caesar, in Rome itself.
Paul wrote to them trying to help them understand who Jesus was and what it meant to be his followers. As he was coming towards the end of his letter he wrote these words:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
The word ‘except’ seems somehow to imply that to love one another is a small thing but the notion of loving one another is actually a really quite difficult. Our experience of feeling loved by others is often not what we would desire.
So what does it mean to feel loved? Well I’d like to tell a short parable about love.
Each day when I arrive home and this might actually happen 5 or 6 times during the day as I come and go I experience an amazing sense of being loved.
Usually by the time my keys hit the door I can hear footsteps rushing to greet me. Pounding the stairs in excitement! I open the door and a black dart shoots out and rushes around my legs sniffing at me. Nutmeg almost without fail greets me with an avalanche of joy. Her tail wags vigorously and she looks up at me expectantly. Knowing that I don’t like her to jump at me she sits and waits until I reach down and offer her a response of love back, a scratch and a pat.
Once I come into the house she will often follow me around seeking for the relationship to deepen through further interaction. She expects some time, maybe a game, maybe another pat.
She pursues me in love and in hope and I have no doubt she thinks of herself as one of us. Somewhat ironically, given my dad joke at the beginning, I think in Nutmeg’s greeting I experience something of the divine love.
It is love which pursues us and wants us to be part God’s very own life for God is love. It makes me think of the story of the prodigal son who on his return home is greeted by a father who throws honour, pride and dignity aside to run and greet the home coming – now is a time for celebration and for games! It reminds me of God’s commitment to pursue us and come after us wherever we go, even becoming one of us.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another!
Think about how you know that you are loved?
What it is it that helps you understand the kind of value you have as a person?
During the week I was sitting in Briki reading in preparation for today when one of the girls who works there came over with my coffee. It wasn’t too busy so she asked what I was reading. I explained that I was reading books to help me understand more about love.
“That’s something that everyone can relate to.” she replied.
So I asked her, “How do you know when somebody loves you?”
She mused about the question for a moment and then said, “You know someone loves by the way they act towards you!”
The saying is of course that actions speak louder than words and when we consider the vast and complex idea that God is love and connect it with the idea that we experience love as an action then if we want to understand love and how to owe one another love maybe the place to begin to look is God.
Of course, the primary source of our faith is not a document, not the Bible, but a person: Jesus. As people of the Christian faith we have come to believe that Jesus is God in our midst. Jesus is God pursuing us in love – it is an action. God comes into the world and in Jesus own life of serving others even in his death and in Jesus rising again you and I and all creation encounter the depth of that love which God.
God is completely and utterly self giving, focussed on us.
This kind of love is all but impossible for us to emulate and model but the invitation from Paul to the early Christian community to enter into that love and participate in as best we can.
“Owe no one anything except love...”
Of course we know we know we fail to do this, we fail to love one another as we ought. we say unkind words, we put ourselves first, we judge others and somewhat hopefully we can know that God understands that this is exactly what we are like.
From Matthew’s gospel we heard a story which kind of sounds a bit odd as Jesus talks about forgiveness and the church. Given that the church did not exist when Jesus was alive we can only understand this passage by either saying Jesus was using the Greek word for church ekklesia in a different way or that Matthew in writing his gospel altered the story to help his community make sense of it.
In either case what we hear is something of a formula for dealing with the breakdown of relationships in a community. It could be easy to misinterpret this in to some sort of regulations for reconciliation but what I would want you to think about this morning is that in this teaching Jesus acknowledges a couple of things.
One is that as human beings he was expecting that we would continue to struggle to love one another as we ought even after he had invited us in to God’s love. Christians are not perfect.
And that even if reconciliation was not found we are to treat those who find it difficult to make up or admit that they have done something wrong as people not to be shunned but to be sought out in love.
Jesus says treat them like the tax collector and sinner. A traditional Jewish audience may have heard this to mean that we should exclude and reject them from the community but Jesus behaviour flies in the face of this. His behaviour which reflects God’s love is to eat with tax collector and sinner – to continue to seek them out. He includes a tax collector among his disciples!
An inability to find reconciliation is not an excuse for rejection but a challenge to learn more deeply that God is love and that grace abounds.
Certainly these are not easy things to do but the invitation to owe no one anything but love is the invitation to follow Jesus into a life of self giving love.
Let me share one other story from my week. During a conversation with a student in one of the colleges he made the comment that he is open to the idea of God and Jesus but has been told by his Christian friends that if he does not accept everything 100% then he is not really a Christian.
Jesus words indicate we are limited in our ability to follow and love one another as Jesus invites us to – it is why we always say a prayer of confession.
More than that our sharing at the table is a reminder of the brokenness of our lives and God’s desire and promise that a better future is in store for us! Just as Jesus was raised from the dead so the entire creation will be made new. This is the depth of God’s love for you and I and the whole of humanity.
In this I would say that Paul’s invitation to owe others love is not us repaying God but is rather our way of participating in showing other something of that amazing love which we have encountered for ourselves.