Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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The Debt of Love

Romans 13:8-14

 Let’s start with what’s going on in the background of this passage.  First of all, there is the immediate context, which is a discussion of “debts.”  In verses 1-7, Paul writes the responsibilities of a Christian in regard to the state.  A Christ-follower should respect civil authorities, and they should pay their “public debts,” their taxes and tributes.  

 From there, Paul goes on in verse 8 to discuss private debts.  These should also be paid.  Apparently, there were a few Christians in the first century who took that line from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts,” as an excuse for not paying them back.  

 And from there, Paul moves on to discuss debt in a very different context; that is the debt of love.  We have all received far more love from Christ than we could ever repay.  We can never repay that debt.  But at the same time, we should also be repaying it daily toward others.  It’s that idea of “paying it forward.”  We love others because we have received love from God.  

 That brings us into the larger context of Romans.  The situation in Rome was one of tension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians.  The Church, of course, began with all Jewish Christians, those who heard the gospel in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost and brought it home with them to Rome.  In time, the gospel spread through the “God-fearing Gentiles,” those who did not convert to Judaism, but still came to the synagogue to worship God and learn.  

 Sometime in the mid to late 40s, the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews, including Jewish Christians, from Rome.  And the Roman Church became an exclusively Gentile Church, and took a unique character.  After Claudius’ death in 54 AD, the Jewish Christians returned.  But now there was this tension between these two groups of Christians, who each had their own culture and their own perspectives on what it meant to be the Church.

 One of the issues is that the Jewish Christians had a much greater knowledge of and respect for the Old Testament Law.  They often lamented that Gentile Christians didn’t have the proper morals.  We can see that tension in this passage.

 On one hand, Paul reminds his Jewish readers that the summary of the whole Law and prophets by Jesus was “Love the Lord your God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

 On the other hand, Paul also reminds his Gentile readers that we are people of the light.  We should not live in darkness or commit the deeds of darkness.  The body is good, but certainly not all the desires of the body are good.  So we should have nothing to do with wild, drunken parties or sexual immorality.  

 In the minds of many Jews, that was the summary of Gentile life:  Wild, drunken parties and sexual immorality.  In the case of upper class Roman society, they really weren’t too far off!  Rome was a place of excess, gluttony, drunkenness, prostitution, adultery, and the list goes on, at least in the upper classes.  

 But getting back to that first point, love is the fulfillment of the Law.  That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 22:40.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  All the other commands of the Law come out of these.”  

 Love is central to the Christian ethic.  In the Epistle of James, chapter 2, James calls this command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” the “royal command.”  A royal command was one that came directly from the mouth of the king, and it had greater authority behind it than other laws.  

 Love is central, but our understanding of love must come from Jesus.  Especially because the love we see in Jesus is different from the love we see in our culture.  Our culture has been influenced by the ideas of romanticism and existentialism.  Our culture sees love in terms of emotion and self-fulfillment.  Love is this emotional thing that just overwhelms us and we have no control over it.  And love is key to our self-fulfillment.  “To fall in love is the best thing in the world.”  

 The picture of love we find in Jesus is quite different.  The love of God is described in the New Testament by the Greek word AGAPE.  It means a love that thinks more of others than self.  It’s a self-denying love and a self-sacrificing love.  It’s a love that serves others.  And it’s not so much an emotional love as AGAPE is a matter of the will.  We choose to love others.    

 That’s not to say emotion never plays a part in AGAPE, but if we only love those we “feel” like loving, then we won’t fulfill the command of Christ to love our neighbors.  Some of our neighbors are hard to love; we won’t feel like loving them.  But we can choose to.  And often emotions follow choices.  If you choose to love the unlovely, to pray for them, to do good for them, to forgive them of their faults, then often the feelings of empathy will follow the choice to love.  Sometimes if we’re willing to get to know unlovely people, and we find out the stories in their lives, then we become a little bit more understanding.  Some people are unlovely because they haven’t received much love.

 So love is a choice.  Love must also be practical; it must be something that can be seen and experienced.  Love is not simply a feeling; it must lead to action.  If the world is going to see the love of Christ, it must be because you and I do something that demonstrates love to the world.

 This kind of love fulfills the requirements of God.  If we have this love and we are acting out of this love, then we will do the things God wants us to be doing.  If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we won’t commit adultery.  Adultery is an act of deep disrespect, and love respects others.  If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we won’t murder.  Love builds up and heals.  It does not destroy or kill.  If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will not steal, because love seeks to give, not to take.  If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will not covet.  Love desires good for others, not to take from them.

 “Love does no wrong to anyone, so love satisfies all of God’s requirements.”

 I want to finish with what I think are a couple of misunderstandings about love that are common today.  Does love mean that we accept another person’s behavior when that behavior is wrong?  Does love mean we never say something is wrong?  Many people seem to think that today.

 No.  Love desires good for others.  And sin is never good for us.  If you take that contemporary way of thinking to its logical conclusion, you end up in a bad place.  “So-and-so is addicted to drugs, but I don’t want to say anything about it because I love them.  So-and-so is having an affair, but I love them, so I don’t want to sound judgmental.”  That takes us to a place we don’t want to go.  If we love someone, and we see them rebelling against God, if we see them going down a path that leads to death,

be it physical or spiritual, then the loving thing to do is to try to put them back on the path to life.  

 Second, is there something wrong with “loving ourselves?”  Certainly we are to be humble and think more others than self, but what about this idea of “self loathing” that sometimes shows up in Christian thought, that we are to detest and punish ourselves.  

 There is nothing wrong with loving ourselves.  It’s normal.  It’s normal for us to take care of ourselves, to see to our own needs for food, clothing, shelter, and so on.  The real challenge is do we love our neighbor as ourselves?  If we are going to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we need to be just as concerned about our neighbor having food, clothing, shelter, and so on.

 I think this has relevance to contemporary politics.  One of the things that I’ve seen in the last decade or so is that some people talk about basic human needs as “rights.”  We have a right to water, a right to food, a right to shelter, a right to medical care.  I don’t like that language.  I prefer the language of responsibility.  If you and I are followers of Jesus, then we have a responsibility to ensure that our neighbors have food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care, and so on.  And that’s not something I hear as much as I’d like to from the Christians in either of two big political parties.

 Oh, we can excuse ourselves.  We can say that “the law doesn’t require me to feed my neighbor, give them water, or see that they have medical care.”  That’s true.  Our nation’s laws don’t require that.  But God’s law, the “Royal Command” of Christ, does require it.  And God’s laws supersede human authority.  We are never free from the command of Christ to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do for others what we would want done for ourselves.

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