Romans 12:9-13 and 13:8-10
[note: recording begins in mid-sentence]
[Transcribed by Alice Allen]
…looks something like this. There’s point A and point B and point C, and then you reverse the pattern, C-B-A. So, for instance, “Ask not what the Ducks can do for you, ask whether or not we’ll finally get a Heisman trophy on our way to the national championship series.” Which is not a chiasm, but it’s positive thinking, right?
So my point is that Romans 12 and 13 is written in this chiastic style. In the introduction the theme is trusting God rather than trusting in this age, and then in the passage we’re going to look at in just a moment, live by genuine love. Then we get to what it means for us individually and how we respond to evil by doing good. And then it reflects on the state—governing authorities and how they too are given this charge to do good as a way of combating evil. Then we come back to the theme of love and how love fulfills the law, and then back to that theme with which it began, reflecting on God’s age to come. So you get an overview of the structure.
Last week I dealt with the A section and two weeks from today I’m going to deal with that middle section on responding to evil. This morning I want to reflect on the B section, which is more than just a bridge from A to C and then from C back to A. It really is the glue that holds this whole passage together.
For Paul, love is the central characteristic of the Christian community. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, which is the first letter Paul wrote as an Apostle (at least it’s the first one we have, the oldest one to survive and that is recorded in the New Testament), he writes: “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” And in that great hymn of love, I Corinthians 13, Paul says that love is the greatest gift that we have from God. In the gospel of John, Jesus gives the command to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” and repeats that a couple of chapters later. In the first letter of John we are told no less than six times to love one another, for love is from God and therefore it is through our love for each other that God lives in us.
Now that all sounds nice and good and warm and fuzzy. But what does it mean?
A little boy comes running into his parents’ room late at night during a thunderstorm, and jumps into bed, waking them up. They say “What’s the matter?” and he says “I’m scared!” To reassure him they say, “You know God is always with you.” He says, “Yes, but right now I need someone with skin on!” Sometimes you need love “with skin on”, that’s more than just this warm, tingly feeling you get when you fall in love.
Think of it this way. When you think of the church, this place that is supposed to be filled with all this love, where we are asked to serve on this committee or to do that task or to take on this responsibility or to volunteer in the Sunday breakfast so we have enough people to feed those 300 people every Sunday, or volunteer as a deacon or an elder so we can serve the people who come to worship, or to give to all the various causes that are important to us, to think about the needs of the church and this building as well as building the mission of the church, and on and on and on—does it give you a warm and tingly feeling inside? How is that working for you? Do you suppose that when God thinks of us, that God gets a warm and tingly feeling? Is that how God’s love is manifest? “For God so loved the world that it gave Him goose bumps all over?” Nice for God, but what does it do for us?
Give thanks to God that that is not what John 3:16 says. “For God so loved the world that He gave his only son.”
So the first thing we have to say is that this genuine love that we are to have is not just a feeling or an emotion, but it’s so much more than what we feel. In his classic little book The Art of Loving, psychiatrist Erich Fromm writes: “To love someone is not just a strong feeling–it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. Feeling comes and it may go….love is exclusively an act of will and commitment.” Falling in love is easy; it’s staying in love that’s hard work. For some of us it’s more work than others (just ask my wife).
So in community, loving one another does not mean just liking each other a little bit more. Love is about making a commitment to seek the good for one another. We celebrated a wedding yesterday. It was a very non-traditional, unusual wedding. Janet Anderson and Evelyn Anderton, well known to most of us here. How often do you go to a wedding where the dog is the ring bearer? But of course that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the nature of these two individuals—one being the President of the congregation and the other being the Treasurer of the congregation! Never before in the history of the church have we married two officers! We like to think they found each other as a result of working in the church, but the reality is that they have been a couple for 28 years. It had just never been legally possible until now for them to tie the knot.
I asked them in the first service, “What was that like for you?” and Evelyn said she woke up this morning with this incredible sense of joy. Not any different from any other morning, but she had this joy, this smile on her face. “I’m married to the woman I love.” It felt very good for so many of us to be a part of it. This is something good—something really, really good—to be doing for them and for other couples. And I think this is why we can say that this is something sacred, something God intends for every couple so deeply in love, especially those who, as in this case, have been in a committed relationship for so long, already demonstrating their commitment to each other. This is the family value that we uphold and praise as a gift from God to be treasured, honored, and respected by all. And that the state now recognizes their marriage is more than icing on the cake. To be able to publicly celebrate on such an occasion is a very powerful symbol and a joy to behold. I have to tell you, there were as many tears in that wedding as in any other wedding I’ve ever been in, and maybe more. What gave it such power and beauty was not just the love of these two people coming together, but that they came together in the church, that we could affirm it with them and express that love. They told us this morning that so many people told them it was the most beautiful wedding they’ve ever been in.
In the second half of the text, Paul makes his case for love as the fulfillment of the law. Now that he has promoted this idea of government as a force to uphold the good, in that middle section that we’ll come to two weeks from now, Paul wants to show the connection between love and law, referring not to secular law but to God’s law as expressed in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures). Specifically he cites four of the last five of the Ten Commandments: to not commit adultery, to not murder, to not steal, to not covet. He simply states that love covers all these, and all the rest. What did he leave out? Are you paying attention? It’s the ninth commandment, which is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Typically we say, “lie.” What’s interesting in Biblical scholarship is that obviously there were some scribes who noted this omission and inserted it; we have an ancient manuscript, one of the oldest that we have of Paul’s letters, that has all five of those last commandments. Scholars say it is easier to explain how the ninth was added to it than it was to explain why it would have been omitted, particularly since there are so many texts that don’t have it. So they have concluded that Paul left it out and some scribe, unintentionally perhaps because they know it by heart and it comes naturally, included it.
It would be nice and neat if Paul had cited all five, but the omission of the ninth doesn’t change anything. It’s not as if Paul is giving tacit approval for people to lie. He’s simply citing a portion of the ten commandments as an illustration to show how practicing love includes all other laws, so that he can come to his conclusion that love will always do what is right, and never will do what is wrong.
I’m going to come back to this issue in two weeks when we consider whether or not that’s true in the case of governing authorities. But for now I will invite you just to reflect on that classic question WWJD. Only I want to say WWLD—not “What Would Jesus Do?” but “What Would Love Do?” Ideally of course we would answer the same for both. But there are those who are quite willing to make Jesus into the crusader who leads the army of God in the massacre of all the infidels with his terrible swift sword—literally, as in the case of Terry Randall, the one-time leader of the right to life movement, who publicly called for the trial and execution of all abortion providers, or more metaphorically, Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, who recently endorsed Prime Minister Putin’s anti-homosexual laws in Russia (calling that out as a much better example of a leader of a country than our own President Obama).
So if we make “What Would Love Do?” the first question we ask in matters of ethics and moral responsibility, then perhaps we can eradicate such distortions of the gospel that too easily make God into a parochial ruler who seeks not to save the world, but to defeat it. And how can we ever affirm the goodness of a God who must resort to the force of violence rather than the lure of love as the greater power in the world? I believe that such is not the way of love and such is not the way of God.
If we truly believe that God is love as I John tells us, than loving one another through concrete acts for the common good of every person and for all of God’s creation, is not only the way that we fulfill the law, it is the way that we fulfill God’s vision for the world. And we will see God’s age to come. May it so be.