Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18A
In the United Methodist tradition we have something called the Historic Examination. These are the questions that John Wesley used to ask of his traveling preachers, and they have been ask of those who are about to be ordained from the beginning of a Methodist church. The first question is Have you faith in Christ? And, of course, the expected response is ‘Yes, Bishop?’ Do you know the General Rules of our Church? Yes, Bishop. Will you keep them? Yes Bishop. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? Yes, Bishop. Will you preach and maintain them? Yes, Bishop. On and on they go like that. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? Yes, Bishop. And then there is question 18. Question 18 is: Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? …
In our passage from Romans today, Paul talks about debt. ‘Don’t be in debt to anyone,’ he says. Now, that was much harder to do in Wesley’s time than it was in Paul’s time. And it is exponentially more difficult to pull off now. Don’t be in debt to anyone. But who except the most wealthy can manage to make it through life without student loan debt, or mortgage debt, or car loan debt, or credit card debt. I don’t think I have ever met someone who lived through adulthood and was never in debt to anyone. It just seems to be getting harder and harder for each generation. The young adults in college now will have significantly more school debt than I did, and there is no end in sight to that trend.
Paul knows that people who are in debt are not free. They are beholden to someone or something, beholden to someone or something other than God. If we have debts, 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.
Don’t be in debt to anyone, Paul says. Don’t be in debt to anyone… except… except for the obligation to love 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.
But here’s the really interesting thing, and that’s how it is that God instructs us to try to repay. God says that our debt is not payable directly to God, it is payable to our neighbors. That’s how we are asked to love God, 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 per se, but by God. So, 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 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.