In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s kind of nice when St. Paul just lays it out for us. When he puts it in an understandable way, easy and straightforward. Like here in Romans 13, when he just lays it out there: “Owe no one anything except to love one another.” Easy, right? Nice and simple. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” But it gets a little more complicated when we ask the question, “What does it mean to “love one another”? I don’t ask that because pastors like to make easy things complicated. I ask it because these words seem strange and out of place in their context. And perhaps it is our assumptions about what love means that make it complicated. But notice that this word about owing no one anything comes at the end of six or seven verses of Paul talking about Christians submitting to the ruling authorities, because all of them have been put in place by God. Which means they are “under God,” not just in this nation, but in all nations. We’ll save the discussion of the relationship of Christians to the State maybe for 2016, but for now it’s enough to recognize that this is the context of verse 8. And one verse before this, Paul says, “Give to everyone what is owed to them.” Same word. “To whom taxes are owed, give taxes. To whom payment, payment. To whom fear, fear. To whom honor, honor.” Wait a second, I thought we were to owe no one anything except to love one another. What’s all this talk about taxes, payment, fear, and honor? We have two possibilities: either Paul, in the space of two verses, contradicts himself. (I give him a little more credit than that.) The other possibility is that Paul has actually been describing one way that Christians love one another: by submitting to the governing authorities. This would fit under the Fourth Commandment, of not only honoring parents who have been put there by God, but also “other authorities,” including the civil ones. And then Paul speaks of other commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and he says that all these are summed up with the words “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to the neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” This is clearly something different from a sort of ambiguous, shapeless, mushy feeling of goodwill toward another person. This sort of love really has very little to do with how you feel about someone. We use the word love in all sorts of ways: I love coffee; I love the Seahawks; I love my wife; I love my children. How is it that we can use the same word in all those ways? I love my wife in a different way from how I love the Seahawks, but when we use the word “love,” we are essentially saying, “I have passionate feelings toward this thing or person.” That’s not how the Scriptures use the word love. I can’t think of any time that the Scriptures defines the word love in by how a person feels. Certainly feelings can accompany love, and often do, but when the Scriptures talk about love, they are talking about the action of one person toward or on behalf of another.
So love is not a fluffy good feeling, but it has the hard edges of living in a world full of sinners. Love is the positive side of the commandments. It is not the gutting of the law, but the living of the law. So it is not only not taking a life, but it is helping a person in his bodily needs. It is not only not taking someone else’s property, it is helping a person keep her property. It is not only not wanting what God has given to someone else, it is helping a person keep what God has given him. It is not only not committing adultery, it is living a chaste and holy life toward your spouse, toward another person’s spouse, and toward someone’s future spouse. Owe no one anything except to love one another, and this love is defined, is given shape, is marked out by the law that God has given. The only limit to Christian love is that we don’t get to make up its boundaries. In other words, since our sinful nature is always trying to get us to make up our own ways of exercising love, God’s law tells us how to love in accord with God’s will. That’s why the law often seems to get in our way, instead of opening up a way in which we can walk: because we don’t want to love in the way God has instructed us. It often doesn’t even feel like love to us. We see that in the two other readings we heard today.
God tells the prophet Ezekiel that if He warns a wicked person that he’s going to die, and Ezekiel refuses to relay that Word, then God will require that man’s blood at Ezekiel’s hand. For Ezekiel to refuse to call someone to repentance may be cowardice, or disobedience, or unbelief, but it’s not love. Likewise at the end of the reading from Matthew 18. Jesus tells His disciples that if a brother sins against you—and here we’re talking about other Christians—when a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault just between the two of you. That is, bring him the Word of God, not your own opinion or petty disagreement. Bring the Word that speaks clearly about his sin, and if he hears that Word and confesses, then he is restored to fellowship with Christ and with you. If he refuses to listen to you, bring another, uninvolved person. If he refuses to listen to you and other Christians, tell it to the Church, and if he refuses to listen to the whole Body of Christ in that place, then he’s treated as a tax collector or pagan—both of which Jesus obviously cares about. All of this so that you can gain your brother. Jesus says, “It is not the will of My Father in heaven that even one of these little ones who believe in Me should perish.” If you refuse to tell your brother his sin, it may be cowardice, or disobedience, or unbelief, but it’s not love. Love is not always just “keeping the peace.” Sometimes it involves doing the sorts of things that will actually stir up trouble. This just shows how far our definition of love is from Jesus’ definition.
For the one who has been baptized into the Name of Christ, this sort of love is both exciting and exhausting. It is exciting because it is an open-ended as the number of positions we hold in this life. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children, siblings, classmates, teammates, co-workers, citizens, rulers, members of congregations. All of those relationships hold different responsibilities; in each of them, we owe people different things, and what we owe to them is the same as loving them. It is exciting because whatever our hand finds to do in serving someone else, we can do it with all our strength. We know that whatever we, as the baptized children of God, do, none of it is in vain, none of it is worthless, none of it is useless. We are free because we don’t have to worry about our own impure motives or our failures in loving one another. We don’t worry about it, we just confess it. We know that our motives are always mixed; our love always fails. And that means that Christian love can also be exhausting. To a greater or lesser degree, based on our vocation, loving our neighbor can exhaust us. We get tired, it’s often unnoticed or thankless, and our neighbor always requires more from us. In fact, there is no end to love. There is no moment when someone doesn’t need something from us.
Good thing that God doesn’t leave us out there in the realm of love. He has provided a place where you don’t have to work, because He is doing His work. The Sabbath under the old covenant was not just a command to quit working one day a week. It was also meant to teach the people that their work was not the source of everything they had. If we work all the time, we can very easily begin to think that everything we have comes from our own hand; that we are in control; that if we are not working constantly, it isn’t going to happen. But it’s not true. God is in control; God gives all things; God sustains all things. So He has a Sabbath rest for the people of God, and it is fulfilled in Christ. So on the Lord’s Day, the Day of His resurrection, for this short time, we have a place in which we can rest. Here we do not work; God works. We do not provide; God provides. We are not here primarily to love our neighbor, but for God to love us, as unworthy as we are. There’s a reason that our love takes specific, concrete, and physical forms: because God’s love does. God’s love is so specific, so concrete, so physical, that it takes the form of a Man, whose Name is Jesus. This is how God loved the world: He sent His Son to live in it. And that Love suffered, died, was raised again, and ascended to sit at the powerful right hand of the Father. And now He continues to do His work here and now by delivering to you the fruit of His work. It feels like water, and it sounds like words, and it tastes like bread and wine. But behind those physical realities is a reality that we cannot see or experience with our physical senses: the blood of Christ that washes us clean, the body and blood of Christ that we eat and drink. Physical, concrete, particular love given to you here and now.
So for now, rest. For now, God does His work. For now, God continues to make you holy by the means that He has chosen. Then we go back out to love our neighbor; then we come here, go out, come back in. The weekly rhythm of the life that Christ has given us, until the day our souls rest in Christ; blessed are the dead in Christ who rest from their labor; their works follow them. Until the day when He gives us back our bodies, in which we lived and loved, and we join with all the saints in the eternal feast.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/5/14