Romans 13: 8-14, page 162
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Two of my favorite parts of the worship service here are things that we do every week without even thinking about it – we stand and say together what we believe using the Apostles Creed, one of the earliest statements adopted by the Christian Faith, and we pray together as Christ taught us using the Lord’s Prayer.
I love these parts of the service because it’s a rare treat to find yourself in a room full of people who can agree enough to say that we all believe the same thing, not once, but twice.
Human beings are notorious for complicating such simple pleasures as though we were predisposed for seeing room for disagreement.
Maybe you’ve been to a wedding, the groom’s a Methodist, the bride a Presbyterian and when it comes time to pray the Lord’s Prayer you’re not sure whether you need to be forgiven for your debts or your trespasses.
There’s an advantage to keeping things simple, but there’s something about people that makes us want to complicate matters – to take something simple like a candy bar, dip it in batter and deep fry it. People are doing that now at State Fairs and things, and it seems over the top, but this is what people do – we take simple things and make them more and more complicated.
Think about your car – it started out without power windows. But now that we have them, air conditioning, satellite radios, power steering, and heated seats it’s hard to imagine getting by without them, until something breaks and there’s absolutely no way to fix it ourselves and so we long for a simpler time when cars were just cars.
When you add things, when you make things more complicated, you have to be careful because often are things added – for convenience, for the sake of luxury, to be new and exciting - but rarely is anything taken away.
That’s how closets work. Things get added. Everything in my closet is important…or at least it was at one time. More importantly I can’t imagine going through it all to clean it out – now that all that stuff is in there I’m used to it being in there. I know I don’t need it, but I’m not going to clean it all out either.
Taxes work this way too. You start with something simple and you add to it and it gets complicated fast. I’m sure that every tax code we have seemed like a good idea at the time, but today I’m not sure what my Dog License Tax goes to pay for, and I’m certain that now that it’s been established there is no committee in our Federal Government who is going to put it to sleep. Our tax code is like a closet – I’m sure everything there is important – or at least it was at one time – and now that it’s in there it’s never coming out.
In the last 100 years, more than 40 new types of tax have been instituted, and so today there are many who call out for a simplification of the process that most need a professional to understand. The only good thing is that those who know can benefit from the exemptions.
You add and you add and you add – but not all of that adding is bad because you pay less if you can be smart about it. There’s an exemption for children, there’s an exemption for buying products that are considered environmentally friendly, and there are tons of exemptions for religious institutions.
And that’s what we really lose when we hear Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome: “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” This kind of simplification sounds wonderful – there’s no need for the whole legal code we find in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th books of the Bible: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – it’s just this simple – Love one another. But what we lose are the exemptions and I believe we depend more on those than we think.
In the time of the ancient Israelites the rules for life had been added to and amended until there was a law for everything. Just as there were laws against eating shrimp and pork, there were ways to deal with lepers and disease – there were standards for purity that allowed the Israelites to, in the name of sanitation, avoid those with disease, especially those diseases that involved blood.
Jesus, however, has a problem with avoiding people, and when a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, Jesus doesn’t push her away because the Law would have allowed him to. He says to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”
In the time of the ancient Israelites there was such resentment for tax collectors that there was no call to treat them with the love and respect enjoyed by others. There was the idea that some could be despised and resented in the name of unfair taxation.
Jesus, however, has a problem with such resentment, and rather than put them aside as he would have been justified in doing, everywhere he went he was called a friend of prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.
There were also those who feared mental illness in the time of the Israelites, and there were Laws to provide guidance to deal with such people. That’s how a man ended up chained and confined to the tombs – to protect the village and to protect himself.
Jesus, however, asked him his name. He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And Christ cast out the demons, though he had every reason to walk on by. He would have been justified in doing so – the Law offering exemptions in such extreme cases.
Paul calls us to go and do the same – to wipe the slate clean and follow this one simple commandment – “love one another.” But there is certainly a multitude of problems with wiping the slate clean. You lose the exemptions, and without the exemptions, what are you supposed to do? What are you supposed to do if you don’t like your neighbor, if your neighbor doesn’t like you? What are you supposed to do if your neighbor hates you, or you hate your neighbor?
What if you are afraid – and loving someone means facing your fears?
What if you are happy as you are and happy with the world as it is – and loving someone means opening a whole can of worms?
What if you are guarded – because loving someone has broken your heart before?
There are a lot of reasons to be scared of cleaning out a closet full of complicated rules, to be afraid of wiping the slate clean and staring into the face of “love your neighbor as yourself”. But more than anything else, we should all be afraid of what’s left at the bottom once you’ve cleaned out all complications, because down at the bottom is the foundation for faithfulness. If you get down to the heart of it all, all the rules, all the ordinances, all the exemptions, you’ll find the reason for obedience.
The Lord said to Moses, “this day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”
Down at the heart of all our perpetual ordinances is gratitude – gratitude to God who spared the Israelites from the angel of death that passed through Egypt. Gratitude to God who led them out and on into the Promised Land. And now, gratitude to God who laid down his very life that we might live. Gratitude to Christ who saved us.
At the bottom of the closet is gratitude – that we are loved despite all the reasons God has not to. All the times God had every reason to give up but didn’t.
All the times good advice would have told God to walk away.
All the times the Law would have provided God with a fine exemption.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
You can expect to be forgiven – you can expect to be loved – and so you owe it to God to return the favor.
Thanks be to God – the one who had every reason to stop loving, but never did and never will.