Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Romans 13:8-14 Love for One Another
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.
An Urgent Appeal
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 then 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 quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Something that we should remember about the Apostle Paul is that he thought Jesus would be coming back at any minute. This anticipation of the second coming of Christ shaped so much of the letters he wrote to both the churches he started and the churches he wanted to build relationships with, like the church in Rome. In a commentary on Romans 13, J.R. Daniel Kirk points to verse 11 of today’s reading as a clear marker that Paul is waiting on Jesus who will return soon: “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 that when we became believers.” Paul knows that the Resurrection is real and awaits Jesus’ promised return. He wants to be ready... to be prepared for Jesus’ return. This part of Romans is where he sets forth the foundation of his plan for preparedness. He said you have to start with love.
The preparation was not simply watching and putting your life on hold while you wait. Instead, it was an active preparation. It was doing something... changing how you live. In her commentary, Valérie Nicolet points to Paul’s exhortation to “be in the world but not of the world” as one way Paul describes the complete change of life he believed Jesus could bring about in his followers. How we wait for God's new revelation in the world matters because it is how we practice being transformed by Jesus. And, the changes we make in our lives, particularly in how we treat our neighbors, is how Jesus transforms the world through us while we wait. Paul believed that the love we share from Christ out into the world can change things.
Nicolet notes in her commentary that this is not a letter that is just telling people how to achieve individual salvation. It is a letter where Paul points to ancient Jewish religious law as a source for building those life-changing, world-changing relationships. Starting just before today’s reading and going into verse 10, Paul asserts the on-going holy usefulness of the Ten Commandments. In his introduction to Romans, Neil Elliott notes that Jewish people would have just been allowed to return to Rome after having been expelled from the city by the emperor Claudius. Just a few years before being expelled from Rome, in a history of the city of Alexandria, Avigdor Tcherikover described there had also been anti-Jewish riots in Alexandria. Jewish people were killed. Leaders in the community were publicly tortured. Synagogues were vandalized and closed. Jewish people ended up being confined to one portion of the city.
These details of history matter because they would have shaped how Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentil followers of Jesus got along when worshiping together. According to scholars, there was already a tendency towards anti-Judaism among elite Roman citizens. That bias was trickling into Christian communities as Jews were forced to leave. Churches began to be predominantly Gentile. Once Jews began to return to Rome, there was bound to be tension. Paul, himself Jewish, needed to address this tension. He does so, in part, by affirming Jewish religious law as useful in creating a loving life while he also never requires Gentile believers to become Jewish.
Nicolet argues that for Paul, the diversity of the Roman church as evidence of God's work in the world. To see Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, poor and wealthy, all worshiping together, was an amazing testimony to God's hope for the world in Christ. In Christ, social distinctions that the culture understood to be tools for dividing people would be crossed, evidence of the power of the Gospel to bring people together. Paul believed that when you see a diverse community of people living and worshiping and praying and serving together, you see people who have been transformed by the Gospel. As Nicolet says this is salvation lived out socially... this is the Gospel practiced in community.
Paul said, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." This is both an affirmation of Jewish law as a standard for behavior and a way to set the expectation of behavior in a way that accessible to Gentile believers. Remember, “one who loves another fulfills the law.” In asserting the centrality of love to a Christian life, Paul is following Jesus’ own interpretation of Jewish law. Jesus said, “Any other commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The scholar has a particular poetic commentary on this text. I’ve shared a portion of it before, but I like it so much that I’ll share it again. Kamudzandu says “love is the grand ground on which everything grows and flourishes.” He goes on to say, “While hate and oppression dehumanize others, love, if well done and exercised, will give birth to a new world order, one in which healthy love can be nursed, grow, and flourish.”
So, what does this mean for our modern church? Well, I would argue that this particular moment is one that certainly calls for the church to truly examine our actions by this metric of love. Right now, some of the loudest voices from Christian churches are far from loving. Folks will cry Jesus in one moment and in the next, with the same mouth, scream hate. If you never met a Christian before, what would our current political arguments that target transgender people for exclusion from civil rights, our book bannings, our mistrust of non-Christian immigrants, our restrictions of access to reproductive healthcare, tell you about the followers of Christ? Would it sound like Christians are a community guided by love?
Even if those are not theological stances that this church takes up, as long as those actions get labeled “Christian,” all of us who claim the name Christian must contend with them. While we can’t only shape our lives by the things we don’t believe, with the rise of a dangerous Christian nationalism, now is the time to more fully, more loudly, more completely live out the love that we do believe. Dr. Kamudzandu says, “The church is indeed a place where persons can be organized, socialized, and mobilized to effectively love others.” I am deeply moved by the idea of church as a place where we practice love inside the walls so that we may love more fully beyond these walls. The love that we show each other here is practice for the love we are called to live out in community, especially with those who are different from us, especially in defense of those who are being attacked by Christians, in Jesus’ name. Let us take up this call to, as Dr. Kamudzandu says, have love be our lifestyle. May we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and go out to love bigger.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.