Pentecost +14 - The Law of Love

"love" by laura, on Flickr

Romans 13:8-10
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.

Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus said to the disciples: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

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.

I’ll be honest. If I had my way about things, I’d just leave you with these words from Paul, say, “Go and do likewise!” and sit down. End of sermon.

Because I’m not sure what else needs to be said. As Christ has loved you, love one another. This is the heart and the goal and the fulfillment of Christ’s law. Love your neighbor as yourself. This is at the very center of what it means to follow Jesus. I don’t know what to say about it because, from my vantage point, it seems incredibly obvious.

Which is where I get stuck, my friends.

Because we do a lot of things to make this command complicated, and we do a lot of things to rationalize why we don’t need to take this command at face value.

"Love your neighbor as yourself," we read.

But what we seem to hear is:

"Love your neighbor only if she has the right documents…"
Or "love your neighbor only if he is a Christian…"
Or "love you neighbor only if he is the 'right' kind of Christian…"
Or "love your neighbor only if it doesn’t cost you anything to do so…"

This is a far cry from the Biblical call to love your neighbor as yourself - no caveats, no complications, no loopholes.

Paul is quoting Jesus in his letter today, and more specifically, he’s drawing us back to the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in response to a lawyer who wants to know, definitively, what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus encourages him to remember the heart of the law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” But the lawyer, like us, wants a loophole. “And who is my neighbor?” he asks.

This is where Jesus launches into the parable, telling a fictional story about a man being beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road, as good as dead. And in this story, the first two people who pass by are people who were in the business of doing God’s work: a priest and a Levite. And these two pass by on the other side, without so much as looking at the man to see whether he was dead or alive. It is the third man, a Samaritan, someone despised by Jews, a religious outcast, who stops by the side of the injured man, and binds up his wounds, and gives of his own purse for his food and shelter and respite - promising as much money as is needed for his recovery.

“Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asks. “The one who showed him mercy.”

The message is clear. There is no division, there is no boundary, there is no difference, there is nothing - nothing - nothing that gets us off the hook for showing mercy to one another. Jesus defines “neighbors” as those who show mercy to those who need mercy; those who receive mercy from those who are privileged to give it. Our common need for mercy is what binds us together.

Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. It’s the truth of our human condition.

There’s a prayer out there that begins,

Dear God: So far today, I've done all right. I haven't gossiped, and I haven't lost my temper. I haven't been grumpy, nasty or selfish, and I'm really glad of that! But in a few minutes, God, I'm going to get out of bed…

We laugh because we know it’s true: we are all in need of God’s mercy anew each and every day. And the good news is that Christ shows us each an equal and sufficient measure of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness each and every day. Because even though we were not deserving, Christ gave up his life for our sake.

And not just our sake. But for the sake of all; even those who we deem different or difficult, even those whom we might feel we have just cause to hate or fear. If we believe in our hearts that Christ can show us mercy, then we also must understand that Christ also shows this same mercy to our neighbors and enemies. And if Christ shows mercy to all, then we, who claim to be his followers, are freed and are called to do the same.

Paul tells us that love for neighbor is the greatest commandment, and that other laws and commandments are subordinate to this first and greatest commandment. At the heart of what it means to live as a Christ-follower is this commitment to love one another. Love is the litmus test, and any law, rule, commandment, or boundary that runs counter to the law of love is to be rejected and resisted.

In high school, I went on a church mission trip to El Paso, Texas. We spent one evening working at Annunciation House, a shelter for immigrant families. We cooked and ate dinner with the residents, we played with kids, and we hung out with teenagers just like us, who told us stories about their families, and the desperate circumstances that drew them to cross the border to seek refuge in the United States, and the heartbreaking and life-threatening journeys some of them had made, and the risks and the challenges and the luck and the blessings that led them to a safe space like this shelter.

When we processed our experience together back in our bunks later that night, I struggled with a big inner conflict in my heart. I was a rule-follower. I believed that laws and rules were, at their heart, good, and for good reasons. But what, then, about justice and compassion for these families I had just met? For the first time in my life, I was asked to consider whether laws were always good, or whether there was ever a time to challenge or even break a law for the sake of justice. My sixteen-year-old self couldn’t do it. Call me responsible, call me naive, whatever, but at that time in my life, I couldn’t imagine that the laws of the land were anything but good, sensible, and with people’s best interests at heart.

It’s taken me the better part of the last twenty years to get fully comfortable with the idea that human laws, rules, and boundaries sometimes do run counter to the Christ’s law of love. It’s taken me two decades to claim my faith in such a bold way that I am willing to publicly hold up Christ’s values above and beyond the powers that be, and to challenge our society to live more deeply into the law of love to which we are called, above and beyond any other rule of life, knowing that this law of love will send us to different places than we might have chosen for ourselves, and will make us think and act differently in the world, and will likely sometimes put us at odds with family or society or government or even our own hearts.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus lays out a practical plan for conflict resolution in the church, and it is actually kind of hilarious to me that he specifies that this advice is for the church, as if he knew way back in the day that good church people have a particular gift for coming to blows over newsletter deadlines and worship furnishings and music and treats for coffee hour.

But if we take a step back, I think Jesus is actually telling us some important things about living by his law of love.

First, that love leads us to speak truth to one another. This means that we help and guide one another back onto the path of love whenever we stray from it. It means that we are honest in rebuking one another with grace, and that we are gracious when we ourselves are challenged. Be mindful that this work of truth-telling is not the work of shaming one another, or trying to get one’s own way, or being hurtful. Our truth-telling is for the sake of love, and it is done out of love.

Which leads us to the second thing that Jesus is teaching us, which is that love always leads us to a place of reconciliation. Even when we challenge one another or when we challenge our communities, we do so with the hope and the goal of coming together in love. Jesus wants us to be reconciled to one another across boundaries, and that Jesus wants us to show our love for one another by doing what it takes to restore relationship with each other. The law of love leads us, in mercy, to cross boundaries for the sake of renewed peace and wholeness with our neighbors.

And the third thing that we learn from our gospel today is that this work of truth-telling and reconciliation and love begins in the church. And not because Jesus actually thinks that church people are more conflict-prone than others. But because the church is Christ’s body. And the church is the place where we gather together to receive Christ’s mercy, and where we become love and mercy for the rest of the world. So we practice honesty, justice, reconciliation, love inside these walls, so that we gain the confidence to be all those things outside as well.

Wherever two or three are gathered to speak truth and to show compassion, Jesus promises to be there. Which is not to say that Jesus isn’t with you when you’re by yourself. But that Jesus makes a special point to show up in every act of mercy shown toward another person.

Jesus is present when we reconcile with our enemies. Jesus is present when we overcome conflict with good will. Jesus is present when we resolve the physical needs of our neighbors in need. Jesus is present when we restore justice. Jesus is present whenever we are living by the law of love and doing that important work of binding up the broken-hearted, and loosing one another front he grip of sin, fear, anger, want, and suffering, as Christ enables us to do so.

And Jesus is always present at this table. The table, where two or three are gathered together around bread and wine. The table is the place where Christ’s body is pressed into our waiting hands. The table is the place where we remember how we are loved by Christ. The table is where we stand, shoulder to shoulder, with neighbors and enemies alike. The table is where we gather as sinners and doubters and encouragers and seekers. The table is where we stand, all equal in our need for mercy, and all equal in our receiving it.

Where two or three are gathered, there Christ is with us, and loving us, and teaching us to love one another. It’s as simple as that.

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. All other commandments 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.

Go and do likewise.

End of sermon.

I’ll sit down now. :)