Debt to Pay

Sermon for September 10, 2023

1. What Love Is

Sometimes Jesus needed to shift the focus. He did it to remind people of what God was really all about. That’s because it seemed to be easiest to fall back on the rules, to talk theology, to think of religion as something that divided people instead of bringing them together. And when Jesus did this—when he shifted the focus—he put the spotlight on love. He did it in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5:43-44), of course. He did it when he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). And perhaps, most important of all, when asked what the most important commandment was, he named two: Love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31).

Following in Jesus’ footsteps, John, the Beloved Disciple, does something similar in his first letter when he writes that God is love and disciples of Christ are to love each other (see ch. 4). But perhaps best known to us are the places where the Apostle Paul does this—where he talks about beliefs and doctrines and theology, and then reminds the churches he’s writing to that none of this means anything without love. He does this in Galatians 5, and most famously in 1 Corinthians 13 (the “Love Chapter”), and perhaps most succinctly in today’s reading.

Paul opens Romans 13 by answering some questions people were asking two thousand years ago—questions they’re still asking today: What should a Christian’s relationship be with the government. Respect authority and pay your taxes, he wrote. And remember, there was no such thing as a “Christian” government back then. But still, both Jesus and Paul told people to give the authorities their due. These are duties we perform and then put behind us. Caesar minted the coins and printed the money, so we have no valid reason not to give Caesar his due when he asks for taxes. But this doesn’t give the government any real claim over the parts of our lives that really matter.

And then in verse 8 Paul shifts the focus back to where it really belongs: The only ongoing debt we really owe is the love we should have for one another. He quotes several of the Ten Commandments, but he sums them all up just as Jesus did: Love your neighbor as yourself. To love, therefore, is to fulfill God’s law. And it’s a debt that can never be fully paid. The more we love, the more love we’ll find to give. And love is something that is nonexistent if we keep it to ourselves—it must be given away, or it’s not love.

So what is this love that we owe? Well, as you’ve heard me say (and as you’ve probably heard every pastor say), the New Testament has three words for love. One is ἐρος, which means passion or romantic love. The second is φιλία, which is the love friends have for each other, or brotherly love. And then there’s divine love, or ἀγάπη. This is selfless love—the kind of love that gives without expecting any-thing in return. And this is the love Paul says is the debt we owe to others in today’s scripture passage.

Well that’s natural, we might think. It’s what religion is about, after all. Except it’s not, and that’s some-thing we don’t pay enough attention to. In that day and age, love was not the be-all-and-end-all of religion. Yes, Judaism is the source of the Christian commandment to love God and to love our neigh-bor. But it was not the center of the faith. Nor was it that important in any of the pagan religions that surrounded Judaism and Christianity. And so this repeated commandment not just to love, but to make love the center of your faith, is unique. At least it was unique among the religions of that day and age.

People today—at least in our society—take love for granted. We act like it’s automatic, that it’ll always come naturally. We’ve sentimentalized it. Love is a feeling; it comes to us unbidden—but the feeling also leaves us when it makes too many demands, when our circumstances change, when something (or someone) else catches our eye.

This feeling is not what Jesus was talking about in the gospels. It’s not what the Beloved Disciple was talking about in 1 John. And what Paul wrote about in Romans and 1 Corinthians and Galatians was not a sentiment. We can’t assume a tendency to do the right thing, that love is just going to happen as long as we’re all sincere. No, love is a commandment, and commandments are things we have to work at.

2. How to Love

Jesus and John and Paul talked so much about love because they knew it was something the early church was going to have to work on. It was not something that was going to come naturally—at least not the kind of love that’s meant by the Greek word ἀγάπη—the selfless love that results in the grace of God. Divine, sacrificial love is natural in some situations—such as the love most parents have for their children. This is why Jesus told us to think of God as our Father, that is, as a heavenly Parent whose love is complete and unconditional and willing to give even when it doesn’t receive.

This is ἀγάπη. And it’s why the Greek language has totally different words for the feelings that aren’t this kind of love. For us, the same word can apply to romance and friendship and sacrificial love. Which is a big reason why we misinterpret Jesus and Paul when they talk about love. And it’s a big reason why we think it’s easier than it is.

To love as Jesus and Paul try to teach us is to love without condition, to love those who don’t love you back, and even to love those you hate. This goes way beyond just following your heart, because your heart will try to resist you when you try to love certain people. It involves training our minds, our lips, and even our hands.
2A. Thinking Love

Is there somebody in your life you can’t stand? You’re a churchgoer, so you probably won’t say you hate them. You might, in fact, say you love them… but only because the Bible tells you you have to. But in reality, you don’t love them, and when you think of them, your thoughts are unkind.

But what if we stopped allowing our thoughts to go in that direction without any interference from us? What if, instead of condemning that unloved person with our minds, we trained ourselves to think kind thoughts about them—understanding thoughts, thoughts that either acknowledge their difficulties, or are curious enough to find out why they’re like they are? And what if, instead of damning them, we prayed for them? It’s hard to hate someone you sincerely pray for. We may never want to adopt them or date them or move in with them, but that’s okay. That’s not the love that Paul wrote to the Romans about, or that Jesus talked to the Rich Young Ruler about. 

2B. Speaking Love 

And love is mostly what Jesus talked about, either explicitly or implicitly. He taught people through sermon and story what love was. He guided people away from thinking of it as loving people in your family or loving people from your hometown or the same religion. He taught people that when God told us to love our neighbor, that our neighbor was anybody we encountered.

So we, too, should talk about love. And when we speak of someone—even someone we don’t like—we should speak of them lovingly. This means talking about individuals lovingly, of course—not being smarmy or fake, but being understanding. And this means in our way of speaking about other groups of people—people whose lives are different or whose politics are different, people who belong to different religions (or no religion), or even people whose understanding of family or love is different.

I’ll repeat something I say a lot. Maybe I should say it in every sermon. I should say it often enough, at least, that you can all memorize it: In our church, we don’t interpret love through the lens of scripture; we interpret scripture through the lens of love. I suppose some may disagree with us for this. But 1 John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And so, in a way, to view scripture through the lens of love is to read the Bible with God’s eyes. And as we read, so we preach and teach and speak.

2C. Doing Love

And finally, if we truly want to pay the debt of love we owe, we should be loving in our actions. While the church can help us be more loving in our thoughts and words, it’s in the things we do that the church can perhaps make the biggest difference in our lives. We can perform loving service anytime, anywhere, of course. But it’s in the church that we talk about actually doing things and provide ways that we can get involved.

It's here in the church that we offer our gifts—not just to keep the church going, but to reach out, as well. And when we reach out, we don’t just reach out to people in the church who need help. We don’t just reach out to other Christians, either. Most of our outreach goes to people whose religion we don’t even know. We don’t know because we don’t ask.

But our outreach is more than just giving money where it’s needed. Some of you provide education and fun for kids. Some of you cook for people. Some of you fills bags with groceries for people who come to the food cupboard. A lot of us walk together every September. Still others sing in the choir. Our minds think love, our mouths speak love, and our bodies perform acts that aren’t selfish, but which reach out to and benefit people we might not even know.

Jesus told us that people would recognize that we were his because of our love. John told us that because God is love, we are to love others. And Paul told us that love was an ongoing debt we had to pay. So love isn’t just a good feeling; it’s a moral commandment. Let us work at keeping it—not to earn God’s love, for God already loves us, but to make God’s Kingdom known upon the earth.
—©2023 Sam Greening