love your neighbor

The Careening Mind

Romans 13:8-14 (NLT)

Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.

This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living. Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.

Paul has returned to the theme he explored in the verses we heard two weeks ago. Why he deviated from his message to talk about government, no one knows for sure, but we are back to the importance of love in the heart of the practicing Christian.

As I said two weeks ago, in many ways Paul is restating lessons Jesus taught while walking on Earth, ancient ideas rooted in Old Testament teachings. In one way or another in all three of the synoptic gospels, Jesus says we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Additionally, in The Gospel of John our savior gives what he describes as a “new commandment,” to “love each other.”

“Just as I have loved you, you should love each other,” we hear in John 13:34-35. “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

We also see an expansion of the concept of “neighbor” in Luke’s telling of the lesson. When asked to define this word, Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we hear we are called to show mercy toward people traditionally our enemies. In fact, we learn the act of showing mercy is lovingly transformative, making our enemies our neighbors.

If we love well, Paul is saying, we cannot help but fulfill the requirements of the ancient law given to Moses.

Too often, we think of this loving approach to the world around us as something to grow into gradually. Hey, grandparents are often quite good at showing deep, unconditional love, right? Maybe it is something we master as we get older, after we’ve done the hard work of establishing careers and accumulating the stuff that makes us feel secure.

Just one problem: Paul takes time to emphasize the urgency of our need to change, to stop committing sins that are either caused by misdirected love or a complete absence of love. He uses very traditional metaphors for good and evil and goes all “End Times” on us, warning his audience of the need to flee to the light before darkness is destroyed forever.

Quit your partying and your drunkenness. Get your sex lives under control, living according to the marital standards Christ so clearly upheld. Quit behaving like children on Facebook, where you openly quarrel and show your jealousy of each other.

Okay, Facebook isn’t in the Bible. If Paul were writing today, though, I wonder if he would use some of our Facebook posts as examples.

The urgency of Paul’s message can elude us now, if for no other reason than the passing of nearly 2,000 years without Christ’s return. Skeptics will raise this point as disasters unfold, asking, “Where is God?”

But at the same time, I feel certain most of those people would be wanting an extension, a little more time to get their lives in order, if Christ were to return right now. When Christ returns, or when we individually die and find ourselves standing before him, many of us may feel shocked at how quickly and unexpectedly we ran out of time.

Try to get your hearts in the right place now, Paul is saying, so that you may cling tightly to the salvation Christ has offered the world. Don’t wait! Wrap yourselves up in Jesus Christ. When we are conscious of Christ’s presence, our ability to love and simultaneously flee from sin increases exponentially.

Paul even gives us what sounds like modern “positive thinking” pop psychology as we try to better understand how to live lives that are more disciplined, more in line with the holy nature of Jesus Christ, who has saved us from sin.

Don’t just resist sin at the point where you are about to commit sin. Actively avoid sin by paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, learning to steer them.

Our minds can be like careening cars controlled by a half-asleep driver. We need to know ourselves; we need to know what thoughts steer us off the road toward danger.

Here I go again: How is your prayer life? How is your knowledge of what God has revealed to us in the Bible? Are you in worship regularly, so the Holy Spirit can shape your innermost thoughts and feelings?

Do you have a Christian friend or, even better, a group of Christians around you that you trust, people who can help you win the battles we sometimes have in our minds?

With the Holy Spirit at work in us, the car is not hard to steer. Paul is not telling us to take on some insurmountable task. With God’s help, all things are possible, including an end to sin and an almost unimaginable growth in our ability to love.



Course Correction

Last week, I mentioned there are deeper ways to understand how the Bible is put together and what it continues to say to us. The better we grasp some of these principles, the better we can help unchurched people deal with some of the more difficult questions they ask when confronted with Christianity and the Bible.

The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood

The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood

For example, here’s a common argument you’ll hear from nonbelievers about the Bible: How can you base your life on a collection of writings that seems to accept slavery? By this, they are referring to writings in both the Old and New Testaments that treat slavery rather matter-of-factly, even instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters.

It’s a good question, one we can answer only if we understand how the Bible launches ideas into the future the way we launch rockets into space. Biblical concepts have trajectory, and because the Bible aims them perfectly, astonishing things happen because of their launch. Some of our texts we used this Sunday at Cassidy UMC help us see such trajectory.

In our Leviticus text, we see a list of proper behaviors that result in a general admonition: Love your neighbor as yourself. It was a powerful concept in a culture where resources could be scarce and the need to look out for self and family drove a lot of decision making.

We know from further study of the Bible, however, that the Jews let these early teachings associated with the law devolve into legalism. They focused more on the details of what God had given them and less on the big principles they had received.

By the time Jesus entered the picture, humanity was in need of a course correction. In our Matthew reading, we hear Jesus citing a couple of these detail statements, but then explaining that God expects people to understand them as matters of the heart.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus said. Now, the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” statement was a huge leap forward in justice; at the time it was given, there was little in terms of equality in punishment. The poor were often punished for no good reason, while the rich often were not punished despite very good reasons. “An eye for an eye” was a prescription for a more equal form of justice.

Similarly, Jesus took a fairly straightforward, right-sounding statement—love your neighbor and hate your enemy—and complicated it, at least in human terms, by saying we need to love and pray for our enemies, too.

Jesus was communicating an idea that remains very difficult to live out today. Despite what it may cost us, we’re to treat all people as brothers and sisters so that love may more rapidly spread the kingdom of God. It also quickly becomes clear we can never perfectly live up to God’s standard. That’s why we need a Savior, someone willing to do whatever is necessary to take away our sins.

In Jesus’ course corrections, we begin to see the ultimate destination of history. We’re headed toward a holy place, one where love overcomes all, where there is no injury or enemies. The Bible calls us to live into that truth now.

Let’s go back to how this idea of trajectory affects the slavery issue. Yes, even the early Christians seemed to put up with this nasty, demeaning institution, although we have to remember Christians really didn’t have any power for centuries. The only way they could change the world around them was through clever, subversive means. And they did change the world over the centuries, even before coming into power in the Holy Roman Empire.

We see early evidence of the change occurring in a tiny letter in the New Testament, Philemon. Paul wrote it to send back with a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had been helping Paul in prison but now was returning to his master. Onesimus may have been just a boy.

The slave owner and recipient of the letter, a Christian named Philemon, had the right under Roman law to punish Onesimus harshly, but Philemon found himself in a difficult position once his slave returned. In the letter, Paul applied the principles of love declared by Christ, referring to the slave as a brother in Christ, and addressing the letter so it would be read before the entire congregation of Christians.

“If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul wrote. “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

I would encourage you to read the whole letter with an eye to how Paul cleverly tried to free Onesimus, letting the power of love go to work on a slave owner’s heart. We don’t have clear evidence one way or the other, but I have no doubt Onesimus was freed. Some scholars believe the early church’s Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus was the boy slave grown into manhood.

And yes, the trajectory of this particular biblical idea continued into the future. Slavery became illegal in the western world largely because of British Christians, most notably William Wilberforce and others with ties to Methodism. They understood the enslavement of others was contrary to the teachings of Christ. In fact, I think one could argue that without Christianity, slavery might continue as a legal institution even now.

Slavery is just one example of biblical ideas shaping the world. Christ’s teachings and sacrifice on the cross, given time, change everything.