Romans 13:8-10| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 28, 2001| Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
When it comes to matters of religion and theology, I have always considered myself to be a conservative. A conservative wants to conserve – to hold on to – the truth of God’s word. If God says it, that settles it. When somebody says that the Bible doesn’t really mean what it says or that we may discard what the Bible says when it doesn’t pass the test of popular approval, the conservative closes his mind to that opinion and prays that God will always keep him closed-minded. He knows that the Bible is God’s word and that means it is perfectly true in its every assertion. He listens to Jesus who says, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” The conservative Christian takes to heart Jesus’ words in his Great Commission, “. . . teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.” He knows perfectly well that many people find his convictions obnoxious and intolerable, but he gladly puts up with that because he knows that what God thinks is infinitely more important than what people think. The conservative Christian who knows his Bible and just a little bit about church history also knows that every new idea which contradicts the Bible is nothing more than an old error dressed up in new clothes. The conservative wants to be faithful to God’s word.
And do you know what really gets conservatives upset? When they hear liberals accuse them of being unloving. We conservatives just hate people who accuse us of being unloving. Rarely do we take this accusation to heart. Instead we issue a counter-charge against liberals who accuse us of this. We accuse them of rejecting the Bible, God’s word, of conforming to man’s will rather than God’s, of making up their own rules as they go along. There, take that, you liberals. Accuse me of being unloving? I’ll accuse you of something far worse!
But there is nothing worse. Conservative, Bible-believing Christians need to hear these words. There is nothing worse than being unloving. And if the shoe fits, wear it. It will not do simply to attack the critic, especially when his criticism is true. Or do we think that the Apostle Paul, whose words are inspired by the Holy Spirit, is simply tossing a bone to muddle-headed liberals when he writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.”? No, he is saying that our strong convictions – our devotion to the word of God – must have as its fruit love for our neighbor. As we just sang,
’Tis all in vain that you confess the doctrines of the Church unless
You live according to your creed and show your faith by word and deed.
Some people think that being a conservative Christian means adhering to a long list of rules and then slavishly following those rules. That’s not true at all. In fact, inventing rules with which to replace God’s law is the very opposite of conserving God’s word. If we are to be real conservatives in the best sense of the word, we must hold on firmly to the very words of God. God’s words direct us – not to a long list of rules – but to a single rule that says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Those who substitute their own rules for God’s law aren’t conservatives at all. They aren’t conserving God’s word. They are avoiding it. If our convictions are really based on the word of God, we will spend less time making up rules and more time considering what we should do to help our neighbor and to do him no harm. That’s what love requires.
What, specifically does this mean? That is, what should we do to help our neighbor and what should we do to avoid harm to our neighbor? Just how are we to love our neighbor as God’s law requires? Our text gives us the answer. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not covet. This is how we are to love our neighbor. The Ten Commandments teach us what love requires of us.
Since God is love, God defines love. How can those who have not loved define it for themselves? And yet folks presume to do just that. They call adultery and fornication “making love” as if it is love when men and women sin against God’s commandment. In the name of compassion, even nominal Christians lobby for laws to permit women to kill their unborn children in direct defiance of the Fifth Commandment. Love says not to steal, but folks steal in the name of love. We are slandered, or so we think, so we slander the one who slandered us. But love doesn’t do this. Love does no harm to the neighbor. Adultery, murder, theft, false witness are harmful. They are always harmful because God says so. God defines love for us and he knows because he is God. Love is what hurts our neighbor. And then commandments that God gave to Moses still define for us what hurts our neighbor.
It is common to confuse human rules with divine law. If you drink too much alcohol you will get drunk and that is a sin. So folks make up rules against drinking alcohol and think that they are doing God a favor. If you obey the rules, you will be obeying God, they think. And since smoking is bad for you, they make a rule against that too. Then, since playing cards might lead to gambling, and that involves coveting, they make a rule against that too. This is called putting a hedge around God’s law. The idea is that we reduce God’s law to a list of rules. Then, when we obey the rules, we will be obeying God’s law. But, you see, this is exactly wrong. This puts us over God’s law, when it is God’s law that is over us. It is one thing to have rules for the security, peace, and the maintenance of well-ordered liberty. It is quite another to claim that God has established these rules and that they must be obeyed on that account.
The proliferation of rules rarely helps Christians to live a more pious and decent life. Go to church on Sunday. That’s a good rule. However, the Commandment requires more than that, does it not? It requires that we love God’s word and God’s wisdom more than whatever else might be occupying our attention on a Sunday morning. And when it comes to loving our neighbor, how can a list of rules help me love those who do me wrong? How can a list of rules make me regard my neighbor as someone who is just as important as I am?
When love has been replaced by rules, the church of Christ becomes a club of holier-than-thou religious do-gooders whose piety is measured by how many rules they have and how strictly their rules are followed. But this is not the church. We need fewer rules and more love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” That’s the word of God.
Reducing the Christian faith to rules silences the word of God and destroys the church. It distorts both the law and the gospel. The law loses its true focus and the gospel loses its comfort. Let me explain how this works. You might think it would be much easier to obey only one rule, the law of Christian love, than to obey dozens or hundreds of rules of human invention. But that’s not so. Obeying rules simply requires that we learn what we may and may not do. You don’t have to care why. You don’t have to consider the consequences. You have only to do what the rules tell you to do. When you do, you get credit for being good. When you don’t, you suffer the consequences of being bad. It is totally self-serving. The law of love, however, requires that you serve your neighbor. And that is infinitely more difficult.
Let’s take the school classroom as an example. When the student lives according to the rules without regard for love, he simply follows that course of action that will keep him out of trouble. The rule says, don’t talk when the teacher is talking. The student who lives under rules doesn’t have to care one bit about the welfare of his teacher or his fellow students. He need only care about not getting into trouble for breaking the rule. His obedience to the rule has nothing to do with love for anyone but himself. Does the rule, don’t talk when the teacher is talking, require him to love his teacher? No. The rule, without love, tells him nothing about caring for the welfare of the teacher. It tells him only to know what’s best for himself. He then learns that self-interest – not interest in the welfare of his teacher or fellow students – is motivation for what he does.
It is always easier to obey rules than to love. What happens is that the rules take the place of love, in fact, they take the place of God, for it is God who has given us this single command, Love one another. No man-made rule can ever permit us to disregard that command. Love does no harm to the neighbor. Regardless of whatever the rules might say, love does no harm to the neighbor. And the Bible doesn’t say that he who has obeyed the rules has fulfilled the law. It says that love is the fulfillment of the law.
Have you fulfilled it? One single command. One simple command. Have you obeyed it? Have you fulfilled the law?
Let me tell you about the One whose love has fulfilled the law. He was sleeping in the boat. Yet he is the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps. He became tired and hungry and thirty. Yet he is the One who owns all there is and need nothing that he hasn’t always had. He is our true brother and he is our eternal God. He felt every pain we feel, and yet he is Master over nature, stilling the storm by a single word. He loved. He loved with an unmatched purity. He needed no rules; he simply did what was in his very nature to do. And he loved with such perfection and single-minded devotion that his love for his neighbor fulfilled the entire law of God for all people of all time. He loved.
God now reckons to the loveless me this loving obedience of Jesus. Just as Jesus felt the pain of our lovelessness, so he pours out on us his love. He gives us to eat and to drink of his body and love and bids us to love one another. This precious sacrament comforts us today. What else, but the gospel, can comfort us when God’s single command to love our neighbor indicts us and shows us to be miserable sinners who love themselves first and most?
We hear words here in church whose meaning often escapes us: redemption, justification, reconciliation, salvation. Biblical words. Words about God and words about us. What do they mean? They mean God’s love for us. They mean Christ has fulfilled the law that we failed to fulfill. They mean Christ Jesus has freed us from the guilt we bring upon ourselves when we care more about justifying ourselves than in helping our neighbor. They mean forgiveness earned by his life of love, purchased by his sacrifice of love on the cross, forgiveness given to us in love and received by faith alone. They mean peace, the peace of sins forgiven by God. They mean deliverance from the hell which we, by our refusal to love, have deserved. What these words say and what they mean cannot be reduced to a list of rules for us to follow. They are not about our doings, but God’s. Their truth is centered in that love of God for us which is so deep and so persistent that it caused the incarnation of God’s only begotten Son. It caused him to come into the world in humility and to love those who hated him, to serve those who denied him, to suffer for those who caused his suffering. This love never grows cold. And it is for you. It is given to you in your baptism. It is pronounced upon you in the absolution. It is literally put inside of you in Holy Communion. It is God’s love for you revealed in Christ. And it is the only source, the only strength and the only power of your love for your neighbor.