First Thoughts on a Sermon for the Lectionary Reading for 4 September 2011 (Romans 13: 8-14)

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1855-1919

I heard recently of a theological student with a sporty car who came back one evening to the College and announced to his roommate. “I think I have just found true love”.
“How do you know?” was the inevitable question.
“Well” the young man said. “I was out driving this evening with this girl who was my date and I came to this really romantic spot to park on the side of a hill overlooking the lights of the city”.
“Do you know”, he went on, the girl said to me, “If you lift the top on this car I think I would give you a kiss…. And you know what … I must have taken less than five minutes to get the top off so that I could get that kiss”.
“Five minutes?” said his friend scornfully, “I would have done it in five seconds”.
“Ah yes, but your car is a convertible!” said the young man.

I hardly think the young man’s notion of true love was what Paul meant in this day’s reading from Romans but nevertheless the young man has realised one thing about real love at least. Love is not just a feeling – it is inexorably tied up with action. If you were to turn it round for a moment and think of being the potential recipient of love, you would see just how dependent you are in looking to words and actions. How do you know love is present? And for that matter, how might you know when what you are being offered is not love? The motivation for love – or its opposite hate – may well start with the feelings but it is the expression in words and actions that will determine how it is recognised. And it is that which is perceived which tells us what is in the other’s heart.

If I had to choose one key teaching that summarises what Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity may be, for me it would be his understanding that the only really important principle needed to put all other teachings into perspective would have to be the centrality of love…but more than that, he showed by the examples he used that love is not simply a feeling Although in other places he talks of positive actions associated with love, here he mentions some negative commandments – things that you shouldn’t do to your neighbour. He chooses as his examples some of the more extreme – adultery, killing, stealing and of course the attitude of coveting which sets up jealousies which would rapidly destroy any chance of developing good relationships. And on reflection this makes perfect sense because it is the negative actions done to us which very quickly identify our neighbour as unloving – and unfortunately in real life a single unfriendly act will imbed itself in the consciousness.

Paul’s skill in going to the heart of the matter happens to be a very Jewish characteristic. This seems to have been typical of a great rabbi. A generation before Jesus Rabbi Hillel did this same trick when he summed up the law in the negative form of the golden rule: ‘What is hateful to you, don’t do to your fellow man: this is the whole Torah, all the rest is explanation.’(Shabbat, 31a, quoted in Geoffrey Wigoder, ed., The Encyclopaedia of Judaism, p. 341).

Paul seems to have carried on this tradition. By the time he wrote these words he was using his training as a rabbi to highlight sound theology. It was not always the case. Remember earlier he had also been something of a religious fanatic who had persecuted the early Christian movement and even murdered some of the earliest followers of Jesus, thinking he was doing God’s will. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul seemed to be more interested in measuring himself against what we might now call the golden rule.
Remember what he said in the letter to the Corinthians:
‘If I… fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I am nothing.’ (1 Corinthians 13:2-3).

Paul says that love is a supreme — one could say, an overriding — obligation. It is the fulfilment of God’s law. ‘Whoever loves his fellow human being has fulfilled Torah’, God’s law (13:8, Complete Jewish Bible).
It reminds us of the words of Jesus in response to a question from a Torah expert, ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied:
‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ (Matthew 22:34-40, cf. Mark 12:28-31).

I think Paul, like Christ before him, was a pretty good observer of the human condition and he recognised the absolute value of wanting and doing the best for those we come into contact. But as with Jesus, he also had an eye for the bigger picture.
Remember too that Paul was writing not just for the individual but to encourage the emerging Churches as fully functioning communities. We are often reminded of ways our individual consciences need to be activated, but it is interesting to think what sort of letter we would write if we were addressing our own local Church community. What sorts of actions characterise our group? Would we be identified both as individuals and as a group as having loving actions?

The two notions of individual actions and group actions are always mixed together and whether we like it or not, if enough examples of bad individual behaviour are noticed the whole group gets judged accordingly. And of course the obverse is true. If there are warm relationships and kind actions being noticed the group members feel good about their association with the group.

I even suspect we make judgements about whole nations in the same way.
A decision made to take punitive action whether it be in the Gaza strip or Iraq or Afghanistan – would be remembered by successive descendants of those considered to be victims. Conversely decisions motivated by the intention to be kind and to offer generous assistance seem to lead to payback in the form of treaties and alliances. Unfortunately the primacy of love is not yet a commonly accepted part of international relationships. The old maxim of: To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem resembles a nail- appears much more a part of the automatic response than following Paul and Jesus to offer kind actions towards any State that appears a threat. If Jesus and Paul are correct, casting your bread upon the waters has far more chance of a positive outcome than any heavy handed punishment any day.

Yet the adoption of a compassionate option always has to start at the individual level.

The other day one of the parishioners asked me to think about to whom and how we offer communion and this got me thinking. One of the local congregations at Epsom has an interesting attitude to communion. They have the same liturgy as the other congregations and virtually the same way of dispensing communion, but they take it one step further. They not only share the bread – and in this case the grape juice but common meals are very important to them. They frequently have a meal together after the service and they frequently go to one another’s houses for friendly communal meals. This is of course very New Testament. Jesus is often found eating with someone and I have heard it argued that the table is just as much a valid symbol for Jesus as is the Cross.

This then makes the act of that Sunday Communion much more meaningful for that congregation. Sharing the bread and grape juice, kneeling or standing beside someone you care enough about to invite them into your home for a meal served in a friendly setting – where there is laughter and story telling and sympathy aplenty, makes the Communion setting one of gathering with genuine fellow travellers. Contrast this with the other extreme. What if the communion celebration is with a group of virtual strangers who have never dreamt of inviting the others into their home – a group who might smile briefly at one another with a perfunctory greeting outside Church in the foyer – but who might have no genuine interest in one another Surely this raises a question. Is sharing the Lord’s supper with such partial strangers really remembering Jesus, who like Paul, said in effect that love of God and love of neighbour was the organising principle which put all other commandments into perspective?

Having said that I am not implying that those who share meals at home are therefore saints fit to take communion beside you – or that by kneeling yourself after offering hospitality you then become a better companion for communion. It is rather that adopting Paul’s suggestions as best you can makes both you and the community better than you might otherwise have been….. but not perfect. Remember although what Jesus and Paul offered was welcome common sense, the love injunction does not cure all situations. A person who forgives does not turn all potential enemies into friends – at least not in the real world. After all Jesus forgave – yet was crucified. Paul extended the hand of friendship to many but was still martyred in Rome. What however he did do was pass on the inspiration for churches to grow in positive ways to the benefit of many.

In practice of course, just as we as individuals start with characteristics of both the saint and the sinner, most Churches would have an obvious mixture of good and bad attitudes amongst the members in their congregations. I once heard someone say “I love all humankind. All my family are members and some of my wife’s family are too”. And I guess this is part of the challenge. One almost universal human flaw is that we naturally relate best to those who are like us and particularly if we are at ease with their customs. Most of us have acquaintances who we find easy to love because they return kindness as a matter of course. In practice, others have never learnt that skill. Some are painfully shy, some are almost afraid to let others into their world. We have one neighbour who is so friendly he trims our hedge without being asked, organises street parties and neighbourhood watch, looks after people’s animals when they are away and is always looking for ways to make people’s lives easier. We have had other neighbours in the past who are aggressive and bad tempered, and others who prefer to keep to themselves, and on occasion I confess to my shame we have even had neighbours where I did not know their names. It is easy to write someone off because we suspect in advance that we are unlikely to agree with them.

I want to suggest that Paul and Jesus are right in identifying the key pre-eminence of the love principle – but I also want to suggest that it is an ideal that needs constant attention and even deliberate action that sometimes goes against our baser natural instincts.

What is at stake in effect is the very nature of the local church, and hopefully from there our community and even our nation.. Then, as now, Church membership is not sufficient to automatically reflect underlying attitudes and actions. Paul of course was writing to the early Christian Church at Rome with some advice on what principles were needed for their fledgling community. I cannot be sure that should Paul have been considering our community he would have been drawn to the need for the same advice. With us he might have noticed something different. Nevertheless the advice he gives sounds as though it might equally apply to a host of communities. The real catch is that there are two issues that no-one else can answer for us. The two questions that still remained to be answered are: first the question of self assessment. Do we consider that an observer might see in the way we live the characteristics of those who genuinely care for one another and care for those to whom we come into contact? And then…. if not…what would we have to change to be satisfied that love had come to take a more central role in the way we live?

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1 Response to First Thoughts on a Sermon for the Lectionary Reading for 4 September 2011 (Romans 13: 8-14)

  1. Bill, I particularly appreciated the description of the congregation that eats together in connection with celebrating communion. There is something about eating together that bridges our differences. I also think your closing questions are right on target because as you noted Christian love is more than a warm feeling. It is an action that benefits others. — Mark

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