Lectionary Sermon for 3 September 2017 (Romans 13: 8-14)

If there were to be one disturbing feature that characterizes our current age perhaps it is notion that the only way to persuade our perceived enemies they are wrong is to respond with overwhelming force or at least the threat of such force.

So we know what should happen if the Islamic State (ISIS) takes a city in Iraq or Syria. Call in the strike force to take out that city. A strutting dictator has the temerity to seek to develop Nuclear weapons. Show him he is wrong by reminding him that our side has the power to blow his country off the face of the earth. Suicide bombers and deranged drivers attack civilians in the streets of our cities. Call out the troops and destroy the terrorists in a fierce gun battle. And yet somehow the number of terrorists does not drop.

Yes I know that by the time terrorists have become terrorists it may be far too late for alternatives. But it also seems to me that Jesus’ alternative message is largely untried in practice.

Now here is a thought. Why is it that we talk love in Church, yet those we pray for don’t notice that we love them? Remember that line in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. How come a good number of those we have in mind don’t even seem to know we have prayed that prayer

Am I really guilty of heresy when I suggest that the prayer left as words is a waste of time.

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 ourselves being the potential recipient of love, we would see just how dependent we are in looking to words and actions.

So just how do we know love is present? And for that matter, how might we know when what we 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 recognized. 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 summarizes 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.

Unfortunately it is sometimes easier to recite the well known teaching about love than it is to find the teaching making a difference in our personal lives or for that matter in the lives of our self claimed Christian communities.

With elections once more in the offing keeping score of wrongs is once more taking centre stage, and I suspect self interest governs more policy than any visible insistence that we show love to enemies, and insist on kindness for neighbours.

Paul himself would have been keenly aware of the gulf between theory and practice. The injunction to love had its equivalent in the Talmud and Paul as a leading Jew would have known those words. By the time he got round to penning today’s words from his letter to the Romans he had realised just how important this practical love might be.

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. If we admire his words, perhaps we too need to reflect on how our current behaviour patterns and attitudes must seem to others.

Remember what Paul 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).

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 characterize 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. After all if enough examples of bad individual behaviour are noticed the whole group gets judged accordingly. Fortunately 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. Unfortunately others are also judging us.

Don’t forget that a decision made to support punitive action whether it be in the Gaza strip or Iraq or Afghanistan – makes it inevitable that such punishment would be remembered by successive descendants of those who see themselves as victims. There is an old saying to the effect that “Bombing a city has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants” 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.

Yes it is true 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 and offer kind actions towards any State that appears a threat. But remember, 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.

This then makes the act of that Sunday Communion much more meaningful for such a 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….. 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. One of our current neighbours collects our mail while we are away and is prepared to look after neighbours’ pets. 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 the second question…. 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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