When I heard The Revd Rob Morpeth deliver this homily in our nave Sunday I was moved. Now that he has been kind enough to share the text with me, I appreciate it even more, and I am proud to share it with you. He based it on Sunday’s Epistle lesson:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
They say good advice never goes out of style. Writing in the middle of the 1st century…probably about 20 years after the death of Jesus…Paul gives the Romans some advice that sounds oddly contemporary. Having never been to Rome…having never met them he tells them to owe no one anything. Debt, of course, has been a big problem lately, especially too much of it or the wrong kind of it. Funny, I haven’t heard this passage being cited in the recent debates in Congress. What an odd thing to contemplate. What if our government owed no one anything…except, as Paul says, love? Sounds like something right out of the 60s doesn’t it? Owe no one anything except to love one another.
With that Paul must be understood as turning our focus very much to the here and now of living. His goal for Christians is that we arrange our affairs and direct our desires with an eye toward freeing ourselves enough to respond to those around us, not out of greed or need but in love. Love here understood not as the stuff of emotions that comes and goes. We so often confuse other feelings with love. We get it wrong all the time. We confuse lust with love. We confuse infatuation with love. We confuse liking someone with love. And sometimes we’re so dang desperate we confuse our need to be loved with love. Paul would have a hard time recognizing any of these as what he had in mind.
Paul tends to go back to the cross as the central compelling concept of life and in the fidelity of Jesus first to God and through God to humanity. Paul sees the kind of love he has in mind when he suggests it be the only thing we owe one another. As he says…if we can but love…the commandments all take care of themselves.
Much later St Augustine in the 4th century….the fellow in whose writing much of our understanding of ourselves as Christians is grounded … in the 4th century Augustine advised the faithful to love God and sin boldly. He is clever: you cannot even approach the first and still do the later. You can make no claim to love God while sinning boldly.
Like Paul’s observation of the fulfilling of the commandments…it is all taken care of in love. The kind of love that wills good for the other… the kind of love that survives the ebb and flow of emotions … the kind of love evident in the fidelity of Jesus as he refuses to turn away from his mission and in the fidelity of God as God offers the radical hope of resurrection to the very people who had turned their backs on Jesus. Paul leaves little doubt about the importance of the here and now…the give and take of human relationships. We cannot just hunker down in our well stocked basements and await the end while all hell breaks loose round about us. We have a job to do and that job is love.
Yet you may say, but Preacher, doesn’t Paul go on in this passage to speak of an end time? And I would be obliged to say yes, yes he does. The truth is that Christianity does not see the world as just cycling on and on. Time does not circle but spirals … there is an end … a reckoning … things will be different.
It turns out that science seems to see things the same way although they do not assign the same meaning to certain events as we do. We know that our own sun will go the way of other stars eventually. It will exhaust its energy and engulf the earth. We know also that our own galaxy is on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy. Although no one can say for sure how that will go down, it doesn’t sound good. All kinds of bad of things happen when galaxies collide; well, bad for the likes of you and me. And if that doesn’t get us, we’re pretty sure the whole cosmos will either run out of steam or itself collapse in what is loosely referred to as the “big crunch.”
But unlike Paul…science gives us plenty of time to prepare for or ignore these threatening events. Billions of years separate us from any of this. Paul’s sense of time may have been off a bit – after all, it has been almost 2000 years since he wrote to the Christians in Rome – but what Paul has exactly correct is his sense of urgency. In one sense now is always the time of God. Now is always a moment of reckoning, and potentially a moment of reconciliation and of resurrection. In our arrogance we sometimes think ourselves immortal, but the things we use to convince ourselves that we are masters of our own fate are tricky. For example, we have added years to our lives but we may have inadvertently shortened the time of humans on earth.
Most of us have probably heard the idea that a collision millions of years ago between earth and an asteroid created conditions on earth that resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs. But millions of years before that there was another extinction that intrigues me. Cyanobacteria breathed CO2 – carbon dioxide – and exhaled oxygen. This was fine back then because the earth’s atmosphere had far more CO2 than oxygen. The bacteria were wildly successful – you might say they ruled the day – but over time all that breathing resulted in an accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere. The success of the CO2 breathing bacteria became their downfall as the presence of CO2 in the atmosphere dropped and oxygen increased.
I think what Paul commends whether the end takes the form of cosmological collapse, an atmosphere that favors other life forms, or it turns out that the Mayans were right after all – what Paul commends is not the hubris and arrogance we humans have always favored when left to ourselves. What he commends is a profound humility, a humility that is itself grounded in a Christian understanding of who we are and, more importantly, whose we are. We have here of late been far too quick to roll Jesus out as our newest weapon in some battle of our choosing rather than – in humility – recognizing that we are his instruments in a battle of his choosing … the outcome of which includes our ability to do the thing both Paul and Augustine see as central: love.
The prospect of an end need not send us frantically running to and fro in desperation attempting to arrange our own salvation, the basic human problem since Eve and Adam sought to get one leg up on God by eating an apple. The prospect of an end should evoke in Christians the same activity as Paul commends in our daily relationships. So we live each day as though it were the last but live it in a way that witnesses to our conviction that our very existence is in God’s hands always.
Someone great once said he who holds the future need not fear the present. We must recall as Christians that in Jesus we hold the future. And we therefore need not act in the present out of fear. We can choose – because of the bounty of his love for us – we can choose to act toward others – no matter the time – as though we owe them only love.