Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 13 Sunday 10 September 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Ezekiel 33.7-11; Romans 13.8-end; Matthew 18.15-20
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law….love is the fulfilling of the law,” says Paul the disciple of Jesus Christ.
“Love, is all you need…” sang the Beatles, who John Lennon said, rather vaingloriously, were more famous than Jesus.
So far, the unlikely combination of St. Paul and the troubadours of the age of free love and peace seem to be in agreement.
Why then is the world not all sweetness and light? Why can’t we just love one another? Even those who sang about love and peace could not manage to get on with each other and split up?
These last few Sundays at mass, we have been hearing St. Paul’s teaching on the life of the Christian community in the concluding chapters of Romans. He had already written of the centrality of love as the key to our relationships with our neighbours: “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection” (12.9).
Now he takes his thinking about love a step further. To understand love as the basic requirement for life under the grace of Christ is to understand it as the fulfillment of the law God gave to Israel. As Christ is the one to whom the law of Israel had pointed and in whom it found its culmination, so in the love Christ commanded as the primary obligation of one human being to another, we are also to find the culmination of the law. Paul hammers home this point by framing his discussion with the explicit claim that such love is, as Jesus too had taught in his summary of the Law, its fulfillment.
But in an age which stresses personal autonomy, how can love be made a “rule?” Can it be commanded at all? Emotions are not something we can control, so we think that to command us to love is unrealistic. We will either be frustrated at being asked to love someone we find unlovely or unlovable; or we will feel shams and hypocrites for pretending to love someone we don’t love at all.
So what are we to make of the commandment to love?
Part of our problem lies in our understanding of those words “love” and “law.”
In our world, “love” has become the property romantic novelists, of movie and TV producers and of the advertising industry. It has been reduced to sentimentality, commodified as a means of selling things. It has been defined as an emotional state; a warm feeling about someone or something, or sexual attraction.
Our confusion about love is seen in that oft-heard expression: “I love him or her to bits.” Well, I thought love was meant to bring people together, to make them whole, not to break them into pieces.
This is not what the New Testament means by “love.”
God’s love for us is more than an occasional warm feeling about us. We know God loves us not because of the way he feels about us but because of what he has done for us in Jesus Christ: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3.16).
What Paul and the other New Testament writers mean by love is not something centred on our emotions, how we feel, but on our actions, what we do. To love someone is to actively promote their good. To be commanded to love our enemies means to work for their good, not harm. To love an enemy does not mean so much to change one’s emotional state toward them, as to do good for that them, regardless of what our emotional response to them may be. Love which acts for the good of another is the love that fulfills the law. Such love means both, to cease actions that harm another and to do what promotes their good.
If our understanding of “love” is distorted by our culture’s misunderstanding; the same is true of our understanding or misunderstanding of “law.” We think of law in terms of rules and regulations, designed to keep us in order; to make us behave when we might not do so naturally and automatically. We can all recognize that the behaviour or misbehaviour of other people needs to be controlled, if we are to live our lives in peace and safety. In our saner and more self-aware moments, we may even grasp that our own lives and conduct also need to be governed by law.. Our sins may not be so luridly scarlet as the “reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy,” which Paul speaks of, the stuff of tabloid headlines and soap opera scripts; let alone the cruel abuse and ruthless exploitation of the vulnerable which goes on in our society, but they are none the less real for being cloaked in respectability.
The Hebrew word “Torah,” which we usually translate as “law,” does include that sense of law. But “Torah” also includes the idea of “instruction”; that is, guidance on the way we are to live our lives in relationship with both God and neighbour. Law in this sense educates and forms as well as controls; it teaches us how to live.
The statement about love doing no wrong to a neighbour seems negative and inadequate at first sight. Surely love is about a lot more than not harming, not doing evil, to one’s neighbour?
But the negative is exactly Paul’s point. The commandments he cites from the “Second Table” of the Ten Commandments all proscribe things which would harm the neighbour. Together, they suggest that this is the law’s way: to restrain harmful action.
Whereas love, the essence of the law as defined by Leviticus 19.18 to “love one’s neighbour as oneself,” (which Jesus also cites in his summary of the Law) is a positive thing that takes up and goes beyond the prohibition. It asks us to place ourselves in the position of the neighbour and allow our actions to flow from the question: “What would I desire in this situation?” rather that, “What ought I to do or refrain from doing with regard to this person?” Love is the fulfillment of the law because it fulfills all the law requires and actively goes beyond it (cf. Matt. 5.43-48).
Paul clearly believed that the central ethical values of the law, as distinct from the ritual and dietary prescriptions, remained in force for believers. There is a distinction between what the law prescribes as “law,” and the values which it enshrines as an expression of God’s will for human beings. For believers these are not external impositions come from the indwelling gift of the Spirit in whom our relationship with both God and neighbour grows.
And so, in the Christian tradition these negative prohibitions have been given a positive interpretation in the light of love as the fulfillment of the law.
The prohibition of murder means that we are to show respect for the life God has given us; we are to work and pray for peace in our world, in communities, workplaces and homes, and as today’s Gospel reminds us, in our churches; we are to bear no malice, prejudice or hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God.
So the prohibition against adultery is seen not just as defending the integrity of a vowed relationship, when natural instincts and cultural ethos work to persuade us otherwise, but an incentive to a positive fidelity and mutual care in our most intimate relationships.
The commandment not to steal means, too, that we are to be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom and the necessities of life for all people; we are to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God.
The commandment against bearing false witness, lying, means that we are to speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence: something which has taken on a fresh urgency in an age of “fake news,” when politicians seem to lie more brazenly than ever.
The command not to covet means not just that we are to resist temptations to envy, greed and jealousy, but also to rejoice in other people’s gifts and graces.
The relationship between the passage from Romans and those from Ezekiel and Matthew is accidental – in the sense that in the lectionary on these Green Sundays, we read through one of the Gospels in sequence and the Old Testament Reading complement the Gospel reading. At the same time, we read through one of the epistles in sequence.
Love is not mentioned explicitly in either of the other readings – but that does not mean that it is not there. In Ezekiel, the prophet’s task is described as that of a watchman. Yet the watchman who carries out his duty to warn of approaching danger, as the prophet who carries out his divine commission, is acting for the good of those entrusted to his care. Both watchman and prophet love their fellow-human beings by doing something to promote their good. They warn them of impending danger.
The Gospel records Jesus’ advice on how we are to go about recovering an erring fellow-Christian. Yet the description of such a recovery is sure the description of an act of love on behalf of the erring one. Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love, exercises that love here by telling his disciples how they are to embody it. Again, we see that love consists in doing something for the good of others.
And even the seemingly harsh saying that the recalcitrant should be treated as “tax collectors and sinners” has to be read in the light of the way Jesus treated such people – welcoming them, eating and drinking with them, – and his response to Peter’s question in the Gospel we will hear next Sunday: “’Lord if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’” Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” In other words, an infinite number of times.
Jesus and Paul command us to love, by their teaching and instruct us in loving by their example.
We gather here Sunday by Sunday to hear that teaching and to be drawn into Christ’s self-giving love in the sacrament. We are called into a community in which we can practice that love and from which we can go out into the world to share it.