All you need is love, love. Love is all you need. So sang the Beetles in 1967. None of us could dispute that lyric. Love is all that we need. To love and to be loved. It’s what our families, schools, communities and the world needs. More than ever as everyone attempts to overcome the Coronavirus pandemic, we need to love each other.
Paul captures the same sentiment in the opening words of today’s reading: ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law.’ (Romans 13.8 &10) He picks up on the words of Jesus: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22.37-40) The words go back beyond Jesus. They are found in the old testament book of Deuteronomy (6.5) and are known in Jewish tradition as ‘the Ve’ahavta’ a continuation of the shema used daily in Jewish liturgical worship. There are also plenty of references to similar words about the centrality of love in many of the world’s religions and philosophies. Love is a yearning deep in the human psyche.
However vital love may be to our lives, it is not easy. So often it is fragile. When it fails, we all become victims. In our culture, we too easily think in terms of love as just an emotion…even a second hand one if you’re a Tina Turner fan. But as Chris reminded us last week, love that can make a real difference is a lot more than just emotion, more than what we feel. It is about ensuring that we put the needs and feelings of others ahead of our own. That takes effort and hard work. It’s often the very opposite of how we feel. The message from the bible is that we can only truly love others when we have love for God and obey his instructions for us, when we live according to his will.
As we have seen in our studies in the book of Romans, Paul does much to help us understand the real meaning of love. He starts, not with human love but the reality of human sin. He shows how we all live in that sin and are incapable in our own strength of meeting God’s requirements, of being people of true love. That’s why God stepped in with the greatest act of love the world has seen, allowing himself in Jesus to absorb the hatred and prejudice of humanity, paying its price, so that all of us can access a new relationship with God. It is in and through this love relationship with God, that we can find the tools, the strength, the power, and the reason to live loving lives ourselves.
In these verses, Paul reminds us of the universal call to love, embedded in the old testament, in the ten commandments and in in the teaching of Jesus. He also gives his Roman Christian listeners and ourselves many generations later the real reasons why we should love.
The first reason he gives here as to why we should love is that we are in debt. He writes: ‘the only obligation you have is to love one another’ (Romans 13.8) If as believing trusting Christians, we rely on the love of God that Paul talked of earlier in this letter; the love which through Jesus’ death on the cross counts us as righteous before God, whatever our sin, then we are indebted, we are obligated to show the same kind of forgiving self-giving love to others. I could think of many bible verses to support this point, but the story Jesus tells about the unforgiving steward speaks most clearly. (Matthew 18.23-35) The steward owes the king ten thousand talents. He can’t pay up, so he is ordered to be sold as a slave along with his wife and family to pay the debt. He begs for mercy which granted. He’s let off the whole debt but then finds a fellow steward who owes him a mere hundred denarii. He has him thrown into prison until the debt was paid. When the king finds out, he is furious with the steward, withdraws the cancellation of the debt and has him tortured instead. The story illustrates the obligation those who live in the love of God have to show the same love, forgiveness and self-sacrifice towards others that God shows for us.
The second reason for our love that Paul gives here is the needy world in which we live. Despite all the love songs which are sung, all the calls for people to come together, to respect our fellow humans and the planet, there is still so much prejudice and hatred out there. Social media by definition should make us more sociable, more loving and that can often be true, but at the same time, the same platforms can be used to spread abuse and violence. Paul rallies us as Christian people to stop doing the things which belong to the darkness, to have done with orgies or drunkenness, no immorality or indecency, no fighting or jealousy. (Romans 13.12-13) To stop doing what belongs with darkness and to take up the weapons, the armour of light. As Jesus has it, to let our light shine before others that they may see the good we do and give glory to God. (Matthew 5.16) Christian people who know the love and forgiveness of God in their hearts, who experience the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives are uniquely placed to radiate that same light of love out into a dark world. The quality of your love, it’s consistency and purity, rooted deep in the heart of God can be a real game changer for places and people and networks that you reach.
A third reason for love which Paul gives here is that Jesus is coming soon. It’s time to get up and get going. The night’s nearly done; daybreak is at hand. Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. How will Jesus find us, find you and me on that day when he comes? It would be nice if we’d all got our theology neatly sorted out, that our church building looked magnificent, the choir was note perfect, but actually, for Paul here, it would seem that the quality of our love is what matters: that we respect one another, our bodies and those of others, listen to each other’s thoughts and views avoiding quarrels. That we care deeply for our families, our fellow believers, all we have contact with so that the light of Christ is shining in our hearts ready to greet his radiant and holy light.
To conclude then, love is what we contract when we get close to God. Let’s not social distance from him. Indeed, the final words of our reading are often translated ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 13.14) You can’t get closer than that. The love we catch from God opens an account for us to love the world. We need to love that world, particularly where we find it dark and bleak. And we love in anticipation of the return of Christ, that he may find us doing and being what he has redeemed us for. Maranatha, Even so come Lord Jesus.
Trinity 13 6th September 2020