Wake Up! Time to Love
September 10, 2017
Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney,
Willow Grove Presbyterian Church, Scotch Plains, New Jersey
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. Romans 13:8-14
I spent part of every summer of my growing up visiting my aunt and uncle’s lakehouse near Spokane, Washington. The house was on Newman Lake. It was paradise for me. I spend every day exploring around the shore of the lake fishing, going out in the boat, swimming, playing volleyball and croquet with my cousins, playing the huge player piano and singing Moon River and Bye Bye Blackbird, playing hide and seek.
When everyone came to visit, the lakehouse was full. Early on my Uncle Wade showed me my special room. As I look back now it was a closet, but to me it was my special room with a special bed (fancy cot). I loved to pull quilts close against the cool night air….well, that was a long time ago, but I can still remember how good that felt, to be warm and safe and loved.
I remember one day when I was a teenager, after sleeping till noon the way teenagers do, I lay in my cocoon and listened to the sounds of my sister and cousins who had been up for hours, playing outside, and to the voice of my grandmother and aunts talking as they made cinnamon rolls. I leaped out of bed, raced to get ready, knowing that I had missed out on an important part of the day, that adventures had already happened, that conversations were over, that opportunities had passed. I had to get out of bed! No time to sleep late! Who knows what might happen during a day at Newman Lake house. And I didn’t want to miss out on a thing!
Paul wanted to evoke that same deep sense of urgency in his congregation in Rome. “Wake up, get up,” he writes. “Get going, it’s time!” This is the day, this is the time for salvation. Don’t live in the darkness of the night; live in the light of the day! What has happened that has Paul so excited, so passionate? God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, that’s what has happened! Paul had a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus and he spent the rest of his life starting churches and teaching. What God has done in the world, in a certain time and place through the life and ministry and crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, has changed everything, has changed the world. The world is now a different place, says Paul. The kingdom of God has entered into the world, a wounded world that has longed for God and groaned for good news. God is here. The good news is that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God prevailed. Death is defeated; it is not the final thing. New life in Christ is the final thing.
There is some debate about whether or not Paul’s passion for people to adopt his own urgency for faith and conversion came from his belief that the Messiah was to come again at any time. Possibly early on in his Christian life Paul thought that. But his letters span many years, and the letter to the Romans was written in about 57 AD, about 25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s energy and commitment to his firm faith in God’s saving power was only strengthened over the years of his ministry, despite no return yet of Jesus the Christ.
Fundamental to Paul was his unshakeable belief that in Christ, God had effected a cosmic change in creation. Everything was different in how God related to the world, and so everything must be different in how the world now must relate to God. It was hard for Paul to comprehend that people would not want to profess faith in this new kingdom that God had created, in this new relationship that was possible between God and his children, in this new possibility of trust and hope and the freedom that comes from giving all that you are to God’s care. Paul’s passion lasted his whole life. He knew that this good news was too good not to share.
What does Paul want people to do because of this good news?
First – Live in the light.
As Paul writes in this part of the letter to the Romans, he is applying his theology to actions. He addresses the question of how we now need to behave and live given our having become all new people through baptism into Christ. He uses the imagery of daytime sunlight and nighttime darkness to convey the sense that if we know the light of Christ, then our actions should reflect people who know they can be seen.
Then and now, most crime, most attacks, most evil happens under the cloak of darkness. Of course, Paul is speaking as much metaphorically as he is literally in terms of deeds done in the dark. He is saying that whether it’s 2:00pm or 2:00am, if you are in Christ, then you stand in his light. Behave as though you are always visible, Paul says. You cannot be a child of the light and yet hope to get away with saying or doing things that you hope no one will see for whatever the reason. Trying to keep others in the dark as to what you are up to is not for people who are following Christ.
You live in the eternal daylight of Christ’s holy light. So act like it! You cannot be someone in love with the light and then do wrong, hurtful, unloving things in the dark.
Let us put on an armor of light, put on Christ, Paul asserts. This is a spiritual armor. It is the armor of character, love, and healing.
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” Madeleine L’Engle
The other message comes just before Paul invokes the light-dark metaphor – simply our high Christian calling to be people marked by love. Love is fulfilling the law.
Love one another.
How do we do that? Do we first have to believe in a loving God or act in loving ways? Which comes first?
In his book The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs shares his experience of trying to adhere to all the Bible’s laws and rules for one full year. He tries to follow the major, well-known rules—such as the Ten Commandments—but also the more obscure ones, like this command from Leviticus 19:19: “Nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” What emerges is a humorous yet poignant story of an impossible quest. (1)
“Here’s my plan,” Jacobs writes during the first month of his experiment:
In college, I learned about the theory of cognitive dissonance. This says, in part, if you behave in a certain way, your beliefs will eventually change to conform to your behavior. So that’s what I’m trying to do. If I act like I’m faithful and God loving for several months, then maybe I’ll become faithful and God-loving. If I pray every day, then maybe I’ll start to believe in the Being to whom I’m praying.
Over the course of the year, Jacobs finds that in some ways this theory holds true. His outward behavior has an effect on his inward beliefs and attitudes. For example, saying a mandatory prayer of thanksgiving each day does help him to feel more gratitude. He wonders, what comes first—one’s actions or one’s beliefs?
Here’s Paul’s answer: neither one. Action doesn’t come first, nor does belief. What comes first is the love of God.
In our tradition as Presbyterians, we baptize infants. I love this practice. I choke up every time I have the privilege to take part in the sacrament. That’s because to me infant baptism is a bold, affirmation that what comes first is the love of God. It proclaims that even before we can utter the word God, God claims us. God comes to us—not because of our own faith, not because of our own beliefs or actions, but simply because God loves us.
Our life of faith is more than just a set of rules and regulations to be followed. It is not just about what we do, although what we do is indeed important. Furthermore, our life of faith is more than just a set of beliefs and doctrines to be declared. It is not just about what we believe, although what we believe is important as well.
Our life of faith is ultimately found in the radical and inclusive love of God. For Christians, it is found in Jesus the Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection model for us a love that breaks down barriers and fulfills the whole of the law.
This passage from Romans makes it clear for people who would seek to follow all the rules of the Bible. “The commandments,” says Paul, “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.” We are not bound to a strict, legalistic, or literal following of the law. We fulfill the law by choosing love. You want rules? Love God, your neighbor, yourself.
On the surface, this seems easy. We can break free from all the rules and regulations! Just following the rule of love.
It is not, however, necessarily easier. In fact, living by a rule of love involves a lot more intentionality and critical engagement. There is no script to follow. The question becomes – What is most loving?
It is much easier to follow a set of rules than it is to love each person we meet. Love requires vulnerability, hospitality, forgiveness, risk, and trust. Love is hard, and it asks us to do hard things. It asks us to live in community with people who are not just like us; it asks us to share our lives with those with whom we do not always agree; it requires us to forgive one another’s wrongs. Love asks us to do hard things, but it also envelopes us in light, showing us what it means to be fully known and fully loved.
Paul says – Wake up! Time to Love! The God of Love awakens us to a new day. Be people who live in Christ’s light.
So where are you today? When you think about faith, do you think it is mainly a set of rules – do’s and don’ts? Do you understand faith as something that tells you who your enemies are? Who to hate? Does faith become a burden because you are trying to hide from God? Do you wonder if God is keeping score? Or has faith and being a Christian become comfortable, like a familiar pair of shoes? Has faith become simply a reminder to be nice and polite? Or is Paul pointing us to a deeper, richer, radical source of meaning and source of wonder and mystery and transformation for us and the world? Does faith move us to be more loving, more committed to God’s shalom? Can we feel that urgency and passion he feels?
I want to close with a story. Rev. Joann Haejong Lee is associate pastor of the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. She gave me a new perspective on faith based on rules or faith based on love.
The household I grew up in did not have a lot of rules. My parents were first-generation immigrants who worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. So even if we’d had a lot of rules, they would not have been home to enforce most of them.
When I began high school, I treated anything resembling a rule as more of just a general guideline. My parents expected me to regulate myself, and often they were too tired and too busy to be strict.
After I got my driver’s license, however, my parents did ask me to do one thing: call if I would be home after 10.
I distinctly remember one weekend when I lost track of time as I hung out with friends. As I drove home, I steeled myself, preparing to get in trouble and for the punishment that would follow.
But when I walked through the door, my dad was so relieved he began to cry. I could see in his face all the worry that had built up each minute I was late. His love, turned from concern to relief, was palpable. And it was that love, not any rule, that made me strive to be a better daughter and a better person. (2)
In Romans, the Apostle Paul says that “love is the fulfilling of the law.” When we allow God’s love to encompass us, and then share that love with others, we are able to give even beyond the generosity, care, and concern for neighbor that the laws were set up to cultivate. In fact, the call to love is not an escape from our duties to one another. It’s a call to live with even more intentionality and attention to the needs of others.
We do so not because some rules or laws tell us we have to but because we have experienced that radical and welcoming love ourselves, and that love compels us to strive to be better. And to live in midst of brothers and sisters in Christ – who can offer Christ’s love, comfort, truth, and together we can serve our neighbors with compassion and justice.We are not called to be rule followers. We are called to experience and understand the deep love that undergirds and upholds the commandments of God—and by intimately being known and loved by our God, to then extend and share that love with the world.
Wake up! Live in Christ’s light! Love! Amen.
1) Rev. Joann Haejong Lee, “Sunday, September 7, 2014,” christiancentury.org
2) Rev. Joann Haejong Lee, “Rules Vs. Love,” christiancentury.org