The Obligation to Love
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
August 3, 2014
Romans 13: 8-14 (CEB)
Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 9The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
11As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.
In his book, Love Does, author Bob Goff shares a particular “coming of age” story. Bob recalls his junior year when he decided he was done with high school. His plan was to move to Yosemite, find work in the valley, and rock climb in his spare time. He took his $75 and packed his meager possessions into his VW bug. But before he left town, he wanted to say farewell to a young man, a Young Life worker named Randy, with whom he had become particularly close. So early one Sunday morning, on his way to Yosemite, Bob knocked on Randy’s door and told him his plan. Bob thanked Randy for his friendship and turned to go, but Randy told him to wait a minute. Randy disappeared back into the house while Bob waited on the porch. When Randy came back, he had a backpack slung over his shoulder and he said, “Bob, I’m with you.”
Bob reflects how stunned he was. Randy’s response was not what Bob expected at all, thinking he was going to get a lecture about what a terrible mistake he was making. Then Bob was also surprised by the fact that Randy would just up and leave with him. Randy explained that he would head to Yosemite with Bob, help him get settled in, and then find a way home. So off they went in Bob’s VW. The first night, they snuck into an unoccupied platform tent in one of the campsites. They did the same the next two nights. Over the course of three days, Bob alternated between searching for a job and rock climbing with Randy. Pretty soon, Bob was out of money, and there were no job prospects anywhere in the valley. Randy offered to spring for dinner, and as they sat eating, Bob reflected that it was probably time for him to head back home and finish high school. Randy’s response was, “Whatever you decide, man, I’m with you.” So that evening after dinner, they climbed into the VW and headed back home.
When Bob pulled up in front of Randy’s house, a woman ran out, wrapped her arms around Randy, and said, “Welcome home, honey.” Bob had always known the woman as Randy’s girlfriend, but it turns out they had gotten married that past Saturday…the day before Bob knocked on Randy’s door on his way to Yosemite. Only then, though, did Bob realize just what his friend Randy had done for him. And he reflected, “…Randy loved me. He saw the need and he did something about it. He didn’t just say he was for me or with me. He was actually present with me.
“What I learned from Randy changed my view permanently about what it meant to have a friendship with Jesus. I learned that faith isn’t about knowing all the right stuff or obeying a list of rules. It’s something more, something more costly because it involves being present and making a sacrifice…
“The world can make you think that love can be picked up at a garage sale or enveloped in a Hallmark card. But the kind of love that God created and demonstrated is a costly one because it involves sacrifice and presence. It’s a love that operates more like a sign language than being spoken outright…It’s a brand of love that doesn’t just think about good things, or agree with them, or talk about them…What I learned from Randy reinforced the simple truth [that]…Love Does.”
“Don’t be in debt to anyone,” Paul says, “except for the obligation to love each other.” Have you ever thought about what it might mean to be in debt to someone in love only? Have you ever considered the fact that you owe people love? It seems to me that if we owe people love, then we constantly have to be working at giving love to others, right? Love is nothing less than an action, and it should govern every decision we make. So when faced with a choice between staying with his new bride or being sacrificially present with a lost high school kid, Randy decided the kid needed his love, and he acted accordingly. “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the law.”
If we are to understand the magnitude of what Paul is pressing upon us here, then we have to be willing to act in love in the same way Randy did for Bob. It means that when we see a person in need, we are obligated to respond to them, to offer them our love through our presence, sacrifice, and support. And if we don’t respond to a neighbor in need, then we are actually doing them harm.
Thousands of years ago, just after Moses led the Israelites out of bondage is Egypt, God gave to his people the law. At the heart of this Law are what we know as the Ten Commandments, but there are many other parts to the Law as well. The idea behind this Law was to give people guidance in how they were to relate to God and to one another. God, in God’s compassion, had freed the people from Pharoah. And now God desired that the Israelites would become a light to all nations as they shared that same compassion with others, which meant the Israelites could not behave in the same was as the Egyptians and others in the world. They had a new standard, and it was quite specific. Still, we know that laws are often violated, and they certainly were violated by the Israelites over and over again. But the limits of the law are overpowered by love. So there, in the middle of God’s law, was this one statement, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It’s found now in the book of Leviticus, and as you know, it’s repeated by Jesus as the greatest commandment, and here again by Paul in his letter to the Romans.
Following, I’m sure, on the very teachings of Jesus, Paul reasons that this one command is the fulfillment of the entire law, because the point of the law is to keep us in right relationship with God and one another. And if we love others just as we love ourselves, then we cannot hurt others. Our neighbors will know that we love them by how we treat them. What the law cannot accomplish, love can. Because love is something greater than a list of rules, it is a complete transformation of the heart—the core of our being. And when we can live empowered by love of God and neighbor, then the spirit of the Law is fulfilled. There is no longer a need to continually monitor and police whether one is doing what the law requires, because the one who lives in love “does no wrong to a neighbor.” In other words, love only does good!
Furthermore, Paul would have us to understand that this love is not some secret to be kept among some small circle of believers, or tucked away deep in our hearts. It is only through Christians living their love that the world will know Christ and be prepared for the transformative kingdom to be established when Christ returns. Christians are not called to be subtle and secret (like the night), but to live so that everyone can see clearly who they are (like the day). So Paul stretches even beyond our obligation to love one another, to how we conduct our own lives. There can be no reveling or drunkenness, no sleeping around or other obscenities, no anger or jealousy, no selfishness. Let’s not miss the magnitude of what Paul is laying out here. You may be going through the mental checklist in your minds right now. “Sure,” we think, “No problem. I’m sober, I’m pure, I’m good.” But equally problematic here are those matters of jealousy, anger, and selfishness. Three “vices,” you might say, with which we all struggle. And if we are harboring jealousy, and fueling the fires of anger, then we are not consumed in love for our neighbor….much less ourselves.
This stands at the heart of what is often referred to as “Paul’s ethic,” which goes something like this: the new world is here, those who belong to Jesus belong to the new world. Therefore, they must live by its standards, no by the present standards of society. And if I understand correctly what Paul is saying here in the thirteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans, it is this: if we are living in love, then we cannot help but to live as people who belong to God’s new world!
In that same book, Love Does, Bob Goff tells another story. It’s about a young man who was walking by his house on the bay one day as Bob sat on his front porch. The man stopped his walk, approached Bob, and asked if it would be okay for him to propose to his girlfriend in Bob’s front yard. Bob gladly agreed. Then, a week later, the young man returned, this time he wondered if he could have dinner with his girlfriend on Bob’s porch before the proposal. Again, noting the young man’s love-struck enthusiasm, Bob agreed. A few days later, the young lover was back. He wondered if a few, like 20 or so, of his friends could serve the meal so that they could be present at the time of the proposal. Once again, Bob approved the plan. This went on and on, building and building. With a little extra help from Bob, the proposal went off like this: the young couple, seemingly on a leisurely walk around the Bay stepped into Bob’s front yard and onto his porch. They enjoyed an extravagant meal served to them by their friends. When they were finished, everyone boarded Bob’s boat, and they were escorted out into the Bay by a Coast Guard ship. They watched the sunset together as the young man got down on one knee to ask his girlfriend for her hand in marriage. She immediately agreed, Bob gave “the signal,” and the Coast Guard ship turned on all its hoses, aiming them high into the air, in celebration. It was picture perfect.
That’s the kind of thing that only extravagant, enthusiastic love could produce. And Paul urges that it is this same sort of love that should be shared by Christians every single day with all we meet. As the people of Christ, loved immensely by Christ, we should be eager to shower others with an extravagant, generous love that will change their lives forever.
“Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other.”
And you know what? Love does.