Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

With the school year just having started, it’s a little mean of Paul to say in this passage from Romans, “now is the time to wake up from sleep.” He’s saying that the time we live in is precious, so we ought to dispense with debts – both those we owe and those that are owed to us. We’re close to God’s new day, when the debts of old days won’t matter anymore. In fact, Paul says that we’re already living in the new reality, and debt belonged to an old life that isn’t there anymore. In that old life, debts must be paid. In the new life, all our debts are forgiven in Christ.

In this new reality, even the Old Testament law is made new. All we have to do is love others, to do no wrong to them. That’s not a real change: the law has always been about how we treat our neighbors. Paul’s difference, when he talks about the law, is like Christ’s difference when he talked about it. He reduced the whole complex law to one simple idea. All the details of life that had been encoded in the old law had outlived their reality, because the people of Israel were no longer living in the wilderness and trying to create a whole new nation.

The details didn’t fit anymore, but the idea behind the law still applied to people living under Roman rule. The idea was to love the other people who live with you in community. That love fulfills the whole law, as Paul says. Love follows Christ. Love alone lives the life of God’s people in the world. A new situation calls for new practices, like the one Jesus proposes here of being reconciled to your neighbor out of court, without a formal proceeding. He commends this practice, not because it demonstrates our goodness, but because that practice helps us to love each other just a little more.

Love itself is simple: just do no wrong and seek what’s best for the other person. But we seem bent on making that simple thing into something complex. It seems like we can’t help but add rules on top of that basic idea. Jesus and Paul tried to reduce the law to some basic, bare-bones ideas and practices, but eventually even those basic practices become rules we have to follow, and more business grows onto the basic idea. It’s as if we just can’t deal with having love be our way of life. We just can’t let that simplicity be.

For instance, I was walking Duncan the other day, and as usual, I ran into somebody who was completely smitten with him. It’s not my fault – he’s an adorable dog! Well, this person was particularly impressed with just how big Duncan is. When I said that he’s about 70 pounds, and still just 9 months old, this person said, “Wow, so he could still grow!” (Like I said, he was very impressed with the size of this dog.)

I agreed that Duncan could indeed fill out a little bit and wind up being even stronger and more powerful. And then I heard myself say, “If he doesn’t settle down soon, he’ll be able to pull me all over the place!” Now, this is true. Duncan is an energetic, powerful dog, and at 9 months, he can still get a little out of hand. He still needs correction every now and then, especially when one of his big-time excitement triggers is around (like the new cat). At the same time, that line is an absolute, blatant lie. He’s a sweet dog. He’s gentle. He’s even really pretty good at following me when I walk him. It was just unfair of me to talk down about a dog that does so well and is capable of doing even better.

This whole conversation happened before we got the training collar that is changing our life, but really that’s the whole point. Maybe he needs this particular collar, for his particular combination of energy, issues, and tolerance for discomfort. The new collar sure helps, because this week he’s been walking at my side even better, with more focus. One day, he might even learn not to bark at people to welcome them to church! The point is, this dog is fully capable of walking calmly with me and behaving correctly most all the time.

The trouble is, something in me doesn’t seem to trust this. Some part of me doesn’t believe that dogs really can behave themselves. So there I heard myself repeating that cultural myth that dogs have to pull, as if that really makes them happy. The truth is that he doesn’t have to pull. He doesn’t have to worry when I leave the house, either, but he does. Now, not all of Duncan’s issues are my fault, but some of them are, and most all of them I am capable of fixing. But I wonder whether I will. Something in me seems to resist doing this well.

Something in us resists just letting life be – “letting sleeping dogs lie,” if you will. Life is as simple as a sleeping dog. All we have to do is love God and love our neighbor. But we insist on making life harder, on adding rules that we have to follow. Some rules help us, teach us to love, but others just get in the way. We seem to hold ourselves in debt to our rules, and we assume others hold us in debt as well.

Paul talks about another way, a life we can live without debt. We can owe each other nothing but love itself, and love is something that never gets paid off. We’re free always to start over, to reimagine the rules and learn to love again. At our best, we can see love that simply, to put these big ideas into little words. That would mean we really get it. More often, we just see the same complicated business anew. We see part of what love can look like today. It looks different, but it’s still the same thing. It’s still love.

We practice love in our teaching here at Hope. We don’t just learn Bible stories, we tie them into very active expressions of love. We connect the Bible with mission, with daily life, with real people. We learn about love in reality, not just in ideas, because God in reality is love. God is the love all around us and within us, and that is our lesson. We learn to share, to question, to imagine, because these are all parts of love, and we are freed to live in that love.

Amen.

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