9/4/11, Forever in Debt for the Sake of Love

Ezekiel 33:7-9, Romans 13:8-10, Matthew 18:15-20

We are told that the scholars who constructed the lectionary put it together so that the OT and GospeI passages would have some thematic connection. What we can observe about today’s selections is that in the Ezekiel passage the individual prophetic voice is called to speak for God’s loving correction, while in the gospel Jesus calls the voice of the gathered community to be engaged with God’s spirit of love in both prayer and action. These passages are rich with instructive material for the Church.  We see the necessity of speaking correction to those with whom we live in relationship but often, we find it very difficult to speak or enact loving correction to others.

 An entire homily could be devoted to this theme of community life, and it would take an entire homily to do it justice. But for today, it seems the Spirit calls us to examine more closely the words that we hear from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. 

One of our brothers recently posed a question that went something like this:  “How do I love God above all else when all these other people and things to take care of are right in front of me, and God is unseen and unheard?” 

I believe this is a question many of us wrestle with.   Paul addresses this issue for us in a number of his teachings, one of which is set before us today.  Let me read it for you again in a slightly different translation than we heard from the NAB:

 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.  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.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

The only debt we are to carry, says Paul, is the continuing obligation to love one another.  We never can consider that debt paid off.  When Jesus walked among humans, he talked about this ongoing debt of love. He said that the first commandment was to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength.  And in the next breath, he declared the second commandment as equally important: to love the person right next to you  as you would love yourself.  The entire law and all the demands of the prophets, he said, depend on these two laws.

I too have wrestled with this dilemma of loving God above all else.  The questions that sift out of all of my confusion are these two:  Who is God?  and What is love?   

In his famous treatise on love, I Corinthians 13, Paul says:  “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, thought as a child, I reasoned as a child.  But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.  Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.”

As a child and well into adulthood, I believed what other authority figures taught me about who God is.  I believed that the Bible told us in a literal way that God was "out there" above and beyond this world—all knowing, angry and judgmental about moral wrong, yet caring and forgiving. God was a father figure that we could talk to through prayer. Like a good dad, God would watch over us, protect us and guide us to live wise and acceptable lives.

But, as Paul says, when I grew up spiritually, I had to put away childish ways of thinking and reasoning and speaking about God.  This continues to be a challenge, because childhood foundational perceptions hang on persistently.  But by my late forties I could no longer experience God in this third person, “out there” image.  I had to turn from dependence on external authority figures to the inner authority of a mature adult spirituality.  Through silent meditation and consideration of the newest revelations of God found in science and psychology as well as in the ancient revelation of the written scriptures, I am coming experience God as IN all things of creation.  God is the vital loving force that continues to create.  God connects all of life.

This means God is within me too. It means God is within every human I meet. The Spirit tells us this through Apostle Paul in his inspired writing in Colossians 1: 24-27. (NewLivingTranslation)  God has given me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you. This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to God’s people.  For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for (all people). And this is the secret: Christ lives in you.  This is your hope for sharing his glory.”

The secret that God revealed in Jesus is that Christ, who is the revelation of God’s very self, lives in each of us.  That means that God’s image is imbedded in every person and every part of creation. There are plenty of scriptures that affirm this, if we but have the eyes to see it and the Spirit to understand it.  And if that is so, if there’s a bit of “goodness” (godness) in each of us and in all of creation, then how we love others and how we love the world in which we live and even how we love ourselves is a direct means of loving God.

Love, says our Romans passage for today, is the fulfillment of the law.  When we treat others with the respect that the commandments require or that the Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” suggests, we are simultaneously fulfilling the Great Commandment in the Law: loving God. 

Who is God?  I believe we can say that God is the love force in everything.  God is an energy of love that by its very desire for life brings life into being.  We human beings can relate to that because within us we also know the emotion of love that by its desire for life can bring life into being.  We continually re-create other human beings through love expressed sexually.  But we also produce art, or music, or poetry, or architecture or gardens by our passionate desire for life.

So the second question: What is love?  On an emotional basis, love is a feeling of course.  But when expressed as godness within us, love is a feeling that gives impetus to action- action that may choose to sacrifice one’s own comfort for another’s welfare. The action compelled by love is a decision to respond to all of creation in a way that seeks its ultimate good.  Again,  Apostle Paul lays out some clear pointers about this kind of determined action in I Corinthians 13.   Love is patient and kind… not jealous or boastful or proud  or rude…does not demand its own way… is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged… does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out… never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

Love does not always make us feel good or comfortable, in fact, many times it doesn’t.  There is such a thing as tough love, which all parents know about.  Chastising a child in the immediate moment doesn’t feel good for the child or the parent, but if done with genuine love, it results in future benefit.  Tough love in community sometimes means confronting others with the need for change, even as the prophets and Jesus taught in today’s readings.  This does not feel good either, but lovingly done, it results in health for the Body of Christ.

Love is the fulfillment of the law.  It is the debt we never finish paying off as long as we enjoy this life on earth.  When we love others and God’s creation with authenticity, we are loving God fully.   Of course, it takes most of us nearly a lifetime to learn to live with this kind of authentic love towards others and even towards the created world within which we live.  That’s the challenge we are given, I think: to grow up from childish ways of knowing and loving God as an authority figure to finding the image of God within us and loving in the way Christ demonstrated for us, living and dying well for the cause of love.

By Sandra DeMaster