Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 10, 2017
Romans 13:8-14 Commentary
“Nothing good happens after midnight” the old bromide says, and you sense it’s a sentiment with which the Apostle Paul would agree. As Paul continues in what is sometimes called the “application section” of Romans, he addresses yet again the question of how we now need to behave and live given our having become all new people through baptism into Christ. As he rounds out what we call Romans 13, 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.
Under the cover of darkness, a great deal of this world’s evil get performed. Most of the worst drunken parties, drinking binges, immoral sexuality, drunk driving, fights, murders, and other mayhem really do tend to happen after midnight and following sunset. Crimes can happen at any time, of course, and the police stay plenty busy during daylight hours, too. But I’d wager that if you talked to the average cop, he or she would tell you that the worst domestic fights they have to break up and some of the most tawdry behavior they encounter happens at night. How many scenes of those reality TV cop shows are not filmed in the illumination of headlights, flashlights, and street lights? Statistics show that two-thirds of all reported rapes are at night. The cover of darkness is also the high point for car thefts.
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. “You simply have to know who you are,” Paul as much as writes. Trying to keep others in the dark as to what you are up to makes no sense.
A few weeks ago a narrow swath of the United States experienced a relatively rare total solar eclipse. Where I live we lost 85% of the sun’s light and though it was oddly dim, it was still clearly daytime—turns out that even 15% of the sun sheds an awful lot of light. But where it was total, it really did get as dark as night. Streetlights activated. Cattle began to bed down in fields, thinking it was the night (and then once it started to get light again after about two-and-a-half minutes of darkness, the herd looked around oddly as if that had been the shortest night they had ever experienced!).
Of course people are not cows: those in the path of totality thrilled to the spectacle of a blotted-out sun but did not for a moment confuse that with actual nightfall. They knew what time it really was. And that is Paul’s point: you have to be able to tell time salvation-wise. 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 fiddle around with untoward things in the dark.
And, of course, the other big reason for this comes just before Paul invokes the light-dark metaphor and that is very simply our high Christian calling to be people marked by love. Paul made it abundantly clear earlier in Romans that we are no longer under the Law and that neither was the Law ever really intended to be a pathway to salvation. That is by grace alone through faith alone when God hooks us up to the cosmic power of Christ’s death and resurrection.
But although the Law was not intended to save, it does point us to God’s dearest desires for our life in this creation. The Good News of the Gospel is that this Law has been fulfilled by Christ Jesus. But it is also profoundly wonderful to know that now, as we gain ever greater conformity to Christ, we can incarnate in our own lives the very essence of what undergirds every single commandment God ever gave: love. Love for God and love for each other is, Paul says in echo of Jesus’ own words from the gospels, the quintessence of the Law and, therefore, of God’s core desire for this whole creation.
There is in that revelation at once a remarkable simplicity and yet a profound insight. The title of that best-selling book from some years back had it right: everything I ever needed to know I learned in Kindergarten. Or in Sunday school. Be nice. Share. Hold hands when you cross the street to keep one another safe. Be kind. Forgive. Love. Do no harm. Build each other up. Everybody’s finger painting gets put up on the bulletin board because every single one is wonderful. We don’t insult, we don’t shout, we don’t rant, we don’t discriminate because someone has a lisp, someone has a different skin color, someone speaks in a different accent or cannot afford the nicest brand name clothing.
Reality at its deepest core—at least according to the God who created all reality—is really that simple: Love one another.
Of course, our world proves every day that there is nothing simple about that at all, not in a fallen world that is. What was Charlottesville recently if not an in-your-face reminder that actively doing harm to your neighbor comes a lot closer to many people’s core convictions than anything remotely loving. And one of the most chilling symbols of that terrible event was the Nazi-esque torchlight parade through the university campus—a hate-filled event that, yes indeed, took place at night under the cover of darkness. And it was a deed of darkness and of anti-love if ever there were one.
Love your neighbor, Paul says, and that neighbor is anyone you meet. Love, do not hate. Live like you know you are standing in the daylight of Christ’s grace and let that be on full display to anyone who bothers to look your direction.
It really is that simple. And it really is that hard. Take away the Holy Spirit of Christ our Light, and it may well even be impossible. But we are now in Christ, and this is the gift of God. Let’s behave decently as in the daytime to show the world that when it comes to God’s dearest desires for this world’s flourishing, we get it. We just get it.
The theologian Robert C. Roberts once made the following observation on what counts as good psychological health for us as Christians:
“The Christian concept of psychological health is also distinctive in that it is uncompromisingly other-oriented; to be a healthy self is to love one’s neighbor. Health in Christian terms is finally the life of the kingdom, summarized in the double commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.'”
This, in turn, reminds me of something profound that Simone Weil once noticed in the Genesis creation account: the greatness of God, Weil suggested, is not simply in God’s gigantic creative powers and prowess. No, the deepest revelation of God’s greatness in the creating of the universe is that God is not God-centered. God is other-oriented, other-centric. God’s greatness is that he is able to get outside of God’s own self—and being God, the self in question is more than sufficient for many eternities’ worth of self-absorption—and take note of and revel in the existence of the Other. Even for God, his own creatures made in his image are the most important thing. When it comes to our love for neighbors, God is asking us to do no more than what he himself has been doing since the dawn of creation.
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