Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 6, 2020
Romans 13:8-14 Commentary
I’ve always assumed the best work gets done under the pressure of a looming deadline. So I seldom felt the urgency of getting to work on school projects until very shortly before they were due. While I was attending seminary, for example, I waited until the last moment to write a major exegetical paper. I waited so long, in fact, that my wife stayed up until 3 o’clock in the morning to finish typing it for me (while I slept!).
While looming deadlines don’t usually improve the quality of the work done under them (they may, in fact, hinder it), they do lend urgency to our actions. Over the past few weeks a major deadline for many North Americans is the beginning of the school year. That deadline lends urgency to students finishing things like their summer book reports. It also lends urgency to teachers’ activities that they need to finish before the school year begins.
But what about the most important deadline of all? Can Romans 13’s proclaimers say our lives would differ if we knew with absolute certainty that Christ was going to return on, for example, September 7, 2020? It’s a question this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s teachers and preachers might pose to those who hear us.
We might ask, for instance, if our listeners would feel any urgency to rearrange their priorities if they knew Christ was returning tomorrow? Would Christians look at things any differently? Would they treat people any differently if they knew exactly when Christ was going to come back?
If they knew the world was going to end on September 7, some of our contemporaries might try to squeeze all of the life they could into the next few days. They might try to travel to at least some of the places they always wanted to see. Even Jesus’ followers might try to do the things we never found the time for before. Some people would simply spend their last days indulging all of their desires and fantasies.
Of course, the proposition that we can know in advance when Christ will return is absurd. After all, even the incarnate Son of God didn’t know when he’d return. Not even heaven’s angels share God’s knowledge of when our world as we know it will end.
That lack of precise knowledge has, however, has at least helped contribute to spiritual indifference, even among some Christians. In fact, in combination with Paul’s emphasis on God’s amazing grace, uncertainty about Jesus’ return apparently led some of the Roman Christians to largely ignore God’s law. So in Romans 13 Paul tries to inject some ethical spiritual urgency into the believers in Rome with words about the nearness of the Lord’s return.
Of course, some Christians seem almost preoccupied with the details of the return of Christ. So we’ve allowed our differences of interpretation over the timeline for Christ’s return to divide us. Other Christians write endless books and preach countless sermons about it. Some even almost give the impression that they’ve figured out when Christ will actually return.
In our text, however, Paul calls his readers to be concerned with more than the date of the return of Jesus Christ. He calls us to live in faithful ways in the constant expectation of Christ’s imminent return. Such lives, after all, mirror God’s saving work in Christ.
The apostle calls Jesus’ followers’ lifestyles to let the nearness of Christ’s return shape their lives. Verse 11 sounds his alarm to “wake up” from what he calls our “slumber.” After all, Paul reminds his readers, Christ’ return is nearer now than when we first believed.
With the passage of the time since it had faithfully responded to God’s grace, Paul’s Roman audience should have been growing in its relationship with God in Christ. Paul seems to imply, however, that their lives don’t reflect God’s work in Christ for them. Some of the Roman readers have apparently become less than fully spiritually alert.
Paul, however, says that his audience doesn’t have time for such spiritual lethargy, because it’s getting late in the day. That certainly turned out to be true for Paul’s Roman audience. While Christ didn’t return within its lifetime, its time was short anyway.
After all, perhaps only six years after Paul wrote to the Romans, the Emperor Nero threw all of the Christians out of Rome. Those who weren’t killed in the persecution literally went underground. Both Peter and Paul may have been killed in this particular persecution.
Though relatively few people who read Sermon Commentaries live under the threat of immediate persecution, we too live on borrowed time. After all, even if Christ doesn’t end the world with his return, he may come for any of us at any moment. Not one of even the healthiest preacher or teacher can be certain that we will even live to read the rest of this Commentary, for instance.
How, then, do Christians live on borrowed time live? How do our ethics reflect our status as those whose time on this earth is short? How does the nearness of Christ’s return particularly affect our relationships? Essentially Paul insists those who know that Christ’s return is imminent must feel the urgency to obey God’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s an ethic that’s as old as Leviticus 19:18 but also as contemporary (to Paul’s original audience) as Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:39.
Is there any timelier message for a world that’s so deeply divided about how to respond to things like a global pandemic, racial injustice and climate change? In a climate that politicizes nearly every moral issue, it’s naturally far easier to demonize people with whom we don’t agree than actively love them.
Paul reminds his readers that those who know that our time is short let love God’s gracious love for us shape our relationships with the people around us. In fact, God’s love for God’s adopted children shapes not only our relationships with fellow Christians, but even with unbelievers, our enemies and even members of other political parties.
Paul even goes so far as to suggest that Christians’ highest obligation toward each other is to love each other. That may be the meaning of his words, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing to debt to love one another…” (8). While Jesus’ followers have various obligations towards other people, our most urgent obligation is to love them.
Yet even Jesus’ followers sometimes think of love as an attraction that people who, for instance, plan to marry or actually are married feel. Love, as the Bible describes it, however, is primarily an action and an attitude. Scripture shows that to love is to view and treat people as God in Christ would treat them. Those who love want only God’s very best for our neighbors.
Such love, Paul points out in verse 8, fulfills God’s law. So when Christians fulfill our highest obligation to love, we also fulfill our other obligations as God’s Word describes them. After all, love for God and love for our neighbor’s lies at the very heart of God’s commandments.
God’s adopted sons and daughters who know our time is short, then, show our love by leading what the Heidelberg Catechism calls “decent and chaste lives.” Those who know our time is short also show our love for our neighbors by refraining from “belittling, insulting, hating or killing” them. Christians who know that our time is short feel the urgency of loving our neighbors by not stealing or even cheating or swindling them.
So quite simply, those who know our time is short view our neighbors through the lens of love. God’s adopted children feel the urgency to both seek our neighbors’ good and avoid doing what may harm them. In this way, those who know our time is short fulfill God’s purposes for us.
Of course, this is never easy. No matter how hard we try to love the people around us, all of sometimes get sidetracked. Jesus’ followers easily become so busy leading own lives that we don’t think much about how to love the people around us. We may even get so busy in church that we forget to love the people who aren’t in church.
Further, it’s not always easy to love real people. Some don’t always deserve our love. Others couldn’t care less whether we love them. Then, however, those who know our time is short remember how unattractive we are, by nature, to God. We certainly did nothing to deserve God’s love. Yet while Christians were still rebellious sinners, God sent God’s only Son into our world to live and die for us.
Paul goes on to tell just how love shapes the lives of those who know our time is short. Those who know our time is short “clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (14). When God looks at God’s adopted sons and daughters, God knows that we’re sinful yet views and treats us like God views and treats Jesus Christ, God’s only natural Son.
So now we seek to act in ways consistent with the way God views and treats us. In baptism Christians have been buried with Christ and raised to new life. God rips off the “clothing” that is any form of rebellion against God and God’s purposes. God puts to death the stranglehold sin had on baptized believers and freed us to let Christ be our Master.
And when Christians rise from baptism’s waters, we are “clothed” by the Spirit in Christ-like words, actions and thoughts. We hate what is evil and tenaciously cling to what is good because Christ hated what was evil and clung to what was good. Christians do things like feed our hungry enemies and give them something to drink because that’s the way Christ treated those who mistreated him.
Those who know that our time is short also imitate Christ by refraining from certain immoral activities. We don’t cave in to the desires of our sinful nature because, even when Satan tempted him, Jesus resisted. Christians don’t cave in to the temptation to misuse our bodies because we seek to lovingly imitate Jesus Christ.
In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott recounts a story told by Jack Kornfield of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. it’s about an eight-year-old boy whose younger sister was dying of leukemia. He was told that without a blood transfusion she would die.
His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers and, if so, he would be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said, “Sure.” They did and learned it was a good match. They asked if he would donate to his sister a pint of his blood because it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight.
The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was placed on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IV’s. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then eventually transferred to his sister’s IV.
The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”
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