Since Trinity Sunday way back in early June, we’ve been on-again-and-off-again reading passages from Paul’s letter to the Roman Church, and I’ve been preaching on-again-off-again on Romans.   So, to do a quick review:  Paul felt his true calling was as the apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people who were attracted to this new Christian movement.  We’ve discussed how Paul’s letters are some of the earliest Christian writings, dating from about 50 – 60 years after Christ’s death and how only seven of the thirteen letters in the New Testament that are attributed to Paul were really written by him.  Paul wrote his letters in response to concerns brought to him by the missionary apostles in the various church plants, these starter churches across the Empire. Paul didn’t ever get to Rome until he was brought there as a prisoner just prior to his death.

We also talked about how some scholars feel that Paul’s letter to the Roman’s is the pinnacle of his work. It is more like a ‘well organized essay’[1] actually, a teaching tool to the members of the new church there, whose membership consisted of Jewish and Gentile Christians. They had come together as a church community because of their shared belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, their Saviour.  And considering their different backgrounds, it was not too surprising that they were having some trouble agreeing as to how best to live out the teachings of Jesus, and doing it together!  Paul gives a retrospective of the development of the gospel of Christ, starting with the first covenant or contract God had with God’s chosen people, given through Abraham.   Later, through Moses, God gave the people of Israel the Law, the Ten Commandments.   And still later, God sent Jesus as the new covenant, the new salvation, the new way to come to God. Through him sins were forgiven.[2]   Jesus through parables, examples and teaching explained to the people that by living to the letter of the law, they were essentially missing the spirit of the law.   That didn’t mean that the Law was useless, just flawed in how people have interpreted it and lived by those interpretations.  So even by adhering to all the laws, that couldn’t make a person right with God, it was by faith in Jesus and in his forgiveness that we are made right with God and are saved.   Jesus came first to the people of Israel, to his people, the Jewish people, and many rejected him.  And now, he, Paul was bringing the good news of Christ’s forgiveness of sins to Gentiles, to non-Jews.  Because faith in Christ is for everyone who chooses to believe, the good news, the gospel of Christ’s salvation is for everyone who believes in Christ.  So, this faith was the glue that bound them together as one.    But they didn’t always get along!

Paul was helping to build the two groups into a cohesive community of believers, teaching them how they could live together, despite their differences.  We can suspect that there must have been an issue with how to respond to governmental authority in light of their new found faith in Jesus as their Lord, because just prior to our reading for today, Paul tells them to respect the laws of the government authorities and pay their taxes.   And so our reading begins with:  “Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law.” (13.8 NLT)  So the only thing they should owe each other was love, love was an obligation one to the other.   And it was by living in a spirit of love one to another that they would fulfill God’s laws.

I have to give it to Paul, smart man.  As I was thinking through this idea, it is really quite a brilliant way to bring people to together, using the concept of owing each other!   When you owe someone or someone owes you, there is a debt one person to another, the debt or obligation is what brings them together, what binds the relationship.  It is in the shared belief in the love of Christ, that the parishioners of a church are bound together.  And as Christ loves us all, unconditionally, no matter who we are, we are also bound, to share that love with each other.  That is our obligation to each other, to love each other as Christ loves us.  We are indebted to Christ for his unconditional love for us, and we discharge or pay that debt by sharing that love with our neighbours.  How simple, yet admittedly, not always easy!

Now, the word Paul uses that is translated to love, is the Greek word agapē.   And this is where the Greek language is more explicit than English.  There are three Greek words that are translated to love in English:  eros, which is sensual love, it’s where we get the word erotic from, philios is a companionable love—like one would feel for a friend or a chum, and agapē is a stronger and deeper feeling, a true affection and caring, like the love one has for one’s family.  This is the love Paul holds out to his followers as the marker, the hallmark of a Christian community of believers–agape love.  Christians are a family of believers bound together in their love of Christ and to each other.  Jesus told us to first “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself”.  And, Paul says, if you do that, well, you can’t help but fulfill the commandments too:  and he gives examples:  by being faithful in marriage, by not murdering, stealing or coveting.  Coveting is an interesting word we don’t use much. To covet something is to have an inordinate desire for something someone else has, which is so strong it can overwhelm and become the focus of your life.   It’s the focus of much of our advertising these days, wanting something you don’t have and doing whatever you can to get it, kind of the ultimate ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality!

To love your neighbour means you wouldn’t do anything to them that you wouldn’t want done to yourself.  And conversely, you would do for them what you’d like done for yourself.   Verse 10:  Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.

Love, agapē is the sum total of the Laws demands.    Love, for Paul then, is more than a feeling or an emotion; it is a way to behave.  Love isn’t just a noun, a describing word, it’s a verb!  Love drives our actions towards others, one’s neighbours.  Love is the way of bringing people together in Christ and how to bring people to faith in Christ.   And so, love is the way of our salvation.

Now, in Paul’s time, it was believed that Christ’s second coming was soon—in their lifetimes, and so the salvation of their souls was not far off, so this letter was written with a real sense of urgency—change your lives now, find the way of the Lord before it was too late!  The ways of Christ Paul compared to the way of light, warning them of lifestyles that were the ways of the darkness – sexual immorality, wild drunken parties, fighting, jealousy.  These behaviours focused on self-gratification, certainly not love of others.  Sounds like Roman society wasn’t so much different 2000 years ago than Western society today!  Living in the darkness led people away from Christ, away from God, and so to the loss of their souls.  It was critical for people to make life changes, and soon.

Making life changes is hard, Paul knew that.  And again he has a suggestion: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ”, which sounds a bit weird to our ears, I have to admit.   “Clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ” (NLT) is another translation which provides a neat visual image.   It’s like donning protective clothing, like a down jacket and toque against the cold, a waterproof coat and rubber boots to keep you dry when it’s raining, or a prayer shawl when you’re feeling anxious or depressed.  Christ protecting us, Christ is with us; Christ’s presence surrounds us, and gives us the confidence and strength to do the right things, to walk in the way of the light. Christ’s love surrounds us, covers us and protects us, heals us.  A protective shield from the elements that try to overwhelm us, the strength of Christ keeping them at bay.

So how does this work?  I wish it was as simple as putting on a jacket!  We put on Christ, we feel the protective power of Christ by spending time with Jesus.  Pray—spend some time each day just talking to Jesus.  Daily prayer books can help with that!  Or anytime during the day, especially when you feel something negative overwhelming you, simply say ‘Jesus be with me’.  And wait to feel that love envelope you, experience the love of Christ. Pray for others whom you know need the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit.  Prayer deepens our relationship with Jesus, thickening that protective shield, you could say.  There is nothing that Jesus wants more for us than to ask him to come into our lives, and be with us.

However you envision Christ’s presence protecting you, Paul admonishes us to come out of the darkness and live in the light of Christ, and “Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as near to you as the clothes you wear.” (vs 14 cev) Amen

[1] “Letters of Paul” in The Learning Bible.  New York. NY:  American Bible Society 1995.  Page 2079

[2] Introductions to Romans;  The Learning Bible.  New York. NY:  American Bible Society 1995.  Page 2081.

Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector

The Regional Ministry of Hope