The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119: 33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
British biblical scholar N. T. Wright says that St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians is by common consent, “his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages…we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.”
And we have a small piece of it today as our second lesson, 7 mere verses. Verses that drip with Paul’s begging for us to understand, for us, along with Christians in ancient Rome and across the time and space of the Church’s existence, drip with Paul’s teaching for us to know that we are being transformed. We have been transformed. We are being changed and have been changed and will be changed yet again, over and over, because of the sheer power, the mighty glory of the Word of God that is Jesus the Christ. God-spoken-into-our-humanity. God knowing our humanity and breathing our breath. God with us.
Here in the 13th chapter of the letter Paul bases all that he is saying on his famous words in Chapter 3 that we read every Reformation Sunday: “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” If we misread that passage the ways a lot of Christians over the centuries have chosen to do, we think that we don’t have to pay attention to God’s law. That God’s law is somehow harsh and restrictive. But Paul doesn’t mean that at all.
It’s ironic that our Jewish brothers and sisters often understand this better than we do. They know that God gave the law, God gives law, as a gift for our protection, and yes, even for our salvation. The law saves us from ourselves and saves us from each other by teaching us how to live in peace and harmony with one another.
Here, in the 13th chapter of Romans, Paul bases all he says on that understanding, that truth. Now that God’s law has been active among us, and now that Jesus has come as God’s Son, the Christ, to fulfill the law, we are be transformed. We can have new hearts. We can truly live for others and not for ourselves alone.
One of the scholars I read this week in preparing for this sermon commented that Paul is not talking about neglecting our own, our personal, welfare. He never would have done that. He believes that since we are gifts to ourselves and to others from the hand of God we deserve to be fed and rested and sheltered and clothed.
But Paul goes further. He doesn’t stop there. He begins today’s passage with this thought: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He’s not talking about money. He’s not talking about mortgages. He’s talking about the grace that has been given us, not to feel indebted to anyone simply because they are close to us. Not to feel indebted because we’re afraid of the consequences if we ignore the person’s needs. Instead, we are to understand that we owe only one thing: love. And love is the most far-reaching, life changing theological understanding that we can have in life.
Here’s an extremely simple, homely illustration. I’ve told this little story before from this pulpit, so forgive me. But I’ll never forget the power of the interaction.
30 years ago I lived next door to an elderly woman who had no friends. And rightly so. She was, shall we say, difficult. One day I had a good time producing baked goods from scratch in my little kitchen. I wanted her to have some of my pastries, so I wrapped them up and took them to her. When she answered the door and I told her that I had baked these for her, she looked a little miffed. She took them and told me to wait at the door. She disappeared, and then reappeared with 3 bananas and insisted that I take them.
I didn’t want her bananas. I wanted to give her a free, unmerited gift. She clearly was not able to live by Paul’s theological understanding of the law and the gospel. The law was that which taught me that I had something I could well use to build a relationship with my neighbor, to bring a bit of joy into her sad life. Had she been able to receive it with a simple thank you, and to be open to the grace of living in peace with others, she would have been living in the gospel. She couldn’t. An eye for an eye became 3 bananas for some baked goods. Not kindness and mercy for a generous neighbor.
Maybe one of the ways that we can learn this lesson well is to learn it together. To learn how to be transformed by the power of Jesus Christ living in us by sharing that life together.
Today is called God’s Work. Our Hands. Sunday in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This is the second year running that our denomination has called us to try to figure out in every congregation how we can get out of our pews and go out into the world together, to do something, and thus to be for the world a sign, a living, working, playing, laughing sign of God’s power for transformation holding sway in our neighborhood. In every neighborhood. Our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote this last week: “’God’s work. Our hands.’ Sunday reminds us that we are church together for the sake of the world. Our lives have been changed by our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and it’s that encounter with Jesus that frees us to make a difference.”
A group of volunteers from Holy Trinity went to Central Park at 6 o’clock this morning to do just that. They served as volunteers for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, running breast cancer out of town. Not that any of them has breast cancer, to my knowledge. Not that any of them has been directly affected by this terrible illness. Rather, that they seek to bring the transformation that they have experienced into the lives of others. To bring the transformation of the loving power of God in Christ Jesus to the world, even when the world might not expect it or want it. To touch others with grace.
In addition, volunteers are acting as hosts to keep the doors of our church open to the world this weekend. Inviting people inside this sacred space to learn that here is where transformation happens. Here is where lives are healed and made whole by the power of God in Christ Jesus. Here is where we gather to learn over and over to owe no one anything, except to love them.
Finally, we celebrate all of these things in a potluck luncheon downstairs following this liturgy. Having been fed by the incomparable gift of Jesus in his Body and Blood freely given at the altar, we join in renewed grace and fellowship around the good foods of the earth that nurture us day by day. The meal at this altar is open. The meal downstairs is open. God’s arms are open to embrace and to love and to encourage every one of us. For when two or three are gathered together there is Christ in our midst. Amen.