Pentecost 16

Preached: October 2, 2011

Keep Paying the Debt of Love
Romans 13:8-10

No audio available for this sermon.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit stirs our hearts is Romans 13.

Owe nothing to anyone except the debt to love one another, since whoever loves has fulfilled the rest of the law. For the commands: You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet -- and any other command there may be -- are summed up in this phrase: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor. So love is the fullness of law. (Romans 13:8-10).

This is the word of our Lord.

Over the past year credit card companies have revised their billing statements. Now the statements have a small table. If you make only the minimum payment, the table shows how many years and how much more money you’ll end up paying compared to making a larger payment each month. But either way, they expect you to pay what you owe, sooner or later.

So also as Christians, we are to pay what we owe. Paul had just been talking about what we owe the government for keeping law and order. If we owe taxes, pay taxes. If we owe honor, give honor. Whatever the debt whether to the government, to a business, or to an individual, pay it.

But there is one debt that we can never pay off. That’s the debt of love, which the Apostle urges us to pay continually with all that we have. May the Holy Spirit spur us on through the word of God to keep paying the debt of love. Put that theme into practice, dear Christians.

A. We owe this debt to others, not to ourselves

“After what he did to me, I don’t owe him anything!” How easily that thought comes to mind when others disappoint us, hurt us, betray us. “Yes, I’m to love others, but not quite all others, right?” That’s one way our sinful self tries to cancel the debt.

“I wanna talk about me / Wanna talk about I / Wanna talk about number one / Oh my me my / What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see / I like talking about you you you you, usually, but occasionally / I wanna talk about meeeeee” (Toby Keith, I Wanna Talk About Me, retrieved 29 Sep 2011). That’s another way our sinful self tries to cancel the debt of love. It argues, “OK, if we all owe a debt of love, then you owe me too. So let’s talk about me.”

Still another attempt to cancel this debt relies on pop psychology. “You must learn to love yourself, before you can love others”, they say. We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but do you see, dear friends, that none of these attempts to cancel this debt can get around the clear words of Scripture: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the debt to love one another … The commandments … are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Romans 13:8, 9 NIV1984).

But some may argue, “If you’re suppose to love your neighbor as yourself, don’t you have to love yourself first?” But let’s not play around with words. No one has to learn how to love themselves. When that baby cries to be picked up, who’s that baby concerned about? When the third grader acts up in class, who’s he trying to draw attention to? When the high school student strives to excel in the classroom or on the basketball court, isn’t there, even in the best of us, a motive to see what I can accomplish? Even in our most wholesome efforts there is still some selfish pride, self-love. And darker thoughts that don’t like things about myself even to the point of wondering whether it’s worth living -- aren’t those thoughts still centered on me and what I want? It’s still self-love.

Love of yourself can masquerade behind many masks. Don’t be fooled. Even when we don’t like ourselves, loving ourselves comes naturally, focusing on what I want or what I don’t like. The Apostle Paul describes this self-love like this: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Ephesians 2:3 NIV1984). For you see what we long for, what we treasure, that’s what we love. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 NIV1984), Jesus says.

Even if the pop psychology only means you have to learn to like yourself first, the focus is still on me, isn’t it? And I think the reason such thinking is so popular is because it’s true -- it’s true for those who don’t know Jesus. They can’t be concerned about others until their concerns are met first. They don’t know of anyone taking care of them, loving them, watching out for them. So they have to love themselves first, because who else will?

B. We marvel at the price Love paid for us

But you, dear Christian, you know God’s great love for you. When pop psychology talks about loving yourself, they’re taking your eyes off of God’s love for you in Jesus. The Holy Spirit, though, works to enlighten you to see just how great God’s love for you is. Marvel at the price Love paid for you.

“Jesus loves me this I know.” You sang those words as children. You can still sing them today with deep emotion, but it’s hard to sing them with that same child-like faith. If our love toward others feels chilly, we aren’t marveling at the Love which paid such a price for you. We aren’t marveling with that child-like wonder and amazement that warms us from the inside out. If our love toward others is shallow, it’s because we have not plummeted the depths of Jesus’ love for us. Are you still playing in the wading pool of children’s songs, not having grown in your faith since confirmation? Then God’s love will seem shallow to you as you face the anxiety, angst, heartaches, challenges, troubles, tragedies, setbacks, failures, and loses starting in your teenage years and continuing throughout adult life. “Jesus loves me” will seem like just some empty words. How could such words make any authentic difference in the real world? How could such words lead me to love others as myself?

Come close, dear friends, God’s love is much deeper than empty words. I pray for you as the Apostle Paul did for the believers in Ephesus as he writes, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge -- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19 NIV1984). Cherish what Psalm 103 says, “{H}e does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12 NIV1984).

That’s the power of God’s love. Marvel at it! He removed your sins as far as the east is from the west by laying them on Jesus. What a price he paid for you! How great his love! Only in Jesus and his cross, only in his blood and death, only in his sacrifice for us, do we see the power of God’s love.

God didn’t just give us a song to know that Jesus loves me. He gave us a whole book, filled with the testimony of his love from the first day of creation until the return of Jesus as we call out, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20 NIV1984). If God’s love feels shallow to you, if your love toward others isn’t what is should be, you need to dig deeper into this book “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18 NIV1984).

So great is his love, that he also gives us the Lord’s Supper to strengthen our conviction that Jesus loves me. Here you taste his love. Jesus doesn’t merely give us symbols of his body and blood to help us think about him. He gives you the actual price he paid for you. He gives you his real, true body to eat and his real, true blood to drink. For he wants you to know how great his love is that gave himself into death on the cross for you to remove your sins as far as the east is from the west. This Supper is a feast of love. How great God’s love, as high as the heavens above the earth!

So plummet the depths of his love in his Word and Sacrament. That’s how the Holy Spirit leads you to marvel at the price love paid for you. That’s where you see how great our debt of love is. That’s where we find the power to love other even as Christ Jesus loved us. For you see, anyone can claim to love God and to know how deep that love is, but such knowledge will show itself in our lives as we love others as ourselves. As long as our love for others falls short, we still need to grow to know God’s love better. And who but a blind Pharisee would claim that their love for others never falls short!

C. We learn from the Law what it means to love others

So often we don’t even understand what it means to love others, much less actually do it. Love does not mean to indulge others. It doesn’t mean to give in to their fancies. It doesn’t mean to place them above God’s Word. So much of what people claim is love today is like trying to pay your debt with Monopoly money.

The federal reserve has standards you can use to verify if a bill is genuine: microprint, watermarks, embedded fibers, security strip. Debts can only be paid with genuine bills. To know what it means to genuinely love our neighbor, we hold up our actions to the standard of God’s law. Love is not detached from the law; rather, God’s law teaches us what it means to love. Notice how the Apostle Paul connects love to God’s law: “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in his one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor” (Romans 13:9, 10 NIV1984). Love doesn’t overrule the commandments. Love sums up the commandments, so the commandments expand and explain what it means to love.

Love does not harm our neighbor with words or actions. It doesn’t even entertain covetous thoughts that wants what our neighbor has. If love does no harm toward our neighbor, then love must be doing what is best for our neighbor. For love is an action word.

And what is the best we can do for our neighbor? Consider what the other two lessons today talked about. Ezekiel 33 reminds us that we are watchmen. A watchman who sees danger and stays quiet is no watchman. So also when you see fellow Christians entering into the danger of willful sinning, call out the warning before its too late. The world may label such speech as judgmental, but that’s how twisted the world is.

Jesus describes the same love in action in Matthew 18. And notice the goal. We want to win over the wandering brother or sister so that they stay connected to Jesus, so that we can say to them that their sins are loosed. They are forgiven even in heaven itself. Just as God’s love for us is centered in Jesus and his cross, so also our love for others wants to center them in Jesus and his cross.

God is not a credit card company. He will never send you a bill telling you how many years it will take to pay off the debt of love. That debt has been paid in full for you by Jesus. Look at how he loved you and me and all sinners! See it. Taste it. Marvel at it. But that same debt is never paid off by us. That why the Apostle writes, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” (Romans 13:7 NIV1984). You know the love of Jesus for you. Keep paying the debt of love, as you love others with that same love. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313