Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Readings: Romans 13:8-14 & Matthew 18:15-20
The year is around 55 or 56 CE. A man named Paul, who is currently staying in Greece, is preparing to write a letter. He is writing to a group of people he has never met but who he hopes to visit. That group of people are in Rome, a bit of a ways from Greece, but not as far as they are from Jerusalem. And it is Jerusalem that Paul says he must visit first before travelling on to Rome to meet that growing community of Christians there, and then, he hopes to continue on to Spain to start Christian churches there.
As he prepares to write, Paul reflects on what he knows about the group of Christians in Rome:
The tensions between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians are growing.
The Jewish Christians in Rome have only just been allowed to return home after having been kicked out of Rome by the last emperor, and they are feeling unsettled.
On top of that, Paul has heard grumbles from Jewish Christians – criticism that in preaching to Gentiles that he is turning his back on his own people – that he is rejecting the Jews and even preaching that God has also rejected them. And while this couldn’t be further from Paul’s motivation, it is amazing how people will talk…
Paul needs support for his mission to Spain and is counting on the Roman Christians to help… but he is concerned that the fractures in their community and the Jewish Christian’s general mistrust of Paul, will impede the reception of the gospel of Jesus Christ and will prevent it being spread further abroad.
And so he dictates this letter that we read a portion of this morning – possibly his last letter as he ends up being imprisoned in Jerusalem and only able to meet this letter’s recipients when he is brought to Rome as a prisoner.
Lets move forward about 30 years to roughly 80 or 85 CE.
A man probably living in Antioch in Syria, the third largest city in the Roman Empire yet located far from the centre of power in Rome, sits down to write an account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to share with his community of believers. The community is made up of primarily Jewish Christians and they’re struggling with conflicts between the religion they were taught and grew up with and the teachings of Jesus.
They’re struggling in part because the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship of God and the visible manifestation of God’s presence with them and God’s favour of them, has been destroyed within the last decade or so. Not only that, but they kind of expected that Jesus would have returned by now. But he hasn’t and that is causing some problems for some people. So there is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of questions: Does God still like us? Who is this Jesus of Nazareth and how does that fit into things? What on earth are we supposed to do now??
So this man we know as Matthew sets out to write an account of the life of Jesus that extends back into the lives and proclamations of the prophets and looks forward to the expansion of a new reality that is bigger than any one people group.
There are so many things going on here:
A community at odds with each other because of not insignificant differences in heritage, or religion…
A community struggling to know how to live in the aftermath of their entire way of life being destroyed or the things they have always known and found comforting being turned upside down.
It isn’t only something that happens in the communities of the first century. It isn’t only something that happens in the past.
It has happened throughout history and it is happening now in big ways and in small ways. In newsworthy ways and in ways that sometimes go unnoticed:
Communities being torn apart by racial violence and hate.
Communities dealing with every building on their Island being destroyed by 300km/hr winds.
A church struggling to come to grips with how it responds to and repents from atrocities like sexual abuse or cultural genocide.
A church mourning the “church that was” when they were younger and there were dozens of children running around and every pew was full every day.
Christians grappling with how to respond to an opioid crisis that has spilled out onto every street and into our garden.
Christians continually relearning how to live with each other with all of our humanity – our individual quirks and mannerisms that both delight and annoy.
It is so difficult!
And into those situations speak words written by two different men, to two different communities, two millennia ago.
Not that we can take each and every word as the definitive roadmap for how things must be right now: Matthew was speaking into a very specific situation where the rhetoric against Judaism made sense in the context of the tensions that existed in his day but have since been used as justification for attempted genocide.
And the letter to the Romans as a whole is not meant as a systematic presentation of the theology of the gospel, but a selective and contextual argument rooted in the good news for the purpose of encouragement to live a life that reflects the reconciliation effected by the incarnate God in Christ.
This is important. The scriptures were contextual 2000 years ago, and are still contextual now.
The proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ has to land in real space and time.
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, says Paul.
Owe nothing to anyone, except love.
Here Paul isn’t talking about some sort of divine balance sheet of “love in / love out” where we can account for the love given and received.
In the Roman cultural narrative, “owing” or obligation was the system by which all interpersonal interactions were conducted. Obligation was related to position, status, authority and so on. It defined the livelihood of life and citizenship in first century Rome:
- One “owed” honour and allegiance to the Emperor
- Money, possessions, and honour were owed to benefactors and patrons – a common relationship in this context
- Slaves owed service and their lives to their owners
- And wives owed submission to their husbands.
The language of “owing” or obligation was incredibly common and the way every interaction was conducted in the first century.
Hear then the utterly counter cultural and revolutionary words of Paul: Owe no one anything, except to love one another. Owe NOTHING except love. Those culturally derived conceptions of obligation are being dismissed in light of the obligation to love one another.
Paul is busting up all of those oppressive or divisive relationships and re-centering everything on one thing and one thing only: the action of love.
The one who loves another has fulfilled the law, says Paul. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Isn’t that also what we are seeing in our gospel reading this morning? The community of Christians for whom Matthew was writing his gospel account were coming to grips with a new reality. Not only was there the lingering shock of the destruction of the temple and a way of life they’d known their whole lives, but they were slowly realizing that Jesus might not return before they died and they might need to set up a community for the long haul.
We often read Matthew 18 as an instruction in church discipline: how do we resolve conflicts and figure out who is in and who is out of our community. But if we think about the underlying context of what was going on when this was written, it becomes so much more.
It is about building the kind of relationships that make community possible. It is about how we relate to each other and to God. Not building barriers to being in or out of relationship, but understanding that our actions on earth have broader consequences and how we treat each other matters.
And if we look deeper than the steps laid out, doesn’t it come down to the same thing as Romans? That we love and care for each other?
Last week, in his sermon, Bill landed on love. He talked about Jesus’ words in the gospel, challenging us to daily take up our cross and follow him. Bill suggested to us that daily taking up our cross is not a call to self-flagellation, but a call for us to daily take up the work of love.
Daily take up the work of love.
Not to make another entry on the balance sheet, but that love is our ultimate reaction to the gospel.
To owe nothing to one another except love forces us to own the reality that we are entirely dependant on God’s grace – on Jesus’ love for us – for our very existence, and that this love completely reframes how we relate to each other and makes us able to continue to relate to each other for the long haul.
Love as understood through the lens of the cross means giving up our claim to ourselves and each other, especially the claims that are based on our own cultural narratives of “right” and “just”
It forces us to consider how we daily take up the work of love when we experience communities being torn apart by racial violence and hate.
How we daily take up the work of love when we see communities dealing with every building on their Island being destroyed by 300km/hr winds.
How we daily take up the work of love when we are part of a church that is struggling to come to grips with how it responds to and repents following Residential Schools.
How we daily take up the work of love when we are mourning the “church that was” when we were younger.
How we daily take up the work of love when we are grappling with how to respond to the opioid crisis that has spilled even into our gardens.
How we daily take up the work of love when we are continually having to relearn how to live with each other with all of our humanity – our individual quirks and mannerisms that both delight and annoy.
Because in doing this, we have, in the words of Paul, “put on Christ”, living in the light, and living with genuine love.
 This is quoted and paraphrased from Kyle Fever, “Commentary on Romans 13:8-14” from Working Preacher – Preaching this Week (RCL).
 Drawn from the same as #1.
 Herb O’Driscoll’s Year A Commentary