August 31, 2020
The Proper 18A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 18:15-20 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 12:1-14 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 119:33-40 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 13:8-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 85 (Lord’s Day 31)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In some segments of the Christian church, “Matthew 18” has become rather like “Miranda Rights.” As anyone who has ever watched police dramas on TV knows, when arresting a suspect for any reason, the arresting officer is supposed to “read him his rights,” which is a set series of statements that most of us have heard so often on TV and the like that we can quote at least parts of it by memory. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can or will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one . . .” and so on. It’s part of the legal system now in the United States. It’s standard. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
The verb “to mirandize” is now even listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary! “Did you mirandize him?” someone might ask a cop who has just brought in a robbery suspect. Failure to do so can lead to a miscarriage of justice as suspects might have to be released—or a judge will throw a case out—on account of this.
In some places, Matthew 18 has become something like this. When dealing with a seemingly recalcitrant sinner in the church, a lot of people’s first line of response is something like, “Well, did you ‘Matthew 18-ize’ him? Did you give him the treatment, follow the rules, read him his rights as Jesus laid them out?” If the answer is “No,” the person with a grievance against another person is sent back to do due diligence. If the answer is yes, then the church proceeds forward with some manner of formal discipline, distancing itself from the woeful sinner. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
But you have the overwhelming feeling from Matthew that Jesus never quite intended his words here to be turned into a template, a method, a routine set of steps to be followed woodenly and legalistically so as to arrive at a certain outcome. Yes, Jesus is giving advice for dealing with troubling situations and persons within the midst of his people but it just seems so unlike Jesus to reduce the complexities of life to some simple set of 1-2-3 steps that would have all the nuance of a recipe for baking bread.
So many people in history have turned Matthew 18 into such a simple set of steps as to give the impression that by following this method, you will know when you may be finished with the need to forgive or pray for a certain person. But little if anything in the surrounding verses here lend any credence to the notion that the goal here is to arrive at an end-point when it comes to mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Jesus has just told a parable about a lost sheep that demonstrated—among other things—that God at least knows no bounds when it comes to seeking out those who stray, who wander, who find themselves in need of his mercy and care.
Immediately following Matthew 18:15-20 comes another strong parable about the need to forgive and not be unmerciful. We are, Jesus says, every one of us people whose debt has been forgiven again and again to astonishing degrees. Only a self-deceptive fool would ever conclude that the amount he has had forgiven in his life amounts to a relative pittance. No, we are each one of us the servant who had a billion-dollar debt canceled free and clear. The harshest words Jesus speaks anywhere in Matthew 18 come not in these Year A Lectionary verses but at the end of the final parable regarding what could happen to those who have been forgiven much but who then turn right around and refuse to forgive someone else even a little.
Whatever else you make of Matthew 18, please don’t preach it in a way as to make people conclude that by following Jesus’ words here and reading a brother or sister his or her Miranda Rights from Matthew 18 that you will then know when it is OK to dam up the stream of mercy toward someone.
Because that is absolutely not Jesus’ point!
“Ahhh,” someone may object, “that is all well and good but doesn’t even Jesus conclude this with the call to treat the unrepentant person “as a pagan or a tax collector? Looks to me like that is, in fact, the end of the story.”
But really? After all, it was Jesus who said those words, and that must change everything in terms of how we view this.
If most anyone I know said something like this to me, I think I’d know intuitively how to understand this. If the average person tells you to treat so-and-so like “a lowlife and a bum,” you’d know that this means to ignore the person, brush him aside, have as little to do with him as possible.
And in Jesus’ day if the Pharisees or most anyone else in the religious establishment of the day told you to treat someone like a pagan or a tax collector, you’d know what that meant, too, because all you had to do was observe how the Pharisees treated people who fit into either one of those categories. Pagans and tax collectors were bums, lowlifes, undesirables. They had no place among God’s chosen people, no seat at God’s holy table. They could not eat with you, and you would never be caught dead eating with them because that kind of tight association with sinners was precisely what a religious person in good moral standing would not and could not do.
Yes, we’d know how to understand this if the Pharisees said it. But what about when Jesus says it? Did Jesus ever meet a pagan he didn’t seem to like? Did Jesus spurn and shun tax collectors and other “sinners” who fit into these broad categories of people? Of course not! He got into trouble with the religious establishment of his day precisely because of his routine willingness to flout moralistic convention and associate with these folks. If Matthew had anything to do with the gospel that bears his name today, he surely knew himself how good and wonderful it was that Jesus did not avoid and disdain tax collectors. Where would Matthew be if that had been how Jesus operated?
Precisely because all of that is true, it seems at best unlikely—and at worst all-but impossible—that Jesus would have used the terms “pagans and tax collectors” in their most robust, pejorative sense. By way of analogy: A person whose life was devoted to racial reconciliation and to fostering peace among persons of different skin colors could never invoke racial epithets in a way as to validate their negative, pejorative use. It would undermine his whole life and all of his integrity.
And it would not have been anything Jesus would have done, either. Instead I would suggest that Jesus was being gently ironic here, telling his disciples that even when you’ve done all you can to come to an understanding with a person whose behavior is genuinely difficult—and even if you had to keep some distance from such a person for various reasons—you are even so never finished with reaching out to that person in grace and love. Even as Jesus started his ministry reaching out to those deemed pagans and tax collectors in his day, so we continue being loving toward and hopeful about (and much in prayer about) even those people who don’t want to listen to us or to the church.
When you combine this insight about Jesus with the surrounding material in Matthew 18 (especially the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant that comes next in this chapter), you realize that what Jesus is actually saying is that even when things to about as wrong as they can go within the Christian community, the need to proffer love and grace never ends.
You never just “read ‘em their rights” and be done with it.
Oh, and one other thing: of course no one is totally sure if the disciple Matthew is the actual author of the Gospel of Matthew. But if he did write it, then remember: Matthew was the tax collector whom Jesus called to follow him. So if anyone knew the love that Jesus had for tax collectors . . .
In The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans 2001) section on this passage, Marguerite Shuster points out that verses 15-20 really are a unity and we should not lop off verses 18-20 from the more famous verses 15-19 where the “method” of ecclesiastical confrontation is laid out by Jesus. A key unifier of this passage in the original Greek is the repeated presence of the word EAN or “If’ as the set-up of many sentences. EAN is used repeatedly in verses 15, 15b, 16, 17, 17b, and again in verse 19. Throughout these verses Jesus is helping the disciples—and now all of us—imagine their way in to likely scenarios that would take place—and that would repeat themselves, alas—in the life of the church throughout all future times. And although the words on loosing and binding are difficult to understand precisely, what they make clear is that the power of forgiveness is not only a main task of the church community, it is also one of the church’s singularly most powerful expressions of divine grace. Grace has the power to change the world. In Christ, it already has. And it is just this power that the church wields. We handle it with care but also hold it with no small amount of awe at what the Lord of the Church has given to us.
Some years back the Templeton Foundation funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.
Author: Stan Mast
Since the three main characters in Exodus (Pharaoh, Moses, and Yahweh) were identified in Exodus 1-3, the narrative has been focused on the struggle with Pharaoh. In an effort to make Pharaoh “let my people go,” God through Moses has been displaying his mighty power with nine plagues. Pharaoh has been stubborn, hardhearted, to the bitter end (11:9-10), which is about to come. But before God forces Pharaoh to free his “first born” by taking Pharaoh’s first born, we have this pause in the narrative where God ordains the Feast of the Passover before the actual Passover actually happens. Ritual interrupts narrative, a phenomenon about which I will comment later.
The significance of this annual feast and the event it celebrates is highlighted by the fact that God reorients Israel’s entire calendar around Passover. In the ancient Near East, all calendars were based on the cycle of nature, so that the new year began with the new season of growth in nature. Here God focuses Israel’s calendar not on nature or creation, but on grace or redemption.
Israel must count their days according to the mighty acts of God. The new year began in the month when God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. To remind them that their new life began when God passed over them as he passed through Egypt, God gave them this Passover celebration in the first month of their new calendar. While Israel also celebrated the cycle of nature along with their pagan neighbors, God wanted to make sure they never forgot that they owed their lives to the redemptive action of their God.
Thus, God gave them these very detailed instructions for the Passover feast. They focused primarily, but not solely on a lamb. On the tenth day of that first month, the head of each family was to select a lamb (or goat, vs 5) from the family’s flock. It was essential that each family have access to a lamb, so if a family was too poor to spare a lamb, a neighboring family was to share their lamb with the poor. The family head was to consult with the family cooks to make sure that the lamb would provide enough meat for everyone in the family. The lamb must be a year old and totally perfect, with “no defect.” The selected lambs must be given special care until the fourteenth day of the first month.
Then, at twilight of that day, each lamb must be slaughtered. The blood had to be caught and then smeared on the sides and top of the doorframes of the homes where they ate the lamb. The consumption of that lamb had to follow strict guidelines. The same night the lambs were slaughtered the people were to eat the meat. The lamb had to be roasted whole, rather than butchered and boiled in water. The main course had to be accompanied with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast. Whatever was not consumed had to be burned to ashes before morning. And Israel was to eat this feast in a hurry, like they were late for a trip, which, of course, they were. They were to eat “with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the reasons for some of those directions. The focus on a lamb was a divine foreshadowing of the Lamb whose blood would take away the sins of the world. Thus, it must be without spot or blemish, absolute perfect. The lamb was roasted whole because that’s how wandering shepherds prepared their lambs out in the wild, where God’s wandering people would spend the next 40 years. The bitters herbs were a perpetual reminder of Israel’s bitter servitude in Egypt. The unleavened bread was a reminder of the haste with which Israel had to leave Egypt, after a 400 year wait and before Pharaoh changed his mind. The peculiar state of dress of the Israelites pointed in that same direction; remember how you had to flee for your life as fast as you could.
But the central meaning of the lamb and all the accompanying details is found in those last words of verse 11. “It is Yahweh’s Passover.” This feast and its annual celebration pointed to Yahweh and what he did that fateful night. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every first born—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am Yahweh.” That’s what this whole struggle with Pharaoh was about—who is God, who is sovereign, who controls the life of Israel? Is it the gods of Egypt who seem to have prevailed for over 400 years? Or is it Yahweh, who has systematically demonstrated his power over those gods in the Ten Plagues, ending with the ruination of the house of the god Pharaoh?
When Yahweh sets his people free, he gives Israel a sign to remind them for all time that he and he alone is their only Savior—that blood on their doorframes, the blood of the lamb that marks them as the saved. It was a sign for them and, apparently, a sign for God; “when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” All of the peculiar rules for the Passover feast were designed to remind Israel that Yahweh is their God and Savior who passed over them because of the blood of a lamb.
And, says verse 14, they are to celebrate this sacramental feast “for the generations to come,” so that the succeeding generations don’t forget their liberating God. Sadly, Israel did forget their God when they stopped celebrating Passover. That, in turn, led to the downfall and exile and new bondage of Israel.
Clearly, Passover is a uniquely Jewish feast, but it points to several Christian applications. First, this passage shows us the centrality of worship for the maintenance of an historical community, and it demonstrates the importance of doing worship in the right way. This festival for Israel was at the heart of the way they marked time, the way they identified themselves, and the way they related to God. So, it was important not only that they kept the festival, but also that they kept it properly. Every detail meant something.
We have seen the importance of corporate worship in this time of pandemic. We can get by with online worship for a time, but eventually the lack of face to face worship destroys the sense of continuity of our historical community. Voltaire spoke prophetically when he said, “If you want to destroy Christianity, you must abolish Sunday.”
As I pondered the detailed instructions for the celebration of the Passover feast, I wondered if there was any message in that for the way we worship today. Much of the church has embraced a casual, spontaneous, informal worship in the name of authenticity. That concern for heartfelt worship is laudable. It is, of course, very possible to dwell so much on rules and forms that worship is robbed of its heart. And it is possible that formal ritualistic worship can become a substitute for real life engagement in the great social issues of our day. Think of God’s harsh words through Isaiah about the kind of feasts and fasts that make God sick and angry, because his people don’t engage in care for the poor and oppressed.
But have we become slipshod in our efforts to be spontaneous? When Jesus said that we must worship “in spirit and in truth,” was he suggesting that “spiritual” worship must be shaped by the truth revealed in Scripture? That suggests to me that given the importance of worship/festival to our relationship with God, we ought to take great care with how we do it.
Second, I was intrigued by the way God rearranged the Jewish calendar so that the year began with Passover. God was saying, remember that your life began when I saved you from bondage. I am the source of your life. It might be helpful to challenge your congregation with questions like these. What is the source of your life? Your family, your culture, your heritage, your nation, your own choice, your own actions? Or ask it this way. When did your life begin? At birth, when you became an adult, when you married, when you got your dream job, when you came out? There is a society-wide tendency to think that we establish our life by the choices we make. You can be whoever you decide to be. Or are our lives established and grounded in God and what God has done for us? Passover points to the latter.
Third, the connection between Passover and the Lord’s Supper is very clear. It was no accident that Jesus established the Eucharist at the Passover feast. He was very deliberately saying that God was doing in him what God did in Egypt long ago. The New Testament calls Jesus the spotless Lamb of God whose blood marks us, sets us free, and cleanses us from all sin. Because of that blood, God passes over the new Israel when he passes through the world to destroy the gods who have enslaved so many.
The importance of ritual celebration in preserving the identity of an historical community is easy to illustrate. Think of the Fourth of July in the United States, or May Day in Communist Russia, or Cinco de Mayo in Mexico.
Author: Scott Hoezee
The PBS show Sesame Street traditionally included as part of their educational efforts the opening line for each episode, “Today’s program is brought to you by the letter B . . .” Or it was by the letter R or E or G or whatever. That letter would then get woven throughout the episode in teaching vocabulary words that begin with the letter d’jour.
So for this Psalm lection I could also say to you, “This week’s Psalm selection is brought to you by the letter ‘He’” because that is the Hebrew letter to which this section of Psalm 119 is dedicated. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem with each of its 22 sections dedicated to a successive Hebrew letter (the Hebrew equivalent of from A-Z) and with each line of that section beginning with a word that begins with that letter of the Hebrew alphabet. If it were possible to replicate this in translation—and it’s really not—each of the 8 verses in this section would start with the letter H.
In truth, though, that acrostic device probably sets off each section of this longest Psalm better than the content of each section. The parts of this poem tend to blur together to a degree. The entire Psalm is a celebration of God’s Law and so routinely includes every synonym for “law” that you can imagine. The basic idea of the entire Psalm—and of each of its individual sections—is that our greatest delight as human beings ought to be in the knowing of and the following of God’s decrees, statutes, rules, laws, commands.
This fifth section of the Psalm is no different. In a sense I am tempted to say that there is not a lot to say about this repetition across all 176 verses of Psalm 119. Were a cynical person to sum up this poem, he or she might say “I take delight in all your laws, O God, yada, yada, yada.” Because honestly, it does not take long to get the upshot and gist of this psalm. Still, there are some things we could notice from this snippet of the larger poem. One thing that stands out here is how well our human situation comes through when you really stop to think about it.
Because on the one hand the psalmist wants to say that God’s ways and laws are his source of delight, are life itself, are the precepts that make for flourishing and a good life. There is an abiding love for God’s Law, a zestful enthusiasm to know God’s commands. This delight seems to be presented not just as some kind of pious aspiration but as an already-present reality in the poet’s soul. Throughout Psalm 119 it seems that this delight in God’s ways is presented in the indicative mood of the verbs: “Right now I do take delight in all your laws . . . Your ways are my very life.”
And yet . . . in verses 33-40 there is something else woven in: a fierce desire for God to cause the psalmist to take this delight, for God to teach these commands, for God to direct the psalmist to the right paths, for God to turn the poet’s eyes away from worthless things. All of that kind of language sounds a bit aspirational after all, or at least it indicates that whatever delight in God’s ways the psalmist is able to talk about, that’s not quite the end of the story. Somehow or another the psalmist’s delight in God’s ways seems a touch precarious after all.
Probably if we are honest we can all say that we identify with this posture. On the one hand we know God’s ways are the right ways. We know that God’s Law was all along a gift given to us, the spiritual equivalent of an Owner’s Manual for an appliance or car—something we need in order to know what’s what and how to operate a given thing. God’s rules—we know deep down—are not arbitrary hoops for us to jump through to satisfy some divine desire to see us perform but are instead more like guardrails to keep our lives on track and to keep us out of life’s many ditches. God gave us rules not to make us chafe in unhappiness but to unleash our true happiness by living according to how God set things up in this creation. God wants our lives to be characterized by order, not chaos. Coloring inside God’s lines and living happily inside God’s moral boundary fences is how we flourish in this world.
We know all that. And yet . . . the temptation to go our own way is ever present. In our sinful natures we rebel against the law now and then, we think we know better than God, we’re pretty sure that some good could come if we trot down some of the world’s paths that ostensibly lead to success and wealth and prestige. We are all of us the person Paul sketches in the well-known section of Romans 7 and all that material on “The good that I would, I do not; and the bad that I would not, I do.”
And so we come to a central dynamic of the life of faith and it is what the New Testament will call our constant dying and rising with Christ. In baptism our “old self” is in one sense drowned, killed off. And yet although that is spiritually true and we are given a new birth, the old self somehow manages to still have its kicks this side of being fully renewed in the resurrection at the last day. We continue to battle what the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh” and it seems that we none of us are quite finished with that battle.
All by itself, that is not Good News, and in our preaching we ought to want to proclaim Good News and hope. But even in Psalm 119 the pleas for God to direct the steps of the psalmist are offered in the firm hope that God will do just that. And if this poet writing centuries before the advent of God’s Messiah could have that hope, how much greater is our post-Pentecost hope in that we now have no less than God’s own Holy Spirit living in us as a kind of internal spiritual compass?
Even with the Spirit we don’t always do it right. The tightrope walk we see reflected in Psalm 119 mirrors how the New Testament often talks: on the one hand and by the Spirit we already are a New Creation. On the other hand and despite the Spirit, the apostles often need to follow up that good news about our new spiritual status with urgent words to “keep step with the Spirit” and to “put to death the sinful nature still within you.” It’s a bit of a see-saw. We might all wish it were not such a struggle. But the main mistake we could make in this area is to pretend that it is not a struggle, that on our own we’ve got this thing covered and don’t need to keep asking God—as the psalmist does—to direct our steps and to keep teaching us God’s ways and to keep reminding us of who we are.
Humility demands that we be honest about our struggles to keep doing what we know to be right. But that’s OK: the humble heart is also the teachable heart and that is the heart—softened by the living presence of the Holy Spirit—that can be led along those righteous paths of God’s Law that alone bring life, and life abundant at that.
Some of the struggles we all have with sin–and with our perpetual temptation to deviate from the Law of God that we know deep down is our true source of life–is captured by this poem, this hymn of confession by John Donne:
A Hymn to God the Father
By John Donne
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Author: Doug Bratt
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 Starters 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 Starter, 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?”