Doing the right thing is not enough

Sermon for 7 September ’08

Romans 13.8-14

Matthew 18.15-20

 

See how these Christians love one another!

These are the words of Tertullian, a North African theologian of the second century, in his work The Apology, 39.7. Actually, what he said was more like

‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).

But distilled, it’s simply

See how these Christians love one another!

It’s great when people can say that about Christians today. Let’s be more specific: it’s great when people can say that about the people of the Uniting Church. Let’s be more specific still: it’s great when people can say that of the members of the Centenary Uniting Church: See how they love one another!

St Paul wrote,

the one who loves another fulfils the law…love is the fulfilling of the law.

Or, as St Paul McCartney and The Beatles sang,

All you need is love.

Someone who loves another will do no wrong to them. More positively: if you love another, you will seek to do the right thing.

Well, that’s easy—isn’t it? To say that love fulfils the law is not to take the easy route. Love is not fluffy. If you claim to love another person, whether that person is your life partner, your child, your parent or simply a friend, then that person can demand an awful lot of you. Perhaps everything. Love finds that just doing the right thing is not enough.

Within the community of the church, we do claim to love one another. And that love is real—it’s seen when Open House gets together, when home groups and Disciple groups meet, when the Fellowship gathers, when the young people are in their groups together. But that love we claim and have one for another makes clear demands upon us. Again, as St Paul says:

Owe no one anything except the gift of love.

And love is a gift that keeps on giving—of itself. It’s a debt that can never be fully paid. We always owe others the gift of love.

But of course, being human, we have issues between people. Relationship problems. Some of those problems are in the congregation, others are in our more intimate relationships, others are with work colleagues. Some people make it hard to love them.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we clearly see that Christian congregations have always had relationship problems. Here we find instructions for Matthew’s congregation when things go wrong, instructions which are placed on the lips of Jesus.

These instructions for Matthew’s community require face-to-face communication, firstly just between the two people at loggerheads and then with a wider and wider group of people.

That’s a principle that we can apply today. It would be a mistake, though, for us to take these instructions and decide that this is exactly how we should do it. What I mean is, it would be a mistake for us to receive them as a law that had to be followed to the letter. Because (remember?) love finds that just doing the right thing is not enough. If we do the right thing, we can think we’ve done enough. But we still owe the debt of love, no matter what we’ve done. Besides, however we address difficulties between us, we should keep Tertullian’s words in mind. Others should be able to say, See how they love one another!

When we stick to the rules but don’t have love, we are just going through the motions. I often look at Agnus Day, a cartoon based on the Lectionary. Rick and Ted are two sheep who are part of their local church; Ted is a rather young sheep, and Rick is Ted’s mentor. They are always pictured in conversation after church. Without fail, Rick is holding a cup of coffee. I think he has to hold on to something when he’s talking to Ted. Today, Ted is reading Matthew 18: link 

Ted’s a loveable young thing, but he really doesn’t want to be reconciled! He just wants to get rid of difficult people. As he says, Send them directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. But love can’t do that. Love must do more.

There’s one more way we can spoil things: we can insist on the way of love so that it becomes another law. You must love. You should love more. You are wrong because you are not loving. All these messages are wide of the mark, because they turn love into something it was never meant to be. If you’re hearing those messages, they aren’t coming from the Holy Spirit.

What does St Paul say? How does he encourage them to love? He reminds the Roman Christians what time it is: it’s time to wake from sleep. It’s daytime! We are no longer people of the night, but of the day. Let’s have our eyes open to what God is saying and doing, and follow.

He also says, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. I understand this as a baptismal picture. Remember, when the early Christians were baptised they went down the steps into the baptismal pool, and had water poured over them. But first, they had to take everything off. Everything that was of the old life was removed, clothing, jewellery, everything. When they rose up out of the pool, they were clothed in a new white robe, which the alb symbolises.

When Paul says, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’, we should be reminded of this. Before we can put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we must first take off what belongs to the old life.

So, he says, ‘lay aside the works of darkness’—take them off. Take off whatever is stopping you from putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. We can’t put Jesus on top of our pride. He won’t fit. We have to take it off first. We can’t put Jesus on top of our need to control, or be right, or gave the last word. He won’t fit. We can’t put Jesus on top of our apathy, and our unwillingness to love—he just won’t fit.

Let’s take them off first. Let’s give them up, lay them aside, put them away. Then we can love others.

See how these Christians love one another!

It means this: see how willing they are to remove whatever stops them from loving others.

Owe no one anything—except the gift of love. Love is the fulfilling of the law. 

Amen.

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