“Our Debt? Love One Another”
Romans 13:8-11 (13:8) – September 24, 2017
I am very pleased to announce that a big anniversary is coming up at the end of October. It is not just a big anniversary, it is a huge anniversary. October 31, 1517. This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, on the chapel door at Wittenberg University, in Germany.
Many people do not even know anything about this event. Some people really could not care less. However, I care very much. I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran and spent two years studying Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation preparation. I was a history and theology nerd throughout high school, learning as much as I could about the Reformation of the 1500’s, and Martin Luther in particular. I was not your typical teenager.
Today, I want to finish up our short series on the book of Romans, our Epistle readings from the Revised Common Lectionary that we have focused on for the past weeks. The Apostle Paul was also one of Martin Luther’s favorite biblical authors.
The Apostle Paul gets a bad rap from some people. True, he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He came from impeccable bloodlines, from the tribe of Benjamin, trained at the secular college in the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, and mentored by the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. He was puffed up about his ancestry and about his superior schooling.
Can you imagine the high-and-mighty Pharisee Saul-that-was, suddenly transformed into lowly Paul, a follower of the Messiah Jesus? Losing all that prestige, losing his position on the Sanhedrin, and also his position as an up-and-coming leader of the religious Jews. After all that, after such a come-down, Paul is not only following Jesus, but he is using his substantial rhetorical skills at persuading anyone who comes by that they ought to follow Jesus, too! That’s the situation right here, in the letter to the Roman church. We are in the middle of the practical section of the letter, where Paul gives advice and commands for his readers to listen to, and heed.
When it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures and the commands listed there, we recall the Big Ten, the Commandments given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. The Ten Commandments were the ultimate in the commands given to the people of Israel. Even though there were more than six hundred various laws in the Law Code of Moses as written down by various biblical scholars and religious lawyers in centuries following, the Big Ten commands led the list.
Here, in our reading today, Paul lists four of these commandments, the chief commands that refer to our relationships with each other. Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, and do not covet. As a former Pharisee, I suspect Paul had learned them when very young. Repeating them was something the devout followers of the Law of Moses did on a regular basis.
Paul could have given us a repetition of the Commandments and left it at that.
But, no. Paul wanted to go beyond just a rote repetition of the Law of Moses, of the Commandments—even the Ten Commandments that the Lord God gave on Mount Sinai. What he says in this reading today is nothing short of amazing, especially coming from a former Pharisee. Listen again to verse 8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Full stop. Period.
And, again in verse 10, just in case anyone was not clear about what Paul was saying: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Going back to our discussion about the Reformation of the 1500’s, one of the great confessions of the Protestant Church is the Heidelberg Catechism, completed in 1562. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the first question at the beginning: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The response: “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that He protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head.”
This Catechism was written in uncertain times, when religious wars were causing upheaval over large parts of Europe. Yet, the writers of this document have the sure certainty that Jesus Christ is, indeed, our faithful Savior, protecting us from ultimate, eternal separation from God our Heavenly Father.
Look more closely at this Catechism, which talks of human redemption, God the Father, Son and Spirit, the sacraments, prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
The section on the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” went right to my heart. Question 111 says: “What does God require of you in this commandment?” The response: “That I work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may, deal with him/her as I would have others deal with me, and do my work well so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.” What was it that Paul just said in Romans 13:10? ““Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Okay, love one another. But, what does that look like? How do we go about loving each other? The Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm preached on this reading from Romans, several years ago. He said, “loving your neighbor means, “if your neighbor is hungry, feed him.” It means “if your neighbor is thirsty, give her something to drink.” If there are people who are sick or hurting or suffering or alone in the world, visit them. It’s not rocket science! But it’s not easy.” 
The problem is, with us fallible people who sin from time to time, we forget. We fall back into old patterns, familiar but not-so-good habits. It’s all very well for Paul and the other Apostles to tell us, “love one another.” Martin Luther would be the first to tell us of his struggles with this very thing! How do we go against the grain and “love one another?” I mean, love all others? No matter who they are? I think we just heard from Dr. Brehm.
As Dr. Brehm tells us, our sinful, fallible selves are “always in the mode of “what’s in it for me?” But that’s not the kind of love the Bible teaches us. The kind of love that Jesus modeled for us and that the Apostles taught us to practice is a kind of love that simply gives to another person—without any wish to get anything in return.” 
The Apostle Paul gives us a big challenge today, and also a big blessing. God wants us to love one another! The Lord is so pleased when we try to love each other. As we try to love more and more, we draw closer and closer to God, and to each other. No matter who they are.
I know—from experience!—how difficult this can be. Some of us are stubborn. Some of us are afraid. Loving one another can be a really, really hard challenge. I want all of us to help each other. We can all think of one or two people we encounter on a regular basis who are difficult for us to love. I invite you all to write their names on a piece of paper. We will collect the names and the ushers will bring them forward for us all to pray over. We can ask God’s forgiveness for not loving them, and ask Jesus for His help to love one another as He loved us.
The last question in the Heidelberg Catechism is, “What is the meaning of the little word ‘Amen?’” The answer: “Amen means: this shall truly and certainly be. For my prayer is much more certainly heard by God than I am persuaded in my heart that I desire such things from Him.” We can all say, “Alleluia, amen” to that earnest, heartfelt prayer to God.
A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/4/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.