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Sermon for September 10, 2023 – Proper 18

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5042 | Jesus Heals Relationships
Greg Williams

Human beings were created and designed for relationships. God made us not only with the capacity to relate to him and each other but with the need to connect to thrive. Despite these truths, human beings often do things that disrupt our relationships. Even when we have the best intentions, we can hurt each other. And we respond to that hurt in different ways. Some of those ways are healthy, and some of those ways can perpetuate a cycle of harm. It is no wonder that Jesus instructed his followers on how we are to respond when fellow believers cause harm. Let’s read from Matthew 18:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Matthew 18:15-20 (NRSV)

Jesus outlined a step-by-step process for how to deal with relational conflict that is very helpful from a practical standpoint. Additionally, Jesus’ teaching provides two spiritually important truths about God. First, person-to-person relationships are important to him. He is concerned about how we connect to each other. Second, God wants to see disrupted relationships restored and he takes an active role in healing our relational wounds. This does not mean that believers can expect every hurt to be healed and every broken relationship mended in this life. However, we can expect God to help us do our part to be at peace with all people.

This is good news for those of us who live in a world that often seems so divided. If we create room for him in our relationships, Jesus will show up in our squabbles, grudges, and estrangements and provide healing. He desires to be in our midst when we sit down to reconcile with a neighbor who has harmed us. In fact, when we prayerfully seek God’s help, the Holy Spirit will help us see our neighbor as Christ would see that person and treat that person as Jesus would treat them. This changes the dynamic of the relationship and puts the relational conflict in perspective. Jesus is the restorer of all things — even broken relationships.

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 149:1-9 • Exodus 12:1-14 • Romans 13:8-14 • Matthew 18:15-20

As we continue with Ordinary Time, a season of focusing on how we can participate in the work Jesus is doing in the world, followers of Christ will inevitably come across those who have set themselves against the movement of God. It is important to understand that God is just and deals with wrongdoing. At the same time, Christians are still expected to love others, even those who behave badly. The theme for this week is loving others and trusting God to be just. In the Psalm passage, we read how God himself judged and opposed the nations that made themselves enemies of Israel. In Exodus, we see the institution of the Passover, which includes a judgment upon Egypt for enslaving the Israelites. At the same time, in the passage in Romans, Paul reminds us that we ought to love our neighbor. In Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers how to lovingly deal with someone who sins against us.

Blessedly Indebted

Romans 13:8-14

I fear that the mailbox has lost its purpose. There was time when the mailbox held cherished correspondence from loved ones and important, time-sensitive materials. Now, it seems like the purpose of the mailbox is to keep our recycling bins full. Each day, millions of Americans go to their mailbox, empty it with hope, only to disappointedly discard most of what is in it. It is a strange ritual, and I am sure anthropologists of the future will try to figure out why companies worked so hard to keep every recycle bin in America full. Given the number of credit card, personal loan, and refinancing offers I receive each week, perhaps the new purpose of the mailbox is to help me trade one kind of debt for another. If all the financial institutions sending me letters would instead mail me a check for the amount it costs to send me their offers, I could get out of debt and still have enough left over to live comfortably!

One of the reasons we get so many offers from financial institutions is because most of us have a mortgage, car payment, student loan, credit card, or some combination of all of these. Around 80% of people living in the USA carry some amount of debt. Despite the fact that financial debt is common, it can cause people to experience strong feelings of shame, anxiety, and hopelessness. We do not like being in debt, and many, either consciously or unconsciously, view it as some kind of personal failure.

What if I told you that there was a kind of debt that was good? Would you believe me if I said there is a kind of debt that the more of it a person carries, the more they are blessed? Many of you would reject the idea of a “good debt.” The term sounds like an oxymoron. However, as followers of Christ, there is a kind of debt that we should strive to owe. Paul speaks about this unique type of debt:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10 NIV)

As believers, we owe our neighbors a debt of love. We are beholden to a law that obligates us to love others. Some of us may be shouting, “Hallelujah!” However, if you are like me, the words “command” and “law” give you pause. Aren’t we supposed to have freedom in Christ? Didn’t Jesus set us free from the Law as a means to become right with God? As I mentioned earlier, the indebtedness Paul is speaking about is something we should welcome. To understand what the apostle is saying, we need to dig a little deeper.

To many of us, the law is a set of rules, enforced by a governing authority, that are intended to create a just and ordered society. We may associate the law with control and see it as something that can potentially limit personal freedom. However, God’s law is not like that. To understand God’s law, we first need to realize that God’s original intent for humanity was (and is) to live with us in an eternal, loving relationship. When humanity sinned, we corrupted ourselves, our relationship with God, our relationship with other human beings, and our connection to creation. We no longer inherently recognize the ways of our loving creator. We do not naturally know how to live in relationship with God and others. We do not know how to live free without infringing upon the freedom of our neighbors.

Through the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Bible, as well as the nation of Israel, God reintroduced himself to humanity. He once again had to show humanity who he was and who we are. Through Moses, God gave Israel a set of laws that were instructions on how to navigate their relationship with God and with other people. The Law reminded Israel that God was their savior — the one who freed them from bondage in Egypt — and that they should respond to God with love, gratitude, and obedience. God’s law required obedience, not because God desired to control Israel, but because we had become ignorant of how God created us to live. Therefore, the Law was like “training wheels” for how to live in harmony with God and in community. It was meant to help human beings understand and navigate their relationships.

Jesus, in his earthly ministry, expanded humanity’s understanding of the purpose of God’s law. From him, we understand that the Law was never meant to be just a set of rules to follow. It was designed to guide our hearts toward loving God and neighbor. The Law was revealed as a reflection of who Jesus is. It served as a placeholder until Jesus could come and provide a more comprehensive revelation of God and humanity. By living and loving like Jesus, his followers fulfill the purpose and intent of the Law. Following the commands of Jesus actually brings freedom, because Jesus only acts for our good. God only commands humanity to do things that bring a fuller life. So, freedom isn’t about being able to do whatever we want; freedom is doing what the Creator says because only he knows what is best for us.

Through the lens of Christ, we can understand that owing our neighbor a debt of love simply means that they do not need to earn our care, just like human beings do not earn God’s grace. We receive forgiveness of sin and new life as a free gift. In response to Jesus, we do not look at others and decide whether or not to love them based on our self-centered criteria. Instead, we look at the grace we have received because of him. We proactively love others because our neighbor is made in the image of the God who saved us. No matter a person’s background, behavior, political affiliation, skin color, language spoken, IQ, or any other excuse for dehumanization, we owe our neighbor a debt of love.

Additionally, loving our neighbor is one of the primary ways we demonstrate our love for God. It is through human relationships where our response to God is put into action. Once we have a clear, accurate view of God, he is easy to love because he is perfect. Jesus is amazing! However, loving God includes loving others. We can proclaim our love of God and still be consciously or unconsciously filled with selfishness, biases, apathy, and contentiousness. Since human beings are not perfect – including each one of us – relating to each other can produce a love that endures, overlooks faults, and prefers others over oneself. This is how God loves. This is how he is able to extend grace to rebellious children like us. His love is big enough to embrace flawed creatures like you and me. So, the only way we can develop his type of love is through trying to follow Christ’s loving example in our own human relationships.

The debt of love we owe our neighbor not only benefits others, it is an important part of our own spiritual formation. As believers share the love of God with more and more people, they get many more opportunities to practice being like Jesus. By loving others, we become more like Christ. Not only that, but at the same time we are following Jesus in loving our neighbor, our neighbor is being led by Jesus to love us. We get to be shaped by experiencing the love of Christ as it flows through our fellow Christians. Of course, none of us loves perfectly. We all make mistakes in our relationships. However, God intended that the debt of love we owe our neighbors result in our growth, not in our depletion. Carrying this good debt is a blessing.

Since loving our neighbor positively benefits our relationship with God, our neighbors’ well-being, and our own spiritual formation, Paul challenges his audience to be about the business of following Christ in loving others without delay. The apostle goes on to say:

And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14 NIV)

In Paul’s words we can see a sense of urgency. He conveyed to his audience what is also true for us: none of us knows what tomorrow brings. None of us knows when Christ will return or when our lives will come to an end. Therefore, we should do our best to make the most of every moment. Those who follow Jesus have been freed from death and darkness by a loving God. His love should compel us to lay aside the things that distract and dissipate us. His love should compel us to clothe ourselves “with the Lord Jesus Christ.” His love should compel us to get our primary focus off ourselves and look to be a blessing to God and our neighbors. Why should we delay? What sense does it make to follow our own way when God’s way is right, true, and good? God has nothing but our well-being in mind. God’s ways are beautiful and perfect.

How do we begin to live out of our blessed indebtedness to love our neighbor? To be sure, we can only do it by following Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit. More specifically, here are a few ways to be blessedly indebted:

  • Be in prayer. We should regularly be in prayer for those God brings into our lives. Not only should we pray for their needs, but we should pray to discern how to best love them. We need God to teach us how to love.
  • Be a place-sharer. Place-sharing means empathetically relating to others so deeply that we share their “place.” We celebrate when they celebrate and mourn when they mourn. When our neighbor comes to harm, we comfort, encourage, and advocate for them. Place-sharing requires proximity. So, we need to do our best to be present in the life rhythms of our neighbors. Jesus was continually amongst the people, and we should walk in his ways.
  • Be a blessing. Through kindness, hospitality, humor, curiosity, generosity, and other virtues, we spread the aroma of Christ in our community. As we exhibit the qualities of Christ, people will be drawn to us, and we will have opportunities to place-share. Those who do not follow Christ may be prompted to ask questions about our behavior, opening the door for us to share the love of Christ with them.
  • Be a peacemaker. We must avoid the trap of only loving those who we perceive are like us. We should follow the leading of the Spirit to love our neighbors who differ from us culturally, economically, politically, and generationally. Also, we should do all we can to live at peace with our neighbors, including doing our best to forgive those who offend or hurt us.

The debt of love we owe our neighbors is a good debt. It is a debt that makes us rich. It is a debt that blesses others. It is a debt that makes us more like Christ. May Jesus shine through you as you live out of your blessed indebtedness.

The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W2

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September 10 — Proper 18 of Ordinary Time
Romans 13:8-14, “Obligations of Love”

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Program Transcript

The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W2

Anthony: Let’s transition to the second pericope of the month. It’s Romans 13:8-14. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 18 in Ordinary Time on September 10.

Geordie, would you read it for us please?

Geordie: Glad to.

8 Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law. 11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.

Anthony: So, Paul writes of the obligation to love each other. And I’ve, from time to time, heard gospel teachers talk about the obligations of love. The word obligation can feel a bit prickly or denotes something that’s only done out of duty. So, can you help us understand the covenant commitment and obligation to love?

Geordie: Sure. Yeah. God gave his promises to Abraham and then only 430 years later came the law at Sinai. And the law didn’t come to annul the promise or to impose conditions on grace, but to spell out the obligations of grace, to be the school master that leads us to Christ.

And so, Paul is arguing that in authentic Judaism, grace is prior to the law. So, the obligations of love are—well, maybe before I jump into that, Judaism is not synonymous with legalism. Sometimes we think, oh, the Jews were all about legalism and you had to earn grace, but that’s actually not how they thought about it. Sometimes, certainly.

But the basic theme was that there’s this covenant of God with his people. It’s not a contract. And so, kind of like marriage, love always brings its obligations. This is James Torrance: it has unconditional obligations, but the obligations of love are not conditions of love.

One way I think about it, last week I was away teaching at the School of Theology out here. And I said to the students I’ve been married 33 years. And for me to know that my wife loves me, I need to trust her love. And to trust it, I need to feel safe in it. And to trust it and feel safe, I need to know that she is committed to me when I’m apart from her, and she needs to know that I’m committed to her when I’m apart from her. And that’s an obligation of love, but it’s not a condition.

Human love, of course, has its limits, but God’s love doesn’t. And the invitation for us is to live with God’s kind of love where we are committed to the person regardless of their response. So, it’s not about duty.

Let me just add a thought from James Torrance. This comes from an article he wrote called “The Unconditional Freeness of Grace,” and he’s talking about this question: is grace prior to the law or is the law prior to grace? And he is using the analogy of marriage and he says, “To put it in other words, love, like marriage love, always brings its obligations—its unconditional obligations—but the obligations of love are not conditions of love. To turn a covenant into a contract is to turn categorical imperatives into hypothetical imperatives … and [that] weaken the imperatives. Legalism always weakens the character of love.”

And so, Paul—this is more of JB [James Torrance], he says, “‘Do I weaken the law’ says the Apostles—by seeing it in the context of grace? ‘No, I strengthen it!’ This question of the relation of law to grace is of paramount importance, because much evangelical preaching can go wrong at this point. It is possible to do two things which can lead to a misunderstanding of Paul. The first is to take the text, ‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ’ out of its context …”

And to build the whole theology and a preaching technique out of it. [Guest paraphrase] As if we need to preach the law so that people will eventually repent rather than preaching grace.

Anthony: So, Geordie, what is your favorite Jesus outfit? I recall the last time we had a conversation you mentioned your son really likes the way you dress, and it just popped back into my mind as I was thinking about your Christ-like clothing.

So, is there a Christ-like garment we Christians need to be wearing, but too often it can be found hanging in the closet, gathering dust of apathy?

Geordie: That’s such a good question. I’m amazed that you remembered that. Yeah, I love that image of my son dressing up in my clothes.

I think my favorite—and this is probably come to me over the last year and a half or so maybe two years really since becoming a part of Imago Christi. And there’s a broader story to that. But my favorite thing in the closet or maybe the clothing that I think is often gathering dust in the closet for many Christians is the outfit of joy.

Because the more I read the Gospels, the more I am struck by the constant sense of joy that seems to characterize Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

And that’s actually what I think about when I hear that phrase, “weapons of light.” When I see the word light or glory in the New Testament, I immediately think of what happens to someone’s face when they’re filled with joy. You know when I get home, came home this morning off my shift and I saw my wife was sitting having her devotions, and I look in her face. And I just see her face light up and her eyes shine that joy toward me.

And so, I think the “weapons of light,” the central one is the joy of the relationship of the Father and the Son. And as we participate in that, as we sit with them inside the circle of the Trinity, as we look upon the Father looking back at us with love, then we share that glory. We share the joy that they have, and our faces begin to light up.

But so often that’s not the clothing that we wear.

Anthony: That’s a good word. And that’s something that is fostered by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It’s a fruit that is born and nourished and flourishes within us in the presence of Jesus. That’s a really good word. Thank you for that.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • How do people typically deal with relational conflict? How does the typical ways people deal with relational conflict differ from the process Jesus describes?
  • Why do you think God cares about our human relationships?

From the sermon

  • What comes to mind when you hear the word debt?
  • In your own words, what does it mean to owe a neighbor a debt of love?

When you think about being in prayer for your neighbors, who are some people who come to mind? Are there ways to better live out your blessed indebtedness?

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