Though Paul wrote his letters two or three decades before the written Gospels appear, Paul, nevertheless, would have had access to some of the teachings of Jesus and stories about Jesus being circulated in the oral tradition, that is, being told and retold and retold by word of mouth. Here, in this text, Paul puts the emphasis where Jesus places the emphasis. Twice in the first paragraph of our text, at the beginning and at the end, Paul says that love is the fulfilling of the law. I suspect Paul was aware of the teaching of Jesus where Jesus says that all the law and prophets hang on two commands: loving God and loving neighbor. In fact, we love God by loving neighbor. It is by loving our neighbor that we express our love for God. Paul says basically the same thing, but words it differently. He says that love is the fulfilling of the law.
Paul is not saying that every single law in the Torah is fulfilled through love, but rather, what he is saying is that the real intent and overall purpose of the Law as a whole is fulfilled through love. Not all the laws and teachings in the Torah were loving. There were some laws that reflected a patriarchal culture and were quite oppressive. So not all the laws in the law were good and helpful. Paul is not saying that. What Paul is saying is that the true intent of the Law as a whole is fulfilled when we love one another.
The portrait we have of Jesus in the Gospels is that Jesus didn’t buy into to the idea that all the laws and teachings in his Hebrew Bible (the Christian’s Old Testament) were equally inspired or of equal value and authority. For example, when Jesus gave instructions on divorce he took exception to the concession made for divorce in the book of Exodus. Jesus argued that Moses was the one who made that concession as a concession to their hardness of heart, but this was not God’s will at all, even though the scripture attributed it to God. Not all scripture is equally inspired or enlightened. And Paul is not making that claim here. Paul is saying that the overall purpose of the law is to encourage love of neighbor.
Paul says something very similar in his letter to the Galatians. There he says: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Here again I’m sure he is referencing the teaching of Jesus. To love one’s neighbor as oneself is to live out and fulfill God’s design, God’s will for our lives. And when we love our neighbor as ourselves, we are living our calling as divine image bearers. In one sense, we are never more human than we love our neighbor as ourselves. On the other hand, we are never more divine, we are never more like God than when we love our neighbor as ourselves.
Now, it’s important to be clear about who how our neighbors are? This is specifically addressed in Luke’s version of the saying where Jesus follows the command to love your neighbor with the story of the Good Samaritan. Now, what we need to do today is get past the Sunday School version of the story of the Good Samaritan. The Sunday School version emphasizes risk and going out of our way to love others, which is not unimportant. It’s important to go out of our way and to risk something in loving others. However, the Sunday School version doesn’t get to the heart of the story. The Sunday School version conveniently ignores who the “Samaritan” actually was. In Jesus’s time the Samaritan, to many Jews, was the enemy. Many Jews had a deep seated prejudice and hatred for Samaritans and vice versa. You may remember the story where Jesus wants to pass through Samaritan territory on his way to Jerusalem and the Samaritans deny him permission to go through. Jesus’ disciples are so livid they want Jesus to ask God to bring down fire and fury on the Samaritans. I can imagine Jesus cursing under his breath whispering to himself: “God, how do you expect me to teach love to these unenlightened blockheads.” It took some time, and some suffering, but the disciples eventually got it.
When Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero in his story of loving your neighbor, today in our culture the good Samaritan would be the Good Muslim or the Good Undocumented Immigrant. Same thing. So, because of teachings like this, it shouldn’t be hard for us today to understand why Christian groups given to exclusion and condemnation of certain people like our LGBTQ sisters and brothers hardly ever quote Jesus. They ignore Jesus or they turn Jesus into something other than who he is in the Gospels. Because if you are committed to making a group a scapegoat, like our current administration has done with undocumented persons, if you do that, then don’t expect to find a friend in Jesus. Jesus turns the scapegoat, the rejected one, into the hero.
What if the church at-large, what if Christians in mass truly loved our neighbor the way Jesus taught us to? We would have a much different reputation in the world wouldn’t we? And more of our Christian communities would actually be harbingers and living realities of God’s new creation — of what God wants and wills for the world.
Sometimes the church does live up to its calling. I heard about a Presbyterian pastor who served a rural congregation years ago with about 50 or 60 active members. There was a young woman who came to his church and presented her child for baptism. There was no father or husband around and everyone knew it, and in that day and time it was fairly common to shun and look down on such a woman.
The day of the baptism the woman stood alone before the congregation, holding the child in her arms. The pastor hadn’t recognized the awkwardness of the situation. He only realized it when he came to that part in the baptismal service when the question is asked, “Who stands with this child to assure the commitments and promises herewith made will be carried out? Who will be there for this child in times of need and assure that this child is brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?” When he came to that part he realized that there was no godmother or godfather on hand to answer the question. But without hesitation or rehearsal, as though on cue, the entire congregation stood and with one voice said, “We will!” That’s the church choosing to love their neighbor as themselves.
Unfortunately, as you are well aware that is not always the case is it? Once before I told you the story of Vicky Beeching. It’s worth telling again. Vickie Beeching is best known for her worship songs that are sung in churches, especially mega-churches throughout America, Great Britain, and in other English speaking countries. As a little girl she began to have an attraction to other girls her age, which only increased as she grew older. She also became aware of the negative and condemnatory attitudes toward such an attraction in her Christian culture. So she bottled it up. She wanted to be attracted to boys, but she couldn’t. She says, “Realizing that I was attracted to girls was a horrible feeling. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. It became more and more of a struggle because I couldn’t tell anyone.”
Keeping this all to herself and denying her true feelings was tearing her up inside. Her mother taught her to play the piano and the guitar. She was musically gifted and began performing worship songs at services in front of hundreds by age 16. By then, too, the shame and isolation she experienced for being gay were escalating. She spent as much time on her own as possible, pushing friends away at school, working hours in the library alone. She said it was too painful to be around people that didn’t understand. So all her energy went into making good grades and developing her musical skills. At age 23, her songwriting took her too
For the next six years, Beeching lived in the heart of Christian conservative
, recording albums and
spending a lot of time in evangelical American churches. To avoid facing her
inherent sexuality, she would perform endlessly, filling up her hours as much
as possible with work. By 2008, at age 29, she moved to California, the year
that proposition 8 – the state law to ban same-sex marriage – was to be voted
on. The Christian lobby galvanized and Beeching was booked frequently to
perform at mega-churches throughout America .
She found herself performing at events that were basically anti-equal marriage
rallies, which, of course, added to the inner tension she already felt. California
One day she noticed a white line down her forehead. The scar grew and became really noticeable, inflamed and red. The day she handed in the master tapes for what was to be her last album, she went to the doctor, and found out she had a rare auto-immune disease (linear scleroderma morphea) – a degenerative condition where soft tissue turns to scarring – a very serious condition that can cause blackouts, epilepsy, and can be life threatening. The medical professionals told her she would need extensive chemotherapy and that usually this disease is brought on by some deep trauma. Her body was attaching itself. She knew it was the stress of her sexuality and living in denial, keeping it all bottled up inside. She knew then she had to come to terms with it. She gave herself a goal that she would come out by the time she was 35, which she did, first to her parents, and then publicly.
Today this is what she says, “What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people. When I think of myself at age 13, sobbing . . . I just want to help anyone in that situation to not have to go through what I did, to show that instead, you can be yourself – a person of integrity.”
She was asked in an interview why she just didn’t discard the church that considered her sinful and wrong. She said, “It’s heartbreaking. The church’s teaching was the reason that I lived in so much shame and isolation and pain all those years. [Now listen to what she says]But rather than abandon it and say it is broken, I want to be part of the change.” She decided to love her neighbor, even when her neighbor treated her as the enemy. She wanted to be part of the renewal and reformation of the church.
And you know, sisters and brothers, this is what Jesus did. When Jesus looked at the Judaism of his day in light of his own personal experience of a loving, compassionate God he could see so much that was not right. He knew that when the religious leaders judged and rejected and excluded people they labeled as “sinners” that this did not reflect the God he knew and loved. There was much in his religion that contradicted his experience of the God of love and grace, who gave priority to the poor and vulnerable. But rather than abandoning his religion, he felt called to reform it. He felt called to speak truth and model truth and confront the gatekeepers who controlled who was “in” or “out.” It got him killed, but he gave himself to the truth and love and cause of God. He became a living sacrifice and was faithful even unto death. We remember his sacrifice of love today and every time we partake of the bread and the cup. And in remembering and partaking of this sacred meal maybe we too will be willing to follow his example of sacrificial love wherever that make take us.
Paul says in the text that salvation is nearer today than when we first started this journey. Salvation is healing. Salvation is homecoming. Salvation is liberation. Salvation is transformation. And the more we love our neighbors as ourselves, the more we enter into the healing and homecoming and liberation and transformation of God. The more we put on the Lord Jesus Christ as Paul instructs, the closer we get to reflecting the full image of God. The more we love like our Lord Jesus Christ, the more we become all that we are meant to be as the uniquely beloved daughters and sons of God.
O God, as we now partake of the bread and cup may we sense, feel, and experience your welcome and your grace. May we know that we are loved deeply, securely, eternally, so that we will be able to love our neighbor as ourselves. And may our remembrance and celebration of the self-giving of Jesus in love for your cause in the world and for our good, inspire us and compel us and empower us to put on the love and inclusion and grace and courage of the Lord Jesus as we seek to follow him and do your will. Amen.