A sermon on Romans 13 by Rev Richard Keith on 19 May 2019
In Romans 13 Paul teaches us that we owe a debt of love. Love is a debt that we cannot pay back. It is a debt that we can only pay forward.
The first two paragraphs of Romans 13 are about being good citizens. Paul says that the citizens of the kingdom of God should be good citizens of the kingdoms of the earth. Although our treasure is in heaven, this does not give us an excuse to neglect our duty on earth. So we obey the rules of the road. We comply with local government regulations. We pay our taxes. We participate in council, State and federal elections. We respect our neighbour’s property. We guard our speech from gossip and slander. We don’t plot against our government, we pray for our government, even when the government isn’t the government that we voted for. We live as good citizens.
In fact, because we are citizens of the kingdom of God, we are better citizens of Corowa and NSW or Victoria and Australia. We don’t just comply with rules and regulations out of fear of being caught or out of self-interest. But in order to do good to others. Because God is the ruler of the world, we put our trust in his wise rule. The fact that we might not feel that we have to obey an unjust or immoral law that conflicts with God’s law doesn’t make us worse citizens, but better ones.
Paul writes in verse 7, “Give everyone what you owe him.” He reminds us of our obligations. To pay our taxes. To respect our leaders. To honour those who are owed honour.
Paul generalises these specific instructions in verse 8.
Let no debt remain outstanding.
We who follow the Lord Jesus who paid our debts on the cross, should honour that sacrifice in our lives by paying our debts. If we borrow money, we should pay it back. If we borrow a ladder, we should give it back. If our parents have cared for us in our youth, then we should care for them in their old age. In fact, I believe that the best way of repaying our parents, is to care for their grandchildren. It’s a good example of what I’ll talk about soon, about paying it forward, rather than back. No debt should be left outstanding, except, says Paul, the continuing debt to love one another. We have a debt. We owe each other. That debt is love. And it is a debt that is never repaid in full.
It doesn’t mean that we should just return the favours that people have done for us. That we should just love those who love us first. That we should love them back. Paul is affirming that we have an obligation to love. He describes it as a kind of debt. Borrowing money from the bank to buy a house lays an obligation on us to pay it back. If we don’t repay the loan, the bank can repossess our home. In the same way we have an obligation to love.
But this obligation doesn’t come from the favours that other people have done us. And the obligation to love is not restricted to those who have loved us first. Otherwise it wouldn’t be, as Paul describes it, a continuing debt to love. It would be a completed debt. You do me a favour. So I do you a favour back. And we are square. There is no further obligation. But this isn’t what Paul means. Love is not something that we can pay back. Love is not something that we can return and then we are square. Love is not a favour that I can return and then there is no further obligation. Instead, the debt we owe, the obligation that we are under, continues, asking for more and more.
So secondly, the obligation to love continues because it comes from the law of God. To explain what he means Paul takes us back to the heart of the law in the Old Testament. The ten commandments. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not covet. These laws are not about maintaining ritual purity. They are not suggestions for making friends and getting ahead in life. They are about doing good. Keeping our promises. Respecting what belongs to other people. Treating people the way we want to be treated. Not because doing those things is good for us. But because they are good for other people. This is why Paul says that love is the fulfilment of the law. Not self-interest. Not personal advancement. But actively seeking what is good for other people. Or as Paul says in verse 10
Love does no harm to its neighbour.
And so the obligation to love comes from our creator. He himself is love. Before he made us, before he saved us, God is love. The Father loves his eternal Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the bond of love, uniting them together. But because of his love, God decided that he would make a world, a universe, giving it reality and purpose. And he made us as the crown of his creation, made in his own image, in order to love. He has made us to love. And through Christ he has saved us by his love in order to love. And so we shall love. By love we fulfil the commandments, which are an expression of our Creator’s will, and in fulfilling them, we fulfil our life’s purpose. Not just feeling love, but doing it. Not just receiving it, but giving it. And not just giving it, so that we give and give and give until we are empty and have nothing left to give, but also so that we might have the grace and the humility to receive love from each other.
We saw firstly, that we have a debt to love. Secondly, that debt continues. Now, thirdly we pay that debt because we know what time it is. Now you probably think that you know what time it is. We wear a watch on our wrist or we have our phones in our purse or pocket to tell us the time. So you probably think that it is a quarter past ten on Sunday 19 May, 2019. And you are right, except that on a more profound level that isn’t all there is to say about the time. That’s just a string of words and numbers that distinguish between yesterday and today and tomorrow. Yes, it’s useful. It helps us keep appointments and meet deadlines and manage all our different jobs. But it doesn’t tell us what kind of time it is.
So what kind of time is it? As Paul says in the last bit of Romans chapter 13, it is the time of the dawn of the gospel and the light of Easter is shining in the darkness. He wrote,
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.
The time of darkness is coming to an end. The night of sin and evil and of hate and despair is almost over. The time of our salvation is at hand when Christ our Lord will return and he will wipe away every tear from our eye. And he will establish the reign of justice and righteousness for ever. For the sun will rise and we will live in his light forever. That’s what time it is. It’s almost here. It’s so close that those who long for justice, those whose heart ache for the end of suffering and pain can feel that it is close. So close. But it is not here yet. In many places in our world and in many hearts, it is still dark and cold. But there is a glow on the horizon that promises that the sun is coming.
We see it in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus whose light shone in the darkness, and the darkness tried to put out his light, but it couldn’t hold him like the darkness never can. But he rose to life and appeared to his disciples and poured out on them his Holy Spirit and sent them into the world to shine like lights. The tomb is empty, Jesus is alive, and his love and joy and hope are spreading. That’s what time it is. It’s the moment before the dawn breaks.
And Paul’s message to us is to wake up. Wake up to ourselves and to God. To wipe the sleep of doubt out of our eyes, to see the truth of the coming of the day. To give up the deeds of darkness that spread fear and hate and to live as children of the day.
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour 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.
It is time to stop eating and drinking for tomorrow we die, but time to start working and growing and encouraging and supporting and never ever ever giving up, for tomorrow we live.
You know, some people are optimists and some people are pessimists. But it’s time to put all that childishness aside and become realists.
Look at the picture on the screen. That’s what real life in the real world is like. There is a glow of love and bright lights which guide the way, but it is still dark and cold and life is full of struggles and disappointments, but brief promises of something better. And the question you have to ask yourself is this: is it just past sunset or is it just before the dawn? Is it time to go to sleep or is it time to wake up? Is it time to give up because it isn’t going to get better? And the sooner we just all admit that we are slowly slipping into eternal darkness, the better off we will be. Or is it time to get up and about because things are nowhere near as good as they are going to be? And wouldn’t it be a shame to fall asleep and miss the best day ever. Is it just past sunset or is it just before the dawn. It is a crucial question because your answer will guide your life after you walk out those doors.
Listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. Understand the time. The day is coming. The night is almost over. Repent and believe. Wake up. Wake up to yourselves. Get rid of the deeds of fear and hate from your lives. Receive God’s Spirit and live. And begin to live in the light of joy and hope and love which have only started to dawn.
In conclusion, in this time just before the dawn of the coming kingdom of God, love is the debt that we don’t pay back. Love is not about doing good to those who do good to us. Love is not about squaring our debt so that we don’t owe anyone anything. Love is the debt that we pay forward. Just as God loved us before we ever loved him, so we love others before they love us.