Title: Love is the Fulfilling of the Law
Text: Romans 13:8-14
Date: Sept 4, 2011
Author: Meghan Florian
We are a people deeply indebted – indebted to love. It is, one might say an infinite debt. One which we can never repay. Yet here we are, in the epistle to the Romans, being told in so many words that we owe nothing. Nothing, that is, except in turn, to love one another.
The one who loves has fulfilled the law. This, of course, is a reference to Christ. And, in Christ, it seems that the whole law condenses into one simply stated mandate. Simply stated, yes, though not perhaps simply lived. So, we don’t not have to dot every I and cross every T when it comes to keeping the law; instead, we have to love our neighbor. As we love ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but I love myself pretty well most of the time. It’s not always easy, granted. Our self doubt, guilt, fear, and imperfections are known best by ourselves; I know the good, the bad, and the ugly of Meghan. But I remain loyal, imperfections and all, because I’m me, and I’m stuck with me. But to love everyone else like that? Not everyone in general, but each person in particular? That seems to be asking a great deal. In some ways it seems a bit more difficult than to keep to the letter of the law. Some of us might admit that we kind of like rule books, because they give us a clear path to follow. We know where we stand, and we know what we can and can’t do.
In the world of Christian ethics, quite often it is really difficult to know what we can and can’t do. We operate in the abstract – love your neighbor as yourself – and struggle to particularize that to the people and situations around us. Now, this is good in some important ways. What is right in one situation can’t necessarily be extended to all situations, right? Particularities mean that we can’t generalize, we can’t universalize. So, we go around asking questions like, “What is love?” and “Who is my neighbor?” To the first, we get a somewhat maddening answer – love does no wrong to a neighbor. Oh, is that all? To the second, in Romans at least, we don’t get much of an answer at all. But, the question “Who is my neighbor?” is important, not because of its answer so much as because of what the question itself reveals about the questioner.
Why are you asking? Who do you think you get to make excuses not to love? At this point, one would do well to do as Søren Kierkegaard suggests in his explorations of Christian love: we must go to our rooms, shut the door and pray, and when we go out into the street, the person we see is our neighbor. Who is my neighbor? In a word, everyone. In a few more words, each particular person you come across.
And this puts us in a dangerous position. To say, “I will,” in response to the command to love requires action. We are rich in good intentions, quick to say, “Oh, yes, I love my neighbor!” yet to make that promise and not act on it is like standing here, looking the good in the face, and slowly, almost unconsciously backing away. Nothing but good intentions. At least if one refuses outright, says, “No, I will not or cannot love that person,” nothing is hidden. There is honesty there. Everything is laid bare. But a yes without action – a yes in theory alone – is an illusion, a self-deception, a nice progressive pat on the back for saying, “Love wins.”
Love does win. But not as an ideology, or a mere catch phrase, an easy pat answer. It wins as a person, as an embodiment. To quote Kierkegaard, “…the essentially Christian, which is not related to knowing but to acting, has the singular characteristic of answering and by means of the answer imprisoning everyone in the task. For that reason it was very dangerous for the pharisees and the sophists and the hairsplitters and the ruminators to ask Christ questions” (Works of Love, 95-6). In other words, if you’re willing to listen to Christ’s answer to your question, you may find that you’ve learned more than you wanted to know. Kierkegaard goes on, “The questioner perhaps wished only to remain at the protracted distance of curiosity or inquisitiveness or definitions from himself and from – doing the truth.” (96) Did you hear that? Not knowing the truth, but doing the truth.
Of course, all of this is not completely hopeless. Not nearly. For if love is the fulfilling of the law, we are in luck, because Christ has fulfilled it. And so it is that one person can be in loving relationship to another. So it is that we can be about God’s work, the work of love, in the world. God is the third term; in our relationships to other human beings, Christ is mediator. As we read in Matthew 18, where two or three are gathered in God’s name, God is there among them.
Now, here I am prattling on about love, making precisely the distancing move being cautioned against. And so now would be the time to shift toward what has become a theme for us this summer – that of storytelling. I think, when it comes to such matters, this is what we must often do – tell our stories, listen to the stories of others, and attempt to experience life in another’s skin, to learn what love might look and feel like in our neighbor’s shoes. Thus, another story.
The story I want to tell today is about friendship, and specifically about a friend who taught me, probably without realizing it, the difference between love in theory and love in action. Since I have not had a chance to ask this friend about her cameo appearance in my sermon, we’ll go ahead and assign her a pseudonym. We’ll call her Rachel.
Rachel was my first real friend in divinity school. She is also a lesbian. Now, I came to divinity school already considering myself an ally – and I expected to find that many of my peers would be as well. Turns out that wasn’t the case. I had never been particularly outspoken about my opinions, and they didn’t hold any sense of immediacy for me, so I kept my mouth shut much of the time. I’m straight. So, walking around in my own shoes, I had other seemingly more pressing issues to attend to. I could feel good about my loving attitude but never really do anything about it.
That changed when I became friends with Rachel. Not because I didn’t have other gay friends. But those friends were mostly living in the closet, so they were even more content than me to keep their mouths shut about the daily struggle of living a lie, playing straight in a hetero-normative world – and they’re Christians, no less.
But Rachel is an activist. And when the Divinity School Women’s Center put together a group to walk in the Annual North Carolina Pride parade, and Rachel asked me to participate, I could feel all of my excuses turn to ash in my mouth. What did it mean that this person was the friend supporting me through the misery of my first semester of divinity school, one of very few people showing Christ’s love to me in that time, and I was afraid to walk down 9th street with her, to publicly show my love for her, to name that I believe she is a child of God?
So I showed up. And we walked. We walked down main street, past east campus, where fellow Christians held signs along the side of the road that condemned Rachel to hell. One could pause to think about Isaac’s recent sermon on that topic, and ask what it means to walk side by side with someone, through her own daily hell.
What is bound on earth is bound in heaven, we read in Matthew today. When I think about love, God’s love – I wonder, does that love bind us together, in heaven, on earth, and even in hell?
We can never truly walk a mile in Rachel’s shoes, but we can bind ourselves to her in Christian love. We can walk a mile – and more – next to her. We can stand with her while others condemn her. We can name that condemnation as evil. We can claim in the words of Romans, that “the night is gone, and the day is near” – which seems to me to be another way of saying, “It gets better,” to quote the current campaign against the bullying of LGBTQ teens. After all, didn’t Jesus walk among us? Among those who were on the margins of society?
In Matthew we read that those who refuse to confess and ask forgiveness for their wrongs are to be as “tax collectors and sinners,” and it puzzles me, because I keep thinking – those are exactly the people Jesus was hanging around with. Sinners. Sinners like me and you. It’s tempting to read this passage as talking about other people, and often that is how it is read. Ah yes, we should love the sinners – those other people. But what if the church is the one who’s messing up?
What if we’re the sinners, we who contribute to a world that silences our sisters and brothers, that does violence to their souls, because we are too afraid to put an arm around their shoulders and call them neighbors – family. When this remains unspoken those who are most effected remain invisible to us – in the closet, like so many of the friends I mentioned, unable to tell the deepest truths of their lives. Our practice becomes no different that the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Speaking of our passage from Romans, Karl Barth states that we owe a debt to the world – and that our love is how we are to pay it back. “All that Christians owe the world can be summed up in the commandment to love one another,” he writes. With love, “the Church pays the debt she owes the world. With this love she fulfills every commandment of the Law, for in this love she follows the One who has fulfilled the Law once and for all.” (A Shorter Commentary on Romans, 160)
If there is one thing I’ve learned, from Rachel and others, it is that the world is not kind to LGBTQ folks. And the burden of proof – proof of our love, that we are welcoming not only to people in general but the particular messiness of all our lives, gay, straight, or otherwise – is on our shoulders. We owe the world that, at least.
Churches, of all spaces, ought to be marked as spaces of safety and comfort, of hospitality. This is what Christ has made possible by fulfilling the law.