Fulfilling God’s Law
Based on Exodus 12:1-14, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
By now everyone knows that I spent the first 25 years of my life in Minnesota. It was a State populated by the descendants of northern Europeans and was known for its lakes, mosquitoes and long-lasting winters. Because of its location in the Midwest, far from any war (with the notable exception of the poor treatment of indigenous peoples) I didn’t live in a part of the country fought over in the Civil War. In school I learned the major battles, generals, leaders, etc, but the focus of that portion of National history was more about the Minnesota First’s heroism and loss, especially at the Battle of Gettysburg. We covered the material and then moved on to other parts of the history of our Nation. The Civil War was over, a footnote in history for me and my kin.
Imagine my surprise when as a 25-year old I moved from Minnesota to Alabama. There was much to get acclimated to – the weather was far hotter for far longer, it didn’t snow in the winter, and the Civil War had not ended. In Alabama in the late 1980’s Jefferson Davis’ birthday and Confederate Memorial Day were State holidays. People I met referred to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression” or the “Great Unpleasantry”. Pictures of family members who served in “The War” were prominently placed in homes, and the term “Yankee” was used in a uniquely derogatory manner. In fact, when I was working in Opelika, Alabama, as a pharmacist, an older gentleman came to the window with a hat that stated, “Clean up the South, put a Yankee on a bus”! For a significant portion of folks below the Mason-Dixon line, the wounds of that conflict have never healed – and thus there could be no love for those neighbors who didn’t hail from the former Confederate States of America.
Our scripture readings for today have a lot to do with the power of God’s love to heal and to set free. We begin with the love of God that created the original Passover meal that preceded the final and most terrible plague on Egypt. We then move to Jesus’ teaching about the rule of how to hold each other accountable in love as members of the Body of Christ. Finally, we come to the teaching of the Apostle Paul who notes that if we can just wake up and open ourselves up to loving each other fully and well, we will fulfill all of God’s laws! We will need a lot of help from God and the power of the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and minds to love in this way. Let us go to God now in prayer, asking for God’s love to heal and transform us…
Nine plagues have afflicted Pharaoh and all of Egypt since Moses and Aaron first appeared asking for the release of the Hebrew people. God was preparing one final and most terrible plague to convince Pharaoh that both he and his gods were no match for the God of the Israelites. In order to protect the Hebrews from this final plague, God instituted a process whereby they would eat a specific meal in a specific way, and use the blood from the main course to mark their homes so that they would not be stricken by the plague. For the first time as a people, God’s love protected them.
Jesus has been busy since last week. We have skipped ahead in our reading past the Transfiguration, some healings, some teaching about being like a child, treating them well and including them in the faith community; teaching us that the kingdom of God is all about using power to care for those who are least, last, lost and thus vulnerable. We pick up today with how the Disciples are to conduct themselves from a place of love with the new believers in community. Jesus knows that sins against one another will occur. He teaches them that they are to do everything they can through love to persuade the errant person to change their ways to try and keep them in community. However, if they don’t respond, they are to be treated as a Gentile or tax collector.
Paul continues to teach about the need to treat everyone with fairness and love. Right before our reading today, Paul writes that we should, “…Pay to all what is due to them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due….” He then begins our reading today with the wisdom, “…Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law….” Paul was adamant that this loving should not be delayed because the Christ was coming again very soon.
Paul’s teaching on love fulfilling God’s law here is pretty concise and easy to understand – why is it so hard to follow? To try to answer that question I have spent my week immersed in the reflections and wisdom of former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu from his book, “No Future Without Forgiveness”. Bishop Tutu wrote the book to share with all of us, the miracle that was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC operated for three years following the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. People from all sides of the conflict were allowed to come and speak their truths of what happened whether they be victims or perpetrators. The TRC was constituted so that all could come together and witness to the great tragedy that was apartheid – the great tragedy perpetrated on a people whose only “crime” was the presence of pigment in their skin. Tutu marveled over and over again at the magnanimity of those victims who sought and gave forgiveness and love in a way that was sacred. There is a quote in the book that brings this reality home. It states, “…Each of us has a capacity for great good and that is what makes God say it was well worth the risk to bring us into existence. Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness. God has no one but us. St. Augustine of Hippo has said, ‘God without us will not, as we without God cannot….’”
This is why Jesus taught about God using parables: to help all of us disciples hear the gospel of God’s love in different ways, experiences and images – so that we might learn how to be with God always. Jesus taught that if the Bible becomes a word of unalterable laws, then it loses its transformative power. Devoid of this power, we see how people today use scripture to perpetuate violence against one another in God’s name. Jesus could have used his divine power to tell us disciples exactly what He thought of our behaviors and beliefs, but instead He chooses to listen, to dialogue and to teach. When we are open to it, the Bible invites us to enter into an ongoing dialogue with all the Christians who struggle with what it means to live faithfully in relationship with God and to have a loving and inclusive vision beyond ourselves.
That vision must be that the only future we have together is to try to love one another fully and well. The only way to do that is to heal each other through the supremely loving act of offering and accepting forgiveness. It is what we pray for every time we say the “Lord’s Prayer” (as we will in a few moments during Holy Communion): “…And forgive us our trespasses (or debts, or sins) as we forgive those who trespass against us…” It is, I believe, the lack of forgiveness, our lack of faith, that keeps us imprisoned within the hurts of the past. More than anything else, our unwillingness to perform the difficult task of loving each other enough to forgive and reconcile in the name and spirit of Christ is what robs the Body of Christ of that uniqueness that first attracted outsiders. It was that quality of unconditional love in the church’s life that set it uniquely apart from all other attempts at creating community; it still does. Whatever within each of us needs to be healed can only be healed through love. Whether it is the embedded war wounds that are 160 years old, the generational wounds from 400+ years of forced enslavement and continued oppression, or the brand new wounds of this disconnected age, we must seek God’s love to heal us so that we can fulfill God’s laws and fully participate in God’s plan for us and our world. Amen and amen!