Friday, September 26, 2008

Rule Number One

Rom. 13:8-14[1]

Some of the most memorable lines come from films that are entirely forgettable. In the “Karate Kid” series, a boy named Daniel is “adopted” by a kind Japanese man named Mr. Miyagi, who teaches him Karate as a means of helping Daniel learn to stand on his own two feet and choose the right path in life. At one point, Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to his family dojo, where there are only 2 rules to learn: “Rule number one—Karate is for defense only; rule number two—first learn rule number one.” In some ways our lesson from Romans today reminds me of that line—“Rule number one” is and always has been to love God with all your heart and to love others as you love yourself. After all that Paul has said about God and the Gospel, it seems like where he winds up is “Rule number two: first learn rule number one!”

We've covered a lot of ground over the last few months as we've worked our way through Paul's letter to the Romans.

· We’ve looked at faith as trust in God's love that never gives up on us.

· We’ve seen God’s grace as God's great “Yes!” to all humankind.

· We’ve caught a glimpse of what God is about in this world—to restore us all and the entire created order to our rightful place in relationship to Christ.

· We’ve heard the good news that Jesus the Christ died and rose again to set us free from everything that would bind or oppress or destroy us to enjoy a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love.

· We’ve heard that when we encounter God’s grace and God’s constant love in the new life we have through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, we are changed in such a thorough way that there is no going back.

And after covering the whole sweep of “salvation history,” in effect Paul comes back to the heart of what God has been about from the very beginning—a “rule number one”: love God and love others. At the conclusion of all our theology and preaching, all our spirituality and worship, we come right back to where it all started:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

Although the subtle truths of the Gospel can be deep and complex for us to grasp, this is not hard for us to grasp at all. That's why Paul says the one who loves others fulfills the whole of God's Law, God’s torah, God’s truth.

But the real question, and where the difficulty comes in, is how we actually carry out the commandment to love others. You’ve all heard the saying, “We have to love other people but we don’t have to like them.” I think that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about the kind of life that God has asked of us from time immemorial.

What does it mean to love another person in the way the Scriptures have taught us from the earliest days? Paul says it means that love does no harm to others (Rom. 13:10). In a sense, he echoes the famous Rabbi Hillel, who summarized the whole of torah in a kind of “negative golden rule”: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is explanation.” Sounds a bit like “first learn rule number one”!

Jesus echoed the same idea in his version of the “golden rule”: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12). In effect he says to treat other people the way you want them to treat you. And Jesus said this “sums up” the whole of the “law and the prophets.” Again, it sounds a bit like “first learn rule number one”!

One of the interesting features of the Reformed tradition is the way in which our Confessions spell out what that looks like in very specific terms.

For example, in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, loving your neighbor as yourself is defined in terms of showing “patience, peace, gentleness, mercy, and friendliness” to all, even your enemies (Heid Cat 4.107)! It means to “work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may” (4.111), and “to defend and promote my neighbor’s good name” (4.112). In the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 it means to have “a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor” (Shorter Cat 7.080). [2]

So what does it look like in our day and time to go back to “rule number one”? I think, in the most basic sense, loving others means respecting others as human beings and treating them with dignity—the dignity of one who is created in the image of God and made the object of God’s love.[3] In a very real way it means doing what it takes to promote the well-being of another person. But at the end of the day, “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity. It is the very essence of Christian identity. It is the pattern by which every other claim about the spiritual life must be measured if it is to be considered Christian.” [4] When you come down to it, “rule number one” fundamentally means sacrificing ourselves in service to others like Jesus did.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/7/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] For further examples in various aspects of life, see Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 163-189; 282-288 and Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 297-311.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 255: it means combining, “respect for the other person’s freedom” to be an individual “with deep affection for him or her as a person.” See also ibid., 258, where he says, “the basic law of the community of Christ is acceptance of others in their difference, for it is this experience of our neighbours, and only this, which is in line with Christian experience of God.”

[4] Luke T. Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, 201; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 278, calls this “a life in accordance with the gospel of Christ.” Cf. also ibid., 283-84.

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