Love Your Neighbor: Good idea, but why should I?
by Jack Wald | January 16th, 2011

Romans 13:8-14

Atomic clocks are the most accurate keepers of time. Since 1967, the International System of Units (SI) has defined the second as the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation corresponding to the transition between two energy levels of the caesium-133 atom. (How many of you already knew that?)

So time is regular. Time does not change. Five minutes today is the same length of time as five minutes tomorrow. Time does not change but our perception of time does change.

It takes forever for water to boil, but the same amount of time rapidly passes when you are trying to finish a test and running out of time. I talked with someone who visited Morocco for two weeks and she said, “I can’t believe how fast the two weeks went.” If you tell a woman her baby should be born in two weeks, that two weeks seems to move so slowly.

A snail was mugged by two turtles. When the police asked him what happened, he said ” I don’t know. It all happened so fast.”

That is a funny joke because our perception of time is so different.

The reason I thought about this is that our sense of time is at the root of the problem we have with the second part of the passage this morning.

Paul writes that we are to love each other for two reasons: First because we owe a great debt of love and secondly, because the end is quickly approaching.

I can, and will argue that on the basis of what has been done for us by Jesus, we are forever in debt and this should motivate us to obey the commandments that help us love each other. But the thought that the end is approaching does not mean the same to all of us. The end that is approaching means more to me at the age of 60 than it did when I was 20.

So let’s look at the text. Paul laid out our theology in the first eight chapters, spent three chapters talking about how this applied to his fellow Jews, and then began to make practical applications. Given all that God has done to rescue us when we were lost, how do we relate to God, to ourselves, to one another, to our enemies and to the state. These are the areas of his application and now he summarizes all of these.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Why should we love one another?
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another

Here Paul segues from our responsibility to be good citizens and paying our taxes, to the debt we carry because of all that God has done for us.

What is the debt we owe?

Let me take you on a tour of Romans 1-8. It has been a year since I have done this and we all need the reminder.

In Romans 1-8, Paul walks us through three giant theological concepts: justification, sanctification and glorification. In the process he leads us into two dilemmas, two traps where it seems there is no escape. And in each case, he triumphantly announces the resolution to the dilemma, the way out of the trap.

The first trap Paul leads us into concerns the doctrine of justification, the process by which we are made holy in the eyes of God.

Paul began his letter by writing of the wrath of God. Before he could share the good news of Jesus, the bad news had to be presented. And the bad news is that all of us, every one of us, deserves the wrath of God.
Romans 1:18
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,  19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

This is true for wicked, immoral people who practice idolatry and sexual immorality. Paul wrote about the extent of the depravity of such people: (Romans 1:32)
Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Depraved, non-religious society deserves the wrath of God and we say “Amen!” to that. But Paul goes on. Critical moralizers who think they are basically good people, better than those around them, also deserve the wrath of God. That hurts because that is exactly what we were thinking.

Paul continues. Self-righteous, religious people who think because of their religion and behavior they are good deserve the wrath of God. That is also us.

So when we think we are better than all the wicked people around us and better than others because of our religious life and devotion, Paul cuts off our room for maneuvering and we are trapped. And then just to make sure that there is no escape, Paul summarizes by saying that if we thought we escaped one of the three previous categories, the whole human race is sick and deserves the wrath of God.
Romans 3:10
“There is no one righteous, not even one;

There is no wiggle room. I am trapped. Although I am pastor of a church, help with charitable projects, pray for people regularly, do lots of good things, Paul has put me into a tight spot from which I cannot escape. I, along with you and everyone else, deserve the wrath of God. God who created the world around me, who is all powerful and all knowing, who speaks and the mountains melt, thinks I deserve to be the object of his wrath. That is not a good position to find myself in. That is not a good position for you to be in.

And then just when we are trapped, stuck with no hope of escape, Paul delivers the absolutely marvelous news that sets us free.
Romans 3:21-24
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

We all, everyone of us, every single one of us, without exception, deserve the wrath of God but God has provided a way for us to get out of the trap we find ourselves in. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

We all deserve the wrath of God but then God made known to us a way of escaping the consequences of his wrath. Paul goes on to detail what exactly this righteousness is that is given freely to us and then in chapter 5 he begins to describe the benefits that come to the Christian who has been justified by faith alone: Because we are justified by faith, we have peace with God; we stand in grace; we have hope of the glory of God; and we rejoice in our sufferings.

Although we are sinners, we are viewed by God as being righteous, This is not because God has a problem with his eyesight, but  because when he sees us, he sees us through the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. God is holy and the purity of his holiness burns away any impurity. For us to exist in his presence means we must be pure. This purity cannot come from us because we are sinners, but it does come from Christ. The purity of Christ is given to us so we can be pure in the presence of God. We are not holy. We do not deserve to be saved. We are still sinners. The death of Jesus and the sacrifice of his blood and life for us is what makes us holy in the eyes of God. This is justification, the first stage of salvation.

Paul then moves to the second stage of salvation and the second great doctrine of his letter, sanctification. Scripture says we have been saved – that is justification, but Scripture also says we are being saved and that is sanctification.

Justification, being made righteous in the eyes of God, is a momentary transaction that takes place when we submit to God and accept his gift of salvation. But sanctification is an ongoing process that will continue at least to the day we die our physical death.

God sees us as being holy because Jesus’ righteousness has been given to us, but sanctification is the process by which we are made over time to actually be holy. This is the subject of chapters 5, 6 and 7. And once again, Paul shows that we are trapped because although we are meant to be holy and we even want to be holy, we are unable to do so. This was Paul’s struggle
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

I have been a Christian now for 40 years and I understand very well what Paul felt when he wrote this. We have the nature of Christ but we also have our human nature and the two are in conflict.

When I preached about this a few years ago, I used the Robert Louis Stevenson story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This is a story of a benevolent doctor who gets tired of the struggle of doing good but being filled with conflicting desires of anger and selfishness. Finally he gives up on the struggle and develops a potion that transforms him into his other self, Mr. Hyde. Mr. Hyde strides through the night streets of London doing whatever he wishes without feeling guilty and then he is transformed back into the benevolent Dr. Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll tried to separate his two natures but this did not work. The story has an unhappy ending and Mr. Hyde takes over and Dr. Jekyll commits suicide.

This is the universal struggle and Stevenson’s story is a great illustration of the battle we face. It takes constant energy to resist our human nature and live as we know we ought to live and like Dr. Jekyll, we can get tired of the struggle.

Paul was tired of the struggle and he came to the climax of his frustration when he wrote at the end of chapter 7
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

In this second great doctrine of Paul’s letter we are once again trapped, with no escape and once again it is God who provides for us a way out by doing what we cannot do.
Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

We are trapped because we deserve the wrath of God and we are rescued by God.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known,

We are trapped again because we are unable to live the holy life we are called by God to live and once again we are rescued by God.
Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Because of what Jesus has done for us, we move into chapter 8 with the triumphal conclusion
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

When we had no hope because we are incapable of making ourselves pure enough to enter the presence of God, God rescued us by sending his son, Jesus, to die for us so we can live. We were stuck and God reached down his hand asking us to take hold and trust him.

When we despair because of our repeated failure to live a holy life, the Holy Spirit never stops working in us, encouraging us to try once again, to renew our efforts to work with him in our sanctification.

It is because of the consistently faithful work of God in our lives that we are able to hold on to God’s hand with confidence and adventurous expectation. This is why we look up and say, “What’s next, Papa?” This is why we are in debt.

We have been rescued when we had no hope. We have been found when we were lost. We have been loved when we did not deserve to be loved.

Because of this, we have the obligation to love one another. Not because we are attracted to each other, not because we like each other, not because loving each other can be a mutually beneficial arrangement, but because we owe a debt of love. Because of what God has done for us through Jesus and is doing for us through the Holy Spirit, we are to love each other.

So Paul brings us to the commandments in the Law of Moses.
“Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

These commandments, Paul points out, are not simply a list of rules to be obeyed, they are a way of loving others. While some might make the joke that adultery is loving your neighbor, the joke is funny only if you look at it superficially. When a man sleeps with a woman who is married to someone else, what does he do? He pulls apart a marriage relationship that was already strained. He increases the pain in the relationship. If there are children, he increases the tension with which they have to life. If there is a resulting divorce, the children suffer the loss of a stable home. If he is also married, then this suffering is doubled. Adultery is in no way a loving act.

We are faithful to our marriage vows and we respect the marriage vows of others because we owe a debt of love and therefore are to love our neighbor.

Adultery is a death experience, the death of intimacy in a marriage relationship and possibly the death of a marriage which makes it a kind of murder. Murder, stealing, coveting, all these break relationships and create pain. The violation of these commandments puts my interests above all others. It makes me more important than others around me. My disobedience says “yes” to my selfish desires and “no” to my neighbors. My disobedience gives me temporary pleasure at the expense of the pain of others.

When you do something that you know does not please God, it is not simply that you have disobeyed, you have failed to love your neighbor – which is your responsibility because you are living under the debt of having been rescued when you were lost and without hope.

And then Paul goes on:
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

When Paul wrote this, his understanding and the common understanding of the church was that Jesus would return in that generation. It was not going to be long and then Jesus would come and bring justice. But there have been 100 generations since then and we are still waiting for Jesus.

When I was in university, there were a lot of demonstrations against the Vietnam War the US was fighting. In order to get more people out on the streets for the demonstrations, the leaders would pull the fire alarms in the dorms or call in a bomb threat so the building would be emptied and with nothing else to do, students would join in the demonstration.

This went on for weeks and after a few weeks of constant fire alarms and bomb scares, the announcement was made that if there was a bomb threat, someone would walk through the halls with a horn blaring and then each student could decide for himself or herself whether to vacate the building or not.

I chose to ignore the warning, stay in my room and keep studying. The power of the alarm to make me leave the building had weakened over time. It worked the first time and the second and third but then it seemed a waste of time to get out of the building. So when they announced we did not have to leave, that was welcome news.

Generation one waited for Jesus and then generation two and then three and then thirty and sixty and ninety and now we are in the 101st generation waiting for Jesus to return. It could be Jesus will come back today, maybe before I finish this sermon, but it is more likely that it will be many more years before he returns. So why take seriously this motivation to love my neighbor because the time when Jesus will return is approaching? This motivation does not carry the same weight it did when Paul wrote this letter.

How can this encouragement of Paul motivate us to live holy lives?
The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

I agree that the time is closer than it was. Each second of the clock brings us closer to the end of time, but that may be long after every one of us has died our physical death. The odds are that each of us will die someday and the church will still be waiting for Jesus to return. I hope not, but there have been 100 generations who have waited and then died and we still wait.

So because this does not really motivate us, let me point out that from our individual perspectives, it does not matter if Jesus comes back in our lifetime or if we die our physical death and Jesus has still not returned as he promised to do. In either case, for us as individuals,  our life on earth will end and we will be standing in front of Jesus, ready to be judged. So regardless of when Jesus comes back and calls an end to time, he is, for each of us, coming back soon and every second that passes gets us nearer to that time.

Depending on how old you are, what I just said has different meaning. The older we are the more real our approaching death becomes. A teenager looks forward to the edge of the horizon and sees thirty years old. Anything further cannot be seen or imagined. People in their twenties and thirties think they will live forever. It is not until the fifties that reality begins to sink in and our mortality become more clear. At sixty I have accepted my mortality as a baseline and I move on with that perspective. I imagine that as each decade passes that reality will become more clear.

So how do I compensate for the young ages of most of our congregation. I could tell you about the shootings in the US this past week. A mentally disturbed young man went to a political meeting in Arizona and shot the Congresswoman who was speaking and killed six people. The oldest of these was 79 years old. Two were 76 years old. One was 65 and another 63. These are all ages far away from fifteen or twenty. But the sixth victim was a 9 year old girl. We grieve for all the victims but it seems most cruel for the little girl whose live was cut so short. And I could tell you that your life could be taken away, even if you are young – so pay attention to what Paul wrote.

This past Monday Oti Kingsley died and the news hit us hard. The 9 year old girl in Arizona is just a name and a face. We do not know her. But we knew Oti. He was so young, far too young to die and his death forces us to consider our own mortality.

I could press on you the uncertainty of life, using the nine year old girl and Oti as examples, challenging you by saying you could get hit by a car and die on the way home from church today or you could discover this next week that you have a fatal disease. I could try to convince you of the fragility and uncertainty of life, but as a motivation to live for Jesus, I do not like this argument. To say that we need to clean up our act because sooner or later (and for some of us, much sooner than we would prefer) we will die our physical death and come to be judged by Jesus, to say this does not seem very convincing to me.

If this is our motivation to be obedient, to love our neighbor because we might die soon, than that can create an external obedience. We can obey because we are fearful and do not want to be unfavorably judged, but what does that say about our hearts? How deep and meaningful is our obedience?

So while it is true that the time for Jesus to return and the time for our physical death are both approaching, I prefer to motivate you to obey Jesus because you are aware of the debt you carry. This is a motivation that comes from a heart experience with God. This is a life changing motivation that carries me through good times and bad, through easy times and hard.

And the application for this text becomes not a call for you to obey the law. The application is not that you should stop stealing if you are stealing or stop cheating if you are cheating or stop having inappropriate sexual relationships if that is what you are doing.

The application comes at a far deeper level. The application is for you to work at having a more intimate relationship with Jesus, to have a greater sense of how much you are loved by God. This application will lead you into a far richer and deeper experience of God that will cause your obedience to God to fall into line.

Read your Bible. Take time to reflect on what you read. Journal about what is going on in your life. Take time to express to God your thankfulness. Practice giving praise to God through music and dance and art and prayer. Meet regularly with others to gain encouragement from their desire to draw close to Jesus.

If you are struggling this morning with sin of one sort or another, the problem is that you do not love Jesus enough. You do not appreciate enough how much you are loved, how wonderfully you have been rescued when you were lost and without hope. It is necessary to exercise spiritual discipline and resist sin, but you need to be filled with the love of God to do this well.

So I call you this morning to love your neighbor – but do this by discovering how much God loves you. This love relationship between you and God will leak out into all your other relationships and your neighbor will experience God’s love through you.