Summary: Because God loved us, we love others. To reach seekers, this is the good news of this sermon, presented as simply and plainly (but *truth*fully!) as I am able for the unchurched.
Every Methodist pastor of the last 250 years has answered the same set of 17 questions – questions that John Wesley himself asked of all his ministers. They range from the most basic and fundamental issues of Christianity: “Have you faith in Christ” to the complicated: “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church and do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with Holy Scripture?” to the challenging: “Are you earnestly striving after perfection in love?”
But it is number 16 that is the “trick question” for many pastors: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” Of course, they ask this of brand new pastors who are fresh out of seminary and often have substantial student loans! So this question, “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” can be a tough one to answer.
The joke among pastors is that when the bishop asks this question, the proper answer is simply, “I don’t embarrass easily!”
But debt seems to be something we all deal with. We owe something to everybody it seems! As soon as we pay what we owe the phone company, the electric bill arrives. As soon as we pay what we owe the gas company, the cable bill arrives. As soon as we pay what we owe the bank for the mortgage payment, the mastercard bill arrives. We owe something to everybody!
Yet here is Paul telling us to “owe no one anything!” Owe no one anything… except to love one another. For a moment, you might think Paul is letting us off the hook – owe no one anything – so I suppose I can go about doing what I please without thinking about others. But then he finishes the sentence – except to love one another.
And anyone who has ever tried Christian love knows that it’s no easy task! In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that the one who loves is the one who lays down his life for his friends. Yikes! We’re supposed to owe no one anything, except to give our entire lives away in love. Hmm, maybe Paul isn’t letting us off the hook after all.
In fact, Paul says that all of the commandments can be summed up in this one commandment – to love. He lists some of the well-known commandments we find in the Old Testament – do not murder, do not steal, do not covet, do not commit adultery – and he says that these and all the other commandments can be summed up in one – love your neighbor as yourself.
Some of us have heard this phrase so often it has almost lost its meaning. Too often we hear it and think it means simply to be nice to people or to not hurt other people. So this morning I hope we can recover some of that lost meaning. I hope we will invite the Holy Spirit to light the fire that will make it blaze in our midst once more – reminding us what an amazing thing it is that we even could love our neighbor as ourselves!
Love your neighbor as yourself. When I hear it, I immediately have three questions – “How do we love?” “Who is our neighbor?” and “How do we love ourselves?”
The first one, “How do we love?” can be a tricky one in our society, where we often act as though love is simply a feeling. We feel love. Or we don’t feel love. We fall into love. We fall back out of love. But we certainly don’t choose who we love. We either feel it. Or we don’t feel it. We can’t do anything about it either way. At least this is what our society would have you believe.
But Christian love has never been simply about “feeling” love. Because Christian love is always tied to God’s love, because God first loved us. Because Christ loved us enough to become one of us, to demonstrate a life of love, and to allow love for humanity to lead him to the cross, to die, and to rise again – because of this love from God, we can love others.
We see others as God’s children – as those who Christ died for – and we want them to know God’s love so we share love with them. Even when we don’t feel particularly “in love”.
Anyone who has ever had children knows about this type of love. Because I guarantee that every parent has days when they don’t feel very loving toward their kids – when their kids are making poor decisions, when they’re engaging in actions that hurt themselves or others, when they’re doing those things that just make a parent go nuts. Yet it’s at those times when a parent’s love is the most needed – not a feeling of love, but an attitude of love.