A sermon text, based on Romans 13.8-14 with references to Matthew 18.15-20, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 6, 2020.
Note: For the title, A Love Supreme (1965), my thanks to John William Coltrane (1926-1967)
Owe no one anything, except to love one another…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
According to the Apostle Paul, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus were, are about self-sacrificial, unconditional love. The active, intentional benevolence demonstrated in dying on a cross for the sake of our everlasting redemption. And we, being redeemed, are called to embrace and to embodythis same love.
But let’s be honest. There is a massive difference, a mighty distance between our declaring that this – owe no one anything except love – is the core of our Christian ethic and our doing it. For doing it demands that we transcend our instinctive self-interest to a realm of supernatural selflessness.
Is that humanly possible? Even for a moment, let alone a lifetime? (Hold that question for a moment!) And, even if it is possible, it is impractical! For we, in this life in this world, have manifold obligations. In a word, we owe lots of things. To our chiefest relationships, we owe our fidelity. To America, as citizens, our loyalty. To the letter and spirit of the law, our conformity. To our word as our bond, our reliability. To our creditors, money. And to ourselves, in terms of our enlightened self-interest, we owe our integrity.
And Paul, in the ultra-hierarchal-and-patriarchal first century Roman culture, knew that all owed honor to the emperor. Debtors, service to their benefactors. Wives and children, submission to their husbands and fathers. Slaves, their lives to their masters.
Nevertheless, Paul did not say, “In addition to your attention to these obligations, love one another.” No! Owe no one anything except love.
And we Christians, in our time, are called to take this seriously. Yes, in a world of the unavoidable, indispensable obligations of our relationships, roles, and responsibilities, it is impractical. Yet (now, returning to the question I asked a moment ago) it is not impossible. For if it is, then Christianity is a story to be told and not a life to be lived. And I don’t believe that Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead simply to tell a tale that might be considered in some circles “fake news” or, even worse, “a hoax.”
And to take this seriously, I believe, is to believe that love is supreme. Love supersedes everything.
In everything, we are to love.
With everyone, we are to love.
In every face of every person of whatever age, color or culture, race or religion, status or station in life, philosophy or theology, perspective or prejudice, and whether, in the light of Jesus’ teaching, they sin not or sin against us, we are to behold those whom God created and for whom Jesus died, and to whom the Holy Spirit sends our way to love.
Now, neither Paul nor Jesus tell us how to do this in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives. Neither Paul nor Jesus tell us how we are to embrace and to embody intentional and unconditional love in our thinking and feeling, intending and acting, “binding and loosing” (which, in the context of Jesus’ teaching about dealing with one who sins against us, refers to our decision to hold in bitterness or to release in forgiveness the sinner). All of this is for each of us to discern and to decide. And (and, with judicious restraint, rarely do I employ these heavily morally weighted and freighted words, however as we are talking about the Christian ethic, I will) we must, ought, should discern and decide how to do and to be love.
Because love is God.
And because love is the gospel of Jesus.
And because love, also according to the Apostle Paul, is the principal fruit of the Holy Spirit.
And, practically speaking, because of our deeply, sadly polarized America. Cultural and racial conflict raged through the founding of our nation and through the antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights eras. The turmoil is neither solved nor has it subsided. Therefore, there is no other time than the present time for us to owe no one anything except love.
I close with a story, an image and question, originally told by the great 18th century Ukrainian Hasidic rabbi Zusya. I apply it to myself, but I dare say it is applicable to each and all of us. For it has to do with our daily life’s labor of discerning and deciding to commit to our highest calling.
One day, the good rabbi stood before his congregation and said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
I will not be asked why I was not the Apostle Paul, but rather this and only this: Why were you not the Paul you were created to be by God who is love and saved by Jesus who is love and empowered by the Holy Spirit who is love?
This is the same question each of us will be asked for ourselves. How do I, how do you plan to answer? Now, today, is the time to discern and decide.
 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4.8, my emphasis).
 Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you) (John 15.12).
 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23a, my emphasis).
 Meshulam Zusya of Anipoli (1718–1800)