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Love vs. Law: What’s in Your Backpack?

with Rev. Laura Sherwood

September 10, 2023

On our journey of faith and as we face different circumstances, how do we know what rules to apply and what rules might need to be put aside because of the greater rule of God’s love?

The Scripture

Matthew 18:21–35

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Romans 13:8-14

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already 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. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

Read the Full Text

Last week, we introduced our year’s theme of Journey for the specific journey of the Interim time as part of our ongoing lifelong journey of faith –as individuals and as a congregation. The symbol for our Journey theme is a Backpack. Throughout the year, we will have opportunities to support various missions that provide backpacks and supplies – this month for Refugee One.

We thought a backpack would make a great symbol for our theme because it conveys the kind of journey that is personal – where you have to carry what you need on your own back. Since you have to walk with it on you; it’s just as important what you choose to put in your backpack as what you choose to leave out – so that you can have both your essential items and the energy you need to carry them.

As people of faith, we are often faced with choices about how to apply what we believe to our daily lives and the circumstances that come our way. At times, that may involve the kind of wisdom needed to prepare a backpack – discerning what to put in and what to leave out.

Finish reading

The Apostle Paul is the most prolific writer of our New Testament with 13 of 27 books being comprised of his letters to churches to convey what he believed they needed to hear the most about the gospel for their particular circumstance which also meant discerning what they didn’t need to hear.

Our second reading is from the Book of Romans which is the first letter of Paul in our New Testament – not because it is the oldest or because it has the most important theology, but simply because it is the longest. The rest of his letters follow Romans in order of length – I’m not sure why that was decided, but I thought it’s an interesting bit of Bible trivia.

Romans is not only the longest of Paul’s letters it is the most thorough in its description of the gospel and its key theological ideas. It is also the most impersonal of all Paul’s letters in that it is addressed to a church that Paul did not found and, in fact, had never even visited.

Because of these and other points, scholars have long disagreed about the purpose of the letter. Some feel that like Paul’s other letters, it is simply meant to help that church, the church in Rome, with its own specific problems. Others feel it was meant to be a formal statement or general treatise on Paul’s theology. Some have even called it Paul’s Will or Last Testament of faith since he was martyred soon after he wrote it.

But there is another school of thought that has to do with the continuation of Paul’s mission. By this time in his work, Paul was feeling that his mission was pretty close to being finished in the eastern world – having traveled extensively in the Aegean territory where he’d planted and nurtured numerous churches. Now, it was time to head to the Western world to spread the gospel message. Paul was planning to go to Spain but knew he would need to stop in Rome first where the church had already been established.

In order to begin this new phase of his ministry, Paul would need the spiritual and financial support of Roman Christians. So, this letter would serve as a way for him to introduce himself and his mission to the church in Rome in order to gain their support. In this light, the letter could basically be considered as Paul’s resume – a summary of his beliefs and therefore an indication of what he would be teaching and preaching as well as a list of his accomplishments. If you’ve ever agonized over creating a resume, you know that it also requires “backpack wisdom” – with equal care given to what you put in and what you leave out. We can be sure that if this were, in effect, Paul’s resume for the Roman Church, it was crafted with that kind of wisdom to show what they could expect from his new mission work in the West.

Of course, Paul also knew the conflicts that were plaguing the Roman church at the time and so he included in his letter beliefs that addressed their situation. The Roman Christians were deeply divided between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers with many serious arguments about the importance of Biblical laws concerning diet and behavior. He had to talk in a way that showed respect for those who wanted the traditional laws while still affirming the non-traditional believers.

I’m guessing that Paul also figured his letter might find its way to people in authority, perhaps even people in government. They would have heard about all the trouble he had gotten into in other countries – including his long prison record – and might be worried about letting someone like that come into their country and influence their people.

Paul writes carefully, deliberately. He communicates the radical nature of the gospel but by using legal language that would appeal to and appease those in government positions. In today’s passage he uses the legal language of owing and paying debts having just spoken in the previous passage about everyone’s duty to pay taxes and obey the laws of civil society.

He also writes with sincere respect for traditional Church laws by referencing the 10 commandments – about how important they were and still are – so that the Jewish Christians will know he is not against their ways and so that Gentile Christians may have more respect for them. But there is a deeper message in what he is saying as he explains what made those rules good and worthy of being followed in the first place – not for the sole fact that they were Biblical laws – but because they were based on love – love for God, love for neighbor and for self.

If we look more deeply into the heart of Paul’s words, we see that laws based on love and respect for each other are good laws, but more important still is the rule of God’s love behind them. Here’s where a public official or even a Church official might start to get a little nervous if they could really hear what Paul was saying. For, it might mean that there are times when certain laws should not be followed or perhaps changed because they no longer fulfill the greater rule of God’s love. It might mean that the Church would have to find a way to respect the old ways while allowing for new ways at the same time. It might mean that there could come a time when following society’s laws means going against God’s love and therefore compelling God’s people to take a stand. One of those moments for people of faith where they have to discern how to apply their faith by knowing what to keep in and what to leave out.

There are many great examples in our history as a society and a Church of individuals and groups that risked everything to stand up against laws and rules that were suffocating the greater rule of God’s love for humanity. I think immediately of the German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer who went to prison and was finally executed for speaking against the new laws of the Nazi movement. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his inspiring people to civil disobedience as a way to claim God’s love over and against rules and laws that had been crushing members of American society.

For most of us, discerning how to apply the rule of God’s love may come in smaller and more personal examples that are no less important to living the way God intends.

As you many of you know by now, I have long and deep connections with Ukraine that started from my first trip there on a university student exchange in 1991. There is a time that sticks out in my memory from a subsequent trip to Ukraine that ties directly to today’s passage from Romans. I was in the Kyiv airport ready to fly home after more than a year living and working in the city of Kharkiv. Although I loved every minute of that experience, by this time I was very homesick and ready to leave. Because of flight schedules I had to spend more than 24 hours in the airport and because of the bus schedule the person who accompanied me had to leave in order to get back to his city for work the next day.

I was left alone with all of my luggage because there was no safe place to store it. I was freezing because it was the beginning of winter and the airport lobby at that time was not heated. I was exhausted from saying so many goodbyes in Kharkiv and making the long trip to Kyiv, and I was frustrated at having to guard my luggage and myself over a very long night.

Finally, morning came and it was time to board. I got through customs, even had my bags searched and everything was fine. Relief had started to sink in as I got to the gate only to be told that my ticket was no longer valid because the airline had changed owners during the year. Even though I had already checked into that a month before and was assured that everything was fine – I was now faced with a person who knew only the rules she was told to follow – and she would not budge. I went round and round with her and finally asked to speak to her supervisor and she said she had no supervisor. There was literally no one who could help me.

I went back to the lobby in tears and approached a ticket agent hoping I could straighten things out or maybe buy a new ticket with the $400 I had with me. There was no way to change the status of my current ticket, but there was a ticket I could buy – for $800. I tried my best to bargain, but there was no way to lower the price. I walked away crushed, desperate, and so choked up I could no longer talk. I began to seriously consider what I could do to get myself deported. After a few minutes, the ticket agent waved me back over and in a whispered voice told me that she could sell me a ticket at the price for a Ukrainian citizen which was $400.

Now, I honestly believe that she did not do this for any self-serving purpose. It really seemed that she was going against policy simply to show compassion for me. I don’t know how much of a risk that was for her in such a strict system. I don’t know if she lost her job or got into trouble. All I know is that in that moment she decided to follow a greater rule by choosing to leave out of her decision the rules she was supposed to follow and, instead apply the greater rule of love and mercy.

This is what Paul wanted the people to understand about the gospel and its relationship to the laws of tradition, rules of the Church and even of civil society. The purpose of the gospel was not to abolish laws and rules, to leave all of them out, but it was to remind everyone of the reasons behind them so that God’s rule of love of neighbor for neighbor would always be respected first and foremost.

Has there ever been a time in your life when someone applied the rule of love to you or someone close to you over and against the required rule of law? Has there been a time when you did that for someone else?

Sometimes following the greater rule of God’s loves comes at a great price, at great risk and through great struggle. May God grant us all the insight, wisdom and courage to follow the rule of God’s love anyway, in every circumstance of our lives, because no matter our other choices it is the one aspect of our faith that we should never leave out.

In the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.