“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” Romans 13: 8-14
I did not plan that we would happily land on this passage today but it is certainly a nice way to begin the new Church year since where we are in our study of Romans exactly coincides with the appointed epistle for this 1st Sunday in Advent. These last seven verses of Romans 13 have two great themes; the first theme reiterates Christian behavior inside and outside the Body of Christ as love fulfilling the law. The second half is a call to conversion in light of the Second Advent of Christ. But first, taking into consideration that today we have come to the end this crucial unit (chapters 12 & 13) of Romans today, a pericope that deals with life inside and outside the Body of Christ, I want to quickly review what we have covered over the last six weeks. Remember that first, in chapter 12 we looked at the gifts of the Spirit to the Church: preaching, pastoral care, teaching, encouragement, philanthropy, church governance, and finally, the gift of mercy. The gifts of the Spirit are actions performed within the common life of the Body of Christ, a common life that Paul says should be marked by patience, true love, kindness, prayerfulness, putting one another first, and looking out for one another’s complete well-being, as well as forgiving one another any trespasses just as each of us has been forgiven our trespasses by God the Father for the sake of his Son Jesus the Messiah. From there Paul directs the attention of the Church to the pagan, Roman community in which they lived; to neighbors, co-workers, and other relations who would not identify themselves as members of Christ’s Church.
Here the question is: “How should the Church and her children behave in the world that does not share our horizon?” We share as much as we can Jesus’ horizon and that knits us together and fosters our growth corporately and individually. And each of us, to authentically share Jesus’ horizon, has experienced at least one and frequently more than one conversion. The world knows nothing of Christian conversion and to live as Christians in this world we have to remain attentive to that fact. But for those who do not share the horizon of Jesus the Messiah we have to be careful not to reduce his horizon to moralism which may be more our tendency today than it was back then for that little group of Roman Christians. Not that it was easy for recently baptized Roman Christians who were steeped in paganism their whole life. Paul is concerned that Christians behave toward their pagan neighbors in a manner that may be summed up as an imitation of Christ, but remember that for Paul one’s behavior is an external signifier, a sign of one’s very real interior life. The important point is that once again the love of God that has ben shed abroad in our lives works through us as we imitate Jesus the Messiah who did not curse those who mistreated and eventually crucified him, but rather he prayed for their forgiveness and he blessed them. To a Roman such a response to mistreatment was a sign of weakness and such weak behavior would cover one’s self, one’s city, and one’s family with shame. But for recently baptized Roman Christians, as distasteful as it may have been, cursing, wishing evil upon the person who has harmed you, was simply irreconcilable to following Jesus. Furthermore Paul says that treating one’s enemies with loving kindness, not permitting evil to get the upper hand in one’s life, turning the tables, overcoming evil with goodness, is not only right because it is an imitation of Jesus, but such behavior may also become the instrument that brings one’s enemy to remorse and eventual conversion to Jesus the Messiah – making the enemy a brother.
Then in chapter 13 Paul addresses the Christian subject’s behavior within a pagan political realm in which Caesar rules; but remember that there is no such thing as “Caesar’s realm” as though God has one realm and Caesar has his realm. If one were to “render unto God the things that are God’s,” just what would be left for Caesar? I can tell you what would be left for Caesar – nothing. There is only one realm and that is God’s realm. Caesar rules for a span only because God permits it, but Caesar may be reduced to the state of a beast. “How mighty are fallen, the great have been brought low and how the weapons of war perished.” (II Samuel 1:27) Caesar of course fosters the illusion of his own self-determination and sovereignty which is a significant element of the empirical slumber we are to forsake, a matter that we will look into more fully in a few minutes. What Paul says is that the Church of God is to work as best as she can within whatever political system she is placed, pray for those who are in authority, pay your taxes, obey the laws of the commonwealth, live decently so that non-Christians will have a high opinion of the Church; value, honor, esteem all human beings and that includes Caesar.
Over the last six weeks I have discussed how living as Christians is a matter of entering into the horizon of Jesus the Messiah. That is not a human achievement, not in the sense that we have successfully chosen the best of all options open to us. Our entry into Jesus’ horizon is a gift from God; yes it is a growing and maturing grasp of seeing the world of men and things the way Jesus sees the world, of valuing what Jesus values, making his ultimate concern our ultimate concern, which includes behaving the way he wants us to behave, but all that comes about through ever deepening conversions, conversions that are made possible through our baptism into Christ and thus our regeneration which is a pure gift. Conversion seems to me to be the whole matter of the Christian life and how right it is that Advent Sunday, the first day of the new Church year, begins with a call to conversion:
“And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” Romans 13:11
As you can plainly see this call to conversion is a call to Christians, a call to believers not unbelievers. We are called to a conversion that is a result of our realization, our intellectual grasp aided by our faith in Christ’s revelation, that the narrative we have entered into, Jesus’ narrative, is coming to an end.
We seem always to be vulnerable to the distraction of the empirical world of meaning, the world that most folk believe is the really real world. It seems that the real world is out there, all around us, material, tangible, empirical, practical, and felt and known in our bodies. What I am calling the empirical world of meaning, St. Paul frequently referred to as the flesh, or the way of the flesh, but keep in mind that Paul used the word flesh in two different ways: one way Paul uses the word flesh is in reference to human beings as bodies of flesh and that is good, flesh in that sense, in the sense of the material creation, is very good. How good is it? So good that God became flesh, died for our sins, and then he was bodily raised from the dead. Resurrection is fleshy. But the other way Paul used the word flesh is “mere flesh,” that is “flesh that is no more than flesh,” which has a very short life. “Flesh that is no more than flesh,” is what I mean by the empirical world: it is enchanting because flesh is good, right here in our bodies, and right there in front of us, real, sensual, tangible, and substantial. It is the odor and feel of orange zest hitting our lips, it is the sting of lemon juice in a cut, it is the comforting touch of a loved one, the thrill of the kiss, the music of the human voice, the luxury of money in the bank, a new pair of shoes, the car you love to drive, the book I love to hold, cable news network, my country, my street, my home, my family — all this is very fleshy, all very good, and all very enchanting. And because life is but a span, beauty consumes away like a moth, and all of it always withers, decays, dies and rots, and all because of that people become dogmatic empiricists who live in the fear of death their whole life. Dogmatic empiricists abound today and they believe that this empirical life is the only reality there is, the only heaven there is, right here, right now. And of course death will take it all sooner or later. But what Paul is saying is that it is not a matter of my death, or your death, what matters most of all is the end of the world as we know it, the Second Advent of Christ when his horizon will be manifested as the truth that sets us free; death will vanish like an old gloomy dream, nature will be perfected by the grace of the risen Christ, and the kingdoms of this world, delivered from sin and death, will be returned to his Father by the Son:
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive… Christ the first-fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father…” I Corinthians 15:22-24
That is the sure and certain future of this world and St. Paul declares that the knowledge of this future should shake us from our empirical slumber, converting us to live sensibly as Christ would have us live in this present day, looking for the appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ. Furthermore that end is inescapable. Every single probability that is emerging in every single human life is inevitably folding into the narrative of Jesus the Messiah and all that has, is, or will be in the universe is moving to the finality, the goal, the purpose of his life story. Everyone who has ever lived, believer as well as unbeliever, faithful and unfaithful, Caesar and the slave will be defined and given ultimate meaning in the life story of Jesus Christ. That is the reality of our world:
“awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” Romans 13:12